Month: January 2015

The POV Conundrum

More from the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct classes. This is the 5th lecturette from DU’s defunct Writers on Writing course, which was for creative writing students in their graduate Liberal Arts program at University College.

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The POV Conundrum

 

There’s more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy.  –Philip Pullman

Last week in Introduction to Fiction at Metro, I discussed “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a handful of college freshmen. They all agreed that it was the most entertaining story they had read so far this semester, but were uncertain as to why. Something about the immediacy of it, they intimated: there was an element of suspense in “how Poe wrote it,” or maybe it was his “writing style.” What is his writing style?–I asked. They didn’t know: what does “writing style” mean? Is it the choice of words, the breadth of vocabulary, that ever amorphous term “voice,” or what?

The conclusion we reached had to do with Poe’s POV-character voice. They were surprised to find that nothing actually supernatural occurred in the story (having heard of Poe but having never read any of his work before now). At least, the eerie spooks they all expected were all in the narrator’s head, not real in the world of the story. They were also surprised that it wasn’t suspenseful because of it being a mystery story, either–I mean, we all know who dunit and how he dunit, there was no detective lifiting fingerprints to find the murderer, no Columbo closing in on court-accepted evidence. So what is this story, then?–I asked. What is it about? “It’s all about the main character’s madness,” one student replied.Clarke-TellTaleHeart

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is first-person POV and stays with the same character through the emtire story. But the story doesn’t take place at the scene of the POV-character’s craziness and murder: it’s implied he’s telling us about what happened sometime later. He also keeps repeating that he’s not insane, and uses his narrative to attempt to prove it to us, the readers. “Hearken,” he says, “how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Of course, each instance he brings up allows us to understand more and more how insane he really is. This story is actually so much a monologue in style, it could almost be shelved with the dramatic literature. And, of course, it is a classic example of the “unreliable narrator.”

When you pick up this story again (and other stories) for this week’s exercise, look at punctuation and typeface: these things make the sound of a character’s voice vivid enough to hand to an actor (in fact, it’s said that punctuation was invented as a system of cues for a reader-aloud to know when to pause for breath). Notice how many pauses the POV-character takes, and how long. Notice the length of their sentences, and if that changes. Look at use of font changes like italics or all-caps, for emphasis. Notice any spelling oddities to illustrate dialect. Your mind can take the theatrical cues from the text itself to create the sound of a voice in your head. Try reading passages aloud. This is especially prevalent in older works of literature (especially any that pre-dates TV).

Ways Established Authors cheat, Making it Unfair For the Rest of Us:

POV and POV shifts are some of the most difficult techniques for a prose writer to master–I myself have been know to switch out of POV without realizing it, driving not only myself but my readers nuts. My problem is, I’ve been a reader forever (since about 1 & 1/2 years old, before I could talk), and so I’m heavily influenced by classic and/or phenomenal authors who are allowed to mess with the rules because they’re so good at the rules themselves.* So I try something similar, and all I’ve done is create a sloppy POV. Here are some of my favorite unfair examples:

1.) Fritz Lieber, author of the Lankhmar adventures, goes into and out of the POV of both his anti-heroes, but usually no other characters. So there’s no author-as-narrator, but also no limitation as such to either Fafhrd’s voice or the Gray Mouser’s voice only. And then, to make matters worse, there’s often information given that neither character knows / is present for, so what the heck POV is Leiber using? He’s not making mistakes, is he?

Well, no, actually–Leiber uses a brilliant device for his involved-author-narrator in those cases: phrases like “They say the two heroes did such-and-such, but but historians still argue,” or “For a while, the twain pass out of record, but by piecing together events, one can surmise…” In other words, Leiber’s involved-author voice is actually the POV of a group: the gossips and historians of the city. “They say,” or “Have you heard?” takes care of what would otherwise be either cumbersome POV shifts, or the inclusion, on and off, of an omniscient author-narrator. This way, we stay firmly within the world.

2.) Peter S. Beagle’s incredible novel The Innkeeper’s Song has chapters titled by character name, so it’s easy to see who we are supposed to “be” during that chapter. Faulkner does this too. And depending on what’s happening, he chooses which character should relay what information, so the various perspectives on sometimes the same events not only paints each character more vividly than a limited-1st, but also reveals secrets with the most emotional impact.

3.) Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series (especially the first one) has an involved omniscient author POV too, but instead of it being the author’s voice (a-la Dickens), the POV is that of the Guide itself, sort of a PDA of all possible information in the galaxy one might need (and much that one doesn’t). Using this mechanical “character” as the involved omnisceint author, we get some hysterical dry humor, at times almost a MST3K-like commentary on events.

4.) YA novel Mara, Daughter of the Nile does the whole-chapters-in-different-POVs to good effect. It’s a thriller/suspense novel set in Ancient Egypt, and who the POV is at any time is crucial to the suspense: in a mystery or a thriller, when a reader knows a thing is more important than what she knows. Author McGraw also totally cheats: a couple scenes are in the POV of the egyptian goddess of the night and childbirth, Nuit. Nuit is not involved emotionally or vitally in the events taking place, but can literally look down on the characters and what they are doing, relaying information in a very detached manner, instead of a rapid POV-switch.

As you skim your favorites noticing POV, see how and why these authors do what they do. See if you can mess around within your own fiction: see where you get too cinematic, where you shift POV, if you can tell, and if you should. Try limiting yourself to just one of your characters’ POV for a while, see if it changes your intimacy with the character, if he tells you more about himself than you knew before.

*It was the illustrator Hirschfeld who said something about the only reason he could represent, say, an arm with only one curved line was because he knew exactly how to draw the arm with anatomical accuracy first.

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The More You Holmes

From: ep. 2.1 (a little in 3.2), Elementary (3 eps in Season 1, 2 in Season 2)

The badass redhead Adler from the Granada series. She is more like her Doyle counterpart, though we do see some of her badassery in practice, as opposed to only in theory like in the story.

The badass redhead Adler from the Granada series. She is more like her Doyle counterpart than current adaptations, though we do see some of her badassery in practice, as opposed to only in theory like in the story.

Character: Irene Adler

Reference: The character of Irene Adler always seems to be adapted to be a love interest of Sherlock’s in most all media adaptations–sometimes, as in Elementary, more ostensibly than in others. In reality, though, she appears in one Doyle story (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), and does nothing but (a little late, even) stay one step ahead of Holmes by eloping and fleeing the country. She keeps the incriminating photograph of her and the King of Bohemia to protect her, which she similarly does in the BBC series. However, the woman known in Victorian London as an “adventuress” is only, as far as Doyle shows, independent. She is also intimated by Holmes as being the only woman who has ever beaten him, though as the wikipedia article on her states, when Holmes mentions being beaten by “thrice by men, and once by a woman,” it’s in a story that takes place before the events of “Scandal.” But Doyle is famously inconsistent with his writings, so we can safely write this off as an authorly oversight. She’s not a love interest, but she is the woman. As Watson tells us:

IMG_0004To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion

Adler in the Downey Jr. films is also connected to Moriarty, making her that much more dangerous than in the story. Also, this beefs up both one-story characters.

Adler in the Downey Jr. films is connected to Moriarty, making her that much more dangerous than in the story. Also, this beefs up both one-story characters.

akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

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Adler as dominatrix (today's "adventuress") in BBC's Sherlock

Adler as dominatrix (today’s “adventuress”) in BBC’s Sherlock. Works for Moriarty, which seems to be a common addition in adaptations as well.

Adler in Elementary. In this series, he's also another famous one-story character: Moriarty.

Adler in Elementary. In this series, she doesn’t just work for Moriarty, she is Moriarty.

Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle

Another in the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct courses. This from a course called “Writers on Writing” I taught a few times at DU many years back. This is a Week 6 lecture from 2006, and their readings would have been Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Philip Pullman’s speech about writing here.

 

Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle (1)

My favorite (book) is always the one I’m working on, or the one that’s just come out. Not the one I just finished working on, because as soon as the manuscript leaves home, I become convinced that it’s the most appalling piece of earwax that ever slew trees. Not until the typeset galleys arrive for proofing do I begin to think that I’ve been a teensy bit hard on the poor thing. And when the author’s copies of the finished book land on the doorstep, voila! A miracle of transformation. It’s suddenly a dear little book, with such a cute little spine, and the most adorable running heads…(2)

The main idea I’d like to briefly ruminate about this week is that of the Muse (in Bradbury’s terms); and this concept that if you force your writing, it won’t come. How many writing instructors have you had that make you do Timed Writing or I Remember or Morning Pages until you’re plaid in the face? What these exercises do is they tease the Muse into following you–the more you write down “this is stupid, I remember nothing, I can’t see straight, how much longer, my knees are falling asleep, I have carpal tunnel syndrome…” sudddenly in the middle of the dross will emerge a sparkle. Something weird, unusual for you, something you would never plan on writing, something truly worth cutting and polishing and setting in white gold and selling on the black market. But the little gem wouldn’t have come without sifting through all that dirt first.

My own version of Bradbury’s cute little Muse concept is a bit grittier, and came first from a theatrical experience, not a writing

Fuck it, we're the Muses.

Fuck it, we’re the Muses.

one at all. Beware, it’s a Rated R phrase:  I call it the Fuck It Moment.

We’ve all had them–struggling with that long par 4 hole, trying so hard to swing a carefully chosen club just right, and what happens? Plunk! in the pond. (3) Only when you’re so frustrated you’re almost going to scream (except you can’t because it’s a golf course and you’re supposed to keep quiet), THEN you think to yourself, “Fuck it!” and just swing the damn thing, and…what? Whoa! 280 yards, straight down the fairway!

My own personal ground- and career-breaking Fuck It Moment came when I was in the final semester of one of the final studios in acting school, the hard-core training nearly done. I was doing a scene with a good friend, also a fabulous actor, and we specifically chose this scene because we knew we were superior actors and it was a notoriously difficult scene to pull off well. (4) I’m sure you can see what’s coming, right? We labored on that scene until we were both exhausted, every time we rehearsed it, and it remained nothing but mediocre at best. Over and over our instructor said, “I don’t understand why this isn’t working for you.” The scene was shallow, melodramatic and boring, and and we were at our wits’ end. No amount of homework-rehearsal made it better–in fact, it just made our scene worse as we began to hate it as we burned out on it.

Time came for the final showing of this scene in class, pretty much one of the last bits of graded acting we were to do for our BFA degree. Not only did we know perfectly well our scene still sucked, but the instructor knew, too. She’d given us private rehearsals (extra ones) to no avail. Here we were, the two talents, about to bite it in front of everyone that had, up till then, respected us. What to do?

That’s right: I said “Fuck it! Let’s just do this,” to my partner, and we did. Neither of us cared anymore–all the work we had done wasn’t helping, so fuck it. I went off, laughing thorugh most of my lines, moving around the studio in ways I’d never rehearsed, letting my voice go everywhere in my range, and succumbing to exhausted tears. Then laughing through them. My partner reacted wholly honestly to my weirdness, not sure what to do about any of it but just go on.

When we finished, breathing heavily, mussed and sweaty, there was a deep silence in the studio. Then, astonished applause.

Of course, if you know anything about the scene, you’ll notice that what I just described is exactly what is needed in this case: the madwoman and her shocked lover. My forced, depressing-dramatic ideas of how to “act mad” and my partner’s overly-morose ideas of what his “reactions” should be were too calculated and therefore not the correct choices, acting-wise. I had, as Bradbury says, scared the Muse away by whipping the scene to death with what I thought were “good acting techniques.” When I said Fuck It, I let go all those set ideas, all those expectations, all my inhibitions and went with literally whatever, NOT THINKING about whether it was any good or not because clearly it wasn’t going to be.The result of which is some of the best acting I’ve done to date, and certainly one of the best scenes in the class.

I’m sure you’ve understood by now that my point in relating this personal anecdote is that it relates completely and absolutely to the process of writing (and most arts, I would aver). The catch with this kind of thinking (as some of you observed last week in the DBs) is that the letting go cannot and does not work unless first you have a solid base of technique. This is something that Bradbury, in my opinion, doesn’t stress enough. If you have been writing pages and pages a day, if you read constantly, if you take classes, then you will have a good intake and output that will mean when you reach your own Fuck It Moment, you will know how to write to keep up with it. If I hadn’t had nearly four years acting training before the above anecdotal example, you better believe the scene would have fallen apart in a big mess. So remember that too: it’s the same thing Pullman says in our next week’s reading: he started with the yellow Post-it notes, then ended up throwing them away and just writing. But the Post-It note phase is still essential to the process. Without that solid base, your wild ride wth the Muse will leave you with nothing more than wounds and a big mess. But with the solid base of technique, experience, and/or training, you’ll get off the roller coaster bruised and shaking, but with a good first draft clutched in your fist.

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(1) This chapter, in Zen in the Art of Writing, is optional reading, as it is very similar to past-read chapters. I just love the title so much…

(2) Emma Bull, from an online interview at greenmanreview.com.

(3) From Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss.

(4) The final scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull. Nina comes back and is out of her mind. You know, “I am an actress, I am a seagull,” that? Those of you from Creative Expressions class can understand my approach to Chekhov now in a new light.

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So Bad it’s Good

Sorry it’s been a while since I rambled at ya, lovely lurkers, but any of you who have never taught English at the college level would blanch at the size of the multiple stacks of paper I have been wrangling these past several weeks, not to mention the recreation of syllabi and lesson planning. Not that I’m complaining, mind–I love my job! Just, sometimes it does tend to take me over. And when I have some breathing room, I tend to have the brain capacity only for killing demons, not creative non-fiction.

BUT! Here I am, back and better than ever (well, we shall see, sez you), and the topic I’d like to hash out today is the concept of the Fight So Awful It’s Brilliant, or: So Bad It’s Good–Is It Really A Thing?

As a stage combat professional and a teacher of same with nerdy tendencies, I am often asked by both students and theatre colleagues: What is your favorite fight scene?

Now this question is as difficult as What’s your favorite book?, What’s your favorite food?, or Who’s your favorite Doctor? There ain’t one answer to any of these questions (1), but I notice one pattern emerges when I am forced to answer the fight question in particular. I always ask in return: Do you mean what’s the best fight, in my opinion, or my favorite fight, regardless of quality?

Look again at my composition of the different fight categories (Genrification), and see what I mean. Depending on what’s needed for that particular piece of drama/those particular characters, “my favorite fight scene” will take on many different forms. For example, I love the big group melee in Anchorman (one of the best fights in cinema), but I also love the final sword duel in Rob Roy (incredible acting tension and actor-combatant skill). If I were to answer either one of these alone as my favorite ever, I’m not really accurately answering the question.

Anchorman-The-Legend-of-Ron-Burgundy-2004-movie-photosAnother category of fight (does this fall into the Comedy camp? Discuss in comments, please) is the fight that, on purpose or no, is so bad it’s good. Fights in Black Dynamite are fabulous in this way, on purpose (booms appearing in the shot, a break of character and stuntman replacement), whereas fights in Last Dragon, individual actor skill notwithstanding, are awful on accident. Some old-school Kung fu movie fights, with their over the top reactions and hydraulic geysers of blood can’t be called good fight scenes (again, stunt people’s skill notwithstanding), but they can be enjoyable to watch. Fights in the Bourne movies are badly edited, and yet are often good fight scenes. Actually in that last case it’s not the bad that makes it good–is this a different category, then, of So Bad it’s Good? Why does the So Bad It’s Good phenomenon occur, and what is the difference between a scene that’s just bad, and one that transforms into something enjoyably so? What’s the statute of limitations on Schadenfreude?

These are honest questions, not rhetorical ones, lovely lurkers: I would like this to be an actual blog post and engender some comments and discussion. I want answers, people.

I will use the discussion results in my next book. So comment. You may end up famous.

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(1) The big Anchorman fight, the Princess Bride sword duel, the lightsaber duel at the end of RotJ….; The Lord of the Rings, Song For the Basilisk, Swords Against Magic, The Kingkiller Chronicles, Fox in Socks….; sushi, cheese, beer, roast chicken……; 4th, 10th, 3rd.

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The More You Holmes

From: ep. 2.2

Event: Dr. Frankland runs away from his pursuers into the Great Grimpen Mine Field, and there meets his death.

Reference: In the novel from which the ep is adapted, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it’s not Frankland but Stapleton who is the culprit. He flees from the pursuit of Watson, Holmes, and Baskerville through the Great Grimpen Mire, and it’s intimated he has sunk into the muck and died.

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