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Author Topic: Story Structure Problem
Crystal Stevens
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Just recently I dug out an old manuscript with the thought of doing some restructuring of the first three chapters. Basically the novel revolves around the life of a man whose life started as a result of rape. The entire story is told through this man's POV except for those first three chapters that lets the reader see the incident leading to rape and then the man's birth. This man never met his mother because she was murdered the day he was born, and his father is completely unknown by anyone.

Naturally the man wants to find out who his father is and uncover the circumstances of his mother's murder. The book revolves around solving these mysteries through the course of this man's life from childhood to early manhood. I guess I should add that this is a science fiction story dealing with a peopled society on a planet far from Earth.

My problem lies with the fact that the mother's story is explained throughout the course of the book, but at the time I wrote it, I thought it a good idea to "show" what happened to the mother so my readers can "feel" the brutality and how it came about. Now I'm wondering if it's even necessary. I do intend to trim it down, hopefully, to just one chapter instead of three... But it is really needed at all? That's the question.

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rcmann
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Prologue?
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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
Prologue?

I debated on that when I wrote it the first time, but a chapter long prologue? I dunno. I just don't know.
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LewisC
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Does he find out the details as the story goes on? In that case, maybe piecemeal flashbacks as he learns more?

LewisC

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MartinV
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Write both versions and see which one's the alpha readers respond to.
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AndrewR
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Is it necessary for the reader to see the incident at the beginning of the story?

You can convey the brutality of the rape by the way you tell it, whether by someone involved (relative, friend, investigator, witness, etc.) or by the clues left behind--torn dress, bloodstains, what the mother told others, etc. If you need to, you can have the reader feel the horror at the same time your protagonist feels it.

Since the protagonist will need to find out this information as the story progresses, why present it twice? What would be the reason, other than the immediacy of "seeing" it? If that is the only reason, I think you could convey it through other methods.

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Grumpy old guy
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If your story is told through this man's POV, let the readers find out about his 'past' as he does. Violence should not be 'gratuitous', but used as a tool to develop character or explain motive.

Just my 2c worth.

Phil.

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Pyre Dynasty
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Personally I'd say leave it out. It's a distraction from the man's story. OR Perhaps make it a journal of some sort that the man finds later in the novel, that way you can show us his reaction to it.
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extrinsic
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Seems to me incorporating the past is ripe for an opening prelude or a nonlinear timeline intercession later in the novel. Both are challenging to pull off with different perspective characters.

I applaud your instinct to portray the prelude in scene. That method closes narrative distance into close character perspective. Though I've read many narratives that summarize a backstory as a prologue-like introduction and they're somewhat interesting from their context and texture, I didn't feel as fully invested in their summaries as I prefer.

Multiple character perspectives, even two, benefit from a strong narrator identity, usually a narrator who has a strong attitude toward a subject. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom works from three central character perspectives and a seemingly neutral narrator perspective. However, as the novel unravels, the narrator perspective rolls into the main character perspective, Patty Berglund's. The two other central perspectives are from her husband Walter and her son Joey's perspectives. The second chapter is a third-person report related by Patty about herself. That type of multiple person perspective is a little rough on science fiction readers.

An example of a science fiction saga that uses a similar multiple person perspective is Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Asimov deftly and masterfully manages changing perspectives as the saga unfolds. One method in particular is chapter headings and epigraphs that signal unequivocally a significant time transition has taken place. Each new section then opens as though starting development from scratch, except for the central themes. The unifying feature, thematic emphasis, or idea in Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. principles, drives antagonism, causation, and tension; that is, psychohistory. The theme and parallel ideas keep readers interested and caring and curious about what will happen.

Another method Asimov uses is setup for transitions. Each preceding section leads on to following sections' pivotal characters and complications through the use of predictions based on applying psychohistory forward in time instead of historical time the way psychohistory was invented to function in the real word.

[ November 20, 2012, 04:12 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MJNL
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I think you should start with your main character and an immediate conflict. I'd work up to this conflict in his past--and if you must show it, don't show it for *brutality's* sake, do it for the story's sake. I can tell you right now that putting a violent sexual assault up front when the character that it effects (in the course of the story) isn't even there to witness it will put a lot of readers off.

I say show it, yes, but show it *through his eyes* if it's the brutality that haunts him, show us how *he* experiences the brutality, because it's *his* experience that matters to your story. I liked Andrew's suggestion of showing a torn dress and bloodstains. If there are pictures from the case file the MC can get his hands on, show us that if you need a visual.

Otherwise this will most likely come off to readers as sensationalist and gratuitous.

My two cents, anyway.

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MattLeo
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Well, my experience with critiquing brutal openings has been that while what the writer hopes to achieve is usually reasonable, such openings simply don't work for most of us. I think that's because the readers aren't invested in what happens to the characters yet, so they tend to tune out the brutality (unless they are peculiar, there's a market for everthing). Because of human nature most people aren't inclined to identify with someone who is introduced as a victim, and turning up the brutality doesn't help, any more than shouting persuades someone who doesn't agree with you.

Brutality aside, we can look at the general impulse here, which is to brief the reader on backstory so he'll really feel and think about the characters the way you do. Again that sounds reasonable, it just seldom works.

But there are always exceptions, so MartinV's advice is sound. Try it both ways and see what works best. If you can pull off a prelude focused on a character who disappears from the story (except as a memory), more power to you, but don't be disappointed if it fails to engage readers.

Managing the reader's state of knowledge is one of the trickiest craft issues there is, especially in speculative fiction where there is so much to explain. If the reader feels like he doesn't understand what's going on, he'll be frustrated. But if the reader feels bogged down in detail he doesn't need yet, he'll be bored.

Likewise developing an emotional connection between the characters and the readers is a complex and delicate operation. Maybe you could plunge the reader directly an emotionally painful event right in scene 1, but it's an immense technical challenge.

In both cases -- backstory and emotional engagement -- most writers develop techniques beyond the obvious and clumsy ones of reader briefings and shoving the reader's nose in a steaming dog turd of suffering.

I'd say grappling these kinds of problems is what makes you a writer, and not just a daydreamer who sometimes writes his daydreams down. You have to discover that certain assumptions you have about how readers react to things are naive. And occasionally you'll find out that conventional wisdom, isn't. It all boils down to what you can actually do *yourself*, not necessarily what works or doesn't for other writers.

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extrinsic
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I wonder how the science fiction premise comes into play. If the fantastical premise or premises connect or correlate to the theme and the dramatic complication, I'd say the mother's story could work, perhaps for a conflict resolution type story with a discovery or revelation and a decision type that both cause a reversal of circumstances transformation for the son. That might mean artful misdirection leading readers to believe the story type is resolution but artful twists that make it a discovery and reversal type. "Luke, I am your father." Then later, Luke's unwavering faith in the goodness of his father transforms Vader/Anakin.
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Grumpy old guy
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Crystal, I've been quietly watching the discussion grind down into esoteric discussions of style and intent and reader manipulation. My advice is (for the little it's worth) ask yourself these questions:

Is the rape, then murder, pivotal to the development of the story or the character. If it is then deal with it as a Prologue.

Does the reader need to know only some few of the details surrounding the rape, then murder, of the mother to understand the opening of the story. (I suppose that means, do you need to 'mention' it to explain character quirks, but not go into detail until the MC 'investigates', or learns of the circumstances himself). If that's the case, let the story unfold and 'show' the MC learning, then reacting to, the information.

Crime scene photos can be extremely specific and unsettling. In a previous life I inhabited the minds and motivations of child murderers of the worst sort. Until one day I saw an fairly 'inconsequential' photo of a murdered child who looked identical to my son at that time. Quit the next day.

My point: The right stimuli can have a profound effect in instigating a 'in real time' vision of events that the MC has never witnessed. Consider the 'shower scene' in psycho. Arguably one of the most 'horrific' scene in modern cinema. Why is it so horrific? Because the viewers own mind feeds their deepest fears about what 'has' happened.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Crystal, I've been quietly watching the discussion grind down into esoteric discussions of style and intent and reader manipulation.

I disagree. The conversation is about basic craft issues. Take away style, intent, and reader manipulation, and there isn't much left to say other than "well, *I* would do it this way." That doesn't give the writer any basis for coming up with his or her own solution.

quote:
Is the rape, then murder, pivotal to the development of the story or the character. If it is then deal with it as a Prologue.
This is exactly what I'm talking about. This is only the most obvious way to handle a backstory problem, as evidenced by the fact that novice writers so often turn to the prologue as the solution. And prologues can work, although some readers strongly detest them. But there are significant drawbacks to a prologue that you have to manage, the biggest one is a discontinuity in the story, *especially* for long prologues where the main protagonist is absent and the backstory protagonist doesn't survive.

Does this mean a prologue *won't* work in this case? No. But you probably need some device to smooth the transition. Maybe the protagonist travels back in time to try to prevent his conception. Maybe the "real" story opens with the protagonist unwittingly slicing a loaf of bread with the murder weapon.

The point is that there are alternatives that may be better. Extrinsic brought up one, which is to use non-linear storytelling. That doesn't mean you have to abandon chronological storytelling entirely. You can tell the main story chronologically and weave in backstory scenes in non-chronological order. Or you could interleave two parallel chronological stories. Neal Stephenson does this in *Cryptonomicon*; he has two major groups of plotlines that take place fifty years apart. He *could* tell the 1940s story then seque to the 1990s in classic "family epic" style, but instead he unfolds the stories in parallel, maintaining suspense in the 90s plot that wouldn't be there if the story was told chronologically.

The most versatile way of dealing with this "essential backstory" problem is to use a plot device that draws that backstory into the main story. Suppose the protagonist is a detective. Then he might investigate a rape/murder that has unnerving parallels to the one in the past. Troubled protagonists might be in psychotherapy, allowing the information about the past to unfold in parallel to relevant events. Maybe he has a friend who knows about the past and who uses that to question his current actions. The possibilities are endless. And that's the problem with using some kind of plot device. It takes a lot more creative effort than just dumping the backstory in a prologue.

Perhaps the simplest way to introduce backstory is the narration, often narrating the character's thoughts and memories. It just has do be done sparingly and at appropriate times, so it doesn't feel like an interruption in the story.

quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
My point: The right stimuli can have a profound effect in instigating a 'in real time' vision of events that the MC has never witnessed. Consider the 'shower scene' in psycho. Arguably one of the most 'horrific' scene in modern cinema. Why is it so horrific? Because the viewers own mind feeds their deepest fears about what 'has' happened.

Yes, but would that scene work the same if it were the *opening* scene of the movie? Why or why not? Sure, it's an "esoteric" question, in that answering it requires knowledge that not everyone has. But "esoteric" isn't a synonym for "useless". Performing brain surgery is an esoteric skill. So is writing a story.

In any case, that scene doesn't help us with the backstory question, because it falls naturally in the middle of the story. Better to look at the *whole* structure of the movie to see how it generates suspense. Ultimately, you have to know the story of Norman Bates' mother to resolve the story, but putting that at the beginning of the story wouldn't work. The screenwriters manipulate the state of audience awareness in order to produce the shock of discovery.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Crystal, I've been quietly watching the discussion grind down into esoteric discussions of style and intent and reader manipulation.

Naughty, naughty. Negative evaluation of others' posts isn't writing discussion, may be objectionable, and may invite responses in kind.

"Esoteric"? Means insider. Writers discussing writing is an esoteric, insider activity. Exoteric means, of course, outsider.

"Manipulation"? That would be akin to coercive imposition, akin to molestation. Persuasion, that's the E-ticket to ride, akin to seduction. Actually, a one-word synopsis of rhetoric, which creative writing discussion is part of, is persuasion.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by LewisC:
Does he find out the details as the story goes on? In that case, maybe piecemeal flashbacks as he learns more?

LewisC

The problem with that is what happened to his mother took place before he was born. Kinda hard for him to flash back to something like that. Or am I misunderstanding what you're trying to say?
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Robert Nowall
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I subscribe to the theory of starting as late in a story as possible...can the essential matter be filled in later in a flashback?

But I also subscribe to the theory that for every rule (say, the one about sticking with one viewpoint character), exceptions can be found in already published-and-praised work.

(Can't remember the title, but there was a Charles Sheffield novel where the beginning was taken up by the birth of the protagonist under tragic and dangerous circumstances (an airplane crash in the snow, or something like that.) Necessary to explain the character's physica; / mental state...but, unfortunately, not necessary to the rest of the plot.)

((Didn't "Harry Potter" also begin with a scene of characters toasting his birth? He's not there till the next chapter...))

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by AndrewR:
Is it necessary for the reader to see the incident at the beginning of the story?

You can convey the brutality of the rape by the way you tell it, whether by someone involved (relative, friend, investigator, witness, etc.) or by the clues left behind--torn dress, bloodstains, what the mother told others, etc. If you need to, you can have the reader feel the horror at the same time your protagonist feels it.

Since the protagonist will need to find out this information as the story progresses, why present it twice? What would be the reason, other than the immediacy of "seeing" it? If that is the only reason, I think you could convey it through other methods.

That's exactly what I was thinking but afraid it wouldn't have the same impact. I like this idea and will probably try it. I just needed a healthy nudge in the right direction [Big Grin] .
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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by Pyre Dynasty:
Personally I'd say leave it out. It's a distraction from the man's story. OR Perhaps make it a journal of some sort that the man finds later in the novel, that way you can show us his reaction to it.

That's the other reason why visualizing the incident bothered me. There's a huge leap from the rape and his mother's murder to when we join the protagonist as a young boy.

A journal wouldn't work either the protagonist and his mother are illiterate since they,re slaves on an estate. Only the ruling and upper class can read and write. But thanks for the suggestion.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
I wonder how the science fiction premise comes into play. If the fantastical premise or premises connect or correlate to the theme and the dramatic complication, I'd say the mother's story could work, perhaps for a conflict resolution type story with a discovery or revelation and a decision type that both cause a reversal of circumstances transformation for the son. That might mean artful misdirection leading readers to believe the story type is resolution but artful twists that make it a discovery and reversal type. "Luke, I am your father." Then later, Luke's unwavering faith in the goodness of his father transforms Vader/Anakin.

And that's the other side of the coin. Don't get me wrong, extrinsic; I get what you're saying, but it did help me remember another reason for portraying the mother's story first before taking up the son's. The mother's story lays down the world and some of its rules of class structure among its people along with introducing the story's antagonist. I'd forgotten all about this until now. I would imagine this could make a difference. Although... the antagonist and the world building does come out through the rest of the book. Sheesh! Back to square one.
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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Does the reader need to know only some few of the details surrounding the rape, then murder, of the mother to understand the opening of the story. (I suppose that means, do you need to 'mention' it to explain character quirks, but not go into detail until the MC 'investigates', or learns of the circumstances himself). If that's the case, let the story unfold and 'show' the MC learning, then reacting to, the information.

My point: The right stimuli can have a profound effect in instigating a 'in real time' vision of events that the MC has never witnessed. Consider the 'shower scene' in psycho. Arguably one of the most 'horrific' scene in modern cinema. Why is it so horrific? Because the viewers own mind feeds their deepest fears about what 'has' happened.

The MC does know some facts surrounding his mother... very few, but enough to make him want to seek out those responisible for what happened to her. The book covers the huge obstacles the MC has to overcome just to survive his own life, but he's always thinking about his mother and looking for a chance to find his father and avenge her death. This is carried through the entire story and leads to the climax near the book's end.

Thank you for your own personal perspective. It must've been hard doing a job like that.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
Don't get me wrong, extrinsic; I get what you're saying, but it did help me remember another reason for portraying the mother's story first before taking up the son's. The mother's story lays down the world and some of its rules of class structure among its people along with introducing the story's antagonist. I'd forgotten all about this until now. I would imagine this could make a difference. Although... the antagonist and the world building does come out through the rest of the book. Sheesh! Back to square one.

I find theme and theme-conflict in Ayn Rand's lexicon a useful tool for working through these complexities. Identity is very much on point for a son who did not know his parents. Parents and family are a primary influence for identity formation. Existential crises are a credible consequence of not knowing one's parents.

The son has an identity vacuum, known in sociology circles as a subject wound. He does not know who to trust because he did not have the benefit of parental social acculturation. Trust issues. In order to suture the subject wound, he must come to an accommodation with his externally imposed familial estrangement and his trust issues.

These considerations suggest a theme of an Individual in Society, which plays well with Mother's backstory the son seeks to clarify. He may know a few details, but questions why those events happened to her, for example. Finding out why later, after portraying the stark details of Mother's molestation and death leaves a major villain motivation wide open for the son's discovery.

Subthemes of an Individual in Society:
a. Society and a person's inner nature are always at war.
b. Social influences determine a person's final destiny.
c. Social influences can only complete inclinations formed by Nature.
d. A person's identity is determined by place in society.
e. In spite of the pressure to be among people, an individual is essentially alone and frightened.

Theme-conflict according to Rand's lexicon is a concept identical to dramatic complication, with a connection or correlation to a central and unifying theme. An empathy-worthy problem wanting satisfaction is a dramatic complication. In terms of theme-conflict, the son's struggle and quest, a personal journey quest, is a powerful unifier and tool for filtering a draft for reworking.

The son's seeking to understand his parents and their absence from his life is a highly empathy-worthy problem wanting satisfaction. In fact, the premise of the son estranged from family sets up one of the underlying empathy-worthy patterns and sequences common to popularly and critically acclaimed literature and legends and sacred myths; that is, isolation (introduction beginning), followed by occurrence (effect of isolation, middle), and consequence (outcome ending). The mother's story is about the setup for isolation of the son, the way I see it. The middle is about his efforts to integrate his fractured identity. The ending is about the outcome of his struggle and integration of identity. While this isolation pattern and sequence is not plot in the generally accepted sense, it is parallel to plot and an equally useful organizing principle.

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Crystal Stevens
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Extrensic, you've nailed my plot line exactly. That's the structure my story follows. It's about a child growing up to manhood, not only age-wise but society-wise by rising above the station he was born in to achieve a better life and one he can accept.
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extrinsic
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Cool. I can infer a possible central fantastical premise then that closely correlates to the structure, theme, and theme-conflict.

Anachrony is on point. The other world setting and milieu suggests a function of temporal displacement. Old World Middle Ages feudalist social and cultural milieu condoned rape and other violence perpetrated by leadership upon underclasses without consequences. Yet I project your other world setting and milieu are closer to contemporary technological circumstances. That's an anachrony that supports the other world choice as a fantastical premise. Physical or hard science fiction in that fantastical science and technology are in play and social or soft science fiction in that fantastcial social circumstances are in play, kind of dystopian in that Middle Ages' social stratification practices are transplanted into a comparatively contemporary society.

I'm intrigued. The message and moral I see seem timely and relevant to today's social issues. You've got a tiger by the tail.

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enigmaticuser
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Crystal, there's a lot of words up already so pardon if I repeat.

But you said you were wondering if there would be a loss of impact without the seeing it, as in the discovery by clues or a journal or whatever. I think the horror comes from the perspective shift and the desires you have built into your POV character. Theoretically, the "brutality" could be told in a sado-maschist setting of "non-rape", point being the brutality doesn't make the rape.

So the question is what does the POV character think going into the discovery? If the POV does not know it then he might imagine his mom had some tragic love that died. Or that his father was just some loser. Or that his mom had a careless fling. But if he had love for his mom, some rosy mommy picture in his mind and suddenly he is confronted with the fact that this happened to his mom. Suddenly, his image of her changes from that rosy Mom, to what? His mom in terror? Abused? Perhaps tainted in somewhat?

So to me, the impact doesn't come from the violence of the scene, but the violence of the shift in perspective, and resulting dilemma about how his mom wanted to be remembered versus this marred, imagined memory.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by enigmaticuser:
Crystal, there's a lot of words up already so pardon if I repeat.

But you said you were wondering if there would be a loss of impact without the seeing it, as in the discovery by clues or a journal or whatever. I think the horror comes from the perspective shift and the desires you have built into your POV character. Theoretically, the "brutality" could be told in a sado-maschist setting of "non-rape", point being the brutality doesn't make the rape.

So the question is what does the POV character think going into the discovery? If the POV does not know it then he might imagine his mom had some tragic love that died. Or that his father was just some loser. Or that his mom had a careless fling. But if he had love for his mom, some rosy mommy picture in his mind and suddenly he is confronted with the fact that this happened to his mom. Suddenly, his image of her changes from that rosy Mom, to what? His mom in terror? Abused? Perhaps tainted in somewhat?

So to me, the impact doesn't come from the violence of the scene, but the violence of the shift in perspective, and resulting dilemma about how his mom wanted to be remembered versus this marred, imagined memory.

I'm sorry, but you're way off base. Everyone knows Mom was raped through no choice of her own. These are known facts. A slave is property to be bred or brutalized at a master's whim. My MC knows this. Mom was on the edge of adulthood when her master beat her in a drunken rage after she humiliated him unintentionally in front of very prominent guests during a victory feast in her master's castle. Wrong place at the wrong time.

None of what you surmise ever happens with my MC wanting nothing more than to avenge his mother if given the chance. And find out what kind of man his father truly is since the man was another slave commanded to do the deed, which was a common practice when rape was occasionally used as a discipline for disobedience. Everyone on the estate knew what a gentle and caring person Mom was. She was an innocent just trying to survive life like any other slave.

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MattLeo
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Horror doesn't come from brutality; it comes from not knowing what to make of something. Blood for example is ambiguous; is it a living part of the person it came from or is it an inanimate object? Therefore being covered with blood is, for most people, a horrific experience.

Shadows in the corner of the attic that move are ambiguous and therefore horrifying; are they full or empty? Ghosts are horrific because it's not clear whether they're alive or dead. Bram Stoker's vampires are similarly horrifying, but Stephanie Meyers' vampires are not horrifying because clearly they're alive for all practical purposes.

Most novice writers pour on the brutal detail when they want to elicit horror, but they're seldom successful. Horror is subtly different from revulsion, just as suspense is subtly different from fear. The essence of horror is that you wan't to look away, but *can't*. You're compelled to look closer, to try to make sense of it.

It takes masterpiece level writing to generate horror in an opening through brutalizing a character. That's because brutality serves up only half the horror equation: the desire to look away. You've got to conjure up the other half: the compulsion to look closer. Granted some readers are simply attracted to grotesque images, but for the bulk of readers it's far easier to generate horror well into the story after they're emotionally invested in the character (e.g. The Hunger Games).

So bringing this back to the question of story structure, the problem you've set for yourself is to get the reader emotionally invested in Mom in the prologue, then carry that interest into a story in which Mom doesn't appear. If you don't manage to get them invested in Mom, you'll get the desire to look away without the compulsion to look closer. Even after you've managed that trick, you need to contrive some way to transfer the reader's momentum from the prologue to the main story. Otherwise you're asking them to make a second start, which is annoying.

What's important as a writer handling unpleasant or repulsive situations is to not rely upon naive assumptions about human nature, for example assuming that we'll automatically care about the suffering of others just because we *should*.

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aspirit
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Crystal, what story are you writing?

It looks to me that you want to write a character mystery--that you want to answer the question about what happened to the mother and how the search to answer that question changes her son. If you started with the events leading up to the rape, readers might assume that the point of the story is the relationship between the man's parents rather than his search to know more about them. So, starting with the mother's story could distract away from your intended premise.

Anyway, I'd be more interested in reading a novel that started with a lonely man intent on solving family mysteries than one that started with a slave's rape and murder. Brutality is off-putting when you don't already care for the characters or care so much that you can't bear what happens to them. By showing the rape in the opening, you'd also be giving away the mystery and cutting the tension when you switch to the man's POV. I think I would prefer to learn the truth about what happened while the MC does.

Then again, I could have misinterpreted what kind of story you have in mind.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

Most novice writers pour on the brutal detail when they want to elicit horror, but they're seldom successful. Horror is subtly different from revulsion, just as suspense is subtly different from fear. The essence of horror is that you wan't to look away, but *can't*. You're compelled to look closer, to try to make sense of it.

It takes masterpiece level writing to generate horror in an opening through brutalizing a character. That's because brutality serves up only half the horror equation: the desire to look away. You've got to conjure up the other half: the compulsion to look closer. Granted some readers are simply attracted to grotesque images, but for the bulk of readers it's far easier to generate horror well into the story after they're emotionally invested in the character (e.g. The Hunger Games).

So bringing this back to the question of story structure, the problem you've set for yourself is to get the reader emotionally invested in Mom in the prologue, then carry that interest into a story in which Mom doesn't appear. If you don't manage to get them invested in Mom, you'll get the desire to look away without the compulsion to look closer. Even after you've managed that trick, you need to contrive some way to transfer the reader's momentum from the prologue to the main story. Otherwise you're asking them to make a second start, which is annoying.

What's important as a writer handling unpleasant or repulsive situations is to not rely upon naive assumptions about human nature, for example assuming that we'll automatically care about the suffering of others just because we *should*.

First; I totally understand what you're saying and agree. But I can think of a couple of stories where this technique has worked quite well... and I'm sure there are more examples than that if I put my mind to it. One is the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast" where they tell the story of how the prince became a beast before getting into the actual story. The other that fits my novel a bit closer is the book "The Horse Whisperer" where the accident that sets the whole story rolling is told right up front.

And a third one just popped into my head; Another Disney movie, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" with Nicholas Cage that also uses this technique.

So it does work. I'm just not 100% sure it's right for my novel. I've had two people read it the way I wrote it the first time around. Both of them said to leave it like it is. But they don't see how crappy my prose is, and I need to change a lot of that. But as I'm reading it over again, right now, I wonder if it can fly without the stark realism of the driving force behind the entire story at the beginning: how and why Mom was raped and then killed after deivering the resulting child.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by aspirit:
Crystal, what story are you writing?

It looks to me that you want to write a character mystery--that you want to answer the question about what happened to the mother and how the search to answer that question changes her son. If you started with the events leading up to the rape, readers might assume that the point of the story is the relationship between the man's parents rather than his search to know more about them. So, starting with the mother's story could distract away from your intended premise.

Anyway, I'd be more interested in reading a novel that started with a lonely man intent on solving family mysteries than one that started with a slave's rape and murder. Brutality is off-putting when you don't already care for the characters or care so much that you can't bear what happens to them. By showing the rape in the opening, you'd also be giving away the mystery and cutting the tension when you switch to the man's POV. I think I would prefer to learn the truth about what happened while the MC does.

Then again, I could have misinterpreted what kind of story you have in mind.

I can see where you would think Mom's story would be about her relationship with the MC's father. Believe me, it isn't. It focuses on Mom and not Dad. Mom doesn't even know who the father of her child is. And I don't give away the mystery but enhance it by leaving unanswered questions.

The story isn't as much a mystery as a story about a young boy and the obstacles he has to overcome by the time he's a man. His search for the truth about what happened to his mother, and who his father is, is a large chunk of that and helps mold him into the man he becomes.

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extrinsic
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In other words, the story is a coming of age story, or initiation into adulthood or adulthood apprenticeship, though partly later in life when he's able to pursue his personal journey quest without the limitations of youth's oppressive boundaries.

Horror? I don't see it as the genre.

Mystery? I don't see it as the genre.

Dystopia? Maybe that one.

Coming of age, for sure. Only moving past traditional coming of age attainment and into expressing consequences of maturation. Personal growth comes at a personal cost. The personal loss of his mother and isolation shape who the son becomes.

Unlike young adult coming of age, the personal journey of an early adult narrative is one of portraying lessons learned when younger that cause complications to overcome and provide for satisfactions thereof. This is bildungsroman genre: personal, psychological, and emotional maturation growth.

What shape is this? Personal journey, quest, the most ancient, noble, and time honored narrative tradition. A persona sets off on a noble (self-sacrificing) quest for an object or destination or outcome that will serve a greater good. Artful misdirection, the quest goal is a concrete outcome; however, in the process a personal, emotional maturation goal is accomplished. The concrete goal symbolizes the intangible, immaterial, abstract idea of growing up, a journey that continues until the bitter end but reaches plateaus along the way.

Portraying the mother's story to me is about showing how events that happened to her influence the son's struggle and outcome.

[ December 01, 2012, 01:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Crystal -- I think you're addressing a slightly different point than what I was making. You've basically demonstrated that prologues sometimes work, although they may not be right for every story.

I had two points. First, obtaining certain emotional reactions, particularly empathy, is much harder in openings than it is further into the story. Not impossible clearly, but you really have to worry about readers shutting down emotionally when confronted in an opening with graphic suffering. There's a big difference between showing a fairy tale curse take hold and depicting a brutal sexual assault. One is symbolic, the other is visceral.

The second point was the need for a vehicle to transfer the reader's momentum into the main story from an extended and dramatic prologue. That's easy in Beauty and the Beast because the Beast is a character we know Beauty will have to confront.

Extrinsic -- I wasn't implying the story was in the horror genre; I was discussion the emotional state of horror, in which the reader finds himself compelled to make sense of repugnant events and details.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Extrinsic -- I wasn't implying the story was in the horror genre; I was discussion the emotional state of horror, in which the reader finds himself compelled to make sense of repugnant events and details.

I understood. How horror works has been a topic for my recent folkloristics studies. Function plays a strong role as do mannerisms. For example, memorates, supernatural experience narratives, have a set of standard conventions, one of which is memorate performances are unpolished compared to typical fiction narratives. Their unpolished nature adds authentication texture. As does the way memorates are performed like a trial witness giving hedged yet clinical testimony. Capturing that unpolished quality for polished fiction intrigues me.

Horror-wise, an example of visceral motifs conventional to memorates are ectoplasmic gel, unexplained moving of objects, unexplained sounds, unexplained disappearances, unexplained blood and gore, etc. Their psychological horror pivots on what readers know the motifs signal about imminent if not actual immediate danger, that and tension's empathy and suspense invoking curiosity.

Function-wise, memorates work by isolating an individual in a fearful and awe-causing situation in a liminal space that resonates with readers' need for belief and partcipation in something grander and more mystical than the self, thus responding to the willing suspension of disbelief contract between writer and audiences. Other memorate functions include confronting fear, authenticating personal identity, and at times as a behavior adjustment ritual: for correction, instruction, or control, for example. M. Night Shyamalan's The Village artfully illustrates the latter.

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Grumpy old guy
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Crystal, all the examples you've given of where a 'prologue' works are in the visual medium of movies, not the written word. What may work for one, may not work in the other. For the readers to care about what happened to the mother, they must have invested some emotional currency. She's dead when we meet the main character, so the emotional investment can only be expended through our journey following the son's discovery of who she was.

I think extrinsic is right in the genre of the story. Although, I might suggest the 'mythic quest' framework for the story rather than the 'coming of age' structure.

Phil.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
The second point was the need for a vehicle to transfer the reader's momentum into the main story from an extended and dramatic prologue. That's easy in Beauty and the Beast because the Beast is a character we know Beauty will have to confront.

Something I didn't even think about until now is that my antagonist is very much in Mom's part of the story. Also a major supporting character that takes my MC in and raises him as her own after Mom is killed. So, from what you're saying, my readers can very well relate to what everyone is calling a prologue with what happens after with my MC... even if he isn't in the "prologue".

Actually, I'll probably make Mom's story chapter one much like Rawlings did in "The Sorcerer's Stone". Except that my "prologue" won't be suitable for young children to read.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Crystal, all the examples you've given of where a 'prologue' works are in the visual medium of movies, not the written word. What may work for one, may not work in the other. For the readers to care about what happened to the mother, they must have invested some emotional currency. She's dead when we meet the main character, so the emotional investment can only be expended through our journey following the son's discovery of who she was.

You have obviously never read the book "The Horse Whisperer" that I was refering to. It's a real eye opener and very emotionally charged. You can actually "feel" the accident as it happens when that logging truck collides with the two girls on horseback. I've never had anything I've ever read leave me in such a powerfully awesome grip as Evans did with the way he wrote that scene. It was just plain incredible in a way that did not--could not--come across in the movie version.

And like I said in my last post in this thread: I'd forgotton that my antagonist is very much a part of Mom's story... along with the woman who raises my MC after Mom is killed. So there is a carry-over from Mom's story to where we pick it up with my MC as a young boy.

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
In other words, the story is a coming of age story, or initiation into adulthood or adulthood apprenticeship, though partly later in life when he's able to pursue his personal journey quest without the limitations of youth's oppressive boundaries.

Horror? I don't see it as the genre.

Mystery? I don't see it as the genre.

Dystopia? Maybe that one.

Coming of age, for sure. Only moving past traditional coming of age attainment and into expressing consequences of maturation. Personal growth comes at a personal cost. The personal loss of his mother and isolation shape who the son becomes.

Unlike young adult coming of age, the personal journey of an early adult narrative is one of portraying lessons learned when younger that cause complications to overcome and provide for satisfactions thereof. This is bildungsroman genre: personal, psychological, and emotional maturation growth.

What shape is this? Personal journey, quest, the most ancient, noble, and time honored narrative tradition. A persona sets off on a noble (self-sacrificing) quest for an object or destination or outcome that will serve a greater good. Artful misdirection, the quest goal is a concrete outcome; however, in the process a personal, emotional maturation goal is accomplished. The concrete goal symbolizes the intangible, immaterial, abstract idea of growing up, a journey that continues until the bitter end but reaches plateaus along the way.

Portraying the mother's story to me is about showing how events that happened to her influence the son's struggle and outcome.

You've got it, extrinsic as far as what you're saying my story represents. It's definitely not a kid's story. I'm not sure if you can categorize it as young adult due to mature themes that become stronger as the MC reaches adulthood. I would say a good third to a fourth of the book is him as a man in his early twenties... if he was from Earth. I deliberately leave out people's ages because there are no, what I term, "Earthers" in the story.

The whole story is about the MC overcoming class structure among the people of his country combined with military and political entanglements while trying to avenge his mother's death and find out who his father is. But I do believe you've already figured that out [Smile] .

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