Monday, May 11

Troubleshooting: Cal and Emily - Part 2

I'll try to tackle this element by element, so instead of going from beginning to end, I may do it over, or even jumble everything up. Be patient with me, please. So. Let's dive right in, shall we? Plot As I've mentioned, plot is the storyline, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most editors say the beginning and ending make or break your story. When you start, you have to hook your readers in, and when you stop, you leave the readers satisfied and remembering your story, possibly wanting more. The term for it is resonance (which I've only recently learned, by the way). Beginning
The new sun arose with an incandescent brilliance, illuminating the whole world with an explosion of colours. Birds of varying types and sizes took wing and soared in the azure sky, singing their praises for the day. Suddenly –
The sound seemed out of place, somehow – to the students of Angel Valley High, at least. The shrill sound of the school bell marked another schooling Monday. Many a student grumbled and mumbled, but all went to their classes without delay. None wanted to face the wrath of Mr. Rogers. More than a few students thought that the shrewd man became the school principal simply for the satisfaction of sending people to detention, which was not pleasant at all.
Well, I think I was aiming to establish setting. To be honest, I think I was displaying my writing flair. I told you I was an arrogant, ignorant, kid at that time. In other words, an amateur. Now, I'm still arrogant, but not so ignorant, and still deluded, refusing to grow up. Anyway. When Robert Jordan wrote The Wheel of Time Saga, he always began Chapter 1 the same manner.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Rhannon Hills. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. - Crossroads of Twilight, Book 10 of The Wheel of Time
Gives me the chills every time I read the books. He interchanged the middle sentence to fit each volume, but the first paragraph remained the same throughout. There's a but. Even his Prologue spanned across almost 100 pages. In short stories, we can't afford to begin by laying out the setting. Every word counts. That particular sentence is of utmost import. Every word counts. Short stories are generally advised to start in the middle of a scene. Throw the readers in. Don't let them wade in the shallows to test the waters. So, in essence, my story should've started with Cal entering a loud class, slam his bag onto his desk, and lean back against his chair. Or maybe Cal ignoring the noise when the door opened to admit Emily. Reading this piece now, I get the feeling that I was attempting to show off, and failing miserably. Plus, the language style...sheesh...but that's for later discussion. Experienced writers set the mood from the start. They don't have to lay out the setting; they suggest the mood within the opening immediate scene. For instance, a thriller typically starts off with a young lady walking in a dark alley, which smelled of weeks-old garbage, and pockmarked with puddles from the rain that just settled. A romance shows the heroine getting stumped or broken hearted, or at odds with the male protagonist. Science fiction and fantasy, well, they usually put the protagonist in a tight spot, and only later on explain the setting. The beginning I wrote...I don't feel anything reading it. Middle Sadly, some writers concentrate on beginnings and endings so much that they leave the middle lacking. If you let readers get bored, they won't last till the end. But some readers, like me, will keep on reading since I've started and don't like to leave things unfinished, but I'll finish the story with a certain resentment. It was like watching Bewitched (the movie). God did I feel cheated watching it. The middle is where the writer builds the characters, as well as develop the plot. Build the tension, but don't forget to relieve some. Make room for breathers, so readers won't feel like riding a bullet train outside the carriage. In this piece, the plot is basically Cal and Emily learning to accept and trust one another. Conflicts? I built up little by little. First, Cal giving Em the cold shoulder, then his bursting out, enraged with all the commotion around Emily. He didn't show interest in her. She's scared of him. Then the restaurant scene. Tension was built when the customer got physical. The scene culminated with Em quitting, although the way she did it was so stereotypical. Shudder. I relaxed a bit with the calm of sunset, then Cal suddenly offering his help. Tension builds up for Emily, who doesn't trust anyone. Highest tension is the accident and hospital scene. If I had done it correctly, readers would be rooting for the both of them. They'd want Cal to live, so they could be together. In my teenage innocence, I made the mistake of making them look at each other as brother/sister. WTF?! So the hospital scene is the most important. Readers are at the balls of their feet, not daring to breathe. As I said, if I'd done it correctly. Ending The climax, and the following anticlimax. Now this is important. This is where conflict resolution happens. The tension the writer has built? This is the threshold; the breaking point. Some editors prefer the story to end at the climax. Some would like to have a paragraph or two of what happens after the conflict is resolved. In this story, the climax is when Cal dies. I certainly could've spiced it out a little, but I think I did alright by not spelling out his death. I used subtlety, hinting his death using 'cold hand'. And I created an entire scene as an anticlimax. Granted, I used the evil narrative summary, so I kinda cheated. But in the middle, I've written about Em needing a tutor, and Cal helping her. I would've done readers injustice if I left that hanging. Why give weight to that topic when I don't intend to do anything about it? So I showed that Emily did well in her studies after all, paying off Cal's efforts. I also ended off with Emily looking forward to the future, so in a way, the story didn't die off just like that. Readers can imagine a future for her, giving themselves hope that things can be better. If you check Asian/Malaysian Literature section at Kinokuniya, you'll discover quite a number of locally published anthologies. I've bought a lot of them for research. Sadly, Malaysian short stories mostly have one thing in common: the story ends hanging. The conflict is not resolved. Sometimes, a new conflict is introduced over the existing one. A lot of stories end as a question, leaving the readers to guess and wonder what happened to the protagonist. In the writing books I've read, the authors imply that writers who end stories like this are showing off how smart they are, leaving stories open-ended for interpretation. If the reader is smart, they can guess what happens next. Loose ends are left untied; frayed more, even. When you tell a story, you've signed an unspoken contract with the audience to guide them true right to the end. Hanging ending is like paying RM10 to watch Titanic, then having the movie stop right when the ship broke in half, and Kate is left hanging for dear life. Of course you'll leave the cinema enraged. You've waited in line, watched the movie for more than two hours, and you're left with no ending. What happens to Kate? What about Jack/Leo? You feel cheated. Same goes with writing fiction. Tie up loose ends. Don't act like you're smarter than anyone else. Be a responsible storyteller. General Comments I'll be the first to point out that the plot in this story is stereotyped. It can pass for any TV series, and, as Simon Cowell would say, horrendous and forgettable. Sometimes it gets difficult to come up with a totally original story, as we usually get inspired after witnessing or reading about an event. When this happens, pray that your storytelling overshadows the actual plot. This piece could've made a decent teenage love story though. The beginning's a chore, and the ending's weak. If Tita had known me back then, she would've made me rewrite the ending again and again till she felt my impact. Which, by the way, I'm still trying to figure out so I can replicate with relative success. Hey, we've all got to learn somewhere. Character Development Cal a nutshell, Cal started off this cold, unapproachable (but totally hot) guy, who didn't give a hoot about anyone else around him. But when he saw how Emily was handled at the diner, and he's suddenly protective of her. That's the turning point, where he started to warm up and reach out towards her. Given the limited words, it seemed as though his character was completely changed. Bear in mind that to lend credibility, it's possible for a person to completely change for someone special, but with others, he/she remains relatively unchanged. Old habits are hard to break. This saying holds true even in fiction. Well, I could've developed Cal to show his gradual change, and his complete faith in Emily towards the end. Emily I dunno...writers like to write that the heroine thinks herself as plain as the next goose, but in fact she's a total babe. I fell into that trap. In real life, how many hot people you know don't strut their stuff? They make as though they don't give a damn, but the way they dress, how they take care of their skin.... You get my point. What I could've done was portray Emily's beauty as a curse. She did reveal it when Cal offered his help, but that should've been given more weight. Emily should have downplayed her beauty, hiding it the best she could. And she comes across as a timid, soft-spoken girl. When she declared that she quit, although it can be interpreted as a sudden burst of courage and anger, it seems out of character, doesn't it? Emily could've showed more confidence and conviction towards the end. Yes, people, Emily is a weak character! Arghh! General Comments When you create a character, even for a short story, it's best to have that particular character well formed in your mind. Talk to the character. Ask him/her what's her favorite color, likes and dislikes, and get the feel of mannerisms and speech style. The main character(s) must be changed, must be affected by the chain of events, by the end of the story. This is the basis of a strong character development. However, the essence of that person should remain the same. Unless it's a thriller, where you intentionally mislead readers. Even so, certain mannerisms should remain the same as a hint of who the psycho killer is. When you plan to write something out of character, think well and make sure you have a strong reason for it. Don't do it simply to fit the plot or because you're stumped on how to end the story. A good character shouldn't be perfect. He can't be good looking, athletic, good at maths AND painting, saves kittens from a branch, a hacker and has green fingers, all at the same time. Come on. Nobody is perfect! People empathize with a flawed character. Give a perfect model, and readers end up resenting him/her. Perfection is also boring. There's nothing to fix. But don't make that character so flawed that he loathes himself, and drowns in self-pity. People hate sniveling, pathetically weak characters as much as they hate perfect ones. But it doesn't mean you have to make a likable character. You can make a protagonist who steps on a cat's tail for fun, who hides his sister's dolls in high places. As long as you have a strong point that anchors readers, a saving grace, that makes them empathize with your character. Even the most original character may unintentionally inherit stereotyped characteristics. Don't be hard on yourself. As long readers can empathize with the character, you've done well. And. Please. Avoid writing another James Bond. Point of View Okay. I didn't touch this in my previous post. Not that it's unimportant. Far from it. Before we start writing, we must have an idea on how the story will be told. I never gave this much thought, to be honest. I usually go by instinct, on what feels right. So what is PoV? Look at it as a camera. First person is when the narrator tells the story using his or her own voice. In other words, the story's told using 'I' or 'We' denomination. In movie terms, think The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. The narrator is the guy holding the camera, and scenes unfold as he sees it. The plus side of using first person is intimacy. Readers get to be in the narrator's head. They know how the narrator feels, how he reacts to his surroundings. But, this view is also limited to what the narrator can sense. Unless the protagonist is psychic, he can't be expected to know what's happening behind the closed door. So don't go writing "With much trepidation, I turned the knob. Inside, hidden from view, a giant of a man was skulking with a knife in hand." Third person is more commonly used. Especially in movies. Denominations 'He', 'She', and 'It' are used. Readers are detached; far enough to know what's happening beyond the main characters, but close enough to know what's happening in their head. Third person is sometimes termed intimate third person view. The writer concentrates on key characters, two to three at most, and shifting between their minds and ken. A common pitfall is jumping from one head to another in a single paragraph or even scene. It usually leaves the reader reeling. Stick to one perspective (person's head) per scene. Omniscient view, where the narrator tells about a whole lot of people in one story. The series Heroes is an excellent example, I think. The story's in third person, but there are so many key characters that my mom gave up watching the show in the first season itself. The writer gains in scope, with multiple spontaneous events and subplots, but loses in intimacy. People would always complain they don't get enough of Sylar or Peter, or Clair or Hiro and Ando. Or even Micah. Nate is just that annoyingly perfect and self-righteous character that you just feel like slapping. Don't mistake PoV with perspective. A story told by two main characters, say, a guy and then a girl, but both told using 'I', has two different perspectives, but using first person. A third person (or maybe omniscient) book/movie like Vantage Point tells the bombing event from seven different perspectives/persons, but all using third person. Back to my story. It's told in third person, but, looking back, I fell deep. I switched perspectives even in a single paragraph.
Juggling the keys in one hand, Cal entered the diner. He sat at a lonely corner and waited there patiently. A waitress, still intent on writing down her previous customer's order, came to Cal's side. Cal looked up to order his food, but stopped in astonishment. He blinked his eyes, surprise evident in them.
"Emily. What are you doing here?"
She gaped at him in utter silence. Her cheeks suddenly flushed with embarrassment. The owner of the isolated diner had designed barely decent clothes for his waitresses to wear, and she had no choice but obey the dress code. To attract customers, he said. Emily certainly did not expect to see her classmate there.
"What are you doing here?" she asked back.
Cal, wits as sharp as knife, realised that it was an awkward moment for Emily. He flashed a lazy smile at her, silently showing her that he would not tell others about her working at the diner. Instead of saying anything regarding the awkward subject, he only ordered a hamburger and soda. Receiving his unspoken message, Emily smiled back in gratitude and disappeared into the kitchen.
See what I mean? I've highlighted Cal's perspective in blue, and Emily's in red. I should have kept the whole diner scene using one perspective. Emily certainly did not expect to see her classmate there. If I kept this scene in Cal's perspective, I could write "Emily's eyes went wide, as if she did not expect to see him there." Cal could see her eyes going wide, and he could assume that she was surprised to see him. It's still in Cal's head. Or, if I wanted to write using Emily's perspective, I could start off with her cleaning a table, or taking an order, then stopping and dropping her pencil when she saw Cal sitting at a corner. Okay. It's already 00:33 and I'm supposed to be in the OT before 08:00. I'm going to stop here. It's starting to get too heavy a reading, anyway. Hopefully I'll get to Part 3 tomorrow. Do drop comments and suggestions. Oh. If there are any typos and errors, I'll correct them later. Bonus lesson: Nothing is ever perfect at the first sitting. Writing fiction is all about rewriting. Editing is seriously, totally, important.