Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Character/Narrator POV and Interlaced Descriptions

Coming out of another dark spot of self doubt I've been reading much and wide - recently finished Scar Night by Alan Campbell (who worked on Grand Theft Auto). Brilliant book, had me gripped all the way.

After my last slap down I got angry with myself, my inability to write something pacy, coherent and interesting - then I reworked my opening chapter... again. But I'm still not happy, despite Solvejg giving his thumbs up (with caveats). I was worried that there was still no pace to it (though, I'm probably too close to it at the mo' to realise - a kind of word blindness). I felt that the reader just floated along with the description. And it just has no place right up there at the front. So... I needed a breather. I'm kind of wrong, despite needing to do some more work (always more work), but what could help?...

What's great about Scar Night is that it's begun to yield some secrets about the construct of chapters - and, at times, I've begun to make use of them in my writing (mostly subconsciously). Let's look at the opening:

Chains snarled the courtyard behind the derelict cannon foundry in Applecross: spears of chain radiating at every angle, secured into walls with rusted hooks and pins, and knitted together like a madwoman's puzzle. In the centre, Barraby's watchtower stood ensnared. Smoke unfurled from its ruined summit and blew west across the city under a million winter stars.

Huffing and gasping, Presbyter Scrimlock climbed through the chains. His lantern swung, knocked against links and welds and God knows what, threw shadows like lattices of cracks across the gleaming cobbles. When he looked up, he saw squares and triangles full of stars. His sandals slipped as though on melted glass. The chains, where he touched them, were wet. And when he finally reached the Spine Adept waiting by the watchtower door he saw why.

'Blood,' the Presbyter whispered, horrified. He rubbed feverishly at his cassock, but the gore would not shift.

The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest. 'From the dead,' he explained. 'She ejects them from the tower. Will not suffer them there inside with her.' He tilted his head to one side.

Below the chains numerous Spine bodies lay in a shapeless mound, their leather armour glistening like venom.

'Ulcis have mercy,' Scrmlock said. 'How many has she killed?'


Scrimlock drew a breath. The night tasted dank and rusty, like the air in a dungeon. 'You're making it worse,' he complained. 'Can't you see that? You're feeding her fury.'

'We have injured her,' the Adept said. His expression remained unreadable, but he pressed a pale hand against the watchtower door brace, as if to reinforce it.

'What?' The Presbyter's heart leapt. 'You've injured her? That's... How could you possibly...'

'She heals quickly.' The Adept looked up. 'Now we must hurry.'

Scrimlock followed the man's gaze, and for a moment wondered what he was looking at. Then he spotted them: silhouettes against the glittering night, lean figures scaling the chains, moving quickly and silently to the watchtower's single window. More Spine than Scrimlock had ever seen together. There had to be fifty, sixty. How was it possible he'd failed to notice them before?
So begins the Deepgate Codex. A brilliant entry point into a series that is well founded on equal part description and action, with a pace that never lets up. It's not often that I finish a 500+ page book in a week, and when I (a slow-slow reader) do, the book must be good - Shirley?

Here we have the prologue entry, a 7 page section that precedes the main events by 2000 years (hmm... let's not get into a discussion on the finer points of prologues and whether they should be used or not - here it's employed specifically to introduce 2 main characters: the Angel Carnival, and the city of Deepgate. Being 2000 years before the main narrative, it sits better as a prologue).

Anyhoo, let's look at what we get...

  • Paragraph 1 - The character of the city of chains is evoked in one punchy paragraph. Description to set the scene and locale.
  • Paragraph 2 - A "real" character walks onto the scene and as they arrive, we have them interacting with the scenery, showing clothing but always making it act or react to the location. It never tells us what he's wearing. Instead we know he had a lantern because the lantern's swing knocks against the chains and throws light about, illuminating the scenery. He wears sandals, we learn, because the floor is slippery. And finally we arrive at a specific place (The watchtower door) and another character.
  • Paragraph 3 - Brief dialogue and character reaction to... blood! We learn he's wearing a cassock because he rubs the blood onto it. Emotionally, we get "horrified" and the "gore would not shift"
  • Para 4 - We meet the 2nd character, and have a quick bit description with dialogue - and here came a big epiphany...
The narrator, in Scar Night, is third person limited, but... the narrator, having chosen the first character to align with (Scrimlock), describes things from the chosen character's pov. So, when the narrator writes: "The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest", it's not so much the narrator's observation but Scrimlock's.

And this is what I've not noticed prior to this book. That 3rd person pov is not an excuse to separate ourselves from what is going on; the emotion, the feeling of being there. Why didn't I see this before?

This explains why later in the book we get recaps of certain things we have already covered - because we've entered a new character and now they're observing it.

Scar Night - Official Website
Chapter 1 Extract - Pan Macmillan


solv said...

I get a sense that you're on the verge of the most important conscious decision in your writing career to date!
Caveats to one side, my 'thumbs up' was actually more along the lines of 'Bugger me! That is brilliant!'

esruel said...

I just wish you would write what you are going to write, Rich!
Preparing is great. You have to prepare.
But I'm not really sure that Scar Night is the avenue that you should take: I haven't read it and don't intend to for a long time to come - (it looks good enough from here, though if I attempted to write from different povs my lack of accreditation I'm sure would gain a lecture or two from someone).
Are you reading Scar Night because it matches, more or less, what you will be doing in narrative and pov style? Or are you reading it because you just want to read it?
Time is passing, and while your own work lies to one side, someone else is getting your attention. Just the impression I'm getting.
I want you to be published, Rich. You know that. I keep getting the impression you are doing other things. It's criminal, with your talent.

R1X said...

Ack the guilt! Keep guilting me - it's the only way to force my hand I think Es. Thanks for the positives anyway, guys.

I read Scar Night only because... Litopians were saying it was good, I stumbled upon an extract, read it, and got a hint of the epiphany that dawned while reading it.

I'm now reading Stephen King's The Gunslinger - now that is a waste of my time to read right now. But rest assured that I am reading lots of YA books at the mo' for varying reasons. As with all books I get sucked in and forget that I am trying to learn from them.

That conscious decision, Solve, I've almost made it, I just need a strong pair of scissors: how do I now show his fear of books? Wait until he's presented with one?

solv said...

Bibliophobia eh?
Well, showing a fear of books should be easy enough: stick a book by him and have him react.

If it's a recently acquired and developing fear, you can build from a queasy feeling to absolute terror. If it's a long-standing phobia, his teachers will likely be aware of it and they'll maybe give him a page of notes instead of a book, or they'll find another solution.
You could have a bully taunting him - holding a book to his face. You could have Charles forcing himself to overcome his fear, attempting to turn a page. Or he could spend time with a counsellor or therapist or hypnotist. He could research the fear online - maybe meet others like him.
All these ideas achieve the same result: they show how Charles reacts to books. A skillful writer will tie this into something else. For example, if you have outlined a scene in which Charles is bullied, give the bully a book and kill two birds with one stone.

esruel said...

You could have someone throw a book at him, like I wanted to do with you, Rich, when I read that you were in another book! ;-)
But how about the books talk to him? Some may have sinister things to say, while others may want to help him. Maybe they give him messages, vibrations, feelings he can't understand. They might be inhabited by spirits, even.
Then he doesn't need anyone else in the scene with him, if it helps keep the personal touch going.
Just a thought. Just ideas.
Keep writing. Now!! lol

R1X said...

I've gotta start thinking outside of the box haven't I!


solv said...

Damn. Wish I'd thought of that.
Hey, my word verification is dikot. Cool.