Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Protagonists

By Kasie Whitener

A single character’s perspective limits the story. Motivations and realizations that occur for other characters must only be guessed at by the central Point of View (POV) character. Yet working within the limitation demonstrates the writer’s skill. It’s on the author to help us see all characters’ journeys through the main character’s perspective.

When the writer ignores the limitations of the single POV and exposes us to multiple characters’ experiences, our writers’ group calls it Head Hopping. We recognize that there are rules to sharing the POV with multiple characters.

Rule #1: Clearly distinguish the points of shift. Shifting during the scene confuses the reader. Our group allows spacers and chapter changes for the shift to logically occur.

Rule #2: Only give a point of view to a character if you need the audience to know something about that character that no one else can know. Some internal motivations and secrets have to stay hidden from the other characters until they create a pivot point for the story.

For example, if at the pivot point in the story you plan to have the character Sasha perform an illusion she learned while traveling with a carnival magician as a teenager, then that carnival experience needs to be part of what the reader knows about her. We cannot arrive at the pivot and think, “Since when does Sasha know magic?”

When people claim something happened out of nowhere in a novel, it’s because the knowledge, skills, or motivation to commit that action have not been disclosed.

In The League series of fantasy romance books I’m currently binge reading, the author frequently shifts point of view between the male and female leads. The habit seemed like poor writing in the first two books. By book three, though, I started to wonder if she was working with a dual protagonist.

In most stories the protagonist wants something and will do anything to get it and the antagonist stands in that person’s way. But in a romance, there are two main characters, the lovers. Can a novel have two protagonists?

The benefits of two protagonists include watching two unique plot arcs, seeing two characters grow and change, and enjoying the intermingling of the two whenever their actions interfere with one another. Even so, only skilled authors can keep two protagonists separate but equal. It’s a unique challenge to engage the reader with two (or more) main characters.

Two protagonists in one story is a literary no-no that has recently been challenged by some significant works such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Orphan Train, and the entire Game of Thrones series. Those books follow the rules stated above. They only give POV to characters we need to know more about and they shift on definitive lines.

As writers continue to experiment with multiple protagonists, to see if that experiment works, and to show others how it’s done, our literary rules are evolving. And as the craft evolves, the distinction between head-hopping and multiple protagonists may become a measure of skill.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Write, Rip, and Read!” You’re on the Air!

By Julia Rogers Hook

For most of my writing life, I have been a “rip and read” writer.

I’m a journalist and for many years I worked as a broadcast and newspaper reporter who covered a lot of breaking news. In getting the new developments out quickly, there isn’t much time to edit your words but you need to do enough editing to ensure your report is accurate. That can be daunting when facing a deadline and doubly so when you’re writing for broadcasting with updates going out every 15 minutes.

As I moved from an “at the scene” reporter to feature writing for magazines and newspapers and then on to column writing, I had much more time to reread my pieces and adjust them accordingly. But sometimes I do miss the urgency of being the “first” reporter out there with any new tidbit from the authorities or whomever I’m covering.

Elections could always go both ways. They could be extremely exciting, especially when there was a controversial bill or candidate on the table or they could seemingly last for decades, if whatever was on the table was a sure thing. Then it was just covering the candidate’s or the bill’s promoters continuously as they spewed out the same old “six-second-soundbites” repeatedly.

These days I sort of wish I were back out in the field and covering the 2016 elections. With the two most unpopular candidates that have ever run in my lifetime out there stumping, I think this would be an extremely interesting experience to cover either one of them.

Between Trump and his public rants and Clinton and her equally public missteps that have led even some of the most stalwart members of their own parties to distance themselves from the two of them, it seems like following either of them on the campaign trail could be a royal treat. But in the event that I was going from rally to rally with this not-so-dynamic duo, I would still be doing the rip-and read writing that I have always been most comfortable with.

I sometimes want to change that. I imagine myself telling a tale of utmost interest to everyone on the planet and somehow I will develop characters that will live long after my own demise. I want to create the Scout and Jem characters and bring them to life like Harper Lee did. I want to spin a story that will capture the hearts of people everywhere, no matter how they live or worship or whom they love. I want to make people feel! Feel everything…love, hate, remorse, forgiveness, sorrow and joy. I want them to laugh out loud and cry real tears when they read my words.

That’s what I want.

But until then….rip and read ain’t so bad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gold Medal Storytelling

By Kasie Whitener 

Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.

The gritty character of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie, or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?

According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted. 

NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in Rio. Americans want to cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.

In the telling of the athletes’ stories from Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself stating his goal.

“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.

We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.

Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.

When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.

As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.

Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.

We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inspirational Tarot Garden

By Laura P. Valtorta

Our trip to the Tarot Garden in Capalbio, Italy reinforced the idea that art inspires art. Looking at modern art, and the huge, colorful, fantastic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, helped me to write better.
Before visiting the Tarot Garden, it was important to read the sweet, chaotic, horrible story of Niki’s life. A recent article in The New Yorker allowed us to do that.

The giant tarot sculptures built by Niki and her friends and the people of Capalbio emphasized the sadness and the chaotic nature of life and love. “Death” is one of the most beautiful sculptures.  Another is “Justice” with an accompanying sculpture by Jean Tiguely, Niki’s second husband, inside.

Before building the garden, Niki had abandoned her young children to their father (the writer Henry Matthews) and spent time in an insane asylum. After her six-week stay in the asylum, Niki turned to art as a way to protest the conventions imposed by society on women. She was a performance artist and a successful sculptor. Her art is displayed throughout the world and in Paris in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou.

The sculptures in the Tarot Garden are made of ceramic and mirror tiles, reinforced by steel and cement. Niki lived alone inside the Empress for many years while building the 14-acre garden.

The poignancy of this garden comes from knowing about Niki’s sad, messy, creative life and seeing the joy she infused in the gigantic sculptures. On the side of the Impicciato sculpture is a love story in tiles with drawings that illustrate the first meeting, desire, love letters, breaking up, and remaining friends.

Any artist – writer, painter, sculptor, or musician – can benefit from walking through Niki’s garden. It took her seventeen years to create and shows how steadfast her passion for beauty was. The depth of emotion is what makes this garden meaningful.