Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fan Fiction, part 3

Last week I talked about how I overcame my distrust and dislike of fan fiction enough to recommend writing it as a good exercise for beginning writers. The argument was, much of what beginning writers struggle with--character, worldbuilding, and so forth--are done for you. You can think about character and setting without having to invent character and setting.

One problem writing fan fiction does not solve is poor pacing. In fact, terribly slow pacing is one of the biggest problems I've seen in the fan fiction I've read. It seems like the writers love these characters so much, they'll draw out every scene as long as they can, and have long dialogues that do nothing useful from a story perspective.

So how can fan fiction help a beginning writer learn pacing? By modifying the concept a bit. Instead of writing a new adventure featuring your favorite characters, why not turn an existing story into prose?

Try this sometime. Take an episode of your favorite TV show, or a portion of your favorite movie, and turn it, scene for scene, line for line, into prose. Write down all the dialogue exactly. Describe what the characters are doing exactly. All you're changing is the storytelling medium.

Of course, that's a huge change, because TV is visual and auditory. We've all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, let me tell you, if you're taking a 24-frames-a-second movie and turning each frame into 1,000 words, you're going to need 24,000 words to describe EVERY SECOND of the original. And that's just wrong.

Filmed stories give you a ton of details that don't matter all that much because the camera can't fail to record anything in its field of vision. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer enters a living room, you'll see the exact color of all her clothing and whatever else she's wearing. You'll see the carpet, the drapes, the size and color and position of the couch, whether the living room has one or several lamps, which lamps are on, how bright they are, what their shades look like, whether there are bookshelves, how many books are on each shelf... and all that information is present immediately.

Do you have to describe all that in your prose version? No, but I've seen people try. And their stories are harder to get through than root canals. 

Here's a piece of advice I've been giving for several years now, and I keep giving it because a few beginners have told me it's some of the best advice they've ever received. Here it is:

Write what matters, not what happens.
When Buffy enters the room, don't bother telling us whether her left foot or her right foot stepped on the rug first unless that information matters to the story. In a TV episode, you can't help seeing which foot hits the floor first when she enters, if the camera shows her legs as she's walking. That information doesn't matter, but it takes no time to show that extra information, so letting the camera record it doesn't slow the story down. In prose, every word takes time to read. Don't make readers waste time reading whether her left foot or right foot hit the floor first unless it matters.

So does any detail matter about how Buffy enters the room? Maybe. What's her mood like? Is she cautious or is she racing into the room? Is she saying anything as she enters? Sometimes these details add more to a story than the time to read them takes away, and sometimes they don't. 

Turning a comic book, TV episode, movie scene, or play scene into prose is a terrific exercise for a beginning writer because it forces them to examine every piece of information in the original source, and ask whether it matters to the story's purpose. If it does, you find a way to describe it or evoke it in prose. If it does not, then you leave it out. Learning to leave out story elements that don't matter to the story is the single most valuable technique for improving a story's pacing in any medium.

Go back to the idea of the bookshelves Buffy's walking past in my earlier example. They're filled with books, right? So, do you think the show's writer and director said, "Make sure the first book on the first shelf is slightly taller than the second, but slightly thinner than the third, and a bit darker in color than the fourth..." No. The writer or director said, "There are old, well-bound, dusty books on the shelves. The books look expensive, maybe even historic, but they haven't been read in a while." That's the information the set designers had to work with, and that's the information that might go into your prose... if the bookshelves can play an important role in the story, such as setting a mood, or relating to a key plot point.

No matter how experienced a writer you are, if you've never tried to write a prose version of a non-prose story, you've missed out on a great writing exercise. I strongly recommend it to anyone with fewer than five short story sales to their credit, and frankly, it's don't think it's a complete waste of time unless your fiction is winning literary prizes.

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