The Observer Effect - Just Write

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Amber Zade

With all the great cat videos I totally forgot why I was thinking about the Observer Effect and writing......

There are certain buzz words writers throw around with one another.

Media Res - Usually meant to say we should start a story in the middle of the action.
Info Dump - Giving information in a clumsy manner
Exposition - Explaining rather than showing
GMC - Goal, motivation, and conflict... one should lead naturally to the other.
passive voice - had ... had .... had ....

I'm sure there are more.....

As a beginning writer, I learned about these catch phrases and I've even used them in critique groups. I've recently had reason to question .... well ... most of these .....

Media Res - It's a greek theater term and ... again ... as most of us know, means we should start in the middle of the action.

Maybe I've aged about 20 years in the last year and am officially 'old' but stories that start off with fireworks going off have started to get on my nerves. I suspect there is more than one way to execute media res. This first occurred to me while I was reading Donald Maas book 'Writing the Breakout Novel'. He didn't come right out and explain the different ways to execute media res, instead he just gave examples of the different ways other books had used media res. What I've come away with is a different definition of media res - 'fully formed'. By fully formed I mean the players are already on the stage, they already have a relationship, and they already have issues.

We are told to use media res to draw the reader in... BUT .... most media res situations are short lived.... they get resolved pretty quickly.... usually. I still think it's a good way to start a book but I don't think it's the only way or necessarily the best way for every story.

But media res ..... as in .... all the players are on the stage .. relationships already exist ... and there are already issues ....

I think that might always be a good idea.

I don't have knew thoughts about info dumps .... they're probably not ever a good idea ...

But exposition, well .... a time and a place I think.

GMC - this one is my favorite ... there is a book on amazon ... a very good book .... by Debra Dixon .... a printed copy .... very expensive ..... let me check on its price today.... 65.99 brand new ..... it's the Bible of genre fiction.... especially romantic genre fiction

Well... I read a book by Ursula K le Guin ..... and she said something which made me think ... DUH!

She said - Conflict isn't the only motivation to change.

We ASSUME conflict is the means to change because we're a competitive often violent society and so OF COURSE change comes about as a test of wills (often in romantic fiction)

But, there are more cerebral paths to change, even spiritual paths to change. Do they belong in books? YES = it's the only place for them really. Our impulse to make books like movies and tv shows is a little short sighted to me. As authors, we need to believe in what we do, we need to believe that written stories have more depth .... have more to offer ..... than TV.

I'll use Hunger Games as an example...

Color me stupid.... but from watching the movies I saw Peeta as a weak some guy who threw her burnt and wet bread when she was hungry. I thought, 'that was rude ... why didn't he throw her some good bread' LOL

From watching the movie I ASSuMEd Katniss love Gale. How could she not. He was rugged, hot, he loved her, and they had a great deal in common.

The movie convinced me that Katniss was just playing along during the games... pretending to care for Peeta.

Now that I've read The Hunger Games ... I see that I was wrong. Collins has created the most subtle demonstration of ambivalence .... and the BEST love triangle I've ever seen. Katniss can't allow herself to believe in love, think about love....but if you read the slowly becomes obvious that she loves gale and Peeta ..... Peeta's generosity and good heart are obvious while in the movies...he just comes across as weak (I haven't seen the 3rd). Peeta is practically a saint .... a man who demonstrates true and abiding love ... and in addition .... somehow... instinctual ... knows how to love ..... self-sacrifice. The strongest character in the books is not Katniss, it's Peeta.

How would this subtlety be communicated in a movie? Just as in Gone with the Wind, where they failed to communicate how pure Mellie was, how generous, how loyal, how perfectly loving she was towards her husband and Scarlett....movies can't do it....

Finally .... Passive voice .... there IS a time and a place yaknow.

What has this got to do with observer effect .... well being aware of all of these catch phrases and warnings about our writing has the same effect as the observer effect ... it causes us to change our writing without even thinking about it ... and the end result ... may not be the best result.

Maybe as readers/writers/critiquers..... we need to be more careful when using these catch phrases ... they will fall out of fashion .... as all things do over time. We don't need to start out with the template in our minds.... I think it often distracts from what is actually wrong with the writing. Or .. what needs to be adjusted.

For me, as a writer, I sometimes read my writing and think ..... I need to put something EXCITING there (media res) .... and ... well I CAN think of something exciting .... but I think keeping the warnings (media res, passive voice, exposition.... ETC) has made me a self conscious writer ....

It might be better to just ... write ..... and sort it out later.
I think it's possible to be worried too much on the technical structure you apply to a novel.

For me, I can take an idea and the challenge is to use that idea as a seed, something that a number of different scenarios can rise out of.

Motivation is probably the thing you should try and spend time on. Motivation usually arises out of a back story, that then appears in a present set of circumstances.

These two 'stories' (one a novel and one a clasic) have the same motivation.

'I want to go home'

Cold Mountain - Charles Frazer
The Odyssey - Homer

Now, how you get home is another thing !
Passive voice is when a writer describes an object being acted upon as opposed to that object performing the action. The use of specific words/verb tenses does NOT always earmark passive voice. I've seen writers go through their manuscript and agonize over taking out every instance of was or had, which is silly. If you're writing in past tense, third person, you're going to have some instances of was and had in there, and they will likely be appropriate and make perfect sense.

****This is a great article that explains myths and facts about passive voice****

Here's my over-simplified explanation:
Passive voice: The ball was dropped by the boy.

Active voice: The boy dropped the ball.

In the first sentence, the focus is on the ball instead of the boy. If the boy is your main character, writing the sentence this way distances that character from the reader, and as writers we want to avoid that. You want your readers inside a character's head, feeling, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing everything they do.

In the second sentence, the focus is on the boy. He's performing a direct action. He dropped the ball. It's immediate and moves the story forward, plus it keeps your reader inside that character's head.

There are exceptions to using passive voice that are perfectly acceptable. See the link above. The article is excellent in detailing them, and when it's preferable or acceptable to use it.

You can buy Goal, Motivation, and Conflict directly from the publisher/author for $19.99 here:

I highly recommend this for ANY fiction writer regardless of genre. I've had my copy for six years now, and it's signed by Debra herself. She came to speak at one of our RWA chapter meetings. Highly engaging person, and her book makes so much sense to me. I still refer to it when I'm stuck on a character's reason for being in the book. ;)
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For the Media Res section, I think it also depends on what genre you're writing and what you consider Media Res. Media Res does not have to be explosions and fire and guns all around and (I know have an urge to go read books lol) etc. It can just be in the middle of a conflict. One piece of advice I've been given is to enter a scene late and leave the scene early.

To my other point, I think it depends on the genre. Thrillers--depending on the type of thriller, but most of them--start off with a big scene. You're supposed to send up a contract with your reader in the first 10% of your book, where you explain what kind book it is. It's pretty common practice to start off with a murder of some kind. Why? Because thriller readers expect some kind of action. If nothing happens for the first ten pages (and I've never read the author before so I haven't yet built up trust in them), why on earth am I going to waste my time reading page eleven? Especially when there are millions of other books in that genre to choose from.

However, I think thrillers are a different beast than other genres in a lot of ways. They are primarily plot-based, not character-based like almost every other genre. Meaning, while characters are important, of the two, plot takes precedence. So us readers are more interested in the action than the character's development. Not that we're not interested at all, it's just secondary.

And for the Hunger Games thing, I thought the exact same thing. I watched the first two without reading the books and I rooted for Gale the whole time. But then I read the books, and Peeta made a whole lot more sense.
Good points, @Nicole Wilson. :)

In romance, it's expected your hero and heroine meet as quickly as possible, preferably in the first few pages. Some people believe it should be on the first page. And it's also expected the obvious conflict why they can't simply go out for coffee, have a nice chat, and then get together is also set up, or at least widely hinted at. Otherwise, why would anyone keep reading? We all know how romances end. It's the journey reader want to experience. That's why they read them. :)

At the heart of all this, no matter what genre you write, is the fact you need to know what you're writing, and you need to know and understand the expectations of the audience for that genre. :) You can deviate a little, but if this is your first attempt at landing a publishing contract, sticking to those guidelines and audience expectations will greatly increase your chances of getting a YES.
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