Writing: Handling a Cast of Thousands (2 of 3)
In the first section of this discussion (Handling a Cast of Thousands), we covered the concept of cast members and the importance of correctly selecting the viewpoints for telling your story. We covered some caveats about viewpoint and their effect on narrative. Lastly, we touched on the concept of foils, group dynamics, and skimmed the basic rules of character interaction and differentiation.
It’s time to press on toward “virtual layers”. If you look up the word “virtual” you’ll find that it means to artificially create a semblance of something that has no actual reality. Your first instinct at reading this might be that ALL writing is in essence “virtual”—and you’re right. That’s where we get into the mind-bender of group handling: the story WITHIN the story.
The Story Your Characters See
You might be thinking that you’ve always told the story EXACTLY as it happened, right?
Why? Why must the story be exactly as you envisioned it?
Because you’re God (of your fictional universe anyway) and dammit, that’s the way it happened. Don’t deny it—you’ve thought something similar. This is a VERY common fallacy amongst less experienced writers. Integrity to the story “as it happened” is as “virtual” as it gets. You are clinging to a historical “truth” that never existed. Despite all thoughts to the contrary, your concept of the “history” of your narrative is an illusion. If you allow yourself to become fixated on that illusion, you lose vital objectivity. You must be able to interact with that illusion. You must think of it as real when you play the roles of your cast—but beyond that you must be willing to LET GO. Let the cast tell THEIR story—THEIR version. Bite your authorial tongue if they don’t tell the unvarnished truth. When you let go, you allow your cast’s individual narrative voices begin to shine through.
Your narrative has a life of its own. Story gives rise to story. Characters within your narrative (to whom the tableau is real) are the lens through which the course of events is related. We’ve all heard the tale of the “one that got away”. The fisherman brings home a minnow, but in order to save face relates his epic struggle (and subsequent failure) to land the scaly monster that swam off into the sunset.
Like the empty-handed fisherman, your characters have ego and motivation to tell the story as THEY see fit. You as the author know how it REALLY happened, but resist the instinct to tell the story as only you, the author, see it.
What we are touching on is known by another name: “layering”. Consider the following twelve layers (Past, Present, Future):
- History as you, the writer, conceived it.
- History as the CHARACTERS have heard it told.
- History as the CHARACTERS believe it to be.
- Historical perceptions developed by the READER.
- The present as you, the writer, have constructed it.
- The present as the CHARACTERS see it.
- The present as the characters reveal it.
- The present as the READER experiences it.
- The future the writer has plotted out.
- The future as a function of how the characters respond to the present.
- The future the READER predicts.
- The future as reconstructed by characters’ reactions.
These layers can have a “perfect” and “imperfect” sense. They also bear on what’s called “fixed” or “indeterminate” continuity.
These subtleties are a tightrope that you as a writer walk all the time without necessarily being aware of it. Some authors deal with it instinctively, others mechanically. These layers are the threads of that elusive sense of total immersion we all shoot for and admire. It is a conceptual symmetry between the reader’s suspension of disbelief, the character’s relating of the tale, and the spell of imagination that you as a writer are casting. A watchful eye toward balancing these levels of indirection contributes to a sense of a living, breathing world populated with characters we love and hate.
How to Do It: Authorial Filtering
Let’s go one level higher and discuss some structuring that’s always taking place as you write: authorial “filtering”.
Imagine yourself sitting next to the fire, pen in hand, while the protagonist spills out everything that has happened to him. If you were to write word-for-word what that character related, it would be what’s commonly called a stream of consciousness.
Some writers actually write their material this way. Others go further, and “walk a league” in the other guy’s boots. They pretend to be the protagonist as the story is happening. What the narrator relates or thinks in his own tongue gets translated by writer and is “channeled” to the page for the reader.
While most of you may not think of writing as a two-step process of dictation and transcription, this is the purest essence of story-telling. As you impose structure and method on the transcribed story, you are “filtering” the result.
As you filter, you decide how much or how little of the original viewpoint’s narrative voice to retain and how much or how little of your own style to impose onto the words recorded. How you render or sensor the result is the “voice” and “distance” in your story.
Some sticklers might venture here that the fictional character relating the story IS an aspect of the writer, and thus the same person. Consider this alternative view: Try thinking of characters as split personalities that you access within the bubble of your creative mind. They are roles that you slip into and out of like masks or clothing. The more separate and distinct you make their existence (and the less you interfere with the words as they speak and think), the more alive on paper they will become.
The strictures and dynamics you impose on the story are all author “filtering”. They are the “bones” of the supporting framework and the nuts and bolts that hold it together. Never do you want the reader to feel or sense these underpinnings. The moment the reader scoffs or rolls their eyes at some too-obvious mechanism, you’ve lost them.
When in doubt, understate the mechanics and overstate the dramatic. Melodrama is much easier to defuse via rewrites than over-obvious plot manipulation.
Use plot to evoke character rather than to create action. If you’ve established the stakes, the cast should gravitate toward the plot resolution and whatever action lays therein. If they aren’t being drawn toward the resolution, as opposed to being forced toward it by the author, then you may need to re-evaluate the stakes that supposedly motivate your characters.
Connecting the Dots: Pinning Points
By now, you should know the following about your cast. You should know the threat posed to them, and most importantly, have a strong sense of the stakes driving each member. You should know what each character wants (their agenda), and also what they need (their personal epiphany). You know where their goat is tied (metaphorically speaking), and the person who holds the chain (their foil). You’ve also developed some visual and sensory tags to make cast members distinct from one another. If more than one cast member serves as a viewpoint character, their perspectives are diverse and make the world more interesting through their unique narrative voice.
At this point, some people sit down and plot out their story, scene by scene, while others tell their story through action and reaction. Whichever approach you choose, you still need “pinning points”, way-points in the plot that help you track the story arc and whether or not your characters are showing development. Pinning points are a loose plotting technique that is goal-oriented.
When we say “goal oriented”, we’re trying to make a thematic or story statement or establish a visual idea or concept in the reader’s mind. For instance, if one of the characters has a history of alcoholism and this detail bears on the story, then we find a place in the story where this information can be revealed to best effect. If we want to emphasize the stakes (as we should at least every three or four chapters) then we set a pinning point for that.
You should have at least one pinning point for each cast member. Actually, the more important a character is to the story, the more dots in their character arc there should be. As in most good movies, there is a time when each character will get a chance on center stage. This is your best opportunity to reveal whatever hidden truth or secret this character may be concealing. This is also the time when the other characters experience an epiphany (however small) about him or her.
Viewpoint cast members should have at least eight pinning points in the story. They should have a scene that in some way establishes what’s at stake for them. Another scene should reveal their greatest liability, and another their greatest strength. Show a scene that establishes their desire, and another hinting at their “need”. They should mix it up with their foil at least once. A “rising” (growing entangled) encounter with whatever passes for a love or friendship interest is a must, and so is a “falling” (pulling apart) encounter with same. These are the bones of this protagonist’s story arc. They don’t have to be in any particular order, but all of them should take place somewhere during the course of the narrative. With issues like the character’s liability, the pinning point is most effective when there’s a matching scene later on that shows the character overcoming or grappling with that liability.
Other pinning points include planned foreshadowing, contrasting, or establishing scenes. A good example of a establishing pinning point is a scene the demonstrates how bad one of your villains is. You use one pinning scene where one of the cast demonstrates how devastating in combat (or whatever) they are: they mop the floor with some cantankerous walk-on whom you show as being a bad-ass. You’ve now shown their strength. The next pinning point is when the villain and our mop meet. The mop gets a drubbing like nobody’s business, but manages to escape with his (or her) tail between his legs. Now, you’ve established how tough the opposition is. When we have a showdown, the reader has a proper appreciation for the resistance the characters face. This also has the benefit in that it generates tension: when the characters confront this foe, we’re anticipating and wondering how they’ll win out.
Thinking in terms of these goals is by far the easiest way to think about your story without micro-plotting everything. If you set down your pinning goals, and then figure out where in time these events will occur, it often becomes clear what kind of connecting material is necessary to bridge the gaps. Because some scenes need establishing shots to set them up, they help flesh out empty spots in your narrative. If possible, work back to front, setting as many foreshadowing and establishing points as you can. It’s easier to put them in toward the beginning and rip them out if they prove unnecessary later.
Next: In “Cast of Thousands, Part III,” we’ll tie up loose ends and provide more plot and character dynamics tips to make that cast spark fire in your story.