We’ve had more snow today. It started snowing in the morning and by the time I had to go to school for my afternoon class, I had to shovel the car free. It’s started snowing again sometime in the evening and continued snowing all through the night. As winters go, this one arrived uncommonly early (if we get snow at all, we usually don’t get much of it until January). It’s also driving up the gas prices.
And now for a couple of links, mainly on writing and linguistics:
Juliette Wade asks whether writers should follow “the rules” and goes a bit into pragmatics, particularly Herbert Paul Grice and the cooperative principle. I taught a pragmatics class in 2008/2009, including a session on Grice, so I like seeing his principles applied to writing. Several of the examples I used in that class, including the Grice session, actually came from literature. Juliette Wade also has another post on writing and pragmatics here.
Meanwhile, Janice Hardy has a companion post on story rules. No linguistics in this one, but still some very good advice. Particularly the bit about characters being what hooks a reader and keeps him reading is something that many hard SF and epic fantasy writers should take to heart.
One thing about story rules that neither post addresses is that starting out telling one story and suddenly switching to a completely different story in mid-tale is a really good way to piss off readers. The many complaints about Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series are based all based on the fact that the series took a sharp left turn from supernatural noir to supernatural erotica around book 10. Similarly, complaints about Cold Mountain, both book and movie, are also based on the fact that something happens just before the end that turns the story into something completely different than readers/viewers expected. “Tell the story you promise to tell” also includes incongruities such as a lighthearted fantasy novel suddenly turning into an angst-ridden, bloody torture fest (yes, I have read such a book), a romance where the main love interest is killed off at the end and the hero/heroine gets together with someone else or a TV-show where no one ever really dies and everyone who seems to die is resurrected or reappears somewhere down the line suddenly killing off main characters for good. The reader or viewer was promised one story and got another and feels cheated.
Series, whether written or filmed, are particularly vulnerable to this issue. In fact, almost every instance where I enjoyed a TV show very much and abruptly stopped watching, often with very bitter feelings towards the offending show, is due to the fact that somewhere along the line, often between seasons one and two, the show I enjoyed vanished to be replaced by one I didn’t like at all.
Of course, it is possible to successfully pull off such a sudden mid-story shift into something completely different. One recent example are the interconnected BBC shows Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes. Life on Mars starts out as a standard crime drama, then some ten to fifteen minutes into episode one it suddenly turns into a mixture of time travel show and retro cop show. It maintains this balance through two seasons of Life on Mars and three of Ashes to Ashes. Then, shortly before the end, the show turns into something completely different altogether. It shouldn’t have worked – and in fact I was initially quite pissed off at the ending, because the show it turned out to be was not one I would’ve watched, had I known – but amazingly it does. Of course, it also helps that clues to the true nature of the story were there from the very beginning, though they only became apparent upon rewatch. By the time, the ending aired, I had turned my Mom onto the shows and was somewhere in the middle of season 1 of Ashes to Ashes and had to show her the rest (and watch along with her, since her English isn’t that good) in order not to disappoint her, so I got a rewatch very soon after the ending and could see how the seeds had been planted. Of course, it also helps that there are a whole lot of 1970s and 1980s songs with very creepy and ambiguous lyrics.
Janice Hardy also has another excellent post about getting rid of characters cluttering up a story. This is something I struggle with on occasion, probably due to the fact that characters usually show up fully formed on my mental doorstep.
In my current novel WIP (it has a working title, but I’m not satisfied with it, so it shall only be known as The Novel for now), my heroine has a gay older brother. The brother was there from the very beginning (I think he was the fourth character apart from hero, heroine and antagonist to show up). I wanted him to be in a happy committed relationship, because I’ve always disliked the fact that gay characters never seem to have partners or relationships in books, films, TV shows, comics, etc… Hence, Peter, the brother, has a partner named Gareth.
However, now I had a problem, because in many of the scenes involving Peter, Gareth would simply have been in the way. This even includes the Christmas dinner scene. Theoretically, Gareth should have been at his mother-in-law’s Christmas dinner along with Peter. However, there was no room for poor Gareth in this scene, because his presence would either have interrupted an important conversation going on in the kitchen or another important conversation going on at the dinner table. All I could’ve done with Gareth was put him in a chair in the corner watching TV or send him down to the cellar to get drunk. Neither was a very satisfying option. So I sent Gareth to have turkey with his parents instead (which is probably vastly preferable to the tense atmosphere at the Christmas dinner) and got him out of the way. What is more, his absence even makes sense in the context of the story, as the mother never accepted either of her children’s life and relationship choices. Plus, it makes my heroine’s decision to bring an unannounced guest to the dinner even more transgressive, because her brother doesn’t even bring his boyfriend of thirteen years. Besides, poor absent Gareth gets a really good scene later in the novel.
More Intelligent Life has an article about how Christian missionaries of all people are helping to record and preserve dead or dying languages. I’m not a fan of Christian missionaries at all, as I consider it incredibly presumptive of anyone to try to foist their religion on other people with beliefs and traditions of their own. But at least they’re doing some good in this case, even if it comes with the strings of “bible translation” attached.