Stories in a Frame

frame

Stories in a Frame

What are stories in a frame? Typically, the novel opens with the story-teller/author, recounting events which occurred either to him or to someone else. The form is reminiscent of campfire tales. This phenomenon is also referred to as a story within a story.

The movie Titanic, starts with elderly woman, Rose, who is a survivor of the disaster. Rose tells the viewer of her ill-fated love affair with another passenger. Rose provides the frame to the movie.

Okay, so does anyone remember Rose when you think of the movie? I don’t. The ship, the special effects, the stars, yes. Rose, no.

Are frames needed?

Often, the answer is ‘no.’

Framed stories frequently start out that way because it is the writer’s sort of clearing her throat. Rather than jump right in, she may find it easier to use a proxy of herself through whom to tell the story. Don’t ask me why, but it seems an easier way into a story.

Would Titanic the movie lose steam (sorry) if we went straight into the story without Rose? Not a jot.

The disadvantage of a frame around a story is that it removes the reader one degree from the main action. You lose the power of seeing the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. The format also makes it easier to slip into more telling than showing, which also lessens the power of the drama.

Avoiding a frame

Often, it is pretty easy to get rid of a frame. Just drop it. Start directly with the story.

Yes, you may have to do some fiddling throughout the story if you have allowed your story-teller to break into the action. Oh, if I had only known what was about to happen.

But that’s a good thing. Concentrating on the main character’s thoughts and feelings up the chances of a compelling portrayal.

When to use the story within a story technique

As usual, nothing is hard and fast in writing.

For example, Arabist Richard Francis Burton translated parts of One Thousand and One Nights which used the frame story of Scheherazade who must tell a new story every night to her husband, the king Shahryār, to keep alive. It is a way of linking basically unrelated stories into a cohesive whole.

Similarly, Hamlet hires a group of actors to perform a play. This play within the play is intended to flush out the guilt of his step-father for the killing of his father.

So, it’s not that stories in a frame can never be used. But you need to ask yourself why you need it. If the story within a story is intended to further the plot as in Hamlet, that makes perfect sense. But if it was just your way to get into the real tale, it might be worth dumping.

Using Dialect—Not

dialect

Using Dialect—Not

Many writers have used dialect to portray characters whose use of non-standard English often indicates a difference in geography or social status from the protagonist.

There are many examples in literature. One of the most famous is Mark Twain’s use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An example:Yes. You know that one-laigged n***** dat belongs to old Misto Brandish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo’ dollars mo’ at de en’ er de year.”

So, how easy was that to read? Pretty tough, no? I find myself working so hard to figure out what is being said that I forget to concentrate on the meaning.

And because of that, I also lose whatever emotion intended for the passage.

By and large, I’m not a fan of using dialect for that reason alone.

Other dangers of using dialect

But there are other hazards to using dialect.

Stereotyping. You run the risk of stereotyping the culture you’re trying to portray. You can get away with this type of dialect if you’re writing about your own culture. But be very careful if you introduce ancillary characters who are not. Yes, you might be able to get across quickly who this minor character is using dialect. But I think you’d be better off either having the character speak in his own language and providing a translation in brackets immediately after or creating another character who translates for the group being addressed as well as the reader.

Cultural appropriation [1][2]  is a much talked about and contentious issue right now. It is basically when the member of one culture uses/adopts aspects of another culture and, in our case, incorporates this borrowed material into a written piece. It questions to what extent, for example, a non-indigenous writer can portray an indigenous character. Or any other culture not their own.

Use of dialect can be a slippery slope into either of these two phenomena.

Capture the sense of the idiom

However, it also doesn’t make sense that a writer can write only about his own culture, with no contact with others’. But here is how you can portray the culture/language without resorting to dialect.

Use easily recognizable words from the language. There are often words in your character’s native culture that are recognizable to English readers. Sayonara or Arigatō from Japanese. If you think the reader might not know the word, the dialogue can always be something like: I am most grateful. Arigatō.

Use grammatical errors. Prepositions are tough to get right in any language. German people speaking English might say “I am interested for” rather than ‘in.’ Or “I took an aspirin against a headache” rather than ‘for.’

Use the cadence of language.  In French, débit is the flow of the spoken word. If you know French, you will soon pick up the particular rhythm that Francophones use, particularly with other native French speakers. You can mimic this pace and tempo in your dialogue to give the impression of a Francophone even if the speech is entirely in English.

If you don’t know the culture well enough to use one of these techniques, why are you trying to portray a character from that background? Just asking.

Anyhow, both for ease of reading and to avoid straying inadvertently into controversial territory, stick as closely to standard English as you can, making adjustments at the margins to add flavor.

Make the Magic Look Easy

magic

Make the Magic Look Easy

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience. The speaker is not very experienced. She stumbles over the words. And mumbles. She loses her place and looks distressed. Are we taking in her message? No, we’re focused on the speaker. Worrying about and for her, identifying with her unhappy situation.

A comparable situation occurs when writing and that’s what I want to talk about.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

In How Fiction Works, its author James Wood discusses Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of fiction, notably in his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Wood points out that such was Flaubert’s dexterity that the reader only notices what Flaubert wants her to register without necessarily realizing it. This is part of the magic—the trick only works if nobody sees how it is done.

And it has to look easy. The work put into it isn’t noticed. Rather like a gymnastics star. We thrill at the ease and confidence she displays on the uneven bars. We only imagine the hard work when she fails to complete her routine successfully.

Magic sometimes isn’t that magic

As I have mentioned in other posts, I don’t know how to create writing magic on demand. But I think I know some things that are likely to increase the probability that magic will visit. And they’re not magic at all.

Master your craft. Firstly, don’t emulate the unpracticed speaker. It is essential that you do the background hard work of mastering your craft. Handling complex techniques such as unreliable narrators and weaving subplots which enhance and do not distract from your main story, need to flow effortlessly for your reader no matter how difficult you found it to pull it off.

Sweat the details.  Readers are annoyed at spelling mistakes, grammar errors, incorrectly used words, and a general lack of professionalism when it comes to the very basics of communicating, never mind trying to make magic. You can’t transport your reader to exciting realms if she’s thinking, shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?’

Don’t show off. Like using complex and multi-syllabic words when plain ones will do. Remember what Winston Churchill said about that:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Same thing goes for sentences. If you make your reader toil to unravel intricate and convoluted sentences, that’s where the attention will be rather than on the marvelous story you’ve created.

Naturally, and as always with writing, there are certainly exceptions to this dictum. If the intent of your writing is primarily to showcase the beauty of the language and your mastery of it, you may be okay.

Sometimes it’s worth it but otherwise it’s just showing off of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.

Is that all there is?

I know, I know, fairly pedestrian answer. I imagine that you were hoping I had some guaranteed way to ensure magic. And easy magic to boot.

Nope. The only way I know is to work at getting good at writing. As I wrote in the Muse and the Piano Tuner, what you have to do is show up and play. And every once in a while, magic strikes.

Do You Have to Like Your Main Character?

likeDo You Have to Like Your Main Character?

Your main character—do you like him? Do you need to?

By and large, I would say that you do, if only to tolerate being around him while you’re writing the novel. And if you don’t like him, why would your readers? It’s hard to have sympathy or want things to work out for an unlikeable character.

Another way to think of this is as ‘getting’ your character. By that, I mean understanding your hero well enough so that you know how he would act outside the parameters of your story.

‘Getting’ my protagonist is something I almost always need to work on during the course of writing a novel. If I don’t feel I can see the world through his eyes, I have trouble moving forward.

Actually, I don’t like him

After consideration, you decide either that you don’t get your hero or you don’t like him. What can you do?

First, why don’t you like him?

You may find, on reading over the draft, that he comes across as superior or insensitive. The first instinct might be to go back and make him more humble or empathetic.

But I’d hold off for a moment to explore what’s behind these negative characteristics. In particular, ask yourself: Where is his humanness?

He’s superior. But people who look down their noses often are, deep down, scared that they themselves are wanting in some big and shameful way. Is that him? If it is and you can show the underlying fear and uncertainty, your readers (and probably you) will like him more or at least feel more sympathetic. You also create a much more complex character.

Similarly with his insensitivity. What underlies that? Does he walk all over people because he fears that if he doesn’t grab what he needs, he won’t get it? Doesn’t have to be that reason but whatever you decide on, ask yourself further questions. Why doesn’t he trust the world to give him what it needs? What would that look like? How would it come out?

So, although uncomfortable, not liking or getting your main character can actually produce some pretty useful results.

But don’t fall in love

So, now you like your main character. Or at least understand him. But don’t fall in love.

You know new love—the other person is perfect and can do no wrong. So, this is a boring character on the page. Allow the hero his dark side. You can understand him without excusing or explaining away his shadowy side. Makes for a much more interesting hero.

There is another, more pragmatic reason for liking your protagonist but still keeping a healthy distance. When you are editing your novel or having it edited, you or your editor may want/need to make ruthless cuts or alterations. It will be harder to see the necessity if you are convinced you have a perfect leading man.

Do I need to do this with all my characters?

I wouldn’t. First off, it’s a huge amount of work.

You might want to do the analysis of the antagonist is she is to be as complex as the protagonist. Another possibility is when the novel features two people who both figure prominently in the plot.

But I’d keep it to a dull roar. It really is a lot of think time.

Next post: do your readers have to like your protagonist?  You may be surprised at the answer.

Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.