Continuing my notes on Brandon Sanderson’s excellent and generously free-to-the-public videos of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.
Class #5: The Box
As a writer-chef (see #2), your job is to come up with something new, not just follow a recipe. Some classic plot frameworks are summarized briefly in the table below. Think about why these stories work – what emotions do they invoke in readers, why do readers like them? Why are they tasty?
If you use one of these, you make it distinctive by adding your own setting and details. For example, the classic boring life is farming (Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer, whatever that is), but you can come up with your own ideas – maybe a pest control operator in a space station. Each of the beats the classic plots hit can be transformed into something unique in your story. You can flip the whole plot upside down, like riches-to-rags as in King Lear. You can use the underdog sports model in a completely different context.
The point of the frameworks isn’t to say you can’t tell your own story in your own way, but to help you define the story you want to tell. Use them to understand the beats other people have used in similar stories before. Think about why they worked in those stories, and maybe they can help you make your own story better.
The box you’re writing in has plot, setting, and character tied together by conflict (see #2). Viewpoint and tense are part of the way you write these. There are no right answers. Write what you want to write. Know what the tools are and use them your own way.
- First person – The character is telling the story. This is the default in Young Adult right now. It’s immediately immersive, with a focus on character. It’s easy and natural to have a strong voice, and building sympathy for the character is easy. The character can address the audience directly. It’s also easier to have an untrustworthy narrator in first person (The Name of the Wind, for example). It usually removes tension because you know the character is going to live. You can have multiple first person characters in one novel, but after two or three it’s going to be hard for the reader. Tends to be bad at immersing you in a whole world full of people. There are a few types of first person:
- Character tells their story as though it’s a memoir: “I’m going to tell you my story,” “I remember when.”
- Epistolary, meaning letters. The story is a collection of written documents from characters in the world. Letters, journal entries (like in The Martian), text messages, blog posts, forum posts, government reports. Found footage is the film version of this. There’s rarely any actual prose that isn’t part of the in-world ephemera.
- Cinematic, common in YA today. It’s as if you’re in their head, their thought bubble, for the whole book. It’s often told in present tense, so you can still have the tension of not knowing if they’re going to survive.
- Second person – This is very rare and it’s hard to do it well. It shouldn’t be just a gimmick; if you use this, there should be a good reason, like your memory’s going to be erased and you’re writing to your future self.
- Third person – omniscient – An all-knowing narrator. This isn’t popular right now. Dune is an example of this viewpoint; you know everyone’s thoughts, and the tension comes from knowing something bad is going to happen, not from wondering what’s going to happen. You may have a sense that there’s a narrator, someone telling you the story, although the narrator has to get out of the way when you’re in the characters’ thought bubbles.
- Third person – limited – Show through eyes of one character at a time. This is the default form for almost all fiction that’s not told in first person. You pick a character’s viewpoint for a given scene; you don’t show anyone else’s thoughts and you don’t see anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see. A student asked how you show things the main character doesn’t see in a mystery, and Sanderson said there are two ways. The easiest is to go to someone else’s viewpoint. Harder is to give your character a blind spot, so the reader recognizes things the character doesn’t notice (it’s hard not to make the character seem like an idiot). It’s harder to have an untrustworthy narrator, but can be done (The Wheel of Time Matt Coughlin books 9 & 10). You want every viewpoint character to feel distinct; the reader should know whose head they’re in within a few paragraphs without telling them. The narrative can be a little smarter or more flowery than the character would be in first person.
Choose between past and present, and stay consistent through the whole book. They’re very similar, and within a few chapters, the reader has forgotten which one you’re using. Present is more immediate but also a little annoying for some readers. Just pick your favorite. Mainstream adult fiction is usually past tense, mainstream YA is usually present tense.