20 April 2009

Handicapping Devices and Structures

I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I like stories with narrative arcs, I like dialogue and showing, stuff like that. Call me boring; that's my taste. And of course there are exceptions, but these are structures and devices I don't generally prefer:

Phone calls. Lots of writers consider a phone call just more dialogue, but consider how handicapped one is in a conversation via telephone in real life and apply that to a story. We're missing out on an entire array of senses, relying only on hearing. Can we really get to know your characters well by listening to them talk on the phone? This could work if it's a multi-pov story, but...

Multiple Points of View. Even in a longer story, we barely get time to connect with a character. Switching can make it tough to know who to root for. This is more about scope than anything else.

Letters , Diary Entries, Captains' Logs, etc. When reading these stories I always wonder why the writer didn't just choose narrative structure. Sometimes a note or memo at the beginning of a story can act as a sort of prologue, but I usually pass on stories told entirely through these devices, even if there's a good arc. They usually lack action and dialogue and rely on a lot of telling. This device simply doesn't provide for showing very well. Unfortunately these stories often contain clever ideas that would have stood their own within traditional narrative.

Flashbacks. There are definitely exceptions to this rule. I have one story in my hold file right now that switches between past and present. It can be done effectively. But it takes a steady hand on the tiller not to steer the boat into boring seas. So ask yourself, is this flashback really necessary?

Violence/torture to shock and awe. Consider carefully whether the threat of violence is scarier than the actual thing. And unfortunately, flat antagonists usually go hand-in-hand with violence. If a baddie chasing teenagers/torturing somebody (even the deserving)/resulting blood baths is the bent of your story, Electric Spec isn't the best market. Think DEXTER rather than SAW I-IV.

There you have it. Anyone have any ideas for more, or arguments for/against my preferences here?

7 comments:

lesleylsmith said...

I pretty much agree with Editor Betsy here. You go, girl! :) Of course, I already mentioned phone calls earlier.
IMHO, multiple povs and flashbacks can work, but they're more tricky.
Letters and their ilk are d-u-l-l. Talk about a tell-fest. :(
As for violence...suspense works better than gore. Think the threat of violence for Electric Spec, rather than the actual violence. :)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

re: Phone calls--where do you think I got the idea? :)

sex scenes at starbucks said...
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Deb S said...

For a good example of why phone calls don't work, see the movie Phone Booth. Well, don't see it, really. Even with Colin Farrell starring, I couldn't get through it.

David E. Hughes said...

I'll be a bit of a dissenter here. I like stories with letters, e-mails, diaries, or other alternative narrative devices. In fact, I think we've published a few (one of them being mine) in our 'zine.

However, I agree that these devices can also result in a boring story by keeping the reader too distant from the POV character. The keys to using alternative form is (1) having a good reason for doing it; (2)remember keep the POV as close as possible.

Keith said...

I have always argued that it a story can be made much better if the protagonist does not die at the end of the story. Killing off the hero is a convenient way to end a story. It is harder to write a good ending where the hero lives.

I usually get an argument complete with a list of great stories where the protag is killed off. I am sorry, but I think that a story must involve a sea change in the life of the main character and death is just an ending.

I also have a rule about "No Nazis", but that is primarily about bad TV and movies.

See my list of SF no-nos at: Keith's lawsMost people hate at least one of the rules on my list. Some people hate all of them.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Good point Keith. I pretty well hate stories in which the protag dies in the end. Cop-out!!

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, Dave. I think letters and memos can work in stories. But I more often see stories in which narrative form would tell the story better.