Category Archives: POV

The Art of Miscommunication

A few years ago, at the family cabin, my wife chastised one of the kids for running past a wooden stake, topped with a pink ribbon.

“Get over here. The neighbors put up those stakes because they were tired of people going into their yard.”

This surprised me, as I knew my dad had surveyed the property in an effort to divide the lot. The stakes were commissioned by him, not the neighbor.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Your mom.”

My mom hadn’t communicated with my dad about the survey. So my mom, in an effort to understand reality, assigned a narrative that made sense to her, along with a motive. She didn’t know about the stakes, so obviously it came from the neighbors who shared her border. But why would they do such a thing? Because they were sick and tired of her grandkids disturbing the pine needles on their property, obviously.

Had she just called the neighbors, or mentioned it to her husband, the miscommunication could have been avoided, instead the narrative she created was passed around to my wife, then my kids and i’m sure others in my extended family still think the neighbors are a bunch of pricks because of it.

Two parts in the example above, create and build tension.

  1. Using point of view, we can develop a perception of reality unique to our characters. The disparity between these perceptions are where we breed tension, with each character reacting according to their perception to a situation.
  2. Having our characters assign motive to others without understanding their perception of reality.

In Les Miserables, Fantine hates Jean Valjean because he fired her. He hadn’t, that was her perception. She was fired by a female supervisor who’d discovered her illegitimate child. The supervisor brought up the situation to Valjean, omitting some detail, and Valjean invited her to do what she thought best.

Later, after Fantine plummeted into poverty and sin, all for the noble cause of caring for her daughter, she confronts Valjean with anger, matching the hatred he must hold for her. Only, he doesn’t even know who she is and tries to help her as he would anyone in her situation. The tension explodes, becoming another inciting event for Valjean when he understands Fantine’s perception of reality, he’d fired her, his motive, he despised her for her sins. His perception of reality was quite different. Anyone could find redemption. She’d made a mistake and should hardly have to pay for it the rest of her life. In fact, God could use that mistake to bring about a wonderful miracle that was Cosette.

Later in the story of Valjean we find another miscommunication between Javert and Valjean. Javert expects to be shot for spying on the revolutionaries. Valjean volunteers to shoot Javert, not because he wanted to be free of the old prison guard, but because he wanted to save Javert’s life. This blew Javert’s mind and he vowed to continue to hunt Valjean down, which he does later, but when it comes time to arrest Valjean, his perception of reality has changed so drastically, he chooses to not live in his newfound reality and kills himself after letting Valjean go.

As a reader we can bask in the tension created by conflicting perceptions of realities from two or more characters that we’ve come to know through their point of views.

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.

Taking the Brimstone and Blood Out of Horror

When it comes to writing horror a lot of readers and authors assume that the actual horror has to come from something otherworldly — vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Otherworldly horror is cool but for some readers and authors it’s not something they enjoy. Personally, the second a demon appears in a scene I’m out. So it’s a good thing that horror is a lot more broad and versitile then that.

While the otherworldly is terrifying, the everyday is just as scary. In my opinion the otherworldly is scary because it’s the unknown. It’s unknown why they exist, why they want to harm or kill someone, and how powerful they will become if they aren’t stopped. It’ s human nature to fear the unknown which is why this works so well despite the fact that no one is ever going to be accosted by a real Swamp Thing at summer camp.

The whys may be known for the everyday threats (why a person snapped and went on a killing spree, for example) but it’s usually not known until afterward. In the moment it’s still unknown and terrifying. Add to that the fact that these are threats that actually could happen and that multiplies the fear factor. Take Silence of the Lambs. It’s not usually thought of as a horror film but Buffalo Bill and Hannibal are terrifying psychopaths. The scene where Bill’s captive discovers the bloody fingernails of previous victims in the pit? Pure horror.

Not comfortable with something that psychotic? How about this: In Joe Hill’s The Fireman (spoiler alert) the scariest people aren’t those with supernatural abilities. It’s the ordinary humans. High stress situations often bring out the worst in people and Joe highlights that in this book. The actions of the “normal” people are far more horrifying then those affected by the supernatural. Dan Wells does something similar in I Am Not a Serial Killer. In this book Dan pits a teenage sociopath against a demon serial killer. It’s a fascinating contrast! Yes, both of those examples are technically horror novels but I think that they do a marvelous job showing how the supernatural and everyday horrors can be juxtaposed to highlight the other.

How about something far more ordinary. What if your character has Alzheimers? Their memory fades in and out. As the story goes on they know less and less until they have no idea who their caregivers are. They think they’re being held against their will and try to escape but their captors catch them every time. From whichever POV you choose it’s a scary situation. The Alzheimers patient thinks they’ve been abducted while the caregiver is terrified of them getting lost in a nearby wooded area or hit by a car if they get out of the facility/house.

I feel I should mention that this type of horror should be used with care. Because you don’t have the safety of reality to reassure the reader it can linger in the mind. Also depending on the everyday horror that you use it might even overshadow the plot. It’s definitely something to be considered carefully before inserting it into your story. If that’s the exact effect you want, then perfect! But if you’re writing a light romance novel, having the villain go full Hannibal Lector on the heroine might be a bit too much. Plus it’s a good idea to at least hint at these elements being present in the blurb. A lot of real world horrors have real world survivors and the last thing any writer wants do is to unwittingly trigger a reader’s PTSD.

As terrifying as Lovecraftian horrors are, using real world horrors can make your stories far more terrifying. Whether you use a small one or a big one, it’s really useful and effective way to make your story interesting without falling into a trope.

Taking it down to the studs

Hello Readers!

Back here with my second post as a Fictorian, and the subject couldn’t be more timely. Damage control is a broad subject, but my case is very personal and very specific. I found myself deep in a manuscript headed in the wrong direction, and my early results at damage control only made things worse.

To set the stage- -for the past several months I have been working on my new novel, which is a historical fantasy set in 1950s Nepal. I’m a pre-planner, and thus I had my whole arc planned out, the whole novel outlined and charted and graphed to the nth degree. All of this based on a simple set of dual facts. My main character would be an American (we’ll call him Steve) and the primary sidekick character would be a local young Sherpa girl (we’ll call her Chenji). I set them up for somewhat of a brother/sister relationship with lots of fun adventures, etc.

Off to the races I went, writing about the first half of the story in one big push. Steve had POV for most of the chapters, with Chenji getting a few from her viewpoint as well. As I wrote, some problems started creeping into the back of my head. I wasn’t really aware of them, it was more like that smell that warns you something might be burning in the oven. You sort of notice it, but it’s not enough to get your brain out of the chair and into the kitchen.

So, I put the book in front of some trusted readers. There was a lot that they liked, but on the negative side they came back with two major pieces of feedback:

  • Steve was boring as hell
  • Chenji was really interesting, but she wasn’t featured enough

Reading this feedback, I felt my (surprised) conscious mind make contact with my (un-suprised) subconscious. Yeah – I guess I already knew this was a problem. Thinking back on my writing sessions, I realized I had been bored writing Steve’s sections, and quite energized while writing Chenji’s.

I could fill a whole new blog post with why I was bored with one character and energized with another, but I’ll do my best to stay on point here. Both my beta readers and I agreed that I had a problem, and we agreed on what that problem was.

The question was: what to do about it?

My first instinct was to troubleshoot Steve and figure out why he didn’t resonate that much for me. I won’t spend time on my process, though it too would be a good subject for another article someday. Suffice to say I came to the conclusion that Steve wasn’t working as the main character because he wasn’t designed to be one. In truth, Chenji had much more going for her: more stakes, more local resonance (the story is in her homeland after all) and a better character arc.

Here finally we arrive at the *real* subject of my post. On one hand, I have the wrong main character for about 45,000 words worth of work. On the other hand: 45,000 words of work! Was I just going to throw all that out and start over?

I really didn’t want to redo all that work. I made a choice that I would swap the focus and the roles, giving Chenji not just the lead role but also the majority of actions I previous had assigned to Steve. It wasn’t as simple as: find <Steve> replace with <Chenji>, but there was some of that spirit in there.

In the end, this was the wrong choice. In the end it was not because the action in chapters was designed for Steve, because I did extensively modify the action to accommodate Chenji’s skills and abilities. No, it was because those actions and those scenes were designed for Steve’s character. His motivations, his story. They didn’t tell Chenji’s story as well.

Additionally, because Chenji came from a culture that would be more unfamiliar to many of my readers, her backstory was peppered with terminology and mores that were more complex. In the end, I laid these on too thick and the scenes became very jargon heavy.

This time, it was harder for me to see these problems. I was, in effect, doing a minor renovation. Painting a wall here, adding some nice tile there. I was too close to these scenes to judge them in their new, modified state. When my readers got a hold of them, their feedback was clear: They loved the new focus, but they were very confused and things just didn’t flow correctly.

In the end, I realized my renovations had not gone far enough. In an effort to preserve some of my previous work, I had used duct tape and paint where dynamite and sledgehammers were needed. 

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I needed to things down to the studs as it were. Almost everything of those early chapters had to be taken out and completely redone from a blank page to better fit Chenji and her role in the story. It means throwing out (or at least, putting to the side) weeks of work and starting over. 

Painful, but in this case it was the right choice. That’s where I am right now with this project. I started with blank pages, fresh framing on which to hang the new drywall of my story. I have been writing all new scenes for both Chenji and Steve, and it is going a lot better. I can feel that it is better, and I am confident my readers will think so too.

So, the lessons learned here for me were plenty:

At all times, listen to that voice in the back of your head. Check in with yourself while writing. Are you excited to write this chapter or are you bored? Are the some characters you enjoy writing more than others? These are early clues you might be headed in a problematic direction.

Sometimes minor changes are all you need to correct an issue, whether it is one you noticed on your own, or an issue several readers might be mentioning. A new line here to illustrate a motivation better or an additional scene to allow the pacing to breathe. The same scene being told from a different character’s POV. Changes that allow you to keep some of your previous work.

Other times though- -you need to break out the sledgehammer. Pull up that tile, rip out the plumbing and teardown the drywall. I’m not going to lie, that’s not my job folks. It’s going to hurt and it’s going to hurt a lot.

Sometimes, you have to go back to the studs.

See you next time!