Commentary: Traits of the Medium

Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do. 

Writing violent action is difficult. Part of that is just a characteristic of writing: the dramatic and exciting action sequences that we love to see on the big screen don’t translate well to the written page. Fight scenes, driving scenes, and the like are visual and auditory in nature, and therefore don’t come across well to a reader as they would to a viewer.

So what am I to do? The story as I’m writing it has a fair amount of action in it. How can I write action in a way that can be exciting to the reader? Well, I can take cues from people that already do. How do my favorite writers compose their action scenes?

In many cases, they don’t write the action per se. Describing the blow by blow can get tedious, the opposite of what you want in an action scene. Instead, it seems that my favorite authors focus on what the medium is good at: details, internal reactions, and talking about something that goes beyond the concrete events. Take a look at a graphic novel and see how much writing goes into the average fight scene. Characters may have extended conversations while trading punches, or give mental monologues on the larger context. It’s rare that I come across drawn panels that are “silent;” Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a good counterexample.

Or take one of my favorite television writers, Bryan Fuller. His show Hannibal (one of my all-time favorites) features quite a lot of violence, much of it rather brutal. But unlike other shows about similar subjects, Fuller takes his time with the scenes. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead or Grimm, where battles may take up to two minutes of punch after punch, Hannibal fight scenes over in seconds, much like how a fight would go in real life. The difference is that Fuller lingers over the fight, focusing on characters’ faces as they grapple in both physical and mental realms. In this way, the battle becomes an effective opportunity for character development, and maybe even larger themes of violence and trauma. Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do.

I’m no Bryan Fuller (yet), but I will take this lesson, that violence and action in a story should be deliberate, purposeful, and a character can’t get away with being violent and expect to be unaffected, even if they are physically unharmed.

Commentary: The Stranger that the Author Hasn’t Met

“While I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.”

If you’re reading this, then we’ve both met someone new today.

I’ve been thinking about this story for the better part of four years, and in that time I’ve come up with a wide cast of characters, both main and supporting. But as I was doing one last look over my notes on greater story structure, I realized that I was missing a character. Namely, the character of Abel Carter. No spoilers in giving away his last name; it’s just a placeholder anyways, as is normal for early drafts.

Specifically, Abel has existed in the story for some time, but not in the form or place that I’m now using him. The original version of this portion of Angelfools had Alex waking up alone in the rubble, and spending much of the what follows alone with his own thoughts. While that may be easier to write, it isn’t very interesting. What’s more: I wasn’t doing that with other parts of the story that you’ll read soon. In my first layout of the story arc, Alex doesn’t have contact with other people for a bit, and yet he manages by himself. But I think that in this early stage, with both the reader and the protagonist largely ignorant as to what is happening, it’s important to have someone act as an anchor.

Abel is that anchor — for the moment. He knows more about the catastrophic situation than Alex does, and he knows Alex as well. But because Alex doesn’t know Abel yet, they can develop a relationship that is both independent and dependent on previous interactions, which Alex and the reader get to discover as time goes on.

From a different perspective, Abel and I the author get to discover a new relationship as well. Abel is a bit of an experiment. Of all my characters, the fact that he is the youngest of my brainchildren means that he is the least developed in my mind. I know less about his speech patterns and habits. And while I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.

So this journey that we take together, you the reader and Ben the writer, is at least partly a journey into the unknown. Although I can guide you through much of Fortune’s Coast and the story of Angelfools, there are some parts that will grow organically as I write. This is one of them. I’m excited to get to know Abel Carter, and I hope you are as well.

Commentary: Now You Know Everything

What’s the point of reading a whole novel if you know everything on the first page?

Think about the openings to your favorite novels. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the classic, with its “best of times” “worst of times” passage. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has another great one, with a Dick and Jane primer passage that disintegrates into madness: “hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhitewithareddoor….” Other media do this also; who can forget “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” or “Space: the final frontier”?

One of my English teachers once told me that a truly great story will tell you everything that the story is about within the first page, or even in the first paragraph. Parsing the opening of a work of literature can reveal all the important themes, many significant symbols, and sometimes even key character relationships.

So what, then, is the point of reading a whole novel if the first page tells you everything? Then again, the first page doesn’t tell you everything. It’s more like a teaser than a spoiler. Does the first passage of the novel show you something that you like? Does this sound like a story and a writing style that you’ll enjoy? The trick is to tell the reader everything while keeping almost everything a secret. One of my favorite novels, The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer, starts at the end of the story. The fun is finding out how a greeting-card writer ended up trapped on a zeppelin with the frozen body of a brilliant inventor and the disembodied voice of his insane daughter. Now you want to read it, right?

This is a lesson that I’ve tried to enact here in Angelfools. If you’ve only read the prologue, I would imagine that you’re very confused. I’ve given you the name of our protagonist, a very bizarre scene of him falling to an imminent death, and pretty much nothing else story-wise. But I’ve tried to weave in some important images and themes that will recur throughout. Nonlinear time is key to the plot structure of Angelfools, and I want to make that clear to the reader right at the beginning. Maybe I can even introduce some camaraderie between Alex and the reader, as he is clearly as confused about his situation as the audience is, if not more so. Unlike comparable novel openings where we don’t start at the beginning of the story, Alex doesn’t know how he got to this point(s) in time. We get to experience the journey along with him.

Astute readers will also figure out my primary inspiration for this story, and perhaps will know a bit more about where we’re going as a result.

Side note: this story is based on a long poem that I wrote about four years ago, and I’ve preserved the images here that I used in the opening of that poem. One of these images was the “blossom of cream in coffee,” which inspired the sketch that accompanies the prologue.