Starfall/ACRA: Metal Fire #9, False Maria 03

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Fri Sep 22 03:10:30 PDT 2006

Hi.  I've read to the end of False Maria #3 but rather than comment on
the story directly I feel compelled to comment on Tom's comments.

Tom Russell wrote:
> Wil has this to say:

> >  Worse yet, not only do we have the switching of
> > point of views, but this time it *does* jump "in and out
> > of the room". Hopefully it comes across as not too
> > jarring. :)
> And it wasn't so much that it was jarring, Wil (though it was a bit),
> but rather that I have a strongly-held bias against viewpoint shifting
> in suspense-driven fiction.  It's much, much harder for a writer to
> stay with a scene, keeping suspense building, staying in the room; it's
> also much more rewarding for the reader.

It's funny.  Tom is younger than me but I feel lately as though Tom's
tastes lend more towards the 60s whereas I seem to be a product of the
MTV generation.  It's true that quick cuts make for some awful cinema
(Catwoman and Man on Fire are almost unwatchable) but for TV,
especially TV shows in which there are half a dozen regular characters,
quick cuts allow you the opportunity to either solve two crimes in one
hour or follow an entire case from crime scene investigration to
courtroom verdict.  Without quick cuts a scene that takes ten minutes
to read or watch would only advance the plot by ten minutes.  To me,
ten minutes feels like an eternity.  After four minutes, I'm more than
ready to change scenes.  That's the attitude of the MTV generation.

Compare TV crime dramas in the 70s to TV crime dramas today.  In the
70s, a Columbo episode would start from the killer's point of view but
after ten to fifteen minutes the victim is dead and then Columbo shows
up and the rest of the episode is told mostly from his point of view.
With other detective dramas there was no POV shift at all: the story
was told from the point of view of the detective who we follow through
the entire story.  Police dramas like Starsky and Hutch, Adam 12, CHiPs
(actually the 80s I think) were all similarly told from the point of
view of two cops who were partners.  I imagine detective/crime novels
are the same, although I've never read any, prefering science fiction.
(Issac Asimov's Caves of Steel followed a murder investigation
completely from the POV of a cop who was partnered with a robot.  Does
that count?)  Romance novels are usually told from the woman's POV as
that is the target audience, although the only novels that I've ever
read that qualify would be Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Wuthering
Heights.  I imagine all of Dicken's stuff was from a single point of
view because Great Expectations was told from Pip's (was that his
name?) point of view and, although I've never read A Christmas Carol or
Oliver Twist but just seen the movies, they seem to follow the POVs of
Scrooge and Oliver alone, respectively.  All the old novels from that
era seem to be like that.  It actually seems a bit old fashioned.

Nowadays though, we have CSI in which scenes cut quickly between seven
or eight characters who are often working on more than one case.  On
Law and Order, the POV switches after the half hour point from that of
the police to that of the lawyers.  In both cases it takes about a half
hour, including commercials, to go from finding the body to making the
arrest.  That's so much faster than before!  If you watch CSI, CSI:
Miami and CSI: New York back to back you can see six cases solved in
the amount of time it took Columbo typically to solve two.  Instead of
"Just one more question!" it's "We found your DNA.  You're under
arrest.  Next case!"

I actually think Star Trek also had an influence.  Back in the day, the
Networks wanted writers to focus on the big three, Kirk, Spock and
McCoy but fans liked the fact that it was an ensemble cast and
subsequent Star Treks (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager,
Enterprise) ended up focusing on seven main characters at a time.  (Any
more than that turned out to be too much.)  Sometimes an episode would
be devoted to one character but, more often than not, scenes would
switch back and forth and there'd even be a B plot to keep occupied
those who were not actively involved in the A plot.  Mission Impossible
is another example: Phelps would assign five or six team members,
including himself, to a case and since everybody brought their own
skills, each of them had very specific roles to play in the mission and
the story would cut back and forth between each of the characters
relentlessly.  It was actually before it's time.  Of the Star Wars
movies, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, the Attack of
the Clones and the Revenge of the Sith all constantly involved POV
shifts between Luke and Han or Obi-Wan and Anakin.  And most of the
time, these POV shifts worked extremely well.  In tradegies, a POV
shift allows you to see things from more than one perspective, meaning
that you can understand why someone does something and yet still know
that it is wrong.  These storytelling techniques have been carried over
into the Star Trek and Star Wars novels I've read.

Getting to comics, obviously we have both solo books and team books.
The fact that team books tend to outsell solo books overall tells me
that people like the POV shifts in their comics too, that most people
get bored reading about a character _after a few pages_ let alone for a
whole issue.  The Legion of Superheroes is an example of where this was
taken too far: with twenty five characters on the team, you're lucky if
your favorite character gets a panel to herself (or himself if you
favorite character was a guy).  Marvel solves this problem by putting
out X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, New X-Men, Avengers, New
Avengers, Mighty Avengers, Avengers: West Coast, etc etc etc so that
your favorite characters can get some decent panel time.  But if you
tried to give each of the X-Men and Avengers their own books you'd find
that there just isn't enough interest.

The bottom line is that it is very, very debatable as to whether
following one character around for an hour without cutting to some
other character is really more rewarding for the reader.  Some readers
might want Thor, Cap and Iron Man in the same book but would get bored
reading about these characters individually.

> But in the case of issue nine, the viewpoint-shifts are definitely in
> the service of the story because this installment is not
> suspense-driven the way its predecessor was: this is using suspense to
> refer to danger, to action, to the thriller elements, the nail-biting.
> It's more of a mystery story, asking the reader to consider why certain
> people take certain actions, and this offers a pleasure that's more
> cerebral than visceral.

The difference between suspense and thriller is one of timing: before
something happens, we have suspense but while it is happening, it's a
thriller.  Am I wrong?

> Certainly issue number nine starts off on the suspense track: stuck in
> Eddy's viewpoint, we get no more information than he does.  And this is
> why, I think, for most brands of suspense, an author should stick with
> one viewpoint.  An exception, of course, would be Hitchcockian
> suspense, or what I would call The Other Shoe Suspense: giving the
> reader more information than the character, so that we wait as he
> unwittingly steps into a trap-- that is, we wait for the other shoe to
> drop.

Okay, I didn't want to get into this by e-mail but didn't Hitchcock
come up with the idea of the MacGuffin?  Hitchcock would leave certain
story elements vague to the viewer even if the characters knew what it
was.  Certain elements just simply weren't that important: you could
understand the plot without knowing all the details.  To be fair, I
haven't seen as much Hitchcock as you, obviously: I never saw the end
of The Lady Vanishes so I never found out what happened to the lady.
But the Birds has been on TV that I've seen all of it if not all the
way though and, correct me if I'm wrong, but we *never* find out why
the birds are attacking.  And the story shift from crime drama to
slasher flick in Psycho would have come completely out of the blue if
you didn't know in advance about the shower scene: the person who you
thought was the main character who's POV you'd been following up until
that point *gets killed off* and we end up following Bate's POV for the
rest of the film.  So I don't see how all of Hitchcock can be
characterized as "the other shoe drops" suspense.  All the Hitchcock
movies I've seen have created suspense by confusing and shocking the
viewer and all the movie reviews I've read of Hitchcock movies have
described him as "the master of suspense" and have claimed that he
creates suspense by having the viewer follow the main characters' POV
so that we *don't* know any more than they do.  In Rear Window, James
Stewart's character thinks he has witnessed a murder.  Does the
audience know it isn't a murder or do we just follow his POV?  In North
by Northwest, Cary Grant is chased by fireign spies and he doesn't know
what they want.  Do we?  Obviously, you can list a whole series of
counterexamples, but this seems to be the general consensus concerning
Hitchcock movies: even Jesse uses Hitchcock as a justification for his
less than transparent storytelling style.  Indeed, M Night Shyamalan
has been often compared to Hitchcock and he *always* pulls something
out of the hat at the end of his movies.

> As Eddy considers his predictament and makes his moves, we get into his
> head: the "suspense" portion provides us an opportunity to get nice and
> cozy in his headspace.  Wil is then canny enough -- whether he knows it
> or not :-) -- to switch us from "suspense" mode to "mystery" by way of
> a seemingly extraneous episode: Eddy, after escaping but before trying
> to wake Kimberly, stops by the kitchen to have a peanut butter & mayo
> sandwich.  It's such an odd little detail (and yet very realistic), and
> it effectively derails the relentlessness of the suspense, centering
> our attention not on Eddy's predictament, but Eddy's choices and why he
> makes them: this sets us up for his decision to try and wake Kimberly.
> (Ah, hell, I'm just going to call her Kim.)

There's nothing that endears me more to a character than seeing them
eat or get tired.  Seriously.  Robots can go all day without eating or
sleeping.  Real people can't.

> When we switch to Kim, it is at first in the context of a dream.  Now,
> this is one of my few criticisms of the story thus far: as a dream, it
> doesn't really work, for me.  Personally, when I dream, it's never
> idyllic but rather very wonky.  People do things in my dreams for
> reasons I cannot comprehend; it's not so much symbolic in the Freudian
> or Jungian sense as it is bizarre and trippy.  (Even my "Realistic"
> dreams are trippy in their own, low-key way.)

Wow.  Again, I disagree.  Freud believed every dream was a wish.
Personally I find it makes sense for dreams to be idyllic because: 1)
the main purpose of a dream is to keep the mind from getting bored (ie
active) when we sleep so the dream has to be interesting, if not
downright appealing 2) dreams also serve the purpose of distracting the
dreamer so they aren't awoken by outside noise: Eddy tells Kim to wake
up and Kim dreams that this is her mother telling her to wake up; this
actually happens, that is people will incorporate outside noises into
their dream and keep the dream going 3) in my own experience, I've had
dreams that were pretty damn idyllic; boys tend to have these dreams at
the start of puberty 4) we often dream about real life experiences and
extrapolate from there: when we have a nightmare it is assumed that
there is something wrong, something that is bothering us; pleasant
dreams are considered the norm, the default.  And "wonkiness" is
subjective: things will make sense in the context of the dream but will
no longer make sense when remembered in isolation after you wake up.
I, myself, will often wake up and look around and think momentarily
"What the hell am I doing here?" because I had been dreaming I was
somewhere else, perhaps leading an entirely different life, and it had
seemed natural while I was dreaming it.

Jung spoke of archetypes and you've described the DC characters as
archetypes.  Marvel characters are more Freudian: their costumed
identity is their superego, their secret identity is their ego and
their angst and anger come from their id.  Modern neuropsychology and
evolutionary psychology tends to favour Freud.  Marvel heroes tend to
do better at the box office too nowadays and over the past forty years
their comics have sold better so maybe that's another two points in
favour of Freud.

> Maybe this is just me, my personal experience, intruding on my
> enjoyment of what for others would be a perfectly realistic dream
> sequence.  I dunno; most movies in which dreams are represented fall
> short for me, too: either they go way too far into the surrealism,
> where it detracts from the rest of the film, or they're just
> picnic-postcards from childhood.

Which is exactly the sort of dreams I have.  To be honest, Tom, from
what you've told me you didn't consider your childhood to be idyllic so
you're hardly going to have a dream about an idyllic childhood but many
of us have fond childhood memories that form the basis of dreams.  I
often dream I am back in Canada and back in school and I only wake up
when I realise that I would then have homework or have to attend
English class. :)

> There was one movie I saw in which I thought the dream sequences were
> really well done.  It was a really bad and pretentious local indie film
> called DADBOT-- a very muddled satire of
> "dead-scientist-trapped-in-robot" 80's sci-fi family comedy.  One dream
> the scientist's son has, just after the scientist has been murdered,
> goes like this:
> Billy: "Dad, I'm going to be late for school!"
> Father: "How are we going to get there?"
> Billy: "In your new car!"
> And that's it; it's completely unexplained, but its very very potent,
> it speaks on a subconscious level about grief.  (If only the rest of
> that film could have been that true and painful and deep.)

I think dream sequences in movies are often better done then the
sequences that are supposed to be real life.  Is the dialogue stilted?
Is something a bit "wonky"?  It's okay!  It's a dream!  But when the
characters aren't dreaming we now have to suspend disbelief.

> So, in this issue, I think the viewpoint shifts are nothing to
> apologize about, and when Wil left the room, he did so with a visible
> purpose.  Like fellow Dearbornian George Peppard was fond of saying, I
> love it when a plan comes together!  (He's buried about a mile away
> from my house, in a family plot.  People leave cigars there all the
> time.)

Don't expect me to apologize for "leaving the room" either. :)

Lately I've been telling stories by putting a time at the beginning of
each scene.  But cutting back and forth between different characters is
another way to establish the passing of time without showing every
moment: we assume when we cut away to the B plot that the A plot has
advanced in our absense and we aren't surprised when we come back and
find that the protagonists have moved on to anothe scene.  It's a
useful technique which shouldn't be abandoned simply because you think
that following one character for the whole story 1) is more difficult
and hence more of a challenge for the writer and 2) what the reader
secretly wants and finds more "rewarding".  Again, I feel that the
latter is more a question of personal taste and that, for most people,
it simply isn't true.

> Wil worries about not living up to the promise of his opening, but so
> far, I can say that he's exceeding expectations.  He's a very good
> plotter, he's very good with mood and character, and he can come up
> with some eloquent/surprising/amusing turns of phrase.  I think in the
> latter case he might need to do some tightening up so that his wordsong
> might have more "oomph".  A couple of examples:

Oh it is exceeding the promise of the opening.  I was dreadfully
afraid, halfway though #7, that the Manila envelope was going to turn
out to be a MacGuffin in this story and that we would *never* find out
what was inside of it because Val and Eddy talked about it vaguely and
then the story looked like it was going to go on to other things.  I
was so incredibly relieved when the Manila envelope was opened, the set
up was complete and the storyline actually began.  Personally, if I had
been writing #7, I would have cut directly to the opening of the
envelope because that was when things got interesting.  In #8, when
Eddy woke up in "an unfamiliar room" I cringed because I knew Wil was
then going to describe the room: luckily it was dark and the only
details we got were ones that were essential to the plot.  Again, it
was a big relief.

In every subsequent issue, there has been less set up and, personally,
I think that is a *good* thing.  Tom points out that my stories start
out "in media res" and, indeed, in Superfreaks, *every single scene*
starts out in media res with no set up.  But, personally, I think (to
use Tom's argument) it is more difficult for the author and more
rewarding for the reader to have everything made clear through the
dialogue and "stage directions" than to lay out every scene in detail
before anything happens.  Even adding a caption "homocide scene" is a
cheat because now the story is being told from the point of view of the
narrator and not from the point of view of the characters as they
experience it.  That makes a *huge* difference in my opinion.  In
Superfreaks, I laid out *one* scene in the entire series and then made
a joke about it being too much information (which it was).  Having a
summary of previous issues at the beginning of a new issue is less of a
cheat IMO because some things have obviously happened before and it
would seem odd if everything was recapped using dialogue (although in
Superfreaks #5 I have characters do exactly that, talking about things
that they should already know and providing exposition for the reader.
It was a cheat, but a subtle one.)

> > refreshing glass of warm, flat rootbeer. He was
> > considering helping himself to the half empty box of
> > sugary cereal, but the smell of the carton of milk
> > seemed to lean more toward the curdled cheese area
> > than he was willing to risk.
> Especially with a sentence of that length, it might be better to say
> "the smell of the milk carton seemed to lean more towards curdled
> cheese than he was willing to risk", or, even more concise, "the smell
> of the milk leaned (leant?) more towards curdled cheese than he was
> willing to risk"; I think the 'seemed' is a bit extraneous here.

Tom, I'm not disagreeing with you just to be difficult.  I swear.

"Seemed" makes a big difference here.  This is being told from Eddy's
point of view and not from the objective point of view of the narrator.
 It is very important to focus on Eddy's perceptions and create a more
visceral feel.

> I wouldn't render the sentence as "the milk smelled like curdled
> cheese" because I think the impact of the sentence is in "lean"; it
> conjures up an image of Eddy mentally comparing it on the Scale of
> Curdliness, the smell inching towards one end instead of the other.  To
> cut out "lean" is to cut out the whole point of this great subliminal
> image.

I feel the same way about "seemed".  The word puts focus on how
subjective our perceptions are.

> >  Less then a minute after that, he was in the bathroom,
> > taking a long, long piss. His bladder eternally thanked
> > him.
> >
> In this case, it's a bit impercise: "eternally"?  I think these two
> sentences provide a nice moment of grungy comic relief, but "eternally"
> kinda sticks out like a sore thumb.
> I think it's really a missed opportunity for the sentence, "his bladder
> prostated itself in gratitude."  Or, if you want to more subtle and
> accurate, "prostrated".

True but "You have my eternal gratitude" is an existing expression in
English: it doesn't mean we will live forever and spend all that time
giving thanks.  It's hyperbole.

> And though the details are scattered about the story nicely, they do
> seem to pile up at the beginning; maybe fewer flourishes in the first
> couple of paragraphs might increase a feeling of versimilitude, as the
> reader wouldn't be distracted by their frequency: might be easier to
> get into the story at the start.  I dunno.

I'm glad you said that.  Can we all agree that there is a happy medium
between setting a scene and describing the furniture?  That's not so
much a criticism of Wil as much as me pleading with you not to insist
on having me do that. :)

> These are really minor quibbles; it's a pleasure to read sentences like
> these in the first place, sentences that are not only clever but
> intelligent, sensible, and evocative of both plot and mood.  Many
> writers can't turn a phrase like Wil can.
> Hell, I wish I could. :-)

I'm just happy to deliver a solid punch line. :)


More information about the racc mailing list