Monthly Archives: December 2011

Chekhov’s Gun

Well, by the time I post this, it will be the 24th.  And you know what that means!  (Hint: I’m not referring to Christmas)

That’s right!  It’s my birthday!  I’ve turned twenty-one!  Yaaay!  Happy birthday to me!

I will say merry Christmas, too.  And happy Chanukah to my fellow Jews!  But this post is not about the holidays, or my really inconveniently timed birthday.  No, I’ve actually got more literary things to say, and as you may have gleaned from the title of this post, it is about Chekhov’s gun.

Anton Chekhov wrote lots of stuff like short stories and plays and things.  If you haven’t heard of him, you should probably look him up.  He’s relevant to this post because of this thing he once said about writing plays.  Quoth the Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don’t put it there.”  I remember a different variation, which I guess he never said, but I like to tell it like this: If you put a shotgun on the mantle in the first act, it better have gone off by Act III.  I don’t know where I got the shotgun from if he was talking about a pistol.  I guess it just sounds more purposeful or something.

Anyway, this quote pertains to more than just plays.  It can apply to movies and books, too.  Since we’re more interested in the latter, I’m going to focus on that one.  This concept is all about the world you create.  The thing about writing books, movies, and plays is that, unlike in real life, you get to choose each and every person, place, and thing that shows up in the story.  So, by that logic, if you’re going to choose to put it there, it has to have a purpose.  Otherwise why would you put it there in the first place?  It could just as easily have been left out.  That’s the shotgun/pistol/grenade launcher on the mantle.  If you put it there, use it.

Earlier in this blog, I offered a couple literary exercises.  I would like to add this one: Write a story that contains a “Chekhov’s gun,” so to speak.  Put in some seemingly innocuous object towards the beginning that ends up being really important or relevant at the end.  The point is to make its relevance a surprise (though it doesn’t always have to be).  Then have other people read it and ask them if they predicted what that “gun” was going to be used for.  Obviously for this exercise to work, you can’t tell people ahead of time what you’re doing.

The reason I’m talking about this is…no, scratch that.  There are two reasons I’m talking about this.  One: I get so many of my ideas by accident through this Chekhov’s gun method.  I don’t even try to do it.  I just mention something in passing and then realize later that it would fit perfectly into the plot for such and such reason.  And soon after that, I realize that it’s a good thing I thought of a point for that thing, otherwise I would have had to take it out.  And the reason for that is that readers/audiences know, at some base level, all about Chekhov’s gun.  If they see something or hear something get mentioned, they are likely going to expect to see it come up again.  So if it doesn’t ever come back, that might leave the writer open to criticism.  For an example of one of the times this situation has snuck up on me in my writing…I once had two characters talk about Character Two’s older brother having a job interview.  It was really just to make them seem more human by having them converse about everyday things, but later the job interview became a plot point.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  Now for an example of the failure to bring something back.  Unfortunately, this means I have to admit to seeing Real Steel.  You know…Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots the Movie?  With Hugh Jackman?  Yeah, I was bored that day.  Anyway, (no spoilers here, not that you care) the kid finds a robot and at some point realizes that the robot “understands” him.  As in it’s sentient.  And that just…doesn’t go anywhere.  I kept waiting for it to be relevant somehow and it never really came back.  The robot was just a robot…that punched other robots.  So that was bad.  Not that the movie was very good to begin with, but still.

The second reason I brought up Chekhov’s gun is this: I think it works in reverse, too.  In this case it would be, “If at the end of the book your character fires a shotgun, the gun better have been mentioned at least once before.”  I came to this conclusion a few days ago when I was writing Grotesque.  I’m almost at the end of it now, and I realized I was missing some key element that would tie everything together.  But it was a really little thing, not something I cared very much about.  I just needed an ingredient.  Literally.  I needed an ingredient for a magical potion.  And I came up with some leaves and decided to bring them up and be like “Look!  These are the leaves! The ones that we had but now he has them and we need them back and oh God he can’t be allowed to use them because that would spell disaster for us!”  (You get extra brownie points if you were able to follow that)  But then I realized I was doing a lot of exposition to explain these leaves and it was so close to the end of the book that it didn’t feel right.  It felt like I was throwing them in at the last second, and they started to get more significant than I’d originally intended them to be.  Which meant that I had to go back through the book and mention them earlier, do the exposition earlier, so that my readers wouldn’t feel like I just threw this thing at them out of nowhere.  As in, “This exists now!  I am the author and I say it exists so it does!  Just go with it, man.”  And that’s how I came to understand the reverse of Chekhov’s Gun.  This post has gone on way too long and there haven’t even been any cartoons to break up the wordiness.  I am sorry for that.  I feel like I want to talk more about this, but I’ll save it for another post.  Until then, enjoy your holidays!  And to anyone else out there who shares my Christmas Eve Birthday, Happy Birthday to you!

Word of the Day: Chekhovian (adj) – of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Anton Chekhov or his writings, especially as they are evocative of a mood of introspection and frustration.

P.S. I just realized that the leaves thing is doubly relevant to this post.  Yes, it was the reverse of Chekhov’s gun, but there was also this point earlier in the story when I had someone mention that they were going to try to find some edible plants, and then he never found any or brought up his search or anything.  Which is an example of mentioning something and then failing to bring it up again.  So then I decided to fix that problem by going back and adding the super special leaves in to that scene, thus killing two birds with one stone, and it worked out perfectly which is so amazing because I never even predicted it would happen that way.  I mean, I didn’t even know those leaves existed until long after I’d written that scene.  It’s cool how writing works, huh?  Ok, good-bye for real this time.

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He Knows All…Maybe.

Back in Los Angeles and ready to blog!  And as long as we’re going back and revisiting my older blog posts, I thought I’d talk a little more about narration.  To start with, I’d like you meet someone.  His name is Narrator.

Narrator is a very special sort of…thing.  He can be anywhere at any time.  He can know all, or not.  He could also know all, but not tell you all.  He can deliberately lie to you.  Hell, he could be you.  He’s just that awesome.  In order to better explore some of Narrator’s powers, I’ve created a (cliche) situation.  Here it is:

Okay, there’s a situation.  We have Girl Character and Boy Character, and they are exchanging dialogue.  Now, Narrator can know all about this situation.  That would make him omniscient.  Narrator can also relate what is happening to you in the third person.  Is this starting to sound familiar?  I hope so.  Here is Third Person Omniscient:

Let’s talk about this for a moment.  In the above scenario, Narrator’s being pretty clinical in his observations.  He’s unbiased.  This makes him a reliable narrator.  Often, if you want an absolutely reliable narrator with no biases or prejudgments, Third Person Omniscient is the way to go.  Does that mean Third Person Omniscient is always going to be like that?  Nope.  There are scenarios that you can create that would call for, if you chose, a Third Person Omniscient narrator who’s a total dick.  Maybe the narrator in this scenario is dead, and he’s narrating from the beyond, and he has access to all kinds of knowledge the living aren’t privy to.  That’s not going to make him any less of a dick.  In fact, it might make him a little bit more of a dick.  He could even lie to the readers, and they wouldn’t be able to do a thing to stop it.  That’s more of an unreliable narrator.  He looks a little something like this:

Narrator can also be close to one character.  He’ll still narrate in the third person, but he’ll only have awareness of what’s going on in one character’s head.  That makes him reliable when he’s reporting the thoughts and actions of the character he’s following and unreliable with everything else.  Sure, he’ll reliably report what other people are doing, but it’ll be from the perspective of the character he’s following, and that character’s perspective won’t necessarily be the absolute Truth.  In order to demonstrate this, I drew a representation of Third Person Close for both characters.  First we have Girl Character:

Next comes Boy Character.  Note how the narration changes to suit Narrator’s new buddy.

When Narrator was hanging on to Girl Character, his tone was angry.  When he is with Boy Character, his tone changes to something more confused and defensive.  Finally, we have First Person, which I have illustrated below using Girl Character as the narrator.

So that’s narration in a nutshell.  But that still leaves us with the question of which type of narration to use.  I mean, in all this time I haven’t even mentioned tense.  All of these examples have been in the past tense, but present tense is also an option.  So which do you choose?  Well, I think it all comes down to one question: What do you want your readers to know?  If there is something really important that you need to keep secret from your readers, then having an unreliable narrator (either close third person or first person) would help with that, because the narrator could be just as unaware as the reader.  It would be harder with third person omniscient since, well…those kinds of narrators tend to know everything.  On the other hand, if it’s more important to you to have your readers be completely aware of the situation, then you can make good use of third person omniscient.

Narration is a choice.  Sometimes I make that choice without any conscious thought, and sometimes I have to experiment and work through the entire plot in my head before I can tell what would be best.  I recommend both of these things.  If you know from the very start that you want Girl Character to be your narrator, then go with it.  This is just another way your gut can point you in the right direction.  If you’re unsure, that’s fine, too.  I know it’ll come to you eventually.  And don’t be afraid to switch it up.  A lot of books have multiple narrators depending on the section or chapter.

In conclusion, I drew The Picture of Dorian Gray.  No it’s not relevant at all to what I just talked about, but I drew it, so now I have to show it to you.

No, his father was not actually killed by a mirror.  And no, the point of the book is not that he didn’t realize he was pretty.  The point is that he realized the painting would be able to remain forever young and beautiful while he would be doomed to die.  But that’s not so funny, so I took some artistic license.

That’s all for now!

Word of the Day: Omniscient (adj) – having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things

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He Said/She Said

So here I am again.  I’m preparing to go back to Los Angeles after a wonderful semester abroad, and I’ve decided to take time out of my busy (read: not at all busy) schedule to blog.

Today’s post is all about the nuances of dialogue.  I have this motto/saying/whatever that I came up with a while ago.  It goes like this: Writing is the easiest, safest way to play God.  And it’s true.  Not only do you create entire worlds, populate those worlds, and control the course of events, but you also put words directly into people’s mouths.  The best part is that there’s absolutely no pressure.  If you screw up, or kill somebody, or end the world, you’re not disappointing anybody.  Your characters aren’t exactly going to rebel.  But if you want any real-life readers, you’re going to have to be a pretty competent deity.  No pressure or anything.

Dialogue is a sensitive topic.  You’re given this power to dictate what each and every character is going to say, but at the same time, you have to be aware that we can never predict what people are going to say in real life.  Dialogue at its best will never go beyond mimicking real life really, really well.  And that’s fine.  If your dialogue didn’t take a little literary license well then…it wouldn’t be literary.  It’s still easy to mess up, though.  Trust me.  I have experience.  Ever written a character of the opposite sex?  Ever caught yourself writing that character’s dialogue like he/she is the same sex as you?  I have.  Being female, I found it really hard to get into the male mindset.  Especially when I was a thirteen-year-old girl writing a teenage boy.  He was constantly being emasculated when he spoke, and I didn’t even realize it.

There are other errors you can make, too.  When one character says something, the other character’s response has to be appropriate.  I know this seems like it’s obvious, but it is really difficult to get right sometimes.  Below is an example of an “inappropriate” response.

The only way this conversation could be made appropriate would be if you created a scenario to fit it.  For example, the guy could have misheard her.  Or he could be desperately trying to avoid her.  Any number of things could make it work, but on its own without any context, it doesn’t.  This is, as usual, an extreme example.  But when you’re reading through your sections of dialogue, you really do have to ask yourself if the conversation feels real.  This is when that whole “Listen to your gut” thing comes in handy.  If something doesn’t feel right about the conversation, then something’s probably not right.

Usually, when I have a problem with inappropriate responses, it’s because I’m trying to rush the conversation.  I know where I want the characters to end up, and it’s going to be far more interesting than this conversation, so I just kind of…push it a bit.  And it ends up reading something like this:

Then I have to go back and slow things down a bit, make sure their conversation reaches A, B, and C before they get to D.  Then there are dialogue tags.  Now those are a bitch to get right.  I really hate them.  If left unchecked, you can have a conversation that goes like this:

“Hey, I’m drinking some coffee,” she said.

“I noticed that,” he said.

“I like pointing out the obvious,” she said.

“I am going to leave this room now,” he said.

Note the overabundance of he said/she said.  Breaking up dialogue tags so that you don’t have too much repetition can get tough.  Usually, if it’s just a conversation between two people, you can just drop the tags altogether like so:

“Hey, I’m drinking some coffee,” she said.

“I noticed that,” he said.

“I like pointing out the obvious.”

“I am going to leave this room now.”

Or, if you like, you could switch things up a bit:

“Hey, I’m drinking some coffee,” she said.

“I noticed that,” he muttered.

“I like pointing out the obvious!” she shouted.

“I am going to leave this room now,” he whispered, eyes darting towards the door.

But this is all pointing out the obvious, which is why I didn’t spend too much time on it.  I know this post is long, but I want to say one more thing:  Often, when writing dialogue, I get into this groove where the conversation flows, feels real, and takes the right amount of time.  The problem is that when I get into that groove, I don’t stop to switch perspectives based on who’s talking.  In other words, it’s like I’m writing a conversation between myself and myself, where everything that’s said is what I would say.  So, my final note is: Not only do you have to make the dialogue appropriate, but you have to make it appropriate to each character, too.  “Hey, what’s up?” Sure, someone could say that.  Hell, people have said that.  They’re probably saying it right now.  But would the Queen of MadeUpLand say that?  Maybe not.  Just something to think about.

Word of the Day: Diatribe (n) – a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism

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The Swirling Vortex of Doom (AKA Character Development)

Remember how I was talking about how very wrong I was in my first few posts?  Yeah, I remember now that there’s something else I wanted to clear up besides how sorry I am – What I wrote about character development.

My methods for getting to know your character?  Sound.  Good enough anyway.

My timeline for getting to know your character?  WRONG.  I made it seem like you had to know everything there is to know about your character before you even start your story!  No no no!  I don’t even think that’s possible.  Even if you have an absolutely super special intimate relationship with your character before you start writing, and you think you know all there is to know, I’m still pretty convinced that something about that character is going to change once you start writing.  And that’s the whole point!  It’s supposed to change!  If your writing isn’t teasing out more and more little things about your character that you didn’t even think about before you started, then maybe you’re not doing it right.  To illustrate this point (literally) I painstakingly drew my character development process for Serrafiel.

First, we have what I knew about the character before I started writing:

Yeah, that’s about it.  So I ask you: Does this look like a fully-developed character?  The answer is no.  So I had that, and then I started writing and, after a chapter or two, I got this:

So there’s a little more.  He’s blonde now, and he has green eyes.  I didn’t know either of those things until I wrote about him looking at himself in the mirror for the first time.  And the talking to owls thing, yeah…decided that one on a whim.  It worked out really well once I got further in the book, which brings me to:

So now I’ve got a pretty well-rounded character.  By now, I’m really into the book, and I know a lot about him.  You may also notice that this picture has a lot more words in it than the first one.  But it’s also important to remember that all of these things I know about him are constantly framed by questions, things I don’t know yet.  So in the next picture, he’s literally framed by questions.

And then you have to remember that all of these questions and personality traits and feelings and words are often linked directly (or indirectly) to other characters in the book.  Which I have also drawn.

Believe it or not, there is some rhyme and reason to the direction of the arrows.  If a question is going to be answered by a character, then the arrow points to them.  If a character caused the question, or the feeling/emotion whatever, then the arrow points from that character to the corresponding word(s).  I mean, that’s not totally important.  This is just supposed to show how incredibly complicated character development is.  In other words, I’m trying to prove without a doubt that I was epically wrong the first time I talked about this.  Oh and we’re not done by the way.  Because you have to remember that all those colored blobs aren’t just blobs, they’re other characters.

And all of those other characters, plus any number of others, need their own swirling mass of words, arrows, and relationships.  They all need to be developed just like I developed Serrafiel.  (Don’t worry, I didn’t draw out their developments, too.  That was the last picture)

In conclusion, you should definitely get to know your character as well as you might know a sibling or close friend, but don’t be afraid to use your writing to help you develop that relationship.

Word of the Day: Nascent (adj) – beginning to exist or develop

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The Zebras have Landed

I was bored yesterday, so I decided to try and write that short story I promised you.  I opened up a Word document, typed the title at the top of the page – Extracurricular Activities for Zebras – and then proceeded to stare at the blank screen.  I stared for a while, tried to type something, hated it, tried to revise, and hated that, too.  Then I decided it might be interesting to make the story about the conversation that led to me getting that fantastic title.  That idea seemed nice, and it sort of evolved from there.  The finished result was a work of Creative Nonfiction, and I’m actually very happy with it.  So today’s post is that short story.  No cartoons or witticisms today.  So, without further ado, I give you my short story:

Extracurricular Activities for Zebras

Fellow students asked me why I left sunny Los Angeles for Syracuse, New York.  My response was always the same – Because I wanted to see snow for the first time.  And this would shock them, and we’d get to discussing other things, and they’d never figure out I was lying.  I’d seen snow before.  Once, my dad took me and my siblings skiing.  But the snow there was manufactured.  Snow machines.  But we did drive up to the mountains once, and that snow was real.  It just wasn’t fresh.  I’d never seen snow falling, never lived in a place where snow was considered normal.  So I lied, but it wasn’t a really big or malicious lie.  It just simplified things.

My mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  When I was younger, I replied with things like “veterinarian” and “doctor,” because I liked animals and…I don’t remember my reasons for wanting to be a doctor.  Mom told me that I might have trouble with that, since both vets and doctors have to see blood.  I’d forgotten that detail.  Being a very squeamish person, I knew I’d never be able to go down either of those career paths.

What surprised me in middle school, and then high school, was that I was still tempted to add “when I grow up” to the end of any sentence that began, “I want to be a…”  And then I wondered when exactly we can be considered grownups.  When is it okay to stop saying “when I grow up” and acknowledge that you already have?  I assumed it would happen when I actually got the career I was hoping for, and then I could say, “Now I am a _____.  Now I am grown up.”  But when you’re sixteen and saying “when I grow up,” well, that just doesn’t sound right.  Except, if you don’t say it, then the sentence feels incomplete somehow, so I stumbled over the words.  “I want to be a teacher when I – well, not when I grow up.  Just when I get older, I guess.”

My college applications asked me what my hobbies were outside of the classroom.  I told the truth: I played the clarinet, rode horses, sketched, wrote stories.  But that still left a lot of blank space, like I wasn’t fulfilling their expectations.  What more could I say?  My life was consumed by school.  When I wasn’t in school, I was doing homework.  When I wasn’t doing homework, I was too tired to do anything else.

My stepmom asked me why I feared blue eyes.  I was baffled.  Didn’t everybody?  No?  Huh.  I had no answer for her.  To this day, I have trouble looking people in the eye, and it’s even worse if the other person’s eyes are blue.  But at least I know the reason now.  After pondering the question, I had this little jolt of memory.

I remembered the first place where I took riding lessons.  No, that’s not true.  It was technically the second.  When I was very little, my mom signed me up for pony riding classes.  So I remembered the second place where I rode.  This place was really messed up, though I didn’t realize it until after I left.  They had a horse camp there over the summer, and I was a junior counselor.  I was about thirteen.  Another girl, a counselor who was sixteen, told me to put away a bag of apples.  I forgot.  The campers had gone home, and the junior counselors were hanging out in the tack shed.  Then I remembered the apples, and rushed to find the bag.  But it was gone.  Thinking I had been helped out by some anonymous do-gooder, I prepared to go back to what I was doing.

But then that sixteen-year-old, my superior, came rushing out of the office, screaming my name, the bag of apples dangling from her hand.  She was furious that someone else had had to do the task she’d set to me.  She started taking apples out of the bag, and one by one, she threw them at me.  I could see that she was holding herself back, so that the throws weren’t too powerful, but apples are hard.  One of them hit my chest.  It still hurt, even if she wasn’t throwing them that hard.  That wasn’t the worst part, though.  Another counselor – twenty years old with clear blue eyes – stood behind her, encouraging her.  When there were no more apples left in the bag, the sixteen-year-old ordered me to clean them up, and then stormed off.  I cried as I dropped the broken, dirty apples into the horses’ feed buckets.

That ranch, it was bad.  Besides the twenty-year-old counselor, there were two grown women who owned and ran the ranch together.  They both wore sunglasses all the time, but if you got in trouble with them – and you did, on a regular basis – they called you over and took those sunglasses off to stare you straight in the eye.  Both these women had icy blue eyes.  Years later, sitting in my stepmom’s armchair, I figured out why I feared blue eyes.

I tell a lot of people about the apple incident.  It’s a funny story, if you take out the pain and humiliation, as I do when I retell it.  I think I need to laugh about it, because if I’m laughing at them, then I’ve won.

My friend asked me why people major in Philosophy.  I told him I didn’t know.  He told me to answer the question anyway.  How could I answer something I didn’t know?  I said, “Because if 2+7=9, then Jupiter is in alignment with Venus, which provides an extracurricular activity for zebras, that directly affects butterflies which land on the eyelashes of certain college students and cause them to major in Philosophy.”  And he replied, “I hate it when 2+7=9.”  And I said, “I know, right?  No wonder I didn’t major in Philosophy.”

(End story)

There you go.  I hope you liked it.  You might have noticed that the majoring in Philosophy thing came directly from this blog (Read the post titled “They Say” if you haven’t already), so now you’re in on the origins of the story.  Doesn’t that make you feel special?  It should.  That’s all for now.

Word of the Day: Reminisce (v) – to recall past experiences, events, etc.

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