People Pleasing versus Writing SOMETHING

I was watching a review of Justice League the other day (haven’t even seen the movie…) and something MovieBob said struck me as very interesting (I thoroughly recommend MovieBob’s work as someone who really likes to overanalyze film)

In his review he basically compares Justice League to Batman vs Superman, a film which prompted, so far, 3 hours of material from Bob about why its so bad. And yet favourably says about Batman vs Superman that at least as a train wrecks it is interesting, whereas Justice League is fluffy and safe doesn’t really do anything.

This got me thinking about the nature of writing and art in general and what we’re trying to achieve. As writers we are often trying to people please, to produce work that won’t offend or at the very least we feel there are so many boxes to tick in terms of “good” writing we can lose track.

Now I’m not saying its time to throw off the oppressive shackles of reasonable feedback, or to deviate of the path of always improving, but I think it is useful to reflect on your work and what you’re trying to say with it and put that first. I’ve probably said this before, but for me crafting and improving a work of writing is about how to best emphasize and communicate the message of the piece, and sure that crafting may be to make the work more accessible or easy to read for a wide audience but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the message. If that message is something that isn’t bestseller material so be it – I’m pretty sure that most people prefer to be challenged by something that makes them think twice then consume another piece of cotton candy sanctified piece of writing.

One of the really weird perfectionist issues of writing is human beings have a hard time dealing with being less than 100%. The reason its odd is that I don’t actually know anyone who is a cliche ‘perfectionist’ its an odd quirk of (I think) Western culture where its considered a waste of time to do anything if you’re not going to put your best into it, by which I’m trying to say none of the writers I know are desperate perfectionists in the sense of locking themselves in rooms and being terrible pedants for details, but rather psychologically struggling to deals with this ‘less than 100%’ issue (well I certainly do).

Again obviously this isn’t a permission to do an average job, but what I’m building up to is to point out that our writing isn’t going to be 100% awesome for its readers either. If we’re all honest with ourselves I think we write hoping for best-seller type acclaim and even if we accept that’s a slim possibility I suspect there is still a sense that what fans we will have are fanatical.

Realistically there is going to be a range of responses to our work and that’s OK – however going back to my original point is that the more we try and please everyone the more boring and sanitized a work might become. In my opinion if I have three readers (probably an overestimate) it would be far more interesting to see a range of responses than a bland equality of ‘good I suppose.’

So anyway – what are your thoughts? Do you try to people-please in your writing?

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According to Google this quote is attributed to at least 10+ different people!

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Serving the Story

So here is my first blog where I polled Twitter for what to write about. Serving the Story narrowing overtook World-Building, so I’ll start here and do World-Building next (it kinda works thematically anyway)

I was asked the question “what do you mean by serve the story?” which is a great starting point. (I’m going to use StS for a shorthand at times). StS is a piece of advice often thrown around when people talk about how every piece of a work must “StS” it’s also something I use very very often (without much justification) when talking about how to make decisions about your prose, plot, or other aspects of a story.

So what the check do I mean?

A good way to look at it is having all the material in your work, whether it be short of long-form having a purpose towards the greater whole. Ok that probably sounded like some sort of communist or collectivist manifesto! More specifically its about the words, sentences, scenes in your story working together to make a good story. It we were talking movies it would be about the movie not having any scenes that made you wonder what the point of it was.

One of the reasons that this is useful to talk about especially in novel-length works there is a tendency to meander. This isn’t immediately wrong in itself, after all maybe the story calls for meandering. BUT, it can be a tricky balance between aimless wandering and useful story serving stuff. What I personally find quite confusing is that pretty much any good writing advice source will tell you that filler is a massive no-no, yet so many professional, brilliant published works seem to have a reasonable amount of filler.

Or do they?

The tricky thing with story serving is that material can StS is many different ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes only gently pushing the narrative along. I have seen people interpret the advice ‘to only include relevant information’ to mean that novels must travel at breakneck speed with closely packed plot points Anyone who has read most published novels know this isn’t the case.

To explain I’m going to explain how different elements of a story can serve it, AND some different levels of servitude which I think might help.

It’s probably a timely moment to remind people of a disclaimer, these are just my thoughts on the topic, they are based on a lot of reading both of fiction and fiction writing advice books, interacting with other writers, agents and editors and just generally stewing on these topics within my own head. I’m not spouting gospel, although be assured that I’m not just spewing nonsense!

Let’s start with levels.

Often a story is layered and complex, built from story beats (individual moments or movements of the story) scenes sequences and plots.

When people think that only including relevant material to their plot means fast-paced writing they are only looking at the overarching main plot points and thinking they have to rush those through, when in truth its okay to focus on the smaller units of scenes and beats.

For example most scenes start with some sort of ‘setting-the-scene’ sequence. Again this is far more obvious on movies where any particular scene usually has a few moments of setup, say before the hero smashes through a wall to fight the villain. These parts might not seem like they serve the ‘plot’ but they most definitely serve the individual scenes, which in turn does serve the overall story.

I’m not sure how well I’ve explained that so here goes an attempt clarification, a story is like a house of cards, a cool looking complex setup that relies on individual card placement, structural shapes, as well as a great overall design. You can’t build a house of cards by simply thinking about the final product, you need to place each card precisely, and you need to build them up in the right order to get the final construction.

Your story is no different, to get the overall effect you need to focus on individual moments and scenes and put them together to create the overall story. Sometimes material in a book which seems like filler, is stuff that builds an individual moment or that particular scene, it might not seem ultra relevant to the overall plot, except that overall plot needs that scene in place to ‘work.’

In short there won’t always be a direct line between the immediate material you’re penning and the ‘big’ story.

So let’s talk about a couple of different story elements.

The other way I think people get overwhelmed is trying to link everything to the overt or practical plot of the story which can get confusing at times. My thesis is that there are different ways that elements of story contribute, and this is important to grasp because I believe this is how a novel length work gets fleshed out, without just being filled with ‘filler.’

Character:

We all talk about character development like we know what we’re talking about (well I do and don’t respectively). In my opinion getting characters right is one of the most challenging parts of fiction. Randomly generating traits and motives and whatnot is easy, but working out how to develop said character in a story is devilishly hard. My understanding of how to work character development in to serve a story is to show what about them is related to the story at hand, and how it currently or will challenge them. Lord of the Rings (the book mind you) is often criticized for spending such lengthy pages with Frodo not leaving the Shire, yet this setup creates the suspense of how important the Shire is to Frodo which deepens the tension and sadness of the story’s conclusion. Often novels seem to drag slowly for initial chapters, however a lot of the focus in often on ensuring the reading knows the character(s) and knows thing about them relevant to that story.

For example heroes are often shown doubting themselves, morally challenged MC’s are shown to do wrong and so forth.

Character development serves the story by deepening what the plot means to it’s victims…

Setting:

I’m going to race through a few of these other points because I’m starting to drone on. Setting very much serves the story by grounding the tale. One of my biggest flaws in novel writing at the moment is that I tend to rush the story starting, before there is a strong sense of where everything is happening or more importantly a sense that the story is taking place somewhere ‘real.’

As a final word serving your story is a lot more straightforward if you have a good idea of what the story is. This isn’t to poo-poo pansters or gardeners but just a caution that at some point it really helps if you have a firm idea at least of what sort of tale you’re telling, then you can always reflect on how any individual part works towards that whole.

It’s my first writing blog for a while, and my first polled topic! Hopefully it’s not too rambling and disastrous. Next time I’m having a go at: World-Building!

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I could not find an approps pictures so here’s a “Raven Cycle” pun

Writing: Subjective, Objective or Something Else?

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You don’t have to look far in writing discussions to come across some form of disagreement. Whether about writing ‘rules’ some specific feedback or comparing different plot points. It’s also not unusual to see these discussions eventually peter out to a hand wave of ‘well writing is subjective.’

Granted this may well be a suitable way to politely finish a disagreement, but it does beg the question, if writing is so subjective why then are there all these rules and guidelines? How is one to make sense of the subject?

For me I think fiction sits in a strange place not exactly between the two subjects but in an interactional position, whereby the objective fact of the work interacts with the subjective experience of readers.

I better explain this in less airy fairy gobbledygook!

Because objective is described as something based on ‘fact’ and putting aside the subjective feeling or experience, most art is often assumed to be a subjective thing. However in my opinion there is something hyper-objective about fiction. A book after all is what it is, no matter who reads it, the words are the same. Sure the experience of the reader is vastly different, but the actual work and the words therein are objective.

Ergo some discussions about writing advice could be conceivably considered to be objective.

Now as to the subjective part, this is where my philosophy on this gets a little weirder. Obviously when readers pick up a book there is a subjective response, and the collective subjective response determines largely whether a book is considered ‘good’ or not. So I’m not going to get into all the different ways taste, culture and individual responses shape this, other than to say that the quality of a work of fiction is determined by the interaction between the objective work, and the subjective experience of the audience.

Ignore either aspect at your peril!

To really dig in deep, part of this theory is to explain how books can be judged differently over time. Old classics often have a style that doesn’t fit with today’s readers, whereas some older books become more popular in later generations! The book doesn’t change but the audience does.

 

So team, what do you think of my theory, complete garbage, half garbage, objectively garbage but subjectively something else?

 

Off Topic: Sociopolitical Rants

So I’ve had a bit of a writing hiatus over the last 1.5 months with various flu symptoms and other obligations and one of the things I’ve been doing in my convalescence is spending altogether far too much time online reading and ‘talking’ (arguing) about political issues.

You see it’s problematic because while I care a lot about a lot of things seeing other people’s opinions on issues eventually results in me becoming a seething mass of angst, and unfortunately for you poor soul – I’m now going to use this medium to expunge said angst.

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Harvey Weinstein

Weinstein is the latest of powerful people being discovered to be powerfully perverted. To be fair it seems most people are pretty anti sexual harassment however there are some stances which irk me a lot e.g.

“Have you seen how these women dress?” or “I dress modestly and don’t flirt and I’ve never been harassed”

First of all as an analogy, this is like telling school-age Thom that if he doesn’t want to bullied he should try not looking skinny and nerdy, and perhaps just not leaving the house, maybe just don’t go school at all.

Second of all I hate this argument because it buys into this idea that men are basically uncontrollable animals who see a good looking woman and have to ‘resist’ doing something sexual to them.

Now to be fair I have to say if any individual (like the quoter above) does decide to dress modestly and not flirt to avoid harassment, that is entirely their choice and I’m not denying that it may work – it’s not victim blame to say that dressing sexy is going to garner attention which statistically increases your chance of getting attention from pervos. However this argument seems to draw a line between what ought to be, and what appears to be actually happening. Neither women or men should have to consider appearance in case of harassment, we’re all human beings for goodness sake!

Abrupt topic ‘change’

When it comes to climate change I will very quickly preface why I believe that the climate is changing due to human produced emissions:

  • It’s a lot of scientists to be wrong
  • I don’t believe that the human race can produce so much greenhouse gas into the air with some sort of effect
  • I’m actually getting old enough now to see the effects for myself such as changes in local climate disappearing lakes etc

So here are some denial argument that also make my blood raise in temperature (to boiling point)

It’s all about lefties getting political power

The problem this this argument is climate change stinks politically. It’s a divisive global issue with few gains for individual voters, even your typical leftie is usually more concerned with healthcare etc. I have yet to see any politician sail into power using climate change as a platform. Yet the issue has persisted in the public arena for decades, so if this rebuttal is correct either politicians are awfully slow OR the issue has nothing to do with seizing political power.

These scientists have been wrong before.

Wow, ok I get it. Yes scientists can get these wrong, and its the very nature of scientific process to question theory and always be skeptical. However its one thing to be skeptical, its another thing to essentially insert your own belief that ‘there isn’t a problem’ and continue with potentially destructive behaviour especially at the expense of others.

This kind of denial isn’t like deciding to smoke because you don’t agree with the warnings and ‘its your body’ this is like dumping your rubbish on the street and claiming you ‘disagree’ with the evidence you’re making a mess. Even if for the sake of argument the rubbish isn’t as bad as other people make it out to be, is it really ethical to keep dumping?

‘Racism

Finally (don’t worry the rant is almost over) Race seems to be the issue ‘du jour’ online and I have seen some truly weird opinions about the place.

“It’s not racist if its statistical”

To be fair this is a confusing issue for many people, how to not be ‘racist’ but still acknowledge that disparities exist between different ethnicity some of which are not good (i.e. imprisonment) I think the issue is that ultimately racism is about fundamentally treating people differently due to their race.

For example: treating the behaviour of individuals or smaller groups as representative of that ethnicity. Basically if you see a black dude stealing a car and think ‘geeze these black dudes’ rather than if you saw a white dude and thought ‘geeze that car thief’

I think racists love social justice warriors because they try to use their passion to trip them up on thorny issues, but seem to forget that just because because they manage to flummox an advocate for egalitarianism doesn’t mean they aren’t racist.

“There is no racist legislation therefore there is no systematic racism”

It’s a common stance in rational reasoning that whoever makes the most outlandish claim is obligated to provide the equally compelling evidence. And to be fair evidence of systematic racism (in any country) should be robust, but the idea that as long as legislation is even there won’t be systematic racism blows my mind! If only.

“Racism and anti-racist are just two sides of the same coin”

What, just what. Granted some people engage in deplorable behaviour in the name of progressive ideals, and also granted there are individuals and groups of all kinds who really are just promoting themselves not general equality. But to equate decades and more of lynching, land grabbing, systematic prejudice as being the same as that person who dissed Trump for being White seems purposefully obtuse.

Anywho the rant is getting a little long – back to on task type blogging very soon I promise I just needed a ranty purge. I will resume yelling at clouds again and writing about writing forthwith.

 

Not to open any cans of worms – what are your guys thoughts on these issues, or what issues burn a hole in your head?

 

Writing and Depression

Depression and writing is a topic I’ve been sort-of simultaneously hesitant and motivated to discuss. My friends and family are affected by depression, and its something I come into contact with through work more often than not. And I think the topic is something most if not all people have some familiarity with one way or another.

It’s also a common thread and discussion point online, people asking about the relationships between writing and depression (and anxiety) how to write on despite the black dog, questioning whether anti-depressants will curb creativity and so on. The hesitation I mentioned above stems from wanting to discuss, but also being a little uncertain about whether I can address anything on such a complex and nuanced topic.

Well, here we go. Please note that nothing here is intended as professional advice, it is intended to be legitimate and helpful, however a blog post simply cannot take the place of individualized 1:1 professional help. (accountability statement done)

The Tortured Artist Stereotype

Writing and depression, and other issues have long been associated. Many professional writers past and present have had struggles, often to the point of substance abuse and addiction. Yet how exactly these issues fit together is a cause for some controversy. For every Stephen King (long history of alcoholism) there’s a Kathy Riechs (generally successful academic and professional and no substance abuse as far as we know).

Personally I think there is a double-edge to writing for anyone struggling with depression. Generally speaking simply writing as a pastime, hobby and/or form of expression is something that is very good for a person – especially for those of us without any other outlet, or perhaps who experience invalidation from those around us and need a blank page.

BUT, and it’s a big but. There is a risk with the idea of the tortured artist stereotype. Self-acceptance is a very good thing. We’re all only human with all our faults and foibles and there is little point to beating ourselves up constantly for them. However there is also the potential of going too far and becoming self-excusing. What’s the difference? Think of acceptance as being the acknowledgement of past mistakes – say like forgiving oneself for having a relapse after past drinking problems – whereas self-excusing is justifying or making an excuse for continuing to commit mistakes (oh I’ve had a hard day I’ll just have another drink).

The point I’m trying to make is that writing can be a great form of expression and has been shown to help with depression, however there is a risk of clinging to the idea of being a tortured writer – and perception, especially self perception is significant for emotional health.

Which brings me to the next point:

Wellness needs to be a goal

One of the common threads for those with depression, writers or not, is that people have put aside their own wellness as a priority. Whether its through a belief that one simply cannot be well, not believing one is worth the effort, or simply everything else has been put first, often one of the main “treatments” (scare-quotes used because treatments sounds scary but really isn’t) is simply to convince a person to put their own wellness on top again. As a side note its almost funny if it wasn’t a serious topic, how many people that suffer depression who have other people as a huge priority, people who will honestly throw themselves out of bed first thing in the morning to help a friend out, yet won’t eat because they just don’t see the point of caring for themselves. (To which I always say you can’t take care of others if you don’t care for yourself).

Back to the topic at hand however, writing can overwhelm a person’s priorities. I think particularly when people are looking to do more than ‘just write.’ I confess I’m often alarmed when I hear about people struggling with depression and anxiety who are keen to get traditionally published, not because I’m being judgmental but in my opinion writing for publication is incredibly stressful, and often lonely – not exactly the best recommendation for those with depression and anxiety!

So you can see how there is another double-edge here: writing is good for the soul, but aiming to succeed professionally requires a lot of solitary and stressful work. I think that anyone embarking on a journey towards traditional or self-publishing needs to put their own wellness as a top priority, as even the most resilient brain can be pummeled to mush by the pressures of publishing.

What about creativity?

To be perfectly honest I don’t know the answer to whether medication like anti-depressants, or seeking treatment for depression will curb creativity. Personally I think there is no real trade-off here. Yes sometimes being in a tough space creates a strong motivation to create, however I find it hard to believe that depression could be an asset beyond that initial angst, successful writing after all requires perseverance and a thick skin. It also maybe true that seeking wellness may take time away from writing, but again I would argue that it’s worth it.

 

In summary I think that writing has some dangerous allure for those of us struggling with depression – it’s a typically solitary task that the compelling idea of a ‘tortured artist’ could help drag a person into more isolation – equally however writing has been shown to be good for a mind in need of an expressive outlet.

Finally I think if a person’s goal is to achieve some outside success with writing, the rigors are very real and one needs to keep well first and foremost to endure the challenge.

 

That’s my (tricky and controversial) post for today – I hope that it reads with the sensitivity I wanted to present. I was somewhat prompted by a recent famous (that I have never heard of until then) kickboxer who declared on Twitter that depression doesn’t exist – and felt the topic was timely.

 

As always it would be great to hear you thoughts, experiences, and insights. Take care of yourselves people 🙂 🙂 🙂

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Remember: Writing is a Positive and Constructive Process

I know it doesn’t feel that way…

 

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Just look at all the pithy advice: show DON’T tell, DESTROY adverbs, KILL your darlings. It really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that forums are filled with people panicking about all the things that could be wrong with their writing.

Now I’m not saying that writing doesn’t require a thick skin, that producing some good material isn’t going to require some combination of wrecking balls, flame-throwers and/or hacksaws.

BUT

I am saying that its easy to forget that the whole point of merciless editing and critique isn’t exactly to purge all evil from your draft or WIP but to polish that which is good. I’m sure some folk will read this and go “waaah thanks for reminding me there is noting good about it!”

My point is not to really rub in the harsh critique, what I’m trying to get at is: stories work because there is a powerful, enjoyable, heartfelt whatever tale in there that people like to read. Because us writers tend to hang with each other and because our concerns are often ‘what’s wrong’ with our WIP its easy to get into a mindset where writing isn’t about doing something good, its about avoiding all those nasty problems my last pieces had.

But readers aren’t looking for a perfectly polished story, editing isn’t about (or in my opinion shouldn’t be) preventing criticism but rather ensuring the goodness has as much oomph as it could.

There are two reasons I think this is important to remember – 1: It’s easy to get lost on the path of ‘no mistakes’ and lose what makes a story good in the first place. and 2. I think the general culture of ultra-criticism (i.e. honest trailers, cinemasins and various literature critique posts etc) which I confess I do indulge in myself, is a great recipe for writers block.

None of this is to say that I think we should all go full hippy-dip and just celebrate the beauty of our writing without any consideration of critique – after all all these writing critiques exist for a reason. What I am saying is remember the reason for editing and critique is to give the most POWER to your story, not a pointless exercise in trying to avoid criticism.

 

Best of luck with your writing projects everyone, thanks for stopping by and – as always – let me know your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

Q&P Episode 6: Agent V

Someone rep this guy’s book, he deserves it after all this analysis 🙂

C. Hofsetz

In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.

The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.

These are their stories.

A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.


Agent Analysis – Part 6


Previously on Query and Publish…

Navigate to posts in this series:
Part 5:Agent W.
All parts here.


Agent V

Agent V a literary agent that posted information about 222 queries on twitter over the last few years. I usually limit it to 200, but I couldn’t remove 22 queries easily this time (e.g. in chronological order), so I didn’t.

She’s looking for Romance, Science Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, Action Adventure, Historical Fiction (not WWII) and Fantasy

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11 Things You Should Never Say to a Writer

Hmm no-one has ever asked to be in any of my writing (I think they’re onto me!)

A Writer's Path

by Annie Earnshaw

As you can tell, I was pretty irate while writing this post and I’m not even published yet.  (I have to say “I’m not even published yet” because I’m trying to be positive after writing this excessively salty post).  Putting my personal vendettas aside, here is a comprehensive list of eleven things you should never say to a writer:

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On “The Narrative Path”

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So I’m always keen to identify writing tips and such that I don’t see talked about that often, and I’ve noticed something that really good books seem to have.

Something I’m going to call The Narrative Path.

Fiction is somewhat unique among other arts in the nature of how the subject is presented to us. Aside from skipping ahead, and people (like me) who sometimes accidentally skim other pages and ahead during reading, written stories are presented to us sequentially and in a piecemeal fashion. Granted great writers often manage to pack large amounts of meaning into brief sentences, but unlike film where you are given entire images with accompanying music and dialogue to digest, and music where any particular beat may have any number of notes or individual instruments playing, or even a drawing which you are just giving an image as is and the way you scan it is entirely up to you, writing comes at you word by word, sentence by sentence and so forth.

This is really important for how you present stuff to the reader. What I’ve noticed in books that I often find myself getting lost, and struggling to keep track of whats going on (as a side note I always have this thought that I’m not reading well enough when this happens!) is that the narrative is often shonky, introducing material in orders and ways that are hard to absorb.

For example in one novel which will remain nameless there was a scene where the MC describes the scenery, mentions their sister walks in (in the middle of the paragraph) and goes back to observing the scenery. I can kinda see what effect the author was trying to create with this sequence, but for me it was easy to miss the appearance of said sister and the confusion compounded when the MC started talking assuming the reader had remained conscious of said sister.

My plan of mentioned that example is not to completely poo poo that sort of sequence, but to highlight how a reader traveling through the words of that novel could get disorientated, I’ve noticed several other typical Narrative Path errors in various other works too:

  • Laundry list introductions – especially characters
  • Head hopping
  • Scene hopping
  • Scenes that feel like the author has flipped a coin for whether each sentence is going to be told or shown

Again my point is not to slam any particular sequence, after all some authors pull off all of the above brilliantly. Like all things writing its about being mindful and intentional about what we’re doing on the page to create the best story.

So for me the idea of Narrative Path is being aware of the journey that a reader will be taking through the words you put on the page. This is at the scene, paragraph and individual sentence level. I believe that many authors (and this is a theme that I talk about all the time) know their story a little too well, and aim simply to get all the details onto the page, which is fine as say an early draft, but consideration of what the reader will experience is vital.

Take the opening pages of Gone Girl as an example. The writing starts with a slightly odd discussion about the narrator’s wife’s head, moving onto thoughts on marriage, to the character snapping awake. Personally I find the path a little jarring, BUT it clearly executed with thought to what is being presented to the reader is a coherent fashion.

What I’ve noticed in some Wattpad works of friends I looked through recently is that the narrative was essentially all over the show, jumping between character’s thoughts, actions past present etc.

Again not that jumping around = bad writing, however often it shows a lack of thought or refinement in creating a clear Narrative Path.

Narrative Path is similar to how a movie tricks us, even though we know actors are playing characters we still have a sense that they are going through the story linearly, a good movie hides the fact that each scene is created distinctly, even shots next to each other in the film could have been shot completely separately.

I think that a strong Narrative Path is vital for any story, because without it all the good other aspects of a story can get lost and jumbled.

 

So what you do think? Have I just invented a term that is already covered by simply saying ‘narrative’, ‘style’ or ‘voice’

As always let me know your thoughts!