Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

This is the first of three posts on setting.

Remember that old TV show, “Lost In Space”? Neither do I, really, but that’s OK. The title’s the important thing. I used to be in the Air Force, and there was a joke among us aviators that navigators were members of the Fugawi Tribe. (This was true for Naval aviators, too.)

“Why is that?” you ask.

“Because,” I reply, “you could often find them huddled over their paper charts (this is back in the day—today they huddle over GPS displays, mostly) with their compasses and protractors and special rulers and rotary slide rules. If you bent close and listened carefully, you could hear them muttering strange incantations and imprecations, in particular, ‘Where the fugawi?’”[1]

Or so I’m told.

In any case, something an author never wants to do is initiate their reader into the Fugawi Tribe. A reader who doesn’t know where he is—or where the characters are—isn’t going to be a happy reader. He doesn’t want to be lost in space…or time (which causes me to flash on another 1960s TV show: “It’s About Time,” whose theme song began with the lines, “It’s about time, it’s about space, / About two men in the strangest place…”).

TV and movies (and all the visual media) have a built-in advantage over printed fiction and non-fiction stories because they show the viewer, right up front and right away, where and when the story is taking place. They can’t help but do it.

It’s another matter in written fiction.  The author has to make a conscious effort to present that information to the reader. And she needs to do it quickly and in every scene. Well, maybe not every scene, but the exceptions are situations like where the story is quick-cutting between sets of point-of-view characters who are all in the same place. Once their position in the setting is established, so long as they don’t move or leave, those quick cuts back to them don’t need to reestablish the characters’ location. The reader will assume they’ve stayed where they were.

One of the members of my writers’ group demands to know where the scene is set immediately, right from the very first line. OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but her point is pretty much on target. Readers are usually willing wait a paragraph or two to find out where a scene is set, but after that they start to feel lost in space.

The solution, of course, is straight-forward: provide enough detail early enough in the scene or story to place the characters in time and space. At the beginning of the piece, the time-setting needs to be broad-scale: is it set in ancient Rome, the 1880s, the modern day, or some time in the distant future? This can be done many ways. Here are just a few:

  • By explicit statement: “By 1885, Dodge City…”;
  • By mentioning characters unique to the time: “Emperor Diocletian…”;
  • By mentioning a technology or using a term that is clearly identified with a period: “…the horseless carriage sputtered down the street…”;
  • By mentioning a custom, a style of dress, a building or event new or specific to that time and place, etc.

Later on, the details may be fewer and more specific, if the new setting remains within that original context. If it changes, of course, then the writer needs to provide more information.

Note that future settings can be tricky: it’s impossible to predict with confidence what a future setting will “really” look like and the farther into the future a story is, the worse the problem is. Science fiction writers get past this by establishing a futuristic setting and not worrying about the exact year in most cases. My own work-in-progress is set in the near future—2035-ish—which is actually harder than if I’d set it farther out, because we can take some educated guesses at what 2035-ish technology and living conditions might look like. It’s easy for a reader to disagree with my prediction–and be able to support that disagreement.

Some kinds of fantasy have their own unique situation when it comes to time: depending on the story, the setting may be completely divorced from the Earth we know and from its historical timeline. So while a sword-and-sorcery fantasy may be set in a place that looks like Medieval Europe, it may not be—Europe or Medieval. The good news is that fantasy readers understand this and are quite happy to go along without knowing “when in the course of human events” the story occurs.

Note, too, that time is inseparable from place, but place, while almost invariably intertwined with a time, can, in the hands of a skilled writer, transcend time or be used to show a lack of change over time, but that’s a topic for another day.

While it’s important to set characters in their time and place in each scene, it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. I’ll write about that in Part 20 in a few weeks.

One final item. Super-agent Donald Maass, in his book The Breakout Novelist, says this about setting:

“Description [of setting] itself does nothing to create tension; tension comes only from within the people in the landscape. A house is just a house until it is occupied by people with problems.”

This time the questions for you to ask yourself as a reviewer of someone’s work are pretty straightforward:

  • Does the author establish the time and place of the scene or story at all?
  • Does she establish the time and place of the scene or story quickly enough that I don’t wonder when or where it’s taking place?
    • If the time or place is established too late, where in the scene or story would be a better place for it, and why?
  • When she attempts to establish the time and place, are both clear to me, or am I confused by one or both?
    • If I’m confused, why, and what could she do to make this information clearer?

In the next two posts, I’ll talk about providing too little information, or too much, about the setting of a scene or story.

For now, what else do you look for when evaluating whether an author has established the time and place of a scene or story quickly and clearly enough?

[1] Translation: “Where the fuck are we?” You figured that out on your own, didn’t you?

Critique Technique, Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

This is the last post in the series on characterization. Next time we’ll move on to setting.

If you’ve traveled around the country, or watched TV or the movies, or done just about anything other than live under a rock, you know that people speak differently in different places. They have different accents, different slang terms, different styles of speaking (compare the laconic Mainer or cowboy to the fast-talking New Yorker). And that’s just in the United States! Canadians (eh?), Britons, New Zealanders, Australians, and some Indians and Kenyans (to name just a few!) speak English, too.


England’s WWII Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill famously described America and England as “two nations separated by a common tongue.” Love that line.

The differences aren’t just geographic, either. There are differences between racial and ethnic groups, economic classes, age groups, education levels, and more.

And we writers want to capture them. After all, the way a character speaks says a lot about them.

But aye, there’s the rub. Several rubs, in fact.

Have you ever tried to write out a Bostonian’s accent? We all know “pahk the cah in Hah-vahd Yahd, Roberter.” Or that of someone from the Deep South? Y’all sho’ kin trah. Or someone from The Bronx? Fugeddaboutit. You end up doing all sorts of alphabetic gymnastics trying to capture sounds that are hard, if not impossible to represent just with English’s 26 letters and a few punctuation marks. And try to use all those special characters linguists use, like œ and ₔ and ʸ? Be serious.

Dialect is hard to write and even harder to read and understand, especially in large quantities.

The second rub is that some writers, teachers, and critics think writing in dialect shows disrespect for characters, that it can be a way of belittling them. There may be some merit to this argument. Think about it: how many characters have you read, who were supposed to have high cultural or economic standing, who spoke with a deep southern accent or a slow western drawl if the story wasn’t set in one of those locations? Not many, I’ll bet. That cognitive dissonance between how you expect a character to sound and how they actually do could make a character more interesting, but it could also be used to mark them in a negative way. Language can enforce stereotypes rather than upending them.

Foreign languages are also things to be careful with. If a character comes from a foreign country, it’s OK in some circumstances for an author to drop in an occasional foreign word:

  • if it’s the right word, or the only word, the character can use to express a certain idea or concept;
  • if it’s a common-to-him word that he would naturally use in place of the English one; or
  • just to establish the character as being foreign.

It can also be OK for an author to throw into a character’s dialog enough foreign words to show her putting on airs or otherwise trying to be someone she is not.

If a character works in a field that has its own specialized jargon, which most do, then it’s appropriate for her to use that language. There’s a special proviso here for non-fiction works: if the piece is being written for a specialized audience (say in Guns and Ammo for hunters and sport shooters) or for a field’s professional magazine (for example, Cell in biology), then the jargon needs to be there. It adds clarity and accuracy rather than reducing it.

A third rub is an author using dialect, foreign words, or jargon to cover up other weaknesses in the piece, particularly in characterization, or to show off. The saying “if you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullshit” shouldn’t be at work here but some authors will try it.

The general rule of thumb is to use dialect, foreign words, and jargon sparingly, only enough to establish what you need to about the character.

All right, then, time to put on your reviewer’s hat. Here are some question to ask regarding dialect, foreign languages, and jargon as you review a piece.

  • Is the dialect, foreign language, or jargon necessary and appropriate to the piece?
    • If it isn’t necessary, appropriate, or both, what should the author do to fix the problem?
  • Does the amount of dialect, foreign language, or jargon make the piece hard to read?
    • If so, what should the author change or remove?
  • Does the author seem to be using dialect, foreign language, or jargon to belittle a character?
    • Is that appropriate for the story? For example, does he want the reader to not respect that character?
    • Could that be accomplished some other way, such as through the character’s behavior? Is that being done already?
  • Does the author seem to be using dialect, foreign language, or jargon to cover up other weaknesses or over-impress me with his vocabulary?

Used properly, dialect, foreign words, or jargon can add to a piece, giving it the flavor of a particular environment, giving a character an added or necessary dimension, or adding a degree of authenticity or authority. That’s what you, as a reviewer, should be trying to help the author achieve.

What do you look for, and look out for, when reviewing how an author uses dialect, foreign terms, or jargon?

Critique Technique, part 16: Unclear or Insufficient Obstacles

I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a clear obstacle. It’s a beautiful sunny day outside and I’m inside at the computer. It may be clear, but it’s not sufficient—here I am. I know, I know. Waah waah waah. The sooner I stop whining, the sooner I’ll be done so I CAN go outside.

Right, then. On to it.

Back in Part 9 I wrote about conflict. One form of conflict for characters is the obstacles they face: the things that keep them from achieving their goals. Obstacles come in many forms: physical objects, situations, people, animals, laws, psychological or emotional blockages, and more. Pretty much anything can be an obstacle given the right circumstances.

That, unfortunately, can be a problem as well as an opportunity.

Authors have the opportunity to select the obstacles their characters will face. Pick the right ones and the story’s tension and conflict ratchet right up. Pick the wrong ones, though, and the reader’s left scratching his head.

So what makes an obstacle “right?” Here are some considerations. The obstacle needs to be:

  • Germane to the story. Relevant, in other words. If the story’s heroine is chasing a serial killer, having her struggle over a decision whether to pick the tutti-frutti ice cream, or the rocky road, at Baskin Robbins ® isn’t likely to be relevant. Or it could be—context will tell.
  • Significant. Sticking with our sticky ice cream decision, it’s hard to see how that’s likely to be important to our heroine or her quest. Again, it could be, but the author is going to have to reveal that importance, and right quickly.
  • Hard to overcome. If the ice cream slinger behind the counter tells our heroine he’s all out of tutti-frutti, so much for the obstacle. If he then whips out a gun and tells her she’s out of time, too, well, that’s another matter—and another obstacle. But seriously, up to a point, the harder it’s going to be for the character to overcome what’s just been placed in her way, the better. Even truly impossible obstacles can work just fine if they force the character to choose another path toward her goal. Seemingly-impossible obstacles give the character a chance to show (or develop) her intelligence, creativity, and simple pluck as she does, in fact, get over, under, around, or through that barrier.
  • Worse than the last one. Remember how we’ve discussed rising tension and conflict? Increasingly difficult obstacles are an easy way to achieve that. Piling on troubles keeps the story moving. Within reason, of course. Authors don’t want to overstrain their readers’ credulity.
  • Evident. This one’s tricky. At some point the true nature of an obstacle will have to become clear to the reader and the character, although not necessarily at the same time. However, before that point is reached, particularly if the obstacle is psychological or emotional, the character may struggle to figure out what’s bothering him or keeping him from doing what he wants or is supposed to do. That struggle can be the core of the story. The hidden obstacle is a major technique and theme in literary fiction but it can show up in other genres as well. Consider, for example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The character known as The Mule is the obstacle to every-one else’s, including the Foundation’s, plans, yet that isn’t revealed until near the end of the initial trilogy.

As a reviewer, then, your job is to see if the author has placed of the “right” kind of obstacles in his characters’ ways, at the right time, in the right number, at the right degree of difficulty, with the right degree of clarity. Whew! That’s a lot of “rights.” Determining if the author has done the job “right” is a judgment call and it takes a bit of stepping back from the line-by-line of the story to see its broader scope. Looked at from that perspective, you should be able to see how the obstacles support and build on each other, raising the stakes and driving the character and the story forward.

One last thing: at the end of the story, all of those obstacles will have to have been dealt with—unless, of course, one of those obstacles remains as the connection to the next story in the series. Loose ends need to be tied up at the conclusion.

So, to finish up, here are some questions for you to ask as you review as piece:

  • Has the author placed any obstacles in front of his characters?
  • Can I identify what those obstacles are?
  • Does the character who’s being blocked know what the obstacle is, and how does her knowledge or ignorance affect her behavior?
  • Are the obstacles relevant to the story, and contribute to it? Are they believable?
  • Are the obstacles big enough and important enough to the character being blocked that he has to struggle to overcome them or find a way around them?
  • Do the obstacles get bigger and more important over time?
  • Are they wrapped up at the end?

What do you look for when evaluating the obstacles an author has placed in front of her characters?

Critique Technique, Part 15: Unclear Character Goals

A story’s characters have—or should have—a variety of wants, needs, desires, and longings. Those words may seem to be similar, but the shades of difference between them are important.  Goals—things a character hopes or intends to achieve or accomplish—make those wants/needs/desires/longings real. In a romance, the heroine has a goal to catch that special man; in a spy thriller, the spy may have a goal to do his job and get away; in a literary novel, the protagonist may have a goal of reaching an understanding of a long-ago relationship gone bad.

In his excellent book Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham writes about characters having a variety of goals at the story, chapter, and even scene level. The goals I listed above are story-level ones. Without goals at this level, a story and its characters will wander aimlessly. This is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good bet the author will never complete the work because he and his characters have no destination. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, when she admitted she didn’t know where she wanted to go, “Any road will get you there.” Or nowhere.

But no journey worth taking is completed in one step. In order to reach their story goals, the protagonist, antagonist, and other major characters will all have to have intermediate goals. Even the secondary and minor characters will have some goal. Like climbing a staircase to reach the top of a building, each character has to climb the steps of his or her intermediate—scene and chapter—goals to get there. (Of course, there will be obstacles along the way, but I’ll discuss obstacles next time.)

Goals at all levels need to be clear and specific. Both the character and the reader need to know where they’re headed. That’s not to say the author can’t throw in a bit of misdirection—and she probably will—or that the character won’t get thrown off course—he’d darn well better!—but at each step of the way, the character has to know where he wants to go.

Or at least think he wants to go. He could be wrong. But now I’m getting into obstacles, again.

Let’s take a specific case to illustrate story and subordinate goals: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. What’s Bilbo Baggins’ story goal? To have a grand adventure? Certainly not! He’s quite happy in Bag End. The wizard Gandalf, however, has other ideas—and goals—and needs a burglar (Bilbo) to accomplish them.

Ah, here’s an interesting wrinkle. Gandalf gives Bilbo a goal: to help Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarves regain their kingdom under the mountain. It’s the best kind of goal: dangerous, life-threatening, even, and grand.

One small problem. Bilbo doesn’t want it. Conflict! Not all characters get given their goals by others, but it certainly adds spice to the story when it happens. And it’s an interesting event when other characters—like the antagonist—do try to force the protagonist to achieve goals she doesn’t want to.

But when Bilbo gets lassoed into going with Gandalf and the dwarves, his goal becomes a good one: surviving something that’s been thrust upon him. And to return to Bag End, of course.

Fine. Now we have story goals. What about the intermediate ones? Look at all the incidents Bilbo has to survive during the story: being captured or nearly captured by trolls, goblins, wood elves, and giant spiders, and the danger of being eaten by Smaug the dragon. He also has to survive the battle between the dwarves and the men of Laketown and Thorin’s anger when he steals the dwarves’ most precious jewel. So escape and survival become Bilbo’s intermediate goals time after time, as does earning, and re-earning, the dwarves’ trust, something he repeatedly loses.

With that in mind, we can pull back from high fantasy to the story you’re critiquing. If you’re dealing with a portion of a book (fiction or non-fiction—characters in non-fiction have goals, too), it may be hard to see what the characters’ story goals are. If it is, be sure to ask the author early on in your review. With a shorter story or a book chapter, the characters’ story or chapter goals should be clear, and in the case of a chapter, it should also be clear how those goals fit with the characters’ larger ones. Scene goals, of course, support the chapter goals.

The differences between scene, chapter, and story goals are magnitude and when they’re achieved, or not. Scene goals are smaller, relatively, than chapter goals, and reached, missed, or replaced sooner. Likewise, chapter goals are relatively smaller than a character’s story goals and resolved sooner.

One other difference between story goals and the lesser ones is that the scene and chapter goals may not be explicitly spelled out for you. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be clear, but they may become clear only by reading the text and seeing how the characters act. This will require you to step back from the text, as it were, and think about it as a larger whole, rather than looking at it line-by-line. This is a critical skill for a reviewer, anyway, so it’s something you should be doing, or learning how to do, from the time you begin critiquing other writers’ work.

OK, let’s wrap up with some questions you can ask yourself about character goals as you’re reviewing a piece.

  • Do I know what each major character’s story goals are?
  • Are those goals clear to me, to the character who has them, and to the characters who will be affected by them?
  • Do I know what each character’s chapter and/or scene goals are, and are they clear to everyone concerned? [NOTE: for the purpose of creating conflict, it can be desirable for some characters in a chapter or scene to not know what another’s chapter/scene goals are, so answering “no” to the second part of this question isn’t necessarily bad.]
  • Is it clear to me how a character’s scene goals relate to and support her chapter goals?
  • Likewise, is it clear to me how a character’s chapter goals relate to and support her story goals?
  • If the answer to any of the questions above is “no” (except as noted), what does the author need to do to make those goals or relationships clear?

What else do you look for when evaluating characters’ goals in a story?