Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coloring Your World

First of all, let me say how nice it has been to get back to blogging and to hear from so many of my good friends. It’s great to have your friendship and support.

Author and previously agent, Nathan Bransford, had a great post yesterday on choosing between first person and third person. His take was one I’ve never heard worded quite that way.

“The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it's clear to the reader that it's not the whole story. You're getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.”

A biased look. Great angle. You color your story by the bias through which it is viewed. This can be especially effective if your main character’s views will change over time.

My first thought was, “Man, that Bransford dude is one smart guy.” I really enjoy his blog.  Followed closely by, “I wonder what other ways we color our worlds in the stories we write.”

By coloring, I’m referring to what sets apart the way I might present a story from the way you might. At first blush this sounds like I am talking about voice. And voice is one way you can color your story. But it’s more than that. Imagine that you and I come up with exactly the same story idea at exactly the same time. If the story was really unique, we might have a problem. But the truth is that what we would end up with would probably be so different that both books could be published and come across completely differently. You can’t copyright an idea, but you can absolutely copyright the end result.

So what colors the way you write your story and I write mine? One is how you use the language. I recently read two books: I Am Number Four and The Book Thief. The word choices each author makes, the sentence structure, the chapter length, are worlds apart. Consider these two samples.

From I am Number Four

“As is the case with most high schools, there are crowds of kids hanging around outside. They’re divided into their clicks, the jocks and the cheer leaders, the band kids carrying  instruments, the  brains in their glasses with their textbooks and Blackberries, the stoners off to one side, oblivious to everyone else.”

From The Book Thief

“Those first few months were definitely the hardest.

Every night Liesel would nightmare.

Her brother’s face.

Staring at the floor.

She would wake up screaming in her bed, screaming and drowning in the flood of sheets.”

There are so many different things going on here. Literary vs. straight forward. Past tense vs. present. First person vs. a combination of first and third. A teen age narrator from another planet compared to the narrator being Death.

Look at how much slang the first section uses, and how much the author assumes we know about high school. You know a lot about the protagonist just from the assumptions he makes.

Then look at the second passage. Nightmare used as a verb. The sentence fragments. The metaphor. It’s almost like reading poetry.

Some of these choices are made because of the story. Book Thief wouldn’t have been the novel it was if it wasn’t written in a very literary, poetic voice. It creates a certain flavor. Number Four required a more contemporary style.

Another possibility is that the authors chose to write the kinds of books they did, because of the style they felt most comfortable writing in.

Before you start writing the story you want to tell, you need to ask yourself.lots of questions.

What will my setting be? Number Four takes place in a small Ohio town. Thief in Nazi Germany.

What time period? Present? The future? The past?

Who will my characters be and what role will they play? I recently helped a friend with his newest novel. One of the things I pointed out to him was that his characters sounded too much the same. Here are lines of text from my latest work, Zombie Kid. See how much you can tell about them just from the way they talk.

“It wouldn’t take me that long to put on my grandma’s underwear, and she’s got pantyhose you could park a Volkswagen inside.”


“It is your amulet. But it’s not a gris-gris. According to the author, the necklace you’re wearing is over a thousand years old. It was created for an African bokor.”

The kind of words your character chooses, the way they view the world and react to it all color your story.

What audience am I writing for? Younger readers will typically want shorter chapters, more action, more obvious humor, and less “dense” paragraphs.

What are the expectations of my genre? If you are writing a YA romance, you are going to spend much more time evaluating members of the opposite sex (Is he cute? Is he weird—in a good or bad way? Is he taken?) than you would in action adventure. The very fact that you comment on whether or not the guy is desirable colors your story in a different than if you don’t notice that.   

Think of your story as a room. If you just start buying furniture and flinging it around, you might end up with a good room. But if you decide in advance what you want the room to look and feel like—its personality if you will—before you start shopping your odds of creating something wonderful are much better.

(This person said, “I want my living room to look like Supercuts!” Actually now that I look closer, maybe it is Supercuts.)

Before you write your story ask yourself lots of questions. Decide what kind of feelings you want your readers to experience. Then work on choosing the right POV, setting, pacing, voice, and writing style that will accomplish your goals.

And have fun! 


Magenta said...

I am so glad I follow your blog. ^_^ Such great advice. I read the Book Thief (and loved it!), but haven't given Number 4 a chance yet.

btw, sorry to be a spelling nazi (pun intended =P), but I caught a couple of errors in your post. "...in the stories we right (write)". "...from another plant (planet)". Granted, the words are spelled correctly, but they're in the wrong context. =P Spellcheck won't catch those.

Good luck with Zombie Kid!

J Scott Savage said...

Thanks, Magenta! That's why I have great editors.

Blue said...

Heidiho again!

Since junior high school, when an English teacher first introduced me to the concept of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, I've been vaguely aware that my head hasn't ever quite wrapped itself around these positions. I have intended to find some online source to help me get them all straight in my mind, and learn how to use them more powerfully. So I appreciate any little nuggets that help me in the matter. And I loved both of these books. Book Thief was amazing. You summed my thoughts up when you said it's almost like poetry. Such gorgeous writing is uncommon. Like Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks...that book was breathtaking in it's beautiful language. #4 was fun...but I've come to realize that I'm just way into YA fic, with special fondness for dystopian novels (which word I'd never heard of till I was at J.Dash's last King's English signing.) Hunger Games and Matched being my latest favorites.

Anyway, Thanks for the latest encouragement. Happy 4th this weekend!