From December 19-December 23, you can get my short story/novelette free as a Kindle e-book!
Trapped in a maze. Surrounded by ghosts. Very, very hungry.
Follow Pak Hee-Joon as he investigates the strange maze he finds himself in, tries to figure out how he got here and what he must do to escape, and fights for his life against the evil spirits that dwell within.
Four ghosts, myriad little white gems to collect, randomly appearing fruit, and power-ups that turn the tides against his spooky enemies - for a limited duration. If any of that sounds familiar, this might be the short story for you!
The point early on in a musical where the lead character sings a song that clearly lays out for the audience what his/her goals and dreams are, is an important and necessary development in the story.
For most of us, we will be especially familiar with the way Disney has used the technique in its animated movies, so for the sake of reference I will use a few of those to explain what I mean about "I want" songs.
But hold up: how can I use a song in my novel? Well, obviously I can't. But the basic technique of making sure the character and longings of my protagonist are laid bare for the reader is a sound one, that I should be paying more attention to.
There is, of course, the pretty basic "I want more" song. That specific line is used in both Ariel's "Part of Your World" and Belle's "Belle" (The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, respectively). It is just a declaration of: "I want my life to be better and bigger than this."
And yet... Ariel has a purpose in hers. She doesn't just want "more", she wants something specific. From afar, she has observed these humans on their ("what are they called? Oh yeah... 'feet'!") and longs to experience that specific other world. With this setup, the movie goes on to show her both the joys and the drawbacks of becoming "part of that world".
But Belle? What does she long for? "I want much more than this provincial life." As much as I love her, the song, and Beauty and the Beast (still Disney's best movie) this song does a less good job of setting the stage.
It comes across as little more than Belle thinking she is "better" than the other people in her village, and just wanting... something. What exactly? How does this help us understand her goals, and the theme of the movie?
At least Rapunzel's "When Will My Life Begin" from Tangled shows us the nature of her confinement, the accomplishments Rapunzel has been able to attain, her interests and resourcefulness, in the process of revealing that she has just been biding time until her real life can start. The specific goal is not defined, but other aspects of the character are.
One of the best "I want" songs (from, ironically, one of my least favorite Disney animations) is "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from The Lion King.
Here, Simba is showing that he is a little brat who wants control over his situation and over other people. He wants to be free to do what he likes, and for no one to have power over him. It sets out the stall for Simba, showing that he is still young and selfish and does not understand the way the world works.
Most importantly, he has forgotten that he will not be king until the old king (his father) dies. This song sets us up for Mufasa's imminent demise, and Simba's flight from the destiny he had so recently pined for.
The best kind of "I want" songs do not only reveal character and desire, but set up the movie (or play, of course) itself. Show the audience what the movie will be about.
Which brings me back to my books.
How can I use this technique in my novels? Well, I'm not sure yet - which is why I'm exploring this topic here today!
But I think that the general notion should translate well to books. Within the first few chapters (preferably the first few pages) we should get an "I want" song. (Albeit in prose form.) We should see something which reveals to us not only the protagonists goals and desires, but the direction which the book will take. The themes which will develop along the way.
I think I by and large managed this in the first chapter of "Red Cross". The book begins with Andy Flashman musing on his future as he impatiently awaits scholarship results which will decide his college future, and whether he can pursue his dream of being a professional football player.
Will the book be about him becoming a football player? No! But showing his preoccupation with the shape his future might take, and his powerlessness in awaiting someone else's decision that will define it for him, sets up the basic theme and direction for this book.
Andy's future is at stake, and he wishes he personally had some impact over what the shape of it might be.
This manifests in a completely different way in the Sleepwar, and the book ends with a kind of reversal of those opening moments.
But "Straw Soldiers"? Not so much.
I love that book, and the opening scene shows us Kaz's personality and her abilities, her traits - the things which will embroil her in the plot and decide her role in the events that unfold.
But what does she want? What, specifically, are her desires and dreams and ambitions? How do those things impact the way in which the plot will take place?
This is not presented - or, at least, not in a clear and concise way which the reader can take in and understand right up front. There's a lot of good stuff in that book, and I think it ultimately works, but giving Kaz a good "I want" song would have given the reader a better connection to her, and a better investment in the progress of the plot and story.
When I go back to redraft "Cogs & Cognizance" (the novel I am currently working on) this is an issue I will need to take seriously. How best to present to the reader exactly what Hattie desires, why she does not yet have it, and what stands in her way.
And exactly how the book is going to give us these things, but in a way the character does not yet expect.
A few days late getting round to posting this, but what the hey.
"Winter Neverland: An Anthology" is finally available for purchase! Huzzah!
A collection of winter-themed stories by a group of writers with different styles and sensibilities. You like your stories sweet and sensitive? It's in here.
What about funny? Yup, we have that. Dramatic and moving? We got you, fam.
And if you prefer your wintry tales dark and disturbing, oh do we ever have that covered!
Paperback version $9.99
E-book coming very soon!
I have no answers.
If I did, I'd be a lot more successful than I am. But just asking the questions can lead us to greater insight. (Or at least, that's what I tell myself.)
But back up a little bit: exactly what am I asking here?
See, the book I'm reading has a protagonist who is a cold-blooded murderer, turned professional assassin. One who shows no sign of remorse so far (though is certainly headed for a "redemptive" arc) and similarly no sign of personality other than a dedication to duty, to death. And I just can't get on board.
I've always differed from some commentators in that I thought you didn't need to work so hard to win over an audience. I figured that the very fact that you have chosen to invest in this book means that you will by default side with the protagonist.
This book is changing my viewpoint.
So what is the key here? Must we rely on cliched "pet the dog" moments to make our heroes and heroines approachable? I hope not.
My favorite novel is Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita". Humbert Humbert is a pedophile and a child-molester, and yet we feel enough "sympathy" to go along with him as our lead (even as we despise everything he does and stands for). Why?
Probably just because of the beauty and poetry of Nabokov's prose, attributed in-world to narrator Humbert Humbert. We are entranced by his way with words, his wit, his playfulness. We enjoy the experience of reading his point of view, without having to enjoy him as a person at all.
Of course, the book also starts with something of a pre-apology from Humbert as he narrates the childhood experience that "trapped" him into liking young girls. Yet this is not the thing that binds us to him, as it is always clear that he is manipulating the reader, presenting this as an explanation for his actions (even while claiming contrition).
No, this "explaining away" of his nature is not what draws in the audience; we are not fooled by Humbert Humbert's tactics. So apart from the sheer delight of reading English written so well, why do we enjoy the experience of seeing the world through his eyes?
No idea. Sorry.
Similarly, Van Veen in the same author's "Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle" is a hateful slimeball, but the sheer cleverness of the prose makes me delight in the book even while despising the protagonist.
So it's not about relatability. Not exactly. Not about having us feel as though we are necessarily like the character. But we do (perhaps) need to feel as though we understand the character's experience.
Change media here: let's look at film.
For the first 20-odd minutes of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, we are watching Janet Leigh's character Marion act as lead. Then, when she is killed (ostensibly by motel owner Mrs Bates) the lead role is taken by the killer['s son?] Norman, as he disposes of the body and tries to evade certain parties interested in the murder.
Why on Earth would we switch our allegiance to this handsome but odd-and-slightly-creepy character who is getting rid of our heroine's corpse?
Norman Bates hides the body in his car, then pushes it into the swamp. As it starts to sink, it catches--for just a moment, it looks as though the vehicle will not submerge. We are tense; our hearts catch in our throats.
Then: relief. It sinks. Phew!
Just that simple and relatable moment ("Oh no! The car won't sink!") transfers our sympathy to this strange young man instead. We instantly understand this tension and relate to it--feel it ourselves. Which immediately puts us on his side, whatever else we may think of the man.
So what does this mean for our writing? To be honest, I'm not particularly sure.
What I do know is that making sure my main character is all sunshine and rainbows and dog-petting is unnecessary. Giving him/her a situation to which the reader can instantly relate may just give the audience all the opportunity it needs to latch onto the protagonist after all.