Monday, May 3, 2010

Nine Items of Terror for Writers

I recently attended a performance by The Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling  and comedy troupe. They were fabulous!

At the end of the show, they performed their "Terror Trick." This involved juggling nine "items of terror" they had gradually introduced during the show. These items were a cleaver, a torch, a salt shaker, a ukelele, a skillet, a fish, an egg, a block of dry ice, and a bottle of champagne. They juggled all of these at once, then ended up "cooking" the fish and the egg in the skillet and drinking the champagne. So it all came together into a somewhat cohesive whole.

As I left the theater, I thought of a parallel to writing. I wondered what the "nine items of terror" would be for writers -- the disparate elements that writers must expertly juggle and interweave to create a "grand finale" (the completed work)?

Let's see. . . How about we start with Point of View (POV) as Item of Terror Number One. Should I use first person, second person, third person distant, third person close, multiple-person, omniscient, alternating. . . or should I just pour myself a stiff drink and call it a night?

The differences between third-distant and third-close drive me insane. I no sooner think I'm using one than I realize I'm using the other. Omniscient seems easiest, but detached. I think it's harder for the reader (especially a child or young adult) to "connect" with the main character when something is written in omniscient POV. First person POV requires a consistent, age-appropriate voice. You have to choose your vocabulary carefully if the narrator is a child or teen. Would they use that word? Would they perceive things differently? And when you're in first person, you can only comment on things the character sees, hears, knows about, etc.

Recently I came across a tip: If your third-person character is constantly talking out loud "to himself," you may want to switch to first person. That makes quite a lot of sense to me. I tend to stick with third person, but struggle with whether to "zoom in really close" or remain more objective.

I could go on, but I think that's enough for now from my POV.

What "item of terror" would you add and what is "terrifying" about it?



14 comments:

  1. The moving target of YA. Paranormal is in--no wait it's out. Romance is in--nope not any more. Etc. Etc. If you write adult romance, mystery or science fiction the rules are fairly consistent but not YA.

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  2. No, adult suspense needs romance now.

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  3. It sounds like "the moving targets of genre fiction" can be our second Item of Terror. Becky, I don't doubt you, but personally, I don't want romance in the adult suspense novels I read!

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  4. Third item: Writing in backstory without creating a toxic information dump site!!!!

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  5. Okay! We're picking up steam now!
    (1) POV
    (2) Moving targets
    (3) Non-toxic backstory

    Who's next?

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  6. Voice. It's the main reason for all my rejections. I think I've got it down now, but it's not easy.

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  7. Ah, yes, voice. Thank you, Megan. That's a problem for me, too. (It's beginning to sound like everything about writing is a problem for me!)

    (1) POV
    (2) Moving targets
    (3) Non-toxic backstory
    (4) Voice

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  8. Robert Leland TaylorMay 5, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    Is this interesting to others, or only to me? I am constantly stressing over this question, and have tossed some pretty good ideas/passages because they didn't quite pass the "Interesting" test--or at least I didn't think they did.
    There are simply too many brilliant writers out there and the pressure is on to avoid the mediocrity pool.

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  9. I am not exactly terrified of dealing with this, but do struggle with tense. For example, if I'm writing in first person, past tense, should I have my character say, "My brother was hitting me over the head with a stalk of rhubarb. He was three years older and weighed at least three times more than me." OR "My brother was .. . He is three years older than me and that summer weighed at least three times more than me." Now if the brother is dead . . . See? It gets complicated. And has anyone noticed that many books are now written in present tense? That's another decision to make about tense. Maybe it is one of the "Nine items!"
    P.S. I would have said "than I was/am" in the above but doubt that my character would have.

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  10. No, Robert, you're not the only one! I also struggle with the "who cares?" (also phrased as "why should anyone care?") question.

    Sheila - Yeah, "terror" is hyperbole in this case. And I know exactly what you mean about tense!

    Six down, three to go!

    (1) POV
    (2) Moving targets
    (3) Non-toxic backstory
    (4) Voice
    (5) Who cares?
    (6) Tense

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  11. Great topic, Scotti. I know for many of my students (and me, too) finding the balance between showing vs. telling is a problem. Sometimes we worry so much about the adage "Show, Don't Tell" that we dramatize whole scenes that really don't add to the story and would be better summarized in a transition sentence.
    Carmela
    TeachingAuthors

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  12. Oh, Carmela, well played! I find myself coming to a halt when reading someone else's (published) work because I *think* they are telling, not showing, and then I start wondering how they got away with it. It's so easy for me to get entangled in that web!

    (1) POV
    (2) Moving targets
    (3) Non-toxic backstory
    (4) Voice
    (5) Who cares?
    (6) Tense
    (7) Showing vs Telling

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  13. I thought of another problem, one that is plaguing me right now--creating a plot that challenges my characters to grow while keeping readers engaged. I want my readers to feel compelled to keep turning the page, but I don't always know how to accomplish that.
    Carmela
    TeachingAuthors

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  14. Ah yes, the dreaded "plot" issue. People sometimes talk about "character-driven" vs "plot-driven" books, but even in a character-driven story, you have to have a decent plot (and the characters in a plot-driven story need to be well-rounded and engaging).

    (1) POV
    (2) Moving targets
    (3) Non-toxic backstory
    (4) Voice
    (5) Who cares?
    (6) Tense
    (7) Showing vs Telling
    (8) Page-turning plot

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So, what do you say?