Two Sided Coins and Seeing Story Weaknesses As Strengths

The nucleus of this idea came from a discussion on SFFChronicles about first person stories. One user made the completely reasonable point that you’ve got to be careful with first person stories, as what if the narrator is knocked out and misses something really important?

But, stroppy chaotic sod that I am, my thoughts on seeing that went to:

“What if that’s a good thing as it removes the temptation to include scenes you don’t have to?”

There’s definitely positives that come from omitting scenes. Compare the tautness of early Song of Ice and Fire books, where Martin would skip whole battles if so inclined, and later, where PoVs existed from every possible angle. We’ll see how it ends, but I think many fans would have preferred a story told with more limited PoVs come the end. Sometimes, limitations help an author. Sometimes, the weaknesses are strengths.

How far can this idea be pursued?

Something else I said in that thread is that writing rules are clues as to how balance the equation of the story elements you’re using. That idea comes partly from writing and food. Imagine you’re making a pasta sauce where you’d normally stir in parmesan for a lactose intolerant friend. You might find some dairy free creaminess to replace the parmesan, but did you add something else to replace the lost saltiness? If not, it might taste wrong.

Are you doing a coming of age farmboy fantasy story but dropping the wise mentor? Well, who’s delivering your exposition? Or a portal fantasy story where the hero has been through many times before? Well, who’s getting your exposition?

Maybe you need to rebalance the equation.

Or maybe you need to embrace the weakness as a strength. You’re telling a low exposition, learn through immersion story. Maybe you’ve remodelled that pasta sauce to be something light instead.

There are lots of rules about writing. Don’t write something mean spirited. You can do that if you’ve got an antihero and are ragging on things people hate (see a lot of what Ianucci has done with political satire). Write stories about the most important events of someone’s life. Well, having been through hugely important events can lead to very interesting life scenarios… besides, who says we value what’s important right? What’s more important, going to war or healing from it?

There are no inherently bad and wrong storytelling choices. They are all simply forks in a road and what you do along the road is more important then the fork you took. There are many choices that have bad reputations as they have a tendency to result in unpopular actions, like spending forever wading through a marsh, being taken down the road. But marshes can be interesting. Marshes can provide decent shock value if you want to prove you can fly. Not that flying is always a good choice for a writer, metaphorically speaking – it’s very easy to create a bad deus ex machina or break secondary belief – but maybe it’s a good choice this time.

First Person PoV, like all choices, comes with potential pitfalls. More people just straight don’t like it than third person. That number increases if you have more than one PoV. It is very difficult to hide character thoughts without feeling contrived, and it might also feel contrived if the character somehow shows at every dramatic scene.

But you can never please everyone, so maybe crossing out a chunk of potential audience right away lets you focus on the audience you want better. The weaknesses of thoughts and presence can be flipped into the strength of thoughts and presence, as it’s very easy to conceal events from the audience because the character just wasn’t there and we all accept it, and it doesn’t feel contrived to have the narrator brood on what the audience knows and doesn’t know. Not to mention it can keep a story very lean, ad make exposition very natural. There’s a reason First Person, or very close Third Person, is such a classic choice for mystery stories.

So every time you look at your story choices and think “X will make Y difficult”, maybe start thinking of the advantages of not doing Y. Maybe it’ll help you find the advantage of Z, and everything will be better on that side of the coin.

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