Four Better Alternatives To Rotating First-Person Narration

Well, I thought that I’d talk about rotating first-person narrators today – since, to my dismay, the book I’m reading at the moment uses (a thankfully rather mild) version of this modern narrative technique.

If you’ve never heard of this narrative technique before, it’s a style of first-person narration where there are several narrators and the story switches between them every chapter or two.

Yes, it’s a style that supposedly allows writers to use both the omniscient perspective of third-person narration and the intense immersive immediacy of first-person narration. However, rather than being the best of both worlds, it is the worst of both worlds.

This is mostly because it tends to ruin the immersive nature of the first-person narration due to jarring changes between narrators, and because it still limits what you can and can’t show (when compared to third-person narration).

So, here are some better alternatives to rotating first-person narration. Yes, most of these still involve multiple first-person narrators, but they’re more intuitive to read than standard modern “rotating narrator” narration is.

1) Letters, Journals etc..: One way to introduce other narrators without breaking the immersion and narrative flow that comes from using just one narrator is to include the other narrated segments as letters, journal entries etc… This way, they’re something that the main character could still theoretically see or read, but they don’t involve any jarring jumps between perspective characters. After all, when you’re reading a letter, you’re still you. And the same is true for your narrator too.

The only thing that I would say about using this style of multiple narration is to make sure that you clearly signpost when your story’s letters, journal entries etc… begin. Ideally, you should differentiate them from the main story through the use of italic text, or a different font or something like that too.

And, yes, this is a very old narrative technique. If you don’t believe me, then read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – this novel mostly consists of letters, journals etc… by different characters, and the multiple narrators work really well because you get the sense of reading a collection of documents, rather than eerily jumping between different people’s consciousnesses.

2) In-depth third-person narration: If you want to show lots of things happening in different places in an in-depth way, then using third-person narration that focuses heavily on what a particular character is thinking or feeling is a much more “ergonomic” way of doing this. This also has the bonus of allowing you to use a single, consistent narrative voice- which means that it is easier for the reader to follow the story.

If you want a good example of this, then read G.R.R Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” novels. Each chapter usually focuses on a particular character but, because Martin uses third-person narration instead of first-person narration, the jumps between characters and locations feel a lot more natural and organic than they would do if he’d used first-person narrators instead.

3) Don’t repeat your narrators: If you absolutely must use multiple first-person narrators, then use the format to full advantage!

In other words, don’t repeat your narrators. This might sound like it would make the inherent problems with rotating narrators even worse, but – surprisingly – it doesn’t. This is mostly because using a totally new narrator for each chapter or segment of the story means that your novel reads a lot more like a short story collection, rather than 2-3 novellas that have been awkwardly grafted together.

A great example of this narrative style is Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, but it’s a novel that follows a UN official in the future who interviews the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Because there’s a new narrator for each chapter/interview, the novel feels like a really cool short story collection. Seriously, if you want to know how to use multiple first-person narrators in a good way, then read this book!

4) Framing story: One way to avoid breaking immersion whilst including multiple narrators is simply to include an old-fashioned framing story. In other words, your narrator listens to another character narrate the main story. This way, you get all of the benefits of multiple narrators, whilst also having a single consistent “main” narrator too.

This technique also feels more “natural” than modern-style rotating narrators because it mirrors the traditional experience of sitting down and listening to someone tell a story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Art Changes The Way You See The World – A Ramble

Although I’ve talked about this topic at least twice before, I felt like returning to it again because it is always interesting. I am, of course talking about the way that creative works change the way you see the world – whether you make them or are part of the audience.

I was reminded of this subject when, a couple of hours before I started preparing this article, there were two power cuts. After noticing that I couldn’t turn the downstairs hall light on, the upstairs hall light started flickering ominously. My first thought was “Oh my god, this is like something from a horror movie. Cool!“. Which, in retrospect, was probably better than feeling scared.

Then, when I went upstairs, I happened to notice that the bathroom was bathed in the early evening light. Thanks to my years of daily art practice, I was able to memorise the way that the light looked – so that I could turn it into a stylised painting later. Here’s a preview of said painting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here tomorrow.

Whilst I was somewhat puzzled by the power cut, the wails of car and building alarms in the distance suddenly made me think of this absolutely hilarious “SMBC” comic. Remembering this comic lightened my mood considerably and meant that I felt amused, rather than annoyed or frightened, by the power cut.

Finally, after the first power cut had finished, I powered up my computer and the first thing I did was to look online for a music video for Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017“. Why? Because it was a song that I’ve associated with power cuts since I found myself in the middle of one when I was in Aberystwyth about 7-8 years ago. This also brought back lots of wonderful memories and helped me feel nostalgic, rather than angry or annoyed, about the power cut.

This is far from the only time that creative works have lightened the mood. When, last year, the afternoon sky turned an ominous shade of muddy orange due to a combination of a distant storm and sand from the Sahara (or something like that), I was quite surprised to read in online news stories about it that people were joking that it was a sign of the apocalypse. My thoughts at the time hadn’t been “it’s the apocalypse! The end-times are upon us!“, but “Cool! Everywhere looks like part of the intro movie to ‘Silent Hill 3‘. This is awesome!

So, what was the point of mentioning all of this?

Well, it’s yet another example of how important creativity and creative works are. Whilst “the arts” or “culture” are often commonly seen as frivolous or pretentious, they have an incredibly important everyday role in our lives – since they can be one of the things that shapes how we see and think about the world.

And, before anyone says anything, this isn’t a call for censorship. Whilst creative works can shape the way we see the world, they aren’t all-powerful things. In other words, they can slightly influence the way we see the world to an extent, but they can’t control us. We obviously still have brains, personalities etc…

Not to mention that most of the ways that creative works influence how we see the world are positive. They make us look at “ordinary” landscapes in interesting ways, they can provide an emotional boost to us, they can add humour to our lives and they can provoke interesting daydreams.

Plus, of course, if you’re a creative person yourself, then every creative work that you see will probably influence what you create to some extent or another – even if it’s just a “I’m not making something like that!” negative influence.

Not to mention that making art regularly also means that you tend to notice things like realistic colours, the exact outlines of everything, the beauty of everything, background details in TV shows etc… This is kind of hard to describe, but it’s a little bit like gaining an extra sense or something like that.

So yes, creative works are important, valuable things because they can shape the way that we see the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Cool Art Tricks I Learnt From Films, TV And/Or Computer Games

2017-artwork-art-techniques-learnt-from-film-tv-and-games

You’d be surprised at how many artistic techniques you can learn from “new” mediums like film (or TV) and games. After all, an individual frame from both of these things still has to obey the same “rules” that ordinary two-dimensional works of art do. After all, all of these things can be displayed on a flat, two-dimensional computer screen – even if the image itself might appear to be three-dimensional.

So, here are three cool art tricks that I learnt from films, TV and/or computer games:

1) Perspective tricks:
One technique I have been experimenting with recently is similar to a technique used in films (and photography) in order to give an image a sense of depth. In films and TV shows, the camera lens will sometimes focus sharply on the foreground which leaves the background looking significantly blurrier and less detailed.

Likewise, some 3D computer games use a similar version of this technique – albeit for different reasons. By only using detailed textures for the foreground and using lower-resolution textures for areas further away from the player, not only do games create a subtler version of this effect but they can also reduce the amount of time and processing power required to “draw” whatever is on the screen at any moment.

When you’re making art, this technique can be re-created using either traditional or digital methods. Of course, you can also combine these two methods if you want the effect to stand out even more.

To do this entirely traditionally, just use a precise drawing-based medium (eg: waterproof ink pens, ordinary pens, pencils, thin markers etc..) to add detail to the foreground and then use paints or pastels exclusively for details in the background.

Here’s a cropped, but otherwise unprocessed, scan of one of my upcoming paintings that shows how this technique can work when trying to portray a smog-covered landscape:

This is an example of the "traditional" version of this technique. As you can see, the foreground details have been drawn using waterproof ink, but the distant background consists of nothing but watercolour.

This is an example of the “traditional” version of this technique. As you can see, the foreground details have been drawn using waterproof ink, but the distant background consists of nothing but watercolour.

To do this digitally, scan or digitally photograph your artwork and then use an image editing program (you can find a free open-source one called “GIMP” here) to select the background. To do this, find your program’s selection tool (in GIMP, it’s called the “Free select tool” and it’s icon looks like a grey lasso) and then use it to draw around the area of your picture that is in the background.

Once you’ve done this, then just apply a few image effects to the background in order to make it look more blurry and/or undetailed. Although these effects vary from program to program, you’ll probably be able to experiment (just remember to save backups and to use the “undo” function) until you get it right. Likewise, you can also select the foreground and apply a few effects to make it look sharper too. Like in this reduced-size preview of one of my other upcoming paintings:

You can just about see the technique in this reduced-size preview of a painting that will appear here on the 15th of July.

You can just about see the technique in this reduced-size preview of a painting that will appear here on the 15th of July.

After my usual digital editing routine in an old editing program called “Paint Shop Pro 6” (with some small corrections in MS Paint too), I selected the buildings in the distant background and added a “dilate” effect, before severely reducing the highlight/midtone/shadow levels in this part of the image.

Then, for good measure, I selected the pillar and computer screens in the close foreground and added a subtle “sharpen” effect to make them look like they were closer to the viewer.

2) Framing and composition: I’ve discussed this technique before, but one cool technique that was used by pixel artists in old “point and click” games was to “frame” the picture by including a few close-up details in the near foreground.

Usually, these close details would be near the edges or the corners of the picture and they instantly add a sense of depth and visual drama to the picture (as if the camera is “lurking” somewhere in the distance).

Back in the old days, when backgrounds in adventure games (and survival horror games) were pre-rendered 2D images (in order to save processing power and make the game look more realistic than it actually is) this compositional technique also allowed a totally static background to appear more three-dimensional. But, although art doesn’t really require much “processing power”, the technique can still be used to great effect.

Here’s a modified version of the preview picture I showed you earlier, where I’ve highlighted how I used this technique (albeit in a slightly less prominent way than in old games):

As you can see, the screens, poster and pillar in the close foreground "frame" the rest of the picture.

As you can see, the screens, poster and pillar in the close foreground “frame” the rest of the picture.

3) Visual storytelling: Since computer games, TV shows and films are storytelling mediums that rely on constant motion (eg: even if nothing is happening on screen – 24-60 frames are being shown every second), they tend to include a lot more motion and drama than “traditional” art sometimes can.

Likewise, since films and games need to tell a story within a relatively short space of time, they often have to rely on visual storytelling. This is where you use actions and background details to hint at the fact that something has happened or that something is happening.

So, if you see your drawings or paintings as being a single “frame” from a film or a game, then this will encourage you to use these techniques. It will make you think of your picture as part of a much larger story. This will, of course, add some extra drama and visual interest to your art – even if you do it in a fairly subtle way. Take another look at the preview image I’ve shown you before:

There's a lot more storytelling in this picture than you might think...

There’s a lot more storytelling in this picture than you might think…

You can see that the picture is set in the distant future due to the relatively modern computer monitors displayed in the window of an antique shop. Giant advertising screens tower over the picture, giving some hint that this is a dystopian future.

In the foreground, a woman stares at something inside the shop with nervous excitement. Behind her, a man walks past – talking on an old-fashioned mobile phone. Further away, another man smokes a cigarette and looks at something in the direction of the audience, his expression masked by futuristic sunglasses. Another man, to the left of him, does exactly the same.

Even though all of this stuff is fairly subtle and there isn’t really much “action” in this picture – it still hints at some kind of story. It still looks a little bit like it could be an individual frame from a film or a computer game.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

A Short Ramble About Perspective Experiments (With Art Previews :) )

2017 Artwork perspective ramble article sketch

Whilst making a series of paintings (that are vaguely similar to the “awesome stuff” series that I posted here last year) that will be posted here later this month, I suddenly found that I’d started doing something slightly different with the perspective..

Here’s a reduced-size preview of a painting that I’ll be posting here on the 20th of this month:

The actual painting will be significantly larger.

The actual painting will be significantly larger.

Although I mostly tend to use one-point perspective in many of my paintings, I ended up putting a slightly different twist on it in several of these paintings.

If you don’t know what one-point perspective is, it’s where you draw a large “X” over the page in pencil and – everything closer to the centre of the “X” is smaller than anything closer to the edges of the page. Likewise, the lines of the “X” also serve as guidelines when working out the line angles when drawing 3D objects. It’s one of the most basic types of perspective, and it looks a bit like this:

Here's a very basic diagram that I made in about two minutes in MS Paint, showing flat forward-facing 2D shapes in one-point perspective.

Here’s a very basic diagram that I made in about two minutes in MS Paint, showing flat forward-facing 2D shapes in one-point perspective.

But, when I started making these paintings, I noticed that I was doing something very slightly different with the perspective. For a number of reasons, I was placing the centre of the “X” slightly to the left of the page. What this meant was that everything on the right side of the page was closer to the foreground, and most things on the left side of the page were in the background, kind of like this:

It's disguised slightly by the "metro" sign, but most of the foreground is on the right-hand side of the picture.

It’s disguised slightly by the “metro” sign, but most of the foreground is on the right-hand side of the picture.

The interesting thing about this type of perspective is that, when I was making these paintings, it made the picture feel wider than it actually is. Since I’d planned to cram a lot of detail (and several characters) into these paintings, this suddenly seemed like the simplest way to do it.

I suppose that one advantage of this technique is the fact that it means that a large part of the background (on the left-hand side of the page) is unobstructed by too many foreground details. This also helps to lend the picture a sense of scale that it might not have if I’d used a more traditional one-point perspective.

Here’s another small preview of a painting that uses this technique, although you’ll have to ignore the parrot in the foregound (which I instinctively added because leaving all of that blank space just seemed “unnatural” to me. Which may sound unusual, if anyone has seen any of my more minimalist paintings):

 If you ignore the parrot, you can see that the foreground is only on one side of the painting.

If you ignore the parrot, you can see that the foreground is only on one side of the painting.

This technique probably won’t work with every painting, but it can certainly be interesting to experiment with perspective sometimes.

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Sorry for the ridiculously short and rambling article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Narrative Voice And Perspective – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Second person narrative voice article sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I tend to write these articles quite far in advance of when they’re actually posted. So, at the time of writing, I’m working on an interactive fiction gamebook project that may or may not have been posted online sometime around last Halloween.

Anyway, I noticed something very interesting when I was writing this gamebook. My narrative voice was different to how I remembered.

Back when I wrote fiction on a much more regular basis, I was very proud of the fact that I had a distinctive narrative voice. I’m not quite sure when it first emerged, but it was probably sometime in early-mid 2009. I’d gone through a few other narrative voices and I’d finally found the one that was perfect for me.

It was the perfect fit for the fiction that I wrote in 2009-11, since most of these stories were sci-fi/ horror/ detective stories that were narrated from a first-person perspective. In fact, my narrative voice was only at it’s best when I wrote stories in the first person. Whenever I tried to write from a third-person perspective, my narration often just sounded kind of dull and “functional”.

As fans of old-school 1970s-90s gamebooks (eg: “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Fighting Fantasy” etc.. ) will know, these books are always written in the present tense and from a second-person perspective. In fact, this is the only genre of fiction that has to be narrated in this particular way.

Still, having had relatively little experience with writing from a second-person perspective (apart from this, this and part four of this ), the effects that this had on my narrative voice were extremely surprising.

If my usual first-person narrative voice sounds a bit like a twentysomething punk/goth woman from the future, then my second-person narrative voice in the gamebook that I’m writing sounds more like a cross between various American comedy writers, a rather posh old man, Missy from “Doctor Who” and something from this hilariously melodramatic vintage horror movie trailer.

Seriously, the difference really shocked me.

Even so, I can still just about see a few traces of my first-person narrative voice when I’m writing in the second person but, for the most part, my narrative voice is totally different when I write in the second person.

Interactive stories narrated from a second-person perspective have to do both of these things. Not only is the narrator an omniscient figure who is only partially in control of the world of the story, but he or she also has to talk directly to the reader too. I guess that this means that the narrative voice you use for second-person stories has to be tailored to the kind of story that you’re telling.

So, if you’re telling a horror story, then I guess that your narrative voice will probably sound a bit more nihilistic or “evil”. If you’re telling a fantasy story, then I guess that your narrative voice would probably sound more old and wizened. If you’re telling a detective story, your narrative voice will probably sound more “hardboiled”. I’m sure you get the idea.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but my narrative voice is certainly a lot more flexible when I’m writing in a second-person perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Artists Use Optical Illusions All The Time – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Art And Optical Illusions

A few months ago, I read an absolutely fascinating article about optical illusions which, as well as showing many examples of classic optical illusions, also talks about why these illusions work.

Anyway, after I got serious about making art regularly a couple of years ago, I’ve noticed that optical illusions can have less of an effect on me than they used to. With some of the simpler optical illusions in the article, I could instantly see how they worked at a glance. They were no longer illusions to me.

For example, one of the illusions shows two horizontal lines of equal length on top of each other within a triangle. The line closest to the bottom of the triangle looks shorter than the line nearest the top of the triangle. Having made quite a bit of art, I instantly knew that this was because this picture resembled a drawing in one-point perspective.

When you’re drawing in one-point perspective, you usually start by drawing a large “X” over the page in pencil. Everything closest to the centre of that “X” is in the distance, and everything near the edges of the page is in the foreground. Well, the triangle looked exactly like a quarter of one of these guidelines. So, it was easy to tell that the optical illusion was a trick that used one-point perspective.

Likewise, another illusion in the article shows two equally-sized orange circles. One of these circles is surrounded by large black circles and the other is surrounded by small black circles. The orange circle surrounded by smaller black circles looks considerably larger at first glance.

Again, because I’ve made a fair amount of art, I know instinctively that the size of something in a picture is actually determined by the size of everything else close to it. So, if smaller things are next to something, then it will look larger by comparison and vice versa.

In short, practicing art regularly meant that I knew how these optical illusions worked because I’d used them myself many times without even realising it. Most types of even vaguely realistic art rely very heavily on a large number of optical illusions. After all, you’re trying to depict a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional sheet of paper, computer screen or canvas.

In order to do this, you need to learn a variety of tricks that will give your picture a lot more depth. You have to learn how to use perspective, you need to learn how to draw things in proportion, you need to learn how to draw 3D shapes, you need to learn how to use basic shading and lighting etc… In other words, learning how to draw or paint means learning how to use a lot of optical illusions.

Not only that, the process of learning how to draw or paint requires you to learn how to look at things differently. You have to learn how to “see” three-dimensional things in a two-dimensional way.

You have to “see” other works of art as two-dimensional images (that use clever optical illusions), rather than three-dimensional images, if you want to learn about any of the techniques that the artist has used.

Likewise, if you’re painting or drawing from life – you have to learn how to “see” everything in front of you as a two-dimensional image (which is filled with optical illusions) that you can copy onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper or canvas.

So, yes, if you’re an artist – then there’s a good chance that you both know and use a lot more optical illusions than you might think.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

“The Starport” (Experimental Fiction)

2015 Artwork Starport vault story

Well, since I can’t seem to think of anything interesting to say about art, comics and/or writing today – I thought that I’d share an experimental short story I wrote last year.

It was originally supposed to be part of a collection of guided meditation-style stories, narrated from a second-person perspective (it was the secret project I mentioned in this article).

However, I only ended up writing about three of these stories before I ended up abandoning the project – this sci-fi story is probably one of the better ones. Enjoy 🙂
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The Starport – A Daydream By C. A. Brown

With a quiet hiss, the shiny white airlock door in front of you slides upwards to reveal the vast expanse of the starport. Despite everything that you’ve read about it on the journey, you never expected it to be quite this big.

At first, it reminds you of a multi-storey car park, until you realise that the rows of vehicles in front of you don’t actually have any wheels and there isn’t a concrete pillar in sight. Nonetheless, the smell of machinery and the drinks cartons strewn between the ships still make it feel like a car park back on Earth.

Gingerly stepping off of the transport shuttle, you look at the ships docked around you. The one to your left is a long, pointy green craft that looks like it was somehow grown in a giant petri dish by a bored giant. Before you can turn around and look at the ship behind you, someone jostles you. You hear the clank of chainmail and smell something that reminds you of stale beer.

You try to stutter out an apology, but all you can see is the back of a hulking blue creature, clad in some kind of strange golden armour. The in-flight guide had mentioned something about alien lifeforms, but you never quite expected to actually see one here.

As the creature recedes to little more than a dot in the distance, you try to remember exactly what species it is supposed to be, but you draw a blank. There were just too many in the guide for you to memorise on a three-hour trip from Earth. But, before you can remember any more, a light blinks above you and an alarm sounds.

A short woman in a yellow jumpsuit walks out from behind one of the spaceships and points along the row of spaceships to something that looks like a giant metal cylinder in the distance. It takes you a second to realise that it’s a lift shaft.

She looks at you with intense blue eyes and says something in what sounds like French. From your knowledge of the language and the sound of engines in the distance, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t a good idea to be standing around here whilst ships are still docking.

Apologising, you run towards the cylinder and almost collide with a tall man in a pristine green jacket and a strange-looking angular hat. From the ornate golden badge on his lapel, it’s clear that he’s a military officer of some kind or another and, from the amused smirk on his face, it’s clear that he’s a high-ranking one.

Before you can stutter out an explanation, he gestures towards the cylinder theatrically with his right hand and keeps on walking. You decide to follow and try to strike up a conversation, but the loud roar of another incoming spacecraft behind you drowns out whatever you were just about to say. So, you keep walking.

After what seems like ten minutes of noise and walking, you finally reach the lift doors. Both of them are closed and a piece of paper has been tacked to one of them, it’s covered with strange-looking squiggles that you can’t quite decipher. No doubt it was written in one of the alien languages that the in-flight guide had offered to teach you for “the low, low price of just £29.99“.

As you stare at it, you can hear the engines behind you slowly whirr to a halt. The officer turns to you and smiles again before saying ‘It’s out of order, we should probably take the stairs…’

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Sorry for the filler article, hopefully I’ll come up with an idea for a proper article for tomorrow.