Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sustaining Believability

"The characters have to be true to themselves. The events need to follow a logic that fits the story. A single flaw and the magic is gone. The story dies." ~ Sam Lake

When a writer crafts their work they know that the story will not stand on it's own. More often than not, their work will be a piece of a series. While each piece needs to be complete in-of-itself with the ability to stand on its own, it's little more than a chapter of the larger story. Just like the singular story, the series will be it's own ride with its' own pacing, its' own suspense, tension and excitement. Unfortunately the most difficult part of crafting a larger story from the pieces is sustaining the continuity, the connections, between the pieces.

As the individual piece is crafted the writer often focuses intently on creating a believable, cohesive story that is wound so tightly that the audience can not foresee the dips in the ride. On its' own, the piece is a solid ride but as the audience expects it to lead to the next they are often disappointed. The connections between the first in a series and the next are jarring transitions. Why?

In the past, when a writer published a series the time delay between one piece and the next could exceed a year or more. This delay meant that when the next piece was released all of the recurring elements including setting, characters, themes and such would need to be re-introduced to the same detail that they were in the first piece. In addition to re-introducing the elements from the first in the series, the changes and events of the previous story(s) must also be reflected. Now, the delay between pieces has been shortened sometimes down to a matter of months between each. This means fewer details are re-introduced and repeated. Yet, there are still jarring transitions between most pieces in a series.

The largest failing for most when crafting a series of works is maintaining the same elements that are observed in the introductory piece. The tone can shift from one work to the next or more jarringly, the characters shift dramatically. While they act within the framework of the current story and it helps propel the current story, they are completely different characters from one piece to the next. These elements shift so dramatically that they do not match the overall work.

While some works were never intended to be part of a larger story, most were devised as continuing 'adventures,' a means of taking the favored characters and carrying them on so that the audience has more time with them. The strongest series are treated the same as other artistic mediums. Diptychs, Triptychs and so forth. One piece feeds into the next and while they are strong alone, they are even stronger when viewed as part of that series.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Drawing the Transitions

In any medium, be it a narrative, sculpture or movie, a story is being told. There is a 'narrative flow,' a pacing that establishes the tone and emotions. If that flow is broken, then so is the narrative. A single flaw and the magic is gone, the audience is lost and so is the piece.

If there is such a weight upon the flow of a piece then it is quite easy to see just how integral transitional elements are to the narrative. In film these elements are called transitions. These are a means of connecting one unrelated scene to another so that it appears to belong in the narrative and keeps the 'narrative flow' moving at the same steady pace. Transitions can be utilized in a number of manners in film, from the cross-disolve or cross-fade that blends the two scenes together to the Hard Cut that ends one scene sharply and launches the next or even the classic 'fade to black' transition. Each transition is selected to suit the two scenes and fit tightly within the determined narrative flow.

The same transitional elements that are used in film are often utilized in narratives as well. When the writer settles upon a genre, a tone and flow for their piece the transitions between the scenes are predetermined by these elements. Selecting the proper transition to match the elements often becomes the largest source of contention.

A Cross-Disolve or Cross-Fade in film is when the first scene slowly begins to fade out while the next scene begins to fade into focus. While there are many variants of this type of transition it is very common in any piece be it film, paint or print. In writing a cross-fade is when the writer begins closing a chapter by adding elements of what will happen in the next scene. Establish the characters involved, the setting and even the start of events that will unfold in the next. A concise example of this cross-fade is a transitory travel element. The characters are in a race to a location, at the end of the chapter the involved characters begin the journey and at the start of the next chapter they arrive at location. This transition should only be used to show that time has passed.

The Hard-Cut or Jump-Cut is far more common in films and narratives where pacing is absolutely paramount to the piece. The jump cut is what is called 'hard transition,' this means that it is the abrupt end  of one scene and the beginning of the next. Most authors utilize this transition in their work because it is the easiest way to show end and beginning of scenes. This is common because this transition does not interfere with pacing and it permits the story to move location to location without wasting time in explanations. An example of this in writing would be when characters are informed of a situation at another location, the scene ends and the next scene begins at that location. Through the negative space between the scenes the audience can infer a transition without the need to slow and follow the explanation.

The 'Fade-to-Black' transition is far less common today than it was in years past. Although in film it is still found in many shows that have a dramatic moment right before a commercial. The fade is very successful for building suspense in both film and narrative. This transition is far more common in third-person narratives than others because of the 'head-hopping' that can occur. Much like shows, in writing the transition is applied to add suspense and then switch scenes. Authors commonly utilize these 'fade-cuts' with title cards. These usually end a scene with a dramatic moment for the character then start the next scene with a title card of sorts that tells location before diving into following a new character.

Transitions in a creative piece are integral to brining an audience under the creator's spell. In writing, it's not just about creating cliffhanger endings at the end of every chapter, it's about the integration between that cliffhanger and the start of the next scene. If you misuse a transition it won't only disrupt the narrative flow but also break the creator's spell. This can prevent a good story from becoming a great story. Transitional elements in any creative piece can actually elevate a piece beyond it's initial conception if they are well implemented. Just look at the transitions in the Brightfalls webisode series.

How well are your transitions integrated? Do you think of the transitions or just the flow?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Defining the Absence

When any creative piece is crafted the artist must analyze and interpret a number of elements to bring their vision to life. Just as a painter or sculptor must consider the aspects that they must insert into their composition they must also consider how they will use what they will not include.

The Negative Space of a composition is just as integral to the piece as every brush stroke or chisel mark. The artist can use it to add depth to the composition, further define the structure of the piece and act as a transition between the elements.

As an artist sculpts their piece from the void they select the elements that will serve the piece best whether by insertion or omission. The negative space is not a simple void but strategically implemented space that can bring the composition to life. Sculptors often utilize the negative space of a piece to draw the shadows and light the piece with emotion much like a writer can wield implications through omitted events. That which is omitted can bring events, actions and even emotions for characters into sharper focus.

While the negative space defines the piece, the structure and shape of that space can be molded to guide the audience's perception. In the visual arts this can be done to define the focal point of the piece, while a literary perception on this can be called a theme. A specific attempt by the creator to shape a piece towards one singular point, one event, that the creator wishes to convey.

The most common use of negative space in any creative piece is it's use as a transitional element to prevent inconsistencies or detract from the piece. It is not only more powerful to bypass the 'mundane' parts to keep the piece cohesive but by leveraging that negative space a piece can enhance the emotional impact of what is crafted.

In writing, negative space is just as prevalent as in any other art. When characters are describing traveling to location and the next scene is the characters at that location the journey to that location is implied, it is negative space. When characters act according to their past history but do not explain it, it is implied even though it is omitted. These omissions in the writing are actually the negative space in the piece.

In any creative piece what is sculpted and what is omitted are equally important elements. While there is an extensive amount of attention that is given to what is crafted, it is imperative to understand that what is omitted is still integral to the structure of the piece and has its own impact.

How do you use the negative space? Do you arrange your piece with the impact of that space in mind?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Abstracting the Antithesis

Antithesis, Synthesis, Logic...

In a narrative the writer will often go to extensive lengths to explore and understand the logic of characters. Information may be derived from previous events, details and psychological conditioning of characters but it is often a question of where does the author stop displaying the information openly?

While a writer can be absolutely transparent with their main character's motivations it is ultimately necessary for them to keep information from their audience to construct a sense of emotion. Whether it is love, happiness or even fear, the only means of preventing a narrative from reaching an early conclusion is to withhold information from the main character and the audience.

As a story unfolds, the writer may have all of the motivations penned but to keep the level of tension high they do not reveal these to their audience. When the main character and audience are left with the question of 'Why?' it should not be answered right away and in-truth, in a horror or suspense it probably should not be answered at all.

Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.

Questions are the driving force in a story. The narrative thrives on the antithesis of knowledge that the primary characters hold regarding the primary question. The characters journey to answer the defining question is the heart of any piece. Every step that the characters take will yield its own questions but the singular driving question should never find its' answer until the story draws to a close.

The driving logic behind characters' actions and their motivations can assist the audience in connecting with the piece but it is the absence of that knowledge, that logic, that can make an emotion resonate through a story. In the end the audience will demand an answer and to a degree it must be given but there is more power to be found in withholding the entirety of that logic. A narrative is not about the logic, the explanations, it is a story about the quest for those explanations.

How much information do you give your characters? Your audience?

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