META: Bringing Things Into Focus

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Sat Sep 23 01:26:07 PDT 2006

Tom Russell wrote:

>    Let's say a director is doing a chick flick, and
> there's a big scene in the middle where the doomed
> lovers share a mad night of passion before he's
> whisked away to die in some war while her mother dies
> of cancer.  Now, let's pretend every scene in the film
> is exactly a minute long.  And let's pretend that
> every shot in the film is held for the same length of
> time: let's be generous and say, ten seconds.  Would
> that scene make much impact at all?  In fact, would
> any big scene make any impact at all?  Or any cut, for
> that matter?

I agree.  In fact, I said something similar to you and
Jamie by e-mail.  Sometimes something will happen that
will give a character a reason to pause.  The author needs
to produce some narration in the meantime because there's
no dialogue coming out of his mouth.

>    It's possible to pull of this kind of shift in
> prose, but generally you're going to be doing it with
> an ensemble cast.  If you've pretty much established
> at the beginning that the focus is going to shift from
> Suzie to the killer to the dope dealer to the
> boyfriend to that slutty girl with the nice knockers,
> than it's not jarring when you switch scenes.

There's also a valid reason for shifting points of view when
you have an ensemble cast: sometimes you need to show
what each of the characters are thinking; otherwise, you end
up with a main character and a bunch of meat puppets.  And
if the characters are all thinking the same thing then this is a
much more effective way of showing comraderie than having the
narrator say "They were old friends".  I really am a strong advocate
of having the narrator shut up unless he actually has something
to say that can't be revealed directly through what the characters
say and think.

>    And most (good) ensemble pieces do have a
> structural line on which to keep things focused: only
> an idiot slaps a bunch of different plot threads
> together and calls it a story.  This is why subplots
> are dangerous.

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  I say if all
the different subplots start out related, interweave through the
story and then come together in the end then it is a complete
story.  Sometimes when you are dealing with ensemble casts
though you need to introduce B plots just to keep everybody
busy.  B plots can also help with pacing, allowing the author to
show the passage of time while very little is happening to
advance the A plot.  Obviously if Suzie's killer is in the room
with her then, no, we're not going to cut away to the B plot. :)

>    Serial literature is a little trickier than films
> or stand-alone stories, and subplots are a given in
> this style of writing.  However, some writers use this
> as an accuse to just write a certain number of pages
> and call it an issue, something that's known in the
> comic book world as "writing for the trade".

Sadly that is becoming the norm now.  Not much happens
in single issues now and hardly any of them can be described
as "stand alone".

>    And while the big story can be satisfying, it's
> almost certain that the stand-alone issue won't be.
> And if I'm trying a new comic and the first issue is
> unsatisfying, I'm not going to be picking up the
> second.  And if I pick up issue forty and I have no
> idea what's going on, I'm not going to buy up one
> through thirty-nine to bridge the gaps.  I probably
> won't buy forty-one, either.

Feh.  Just download and read the whole series on the
computer.  If you start to like the characters and care
what happens to them, you might just pick up forty-one.

>    It's so important to realize with serial literature
> that every issue (or post, or episode) is somebody's
> first.  I'm not saying that you need a detailed "last
> issue box", but you do need to give the reader enough
> information to understand this particular issue.  And,
> I think, this particular issue should be satisfying in
> and of itself.

I make a point of refering to the characters in Superfreaks
over and over again by their full names and titles (eg Detective
Michael King) not just once but up to four times per "issue".
And I had people strangely talk about things that both people
in the conversation should already know but which would have
been too much exposition to dump all at once at the beginning
of the issue.  On the other hand, Jesse still, to this day, has this
habit of having "Ryan" (say) talking to "Sarah" (say) and we'll have
no idea who Ryan and Sarah are and what their relationship with
the other characters is and, hence, what their conversation
has to do with the rest of the story.

>    Even if it's the middle of a three-part arc, it
> should still have a beginning, middle, and an end.
> Subplots should always support the main story, and the
> scene's placement should be logical, an extension of
> its predecessor that paves the way for its descendent.
>    In short, each and every issue should be a work of
> clarity and focus.

I don't think anyone's arguing with you about that.  If it
seemed to you as if I was jumping around a lot in Superfreaks
then keep in mind that all the plots in Superfreaks #1-3 were
interwoven through the dialogue: the characters would talk
about the different cases they were working on.  The same is
pretty much true of the last three issues too.  Superfreaks #4
turned out to be a stand alone issue sandwiched between
two three-issue arcs so it had characters working on three
unrelated cases but I think that was okay because two of the
cases tied into the overall theme of the issue and the third
was just a gag. :)

I do disagree with one comment you made one time: you
told me that each issue of Superfreaks should deal with one
case at a time.  If this is what you mean by "clarity and focus"
then I strongly disagree.  You can't have an ensemble cast and
expect everybody to be working on just one case at a time.
Every character should have their own thing to do, even if that
means they are working on different cases.  The cummulative
effect of Michael King having to deal with all these cases
simultaneously is, for me, a major reason for the reader to feel
sympathy for the character and understand why his patience
sometimes wore thin.


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