Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I'm trying to (finally) re-start the website, so I thought maybe I'd start up the blog too. (Pause for cheers. Pause. Pause.... Cheers, please?)

Have recently been interested in looking for ways to braid the internal or interactional plots into the external plot (or reverse).
Plot (an important sequence of events and changes that starts very early in the story and ends late in the story, that is, not a subplot, which will start later and probably resolve earlier and be less than central).
Most common main types of plots:
  1. Internal plot (how the main character changes or confronts some emotional/psychological/life issue during the story)
  2. Interactional plot (how the main character's relationship- including possibly romance- with another character or group-- like family-- changes in the course of the story)
  3. External plot (how the main character-s confront and resolve or fail to resolve some external problem in the course of the story)

Not all stories have all three of these plots, and some stories will relegate one or two of them to "subplot status (like when the protagonist frees the hostages, and along the way, decides he will go ahead and attend the family Thanksgiving after all).

But if we have two of these or all three, we generally "braid" them in some way so that the reader can experience them together, if not in every scene, then in most scenes. In that way, the events of one plot affect the next event of another plot. Example: She's about to leave for the airport when her mom calls and begs her to come home for Thanksgiving, that Dad promises to behave and not bring up the past this time. She is upset by this and misses her plane, and when it leaves without her, she realizes that her luggage is on it, including the jewelry she was supposed to deliver to Mr. Big.

Etc. That is, each plot affects the other in some way-- not just once, but over and over in the story. This should be not like parallel train tracks, but more like a braid, then.

The plots don't run parallel to each other, but are braided, intersecting in almost every scene.

An example I just saw was in Granite Flats, an absurdly fun mystery series set in 1962, where three pre-teens solve mysteries (including big international spy dramas) while negotiating early adolescence.

Both of the boys are sort of in pre-teen love with the girl Madeline. But she finds herself liking Tim. In one scene, for mystery-plot reasons, she and Tim trick the bank into giving them access to a safe-deposit box (where they find something significant-- you can tell which plot intrigues me the most, as I recall every glance between them, but not the point of the external mystery).
Their parents find out about this deception, and (correctly) assume neither would have done this alone-- that it's the pairing of the two kids which lead them into bank robbery.
So in the next scene, the parents ban them from seeing each other (much misery ensues, including Romeo and Juliet references-- they're studying that in English class).

So the external event of finding the clue in the safe deposit box leads to an interactional consequence -- their incipient romance is stifled (though of course, in the way of teen romance everywhere, restriction only makes the love more intense... so good!).
The cause-and-effect keeps going on-- because they aren't allowed to speak, their little detective agency goes defunct (and all of this has an effect on Arthur, the other member of their trio). So they cannot pursue the implications of this clue they just found.

What are some more examples of scenes or scene sequences where two (or three) of the plots intersect and cause changes in both? This is such a good technique for making your plot individual (it's not just another mystery, but also a love story), and also for pulling the reader along.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015


How a person speaks is a reflection of who that person is. But speech is not just a means of display, like a peacock's plumage. We don't just speak at each other to prove how articulate or forceful or clever we are. We speak to each other.
Dialogue is what we get when we engage in that singularly human exercise of speaking to each other. It's dialogue that allows us to have the most complex interactions and relationships— and the most agonizing misunderstandings. Language is, of course, meant to communicate, and no matter how often we misinterpret each other, we keep on trying to connect through words.
But language provides more than connections. It also powers action. Anyone who has tried to find an address in a foreign city knows how essential conversation is to getting something done. So let's go beyond individual voice and speak of voices: arguing, agreeing, jawing, joking— making conversation that matters.
You might rent some videos with snappy dialogue, like the screwball comedies of the 30s, or David Mamet's films. Listen for the reaction pauses in those lightning-quick exchanges, and see if you can use for rhythm and balance in your own witty repartee. You'll probably also notice the repetition that links one line to the next like a drumbeat:
"So I say, baby, let the good times roll!"
"Right. Let 'em roll. I know how that works. You let those good times roll right over you, and tomorrow I'll find you plastered on the sidewalk."
Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Just keep focused on the results of this dialogue; what this conversation can do to these characters. Here are some effects that can come right from conversation, without any further action.
• A conspiracy to do something.
• A breakup.
• An alliance.
• A change in vote or position.
• A discovery of the key to a puzzle.
• A deepening mystery.
• A misinterpretation.
• A revelation of a secret.
• A change in attitude.
• A change in behavior.
• A flirtation.
• A deception.
• A surrender.

1)       Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Choose one purpose and craft a conversation in which the purpose is not fulfilled-- but which still advances the plot in some way.
2)      List ways your characters might interact in conversation, e.g., fight, deceive-doubt, interrogate-resist, sweettalk-resist, sweettalk­-succumb, comfort-accept, mutual flattery. Choose one and craft a conversation that shows the relationship changing in some way because of the interaction.
For example, John is trying to confide in his mother. He confesses his big secret-- that he got a tattoo on his buttocks a few months ago, and he thinks something went wrong.
"Mom, do you know anything about, well, hepatitis?"
"Hepatitis? I know it's a disease drug ad-- I mean, I know it's a disease. Why? Are you, umm, maybe doing a report for school?"
"What is it, sweetie? Come on, tell me. You know you can tell me anything. I might get mad, but you know it never lasts. I'm your mother. I love you no matter what, remember? And if you need help, well, I'll get it for you."
"I know. I know. Okay, I'll tell you. Just promise not to get mad, okay? I mean, you can get mad if you have to, but don't get too mad. I-- I don't know what to do!"
Mom can sense, probably from her son's tone of voice, that this is serious. So she stops herself from saying something inflammatory about drug addicts, and reminds him instead of her unwavering love. This keeps him from pulling away defensively, and makes him realize that he can trust her to help him out of the trouble his secrecy has gotten him into. Their relationship will be strengthened by this, because they are both being reminded of what that essential parent-child bond means.
3) Revise to make the change in relationship more clear. Dialogue, just like narrative, can cause things to happen in the story-- and SHOULD. :) A conversation, an overheard whisper, a ringing declaration, can make the plot go into a new direction. Striving for this can just about instantly vitalize your dialogue by making it more than just clever conversation. It will be... ACTION.
You can probably come up with other ways dialogue can cause change. But the important thing is--make the dialogue you have serve that purpose.
Look at the passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One other thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue, I think, is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Otherwise you could just summarize it in narrative: -- She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.--  But if you're going to have dialogue, make the tension in it lead to the change, propel them towards change. "Give me that back! You can't just rifle through my Bible that way!"

Remember John Barnes's definition? He's a theater historian, so he's used to plays, where dialogue is all-important. ACTION is any irreversible event that changes the course of events course of events of the story.
So Jack speaks his confession into a recorder, then instead of hitting playback, he rewinds and records over it: No go. That's not action because it's reversible.
But if Sally is hiding under the bed. and hears him dictating, he can rewind all he likes, but she still knows the truth, and will now be able to act on it. That's irreversible dialogue. Anything spoken aloud and heard by someone else is irreversible. But that does mean anything he says just to himself doesn't count. Introspection is well and good, but he can always take it back. His thoughts have to be heard to be irreversible. He can speak them aloud, or act on them… only then does a thought become irreversible.
 Harder still is making sure that dialogue has an effect, that it changes something not just in the plot, but in the relationship. How can you accomplish that? First, start by deciding that you're not going to have long stretches of dialogue that just displays how funny this guy is, or shows how well they get along, or passes on to the reader some necessary information. All that is fine, but think how the conversation will crackle when the reader realizes that this moment of conversation is going to change something.
  What sort of change can a conversation bring?
Especially in a comedy, making information exchange a conversation of
conflict can provide a bit of humor. Here's an example from a historical novel: 
"Jane, do let me put my bonnet up. I have been out all day looking for
your bir–" Lucy stopped and clapped her hand over her wayward mouth.
 "My bir– my birthday gift? Oh, Aunt Lucy! What? What did you get me?"
 "Your birthday isn't for three days."
 "Oh, tell me now! Tell me!" Jane put her little hands to her heart. "I
promise to be good!"

How long does Lucy hold out before she tells what the gift is? Now there's bound to be an information exchange, but it isn't just a quick spill– there's conflict, and character revelation, and lots of whining before she imparts the important fact.
 What's important is that the story changes somehow because one character has passed on some information to the other. So make something happen as a result of this exchange. The niece insists on going to the stable to see the birthday horse, and there she meets the young Mr. Ferguson, nephew of the best friend of Lucy's late husband. Eventually this "seed" conversation can lead to a change in their relationship, where the younger lady becomes more adventurous than her aunt.
Using that same story progression, here are some common events that happen because of the action and interaction in dialogue.

Discovery is another form of information exchange, but instead of just passing on what one already knows, it results in a revelation of something neither speaker knew. Talking together helps them put together pieces of a puzzle.  
"The stablemaster writes to say Jane didn't attend her riding lesson today," Lucy said, staring at the note as trepidation filled her.
 Captain Ferguson frowned. "You know, that must have been your Jane I saw in my nephew's curricle! I thought it looked like her, but I assumed you had her well-chaperoned."
"They are courting!"
Discovery requires that both contribute some essential fact, and the sum is a new piece of information. The conversation is active because, without this particular sharing of facts, the truth would never come out. This use of dialogue is especially good when you want both to participate in the discovery of some event or clue. It gives them a way to cooperate, to produce something together, and in a romance can subtly show how well
they're suited.

A conversation can also result in an alliance of interests. It's most fun if the conversation leads them to realize they need to work together, especially if that's a frightening prospect.
 "I don't care what you say, Captain Ferguson." Lucy looked implacably at him. "My sister sent Jane to me so that her daughter can marry well. And I regret to say that a penniless young lieutenant isn't going to suit."
 "You think I want my nephew shackling himself to some twittery little snob?"
 "My niece is not–" Lucy stopped and listened to the echo of his words.  Then, slowly, she said, "You don't want this marriage either?"

It's best that they start out somewhat at odds, so the conversation brings them to alliance. Thus, in the course of the dialogue scene, they move from adversaries to reluctant allies.

Sometimes when two people realize they have a common interest, they end up conspiring together. This involves agreeing tacitly or openly to work together more or less in secret. So the concerned aunt and uncle above might agree to work to stop the wedding. They're creating a shared goal and a plan to achieve it. Take the conversation further if you can. A plan requires action, so as they're arguing and negotiating the steps involved in stopping the wedding, you'll be showing them learning to work together– and where they're in conflict.  
"I remember when I was nineteen," Captain Ferguson observed, as if it was a century ago and not just a decade. "I would never have let a relative tell me whom I could court."
 Lucy sighed. "Jane is just that way. She thrives on opposition. A very dear girl, but..." She glanced over and could see that Captain Ferguson was struggling manfully not to say that this must be a family trait. She said, "They are counting on us to object, aren't they? So why don't we ... surprise them?"
 "You mean, pretend that we are in favor of the match?" Captain Ferguson frowned in thought. "Well, I can't think of anything more likely to make Joseph think twice, than me telling him that Jane is a perfect wife."
 Lucy said decisively, "Let's then. Let's take every opportunity to throw them together."
 "Do you attend the Haversham musicale tomorrow night? We can insist they sit together. With both of us nearby, of course, so as not to excite
their suspicions."
Conspiracies lead to joint action. Use this conversation to set up regular meetings between them, for example, where they have to act together to further their shared goal. Secrecy only adds to the fun of their meetings.

Maybe your characters are getting along way too well, especially if they're conspiring. Well, bring on a conversation that leads to greater conflict. But don't make it trivial. Oh, the surface-level topic might be trivial, but see if you can make their
responses reflect some internal conflicts. 
Lucy declared, "Everyone in my family gets married at St. George's."
 "Since we plan that they won't actually get wedded, what difference does it make? It will be easier to set the wedding outside London– easier to cancel it, that is, with the least fanfare."
 "Jane will think I disapprove if I set the ceremony anywhere but St. George's."
 He regarded her with narrowed eyes. "Your wedding was in St. George's, I seem to recall." He added, "It rained. All day."
 "This is England, Captain Ferguson," she said coldly. "It frequently rains here, and not just outside of St. George's. If you hadn't left in the middle of the ceremony, you would have seen that we made a game of it, leaving the church under our umbrellas."
 "A game. Yes. I've observed that you considered marriage itself a game, Mrs. Endicott."
 She gasped, but he was going on as if he cared not that he had just impugned her virtue. "No St. George's. I will not hear of it. I will not have my nephew even consider marrying in the place where you married my poor dead fool of a best friend!"

Again, aim for some change in their relationship. They start out thinking they can clear this little problem up, but find that actually, the more they talk, the more at odds they are– and it will be especially interesting if it reveals why they are really in conflict.

Conflict is the fuel that powers the plot, but you can't have them always fighting, or the reader will start to suspect these two have no reason to ally. If they have been at odds, then a conversation can lead to some kind of truce, reluctant or not. Again, there must be change from the state in the beginning of the conversation to another state at
the end.
 "Gretna Green?" Lucy whispered. "They've eloped?"
 "Damnation. They've got a two-hour head start on me."
 Lucy grabbed up her bonnet. "I'm going too."
 "Nonsense," he said. He couldn't imagine even a few hours alone with Lucy. They would do nothing but argue, and every angry word would put new scars in his heart.
 "Let me go along," she said. "It might spare Jane's reputation if I'm there to bring her home."
 He stood irresolute, his hand on the door. Finally he muttered, "We will do them no good if we show up fighting like Napoleon's artillery against Wellington's cavalry."
 She smiled suddenly, sadly. "I promise to be civil to you. If you promise to be civil back."
 "Oh, all right."
 "Let's take your phaeton. It will be faster."
 A treaty should lead to some shared decision– taking his phaeton, for example– to show that their cooperation is not just talk.

Remember that the act of lying is, in itself, irreversible. That is, once it's done, it's very hard to take back, and the resulting mess of admitting to the lie or being caught in it can be extreme. So if one character is deceiving the other, see if you can make him lie directly in conversation.
 Speaking it aloud makes him commit more to the deception because he cannot take it back now. But make sure the deception has an effect on the plot. For example, she relies on what he has told her to make a decision or take an action, or, alternatively, she recognizes it as a lie, and his deception destroys her trust in him. Or she challenges him and forces him to tell her the truth. 
"You never told me about when John died." She looked grimly at the road ahead. "I should know. I am his widow."
 Captain Ferguson's fists closed more tightly on the reins. "You saw the commendation. He died a hero."
 "Yes. That's what the commendation said. That he died saving someone. But you were there. Whom did he save?"
 He recalled John protecting his Portuguese mistress with his body as the grenade exploded nearby. "He saved me."
 "That is very gallant, Captain. Untrue, but gallant." Lucy turned her merciless gaze on him. "Tell me why you are lying."

 Just keep in mind that a lie will almost always be revealed as a lie, sooner or later. As President Nixon said (and boy, did he know!), it's not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble. The very fact that one character lied to the other, even with the best of motives, should create conflict – within the liar while it's still secret, and within the relationship when it's revealed. The revelation of the lie will manifest issues with trust and honor that might have been buried for years. So if there's a lie, have it revealed early enough that there is time for them to work through its consequences.

You can't take back telling the truth either. So a conversation where a long-hidden truth is revealed will lead to real change. Just remember to set this up earlier, whether it involves alluding to a secret or posing a question, such as why Captain Ferguson stalked out of his best friend's wedding. 
They gazed at the sign welcoming them to Gretna Green, Scotland's most famous site. "So Jane and Charlie now hate each other and refuse to speak, much less marry."
 Lucy sighed. "I almost started believing in love at first sight again, imagining them wed. But–"
 "But now, you are made a cynic all over again." He smiled down at her. "And we still have that damnable church reserved." Suddenly he took her in his arms. "What do you say, Mrs. Endicott? Shall we make use of the reservation ourselves?"
 Lucy opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she pressed her cheek against his chest and whispered, "A wedding? You? And I?"
 "I haven't been, I suppose, entirely honest with you."
 "I know about John's mistress," she said.
 "I don't mean that. I mean– oh, hang it all, Lucy. I love you. I've loved you all along. I walked out of St. George's that day because I couldn't bear to see you marrying anyone else, especially my best friend."
 "Oh." She took a deep breath as she felt his heartbeat beneath her cheek. "You know, I don't truly like St. George's Church."
 "You don't?"
 "It always rains there."
 "Yes, I've noticed that."
 "Look." Lucy pulled away long enough to gesture at the sky. "The sun is shining now. And I hear they know how to give weddings here in Gretna –"

The truth can't be taken back. It's possible for the listener to misinterpret, but even then, the conversation should always have some effect, should change the characters and their actions. The moment one or both speaks openly about a secret (love, or the trauma in the past, or the conflict between them)– well, that's the truth the reader's been waiting for. Take your time with this conversation. Think of the revelation as the irrevocable and dangerous telling of a secret truth, with potentially dire consequences. And leave a little time to show the actually wonderful consequences awaiting the character brave enough to tell the truth.
 Dialogue takes up a lot of space in a book, and is particularly appealing to readers, as it reveals character in so many ways. So don't waste the space. Look at dialogue passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One final thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Without conflict in the conversation, you might just as well summarize it in narrative: She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.
 If you're going to have dialogue between two characters, make the tension in it lead to the change, or propel them towards change.


The people we talk to the most are the ones we have the most trouble understanding, right? That's because we tend to hear all sorts of echoes from the past. We also have more than one purpose in talking to a loved one— we might want information and reassurance. We might even want to fight a little.
These are some ways people interact in conversation:
fight-flight                  fight-fight
deceive-doubt              deceive-believe
interrogate-resist         interrogate-answer
sweettalk-resist           sweettalk-succumb
comfort-accept            comfort-reject
mutual flattery                                    mutual insult
A married couple, for example, has had this conversation a dozen times before. They even finish each other's sentences.
"Colbert's on."
"Want to stay up and watch it?"
"Yeah, sure. Just flip off the light--"
"So you can rest your eyes. I know, I know. I just want to hear the Top Ten list."
Try to establish the familiarity then throw some wrench into it--change it so it's no Ionger a rote conversation but actually becomes an interaction fraught with potential action:
"So who's Colbert interviewing tonight?"
"Let's see what it says in the TV Guide. Hmm. That new action star, Tim Gordon--"
"Tim Gordon? You know, I went on a blind date with him once. My brush with fame, I guess. He wanted to go out again, but I turned him down because you and I had gotten back together."
"You never told me that."
"It didn't matter, did it, when he was a nobody. I never knew he'd end up being a star."
"So what you're saying is-- you wish you'd gone with him that night instead of me?"
Now it's not so familiar, is it? You can have one overreact because of something out of their shared past-- that will hint at an unresolved conflict.
Take pains to avoid the clich├ęd exchange of insults. That gets old fast, and seldom results in either the true deepening or the true resolving of conflicts. Instead, make this conversation cause some change in the relationship.
For example, one speaker can finally break an old pattern by responding to an old provocation in a new way-- asking a question, or walking out, or sympathizing. Think CHANGE.

Choose a scene from your story that involves two people in some conflict with each other.
1)      Think of this relationship at this point in the story. How will their conversation reflect their current feelings about each other, and their reasons for being together?
2)      Is this encounter cooperative or confrontational? Are they working together or against each other? How can you show their reluctant alliance, or their hostility, or their friendly competition in their dialogue?
3)      Are both equally open and forthcoming, or is one keeping secrets? If there's a secret being kept, can you indicate that in the dialogue? No, don't let the other character in on it, but can you have the secretive one start to say something, then abruptly change the subject, indicating to the reader that there's something hidden there?
4)      What emotion or attitude is each character trying to convey? Trying to hide? Is that coming out in their speech?
5)      How well do they know each other? How does this affect their verbal interaction? If they know each other well, what can you do to make this an unique conversation? If they don't know each other, do you show in their dialogue openness or distrust or wariness or excitement or something that means this encounter has great meaning?
6)      Do you show the relationship changing at least a little because of this encounter? At the end, for example, does she feel trusting enough now to confide in him? Or maybe he's figured out she must be the thief because she's spoken so familiarly of the layout of the museum? Does the way they talk shift because of this change in the relationship?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mixed POV approaches-- Agatha Christie

From Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie: 1939

Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.

This shows the continual shift Christie uses from a 19th C sort of omniscient (where we the reader are outside the character, seeing what he does but not "doing it with him"):
Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. 

To a 20th C deeper third, where we are inside the character, perceiving what he perceives ("heard") and feeling what he feels ("hoped"):
 He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.
This is an effective technique and still used in mystery novels. It subliminally puts the reader into the viewpoint of the sleuth (or villain, sometimes) while reasserting the distance (outside, omniscient point-of-view) needed to evaluate and analyze all the evidence in the book (including what the sleuth doesn't know or misinterprets).

In Murder Is Easy (originally titled "Easy to Kill," btw), Christie uses a "pro-am" sleuth. He's a retired police inspector (from "the Mayang Straits"-- it's an area in Manipur, a peninsula in Eastern India), but out of his depth with the sophistication of British villains, who are, I'm sure we can agree, the most elegant of all. So we can see the pro at work from the omniscient angle, but the uncertain amateur (who is also falling in love, about which more later) through the single-third-person interior viewpoint. We feel both his certainty and his uncertainty, and have much better sense of how just plain difficult it is to figure out the

This book apparently came after several books featuring her impeccably correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot, who is never uncertain and seems to have no inner issues beyond a distaste for British weather. We don't really need an internal view into Poirot as he's not hiding much of himself. (In fact, several of the Poirot short stories are narrated, Dr. Watson-like, by a friend of his.) Luke, however, isn't just a "detecting machine" (you can tell I'm not a big fan of Poirot as a character, though I like the mysteries in those books). He's a young man, long exiled from his homeland and now returning, rootless, almost friendless, and most important, falling in love-- and all this shapes how and why he bothers to detect, especially as all the murders could plausibly be regarded as accidents.

What the more interior "single-third" viewpoint gives us is Luke that man, ruled by this new emotion-- falling for a woman he's unsure of and might not even like (I'm doing this in my Regency CSI series, and I can attest it's a difficult dynamic to describe). What we see is not Poirot's almost ruthless efficiency, but an amateur's repeated mistakes. (He's always fingering the wrong people!) Christie's use of omniscient (usually when he's sleuthing and gathering clues) allows us to judge whether or not he's right. And we have to notice that several times he's wrong. What the single-third deep viewpoint gives us is the reason he's so often wrong: From inside Luke, we participate in his biases and his impulses.

His first real suspect is Mr. Ellsworthy, the local antiques dealer. While the shopkeeper has been in the village for years, he's very much an urban character, and out of place here. He is (probably-- Christie is always a bit muddled when it comes to sexuality in general) homosexual, and Luke's instinctive distaste leads him to suspect the innocent Ellsworthy. From inside Luke (the single-third passages), we get a good sense of the first-half-century straight man's horror of the alternative. (We also get that muddled mid-century view from Christie-- Ellsworthy is not gay so much as generally "abnormal, perverted, depraved" (she uses all those terms, along with stage villain-type hysterical giggles, a "prancing and mincing" gait, and -- no joke-- slightly green hands... just plain devilish... inhuman). He practices witchcraft and Satanic rituals, of course. And it's assumed that he also abuses women sexually-- that is, he's portrayed as all that is perverse. This isn't, of course, a sympathetic or accurate rendition of any alternative sexual identity, but rather an expression of the horror Luke is feeling towards "the other".

So it's not a stretch to see Luke pretty soon fastening on Ellsworthy as the killer. Ellsworthy's supposed perversity would account for the seeming randomness of the murders (nothing seems to unite them except proximity)-- after all, an abnormal inhuman satanist wouldn't need any real motivation for murder!

Luke doesn't really discard this suspicion until he turns his attention onto another suspect. Again, this choice is influenced by his inner reality. He has fallen in love with Bridget, and naturally hates the rich, powerful, and unpleasant man she is going to marry (Lord Whitfield). It's no stretch for him to start suspecting Whitfield, who does have the suspicious trait of having employed most of those who died (and most of the village, it must be said-- he's very rich). While of course Luke's view of the man is colored by jealousy, it's also psychologically apt-- Whitfield is indeed a very large and destructive toddler who wants attention and demands immediate gratification, and can't stand opposition.

When we are sequentially inside and outside of Luke, we can understand his interpretation of something Whitfield confides (that he was once engaged to a lady in the village, but it was broken off because a pet bird he loathed "had its neck wrung"). Luke assumes-- because of his resentment of Whitfield, who gets whatever he wants, including Bridget-- that Whitfield was careless confessing to killing the bird. In fact, if Luke hadn't been so ready to think the worst about his rival, he might have noticed how careful Whitfield was to put that in the passive voice ("the bird was killed," not "I killed the bird"). From the outside, we notice that he jumps to this conclusion that Whitfield is a killer, and thus THE killer. From the inside, we understand why Luke makes this mistake (Whitfield is his rival for Bridget). We are able then to both judge him from the outside and empathize with him from the inside. (He does eventually figure it out, just in time to rescue Bridget from the real murderer.)

I'm going to try to be more analytical as I re-read the other books, and watch for this omniscient/single mix, or one or the other. My hypothesis is:
  • The "professional" books (the Poirot and Miss Marple ones) will have mostly omniscient, mostly outside the "sleuth" character and presenting action also from the perspective of the other characters (like "Sanctuary" gives the POV of the vicar's wife who discovers the body as much as that of Miss Marple solving the crime). The omniscient here recognizes the irrelevance of the interior lives of these professional sleuths (I know Miss Marple isn't paid for it, but she's professional in her skills).
  • The "pro/am" stories (where the sleuths are as much amateur investigators as professional, like Luke and Tuppence and Tommy) will have more back-and-forth between the exterior analysis level and the interior emotional level. In fact, this will provide a lot of the conflict and complications to the mystery-- solved not by the objective application of observation and logic, but through making emotion-based mistakes which lead the sleuths deeper into the mystery.
  • And in the books with the true amateurs, like Bobby and Frankie in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, we see mostly from inside, from their own limited and emotionally charged perspectives.  Their ability to solve the murder will come more from their intuition as much as their observation, and they will rely much more on empathy and instinct ("I knew he was a liar!") than on logic.

Thoughts about this? Examples that support or don't? (Also I should look at The Man in the Brown Suit, with its somewhat clumsy use of "objective" or camera-eye perspective in the first scene, where the victim "stars".)

List of Christie's books, dated. From

Agatha Christie - The official information and community site



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Is retention the point of reading? And if it's "a point, not the point," how can we improve that?

From The Guardian: Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds

As someone who can't remember the plot of any book I read, print or E, I would have to point out that "remembering the plot" is not necessarily what readers are going for when they read. I'm a great reader (in the sense that I read a lot, not that I do it well), and I don't read for retention but for the experience as I read.

But this is an interesting study, however limited. The experience of reading electronic books might be different from reading books on paper. (The greatest difference I notice in my own reading, actually, is with audiobooks, which in many ways is closer to watching -- or listening to-- a TV show than to reading a book with your eyes. I like all the experiences, but they are different and have different benefits and problems.)

But if this is so, that e-readers are retaining less, what does it tell writers? I think I'm taking from it
that continuity is going to be more important than ever, things like
having each character have a distinctive name (not "Mark and Mary") that
can be tracked easily from paragraph to paragraph and page to page
without confusion, and clear markers (like a tagline at the top of a
chapter) of changes in scene or time.  That is, while not losing sight of
the small-picture accuracy of detail, we might also want to focus on the
ways readers will construct an unbreakable chain of the story in their
minds-- what are the connectors between parts of the book?

What else? Should we be concerned about making books more "retainable" regardless of the medium of presentation?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coolkayer commented:
Alicia, perhaps you've already done this, but please consider a post on capitalization after a colon. Every time I think I've got it--if the post-colon portion of the sentence is a full sentence unto itself, capitalize--then I see someone not cap a full sentence, and once again, I'm sunk. It's better than he thought: He can run all day now. Or It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. (This example confuses me to no end as it might be a semicolon or an em-dash instead of a colon. Ugh!) Thanks! on Sentences: Why a clause? Why a comma? Rules bend for meaning construction

Good question! I think part of the problem is that like so much else, the colon does double duty. It's used to join an introduction with an explanation or definition:
(Explanation... "why")
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

(Definition "what")
First, understand what sociopathy is: a personality disorder that causes the person to engage in antisocial behavior due to a lack of an awareness of morality.

But the colon can also signal that what follows will be a list:
(list of three or more)
My cousin has failed at marriage three times: with Mike the love-maker, with Joe the taker, and with Pete the faker.

The list can be bulleted or numbered also:
My completed legal coursework includes
  • ·         Legal Research and Writing
  • ·         Advanced Legal Research
  • ·         Legal Ethics and Law Office Practice
  • ·         Business Law  
  • ·         Tort Law
  • ·         Practice and Procedure in Litigation

Now the rule about capitalizing after a colon is conventionally that if what follows is a complete sentence, you capitalize the first letter after the colon. Why? Because the colon is sort of a super-powered period (end stop) then. It's separating two sentences:

You should know why I left the party.
My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

But here we don't want to just be making two different sentences. We're connecting them to say that they go together, that (in this case), sentence B explains what we mean in sentence A:
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

The capital letter at the start of the second sentence acknowledges that it's a sentence, while the colon acknowledges that the two sentences are meant to be read together.

When the second part after the colon isn't a full sentence, that capital letter would be distracting (indicating a full sentence when it's not), so we leave that lower-case, as with the definition sentence.

Bulleted and numbered lists, however, sometimes have capped first letters... for each item in the list. (No matter what you choose, the choice should be applied consistently for every item on the list.) This isn't really required, but often looks better. In the case above with the course list, those are all titles of courses, and so would probably be capitalized anyway. 

With your sentence, 
It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. 
I think the problem is "it's" as the subject. It's not informative enough to set up the "explanation," which is "He can run all day now."

That is, yes, the "He" should be capped after the colon, because what follows is the explanation (what's not as bad as he thought) and it's a full sentence. However, because "it's" is so uninformative, you're not really setting up the question in that first clause to be answered after the colon. Try this:
His condition is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His recovery has been better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His leg is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His stamina is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
So you were right-- colon is good, cap letter is good. However, your mind was telling you that something was missing or needed improvement... and that's the subject of the sentence. The first sentence or clause before a colon sets up what is to come, and so should probably be clearly informative.

What do you think? It's (as much as I use "it's" myself, as you can see!) always a good idea to check sentences with "it" and "this" and "that" as subject and see if a more precise term will sound better. The fact that I could come up with four plausible nouns there indicates that you might want to be more specific in what "it" is. :)

Good question! Punctuation has secret depths, huh?


Writing Process Blog tour

I was tagged by @ElenaGreene7 to join the Writing Process Blog Tour! Tagging #dennysbryce and Wesley Redfield at http://wesleyredfield.com/upcoming-books/.

Four questions about my writing process:
**What are you working on?
I'm working on the first of a series of mystery-romances set in the Regency era. I'm almost done with one, but haven't come up with a title yet. Titles are hard for me.
**How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
My strengths are writing emotion, and crafting elegant prose, so I'm more of a miniaturist than an epic writer. I like to focus on fine points of a scene—choosing exactly the right combination of action, reaction, design, and expression to give the reader a deeper experience. I've tried to learn that from the two greatest writers concerned with this time period, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
**Why do you write what you do?
I'm writing what I'm interested in reading, actually—complicated relationships that end happily, against the backdrop of glamour and beauty that is the Regency period.
**How does your writing process work?
Not well. I always write out of order—whatever scene or event is intense in my mind—then I have to piece all these scraps together! Call me the "quilt-writer." I first write the dialogue, and then go back and add in everything else. So my scenes are mostly centered on dialogue rather than action.

What's your process like? Is it effective for you? Mine isn't, but when I think about "writing freely," about writing from the muse, I realize-- for me, that's out of order, just dialogue, just intense moments. (And fill in the blanks later, which is the hard part.) 

I'm tagging a couple friends who have very different writing processes.

Denny Bryce, the 2014 GOLDEN HEART® Winner in Romantic Suspense, writes CONTEMPORARY ROMANTIC SUSPENSE, HISTORICAL WOMEN'S FICTION, AND URBAN FANTASY. Her stories straddle the thin line between sex, danger, and love, which she calls ROMANCE ON THE EDGE. 

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New Mexico while a professor at the University of New Mexico. His participation in reenactments and extensive trips on horseback in the Southwest add authenticity to his writing.  His latest book, Santa Fe:  Holy Faith, the sequel to Sangre de Cristo, comes out this fall. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saw Mother Courage this weekend-- thinking about the author's deliberate alienation of the audience

Bertolt Brecht used the German term Verfremdungseffekt (don't ask me to pronounce it) to define the authorial choice to force a distance between the audience and the character. This is of course antithetical to the more common desire to encourage the audience to identify with the character. This choice to estrange the audience from the character is often accomplished by making her unappealing or her actions incomprehensible. The point is, I think, to force us out of the comfortable companionship of thinking, "She is like me, and therefore good" and into evaluating her more objectively (and perhaps evaluating ourselves  more objectively).

Brecht's most famous expression of the "distancing or alienation effect" is in the title character of his play Mother Courage.  He wrote this while in self-exile from his native Germany during Hitler's reign, and that might give us some idea of why "distancing" or "alienation" might have been a particularly valued goal at that point in history.

What's interesting about this choice is that it discards the enlistment of an audience's most valued ability, empathy, in order to present human action and interaction in a more unsparing fashion. Brecht meant Mother Courage to be a more "true" representation of humanity perhaps than a character shaped to draw the audience's fellow feeling. Techniques that can cause the alienation—well, the most important would be presenting the character's action without justification, and the character's flaws without mitigation.

That was what Brecht was playing with in Mother Courage, alienating the audience from her by using her as a representative of the capitalist and mercenary set. I think he wimped out enough -- making her a mother who loved her children-- that the audience wasn't nearly as appalled by her as he wanted, or maybe we just naturally have fellow feelings with most other humans. In fact, I tend to think that characters who are presented rather starkly in their unappeal end up winning the audience over (Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O'Hara). I might go so far as to say that characters who are hard to identify with early in the story are often the ones who attain sort of cult status or become cultural icons like Sherlock.

Without the easy empathetic identification, the audience will have to judge the character on her own actions and interactions rather than empathy. I think when it works, the audience ends up really in deeper identification because they have to really think about how and why this character is this way and does these things. It's like you might love a difficult friend more because you actually had to work to love her at all.

I'm wondering if comedy might rely more on distancing—we don't, after all, laugh at ourselves usually, so too close an identification with the comic character might diminish our ability to find those pratfalls funny. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Interesting article about autocorrect's effect (positive) on the conveyance of good grammar

#Nuance ‏Atlantic Monthly: Will autocorrect save the apostrophe, and slow language's evolution? http://bit.ly/1opeXWN

(Joe Pinsker):
Meanwhile, as the battle rages on, our devices seem likely to nudge us even further in the direction of language preservation. The software company Nuance, which invented the predictive-texting technology known as T9, is developing autocorrect software capable of suggesting more-substantive grammatical changes, like proper verb conjugation. Which means that we could soon be texting like the grammarians our software wants us to be.

 Extra credit for the mention of the culture war between the extremist groups, Kill the Apostrophe and Apostrophe Protection Society.