Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.4: Hybrid Viewpoints

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard, with Sandra Tayler

Piper J. Drake joins the cast for our week-four episodes, of which this is the first. This week we’ll be drilling down into hybrid viewpoints—blending 1st and 3rd person, framing stories, stories-within-stories, and unreliable narration—and how to best serve our work with these techniques.

Homework: Put a framing story around something you’ve already written.

Thing of the week: Absolute Trust, by Piper J. Drake.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Hybrid viewpoints mean we’re mixing first and third person, or present and past tense, or otherwise tinkering with the structure. Frame stories. A journal entry, 1001 Arabian Nights, stories in a bar. Story within a story. The dynamic between the two stories can help establish untrustworthy narrators. Also, to provide backstory. Metaphors, puzzle pieces, and reveals. Flashbacks. They provide much more depth and impact. People really have flashbacks in visceral response, PTSD, trauma. Flashbacks are a tool for organizing the narrative arc to get the maximum emotional effect.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode Four.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Hybrid Viewpoints.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] Piper. Thank you for being on our podcast.
[Piper] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] Piper is going to be one of our guest hosts all year.
[Hoot hoot!]
[Brandon] So you’ll be able to hear a whole ton from Piper, and… Are you going on the cruise again this year?
[Piper] I’m planning on it.
[Brandon] Excellent. So you can go on the cruise…
[Dan] Awesome.
[Brandon] And you can meet Piper and bring your books to get signed and ask her questions. She’s going to be helping us out all of the fourth week episodes this year on Writing Excuses. Piper, will you tell us about yourself?
[Piper] Sure. There’s all sorts of stuff. But, to go short, I am an author of romantic suspense, as well as having an… Doh… Brain.
[Dan] Well, and you…
[Piper] Sorry!
[Dan] Have two names that you publish under.
[Piper] I do. So I’m also known as P. J. Schnyder. Although we are thinking about archiving P. J. Schnyder. We’re going to figure that out over the course of the year. It’ll be an experiment. But P. J. Schnyder wrote sci-fi and paranormal romance, steam punk, and urban fantasy. Whereas, as Piper, I write [garbled romantic suspense].
[Dan] Piper what? We haven’t said your last name yet.
[Piper] Piper J. Drake.
[Dan] There we go.
[Brandon] We invited Piper number one because she’s awesome.
[Piper] Thank you.
[Brandon] But also because we felt it very important to have a romance writer join us on the podcast. I have consistently been impressed by the romance writers. They know their stuff.
[Piper] Oh, romance writers are heavy…
[Dan] There is a reason that it is the best-selling genre in America.

[Brandon] So we are excited to have Piper, and I’m going to dive us into our topic this week, which is hybrid viewpoints. These are times when you do something a little weird. Which we all like to do. We are science fiction and fantasy writers, after all. We take a first person and we’re not satisfied with that, we add a third person. Or we take a third person and we add a first person. I’m going to talk us through, and we’re going to talk about a few different methods we’ve seen this done. The one I see very frequently is what we call a frame story. What is a frame story?
[Dan] A frame story is something like Frankenstein, which is told… We start with someone sitting in a room, or writing a letter, saying, “Well, dearest whoever, let me tell you the tale of what happened to me. Blah.” Then the rest of the story is that. And every now and then it comes back. Princess Bride is a really good example of this, because we’re getting the grandfather reading the little boy a story, but most of the movie, most of the book, is just the story. Every now and then we cut back out.
[Piper] Another good example is 1001 Arabian Nights. Very classic example. Scheherazade is telling a story for each night of her life. More contemporary, which I found interesting, Jimmy Buffett’s A Salty Piece of Land.
[Piper] This is so hysterical, but I would call it a framing story, because it’s just this retelling of the fact that he’s working on a lighthouse on this random island and how he got there and all of these crazy shenanigans and stories all along the way.
[Brandon] Yeah. Technically, the Hobbit. It’s like only a few sentences…
[Dan] Allegedly.
[Brandon] The big one is Name of the Wind in epic fantasy right now.
[Dan] Well, Name of the Wind is the one that I love, because the fact that it’s a frame story makes the narrative part explicitly I am telling you this story, and the audiobook is longer than the amount of time the story actually takes to tell. Which is so cool.
[Howard] That’s funny. We… Several season episodes whatever before, we did the Project in Depth on Schlock Mercenary Parallel Perspectives, where there’s a framing story around the fact that these people are each sharing their version of what happened.
[Brandon] I love that one. It turned out so well.
[Howard] I love that one too. The framing story… It’s important to recognize with framing stories, as you’re talking about hybrid viewpoint, that there has to be a good reason to do it.

[Brandon] Okay. Let’s talk about that, then. Why?
[Howard] For me, the reason was I can’t do the perspective shift and tell the story I want to tell, which is about the way things are perceived, without taking a step back and framing the discussion of perception.
[Brandon] Yeah. In that one, you were able to characterize each of the people telling their version of the story quite directly and interestingly in a way you never could have done otherwise.
[Howard] Using the visual tools, that typically aren’t available to writers.
[Brandon] Yes. You get to cheat.
[Brandon] Just different people did different styles of cartoon illustration.
[Howard] I want the superhero illustration for this one, I want a Frank Miller-esque stark black-and-white for this. And we got the artist who did the My Little Pony comics to do a My Little Pony-esque version for one of them.
[Brandon] Wasn’t it the giant elephants?
[Dan] It was the elephant story that got the My Little Pony one.
[Howard] The giant angry elephants one.
[Brandon] All right.
[Dan] And it’s great. Well, I was going to say, kind of the godfather of that particular kind of storytelling, where you are playing with perception, is Rashomon which is a movie by Akira Kurosawa, where that is the point. Let us see the same story from all these different points of view. Howard did it as storytelling in a bar. Rashomon did it as let’s get witnesses to give their version of this murder and things like that. So that can be a really compelling way to do it.
[Piper] I’ve done framing in the past. I actually did it as P. J. Schnyder in my London Undead series. So in Survive to Dawn, there is the zombie apocalypse and you have werewolves hunting zombies in London, trying to protect the human population that’s still stuck behind the quarantine line in London. I ended up taking a diary. That was the frame story, is reading into the diary in a sister’s of the character’s handwriting to find out why or what triggered the zombie apocalypse.

[Brandon] So this relates very closely to story within a story, which we’ll move into next. But first, I kind of want to talk about this idea of I think one of the great things with a story within a story or a frame story is it allows you to establish an untrustworthy narrator very easily. You can say, “I am now opening this book to tell you this story,” and you can pull out of it to occasionally cast doubt on things that happen in the story or to give more information, both of which make the story less authoritative and give you this power. Like Name of the Wind is a great example of this. Every time we pull out and Kvothe is talking, you’re like, “Oh, he’s just kind of talking through his life. He may not remember this all very well. Or he may be lying about certain things.” That adds a new dimension to the story. By making the third person narrative the authoritative one, this is what’s actually happening, and the first person untrustworthy, you get a really cool dynamic.
[Howard] There’s another reason to do this, and it happens all the time in videogame writing. The Bethesda games, Oblivion and those games, perfect examples of this, because you are telling a story of you on a quest. You are going and doing things, and every so often, you will find journals, you will find books that will tell you things in many cases about this quest you are on. You are getting the story of the person who turned into a werewolf that you’re going to have to kill the end of the story. It is… It’s fun because it is a little micro tragedy of this person who made a horrible mistake, and then there’s your grand 80 hour adventure which is a framing story for dozens of these.
[Piper] Oh, yeah. The mini games… Kingdom Hearts does mini games really incredibly well. Again, that’s backstory. Almost every world that’s for our visits, there’s backstory on the character and what happened then. There’s cut scenes because of the visual aspect of that, that entertainment. You get a side story, but it’s important to moving forward with the overall arc.
[Dan] Now, video games is a great lead-in to a point I wanted to make. Another reason to use a frame story is because you want… The real, or one of the real stories you’re trying to tell is in the frame, and everything else is actually backstory to it. Assassin’s Creed is the one that reminded me of this.
[Piper] Yeah…
[Dan] Where you’re all… Most of the game takes place in the past, but it’s actually a frame that’s set in a virtual reality machine in the future. Another story that does this brilliantly is the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons, which I adore.
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] That’s basically kind of the Chaucer Canterbury Tales idea, except we are getting all of these travelers’ little stories in each book. There’s Hyperion, Hyperion… Whatever the second one’s called. Each one covers three or four frame stories within the larger frame. The point is that each one of those is giving us more and more background until we get to the big reveal at the end of the second book, that the entire frame has been building toward.
[Brandon] I love stories within a story. This is… Like I have a storyteller character who goes between all of my worlds and is telling stories from mythology in different worlds on worlds and things like this, just really cool things. I love the flavor it gives when the… I love stories, so when my characters love stories…
[Brandon] It feels authentic to me and real. It allows me to, I think, make my characters stronger because of what they love.
[Howard] That’s… I feel the same way. That’s why, in the Parallel Perspectives story, I got chills when I was writing General Tagon saying, “No. Stop. You’re telling that wrong. Start at the beginning.” And hands him a drink. I love that. Because…
[Howard] That’s… We… as people, we are storytellers. A framing story… For me, a framing story humanizes everybody in the book.
[Dan] What this is reminding me of… This isn’t really a frame story, but if we’re transitioning into story within a story, the Watchmen series has the pirate thing going on in the background. That, like you said, your characters love stories. The pirate thing is just in a world where superheroes are real, the comic books they read are about pirates. Because that’s what they’ve decided to fill that gap with. So as you read Watchmen, which is this long series, each kind of issue ends with this little kind of pirate thing, serialized story.
[Brandon] Which is…
[Dan] Which is really cool.
[Brandon] It’s really cool, and it’s a metaphor. That’s the other thing.
[Dan] It is. Yeah.
[Brandon] See… You can’t… You gotta be careful on this. It’s easy to be…
[Brandon] A little heavy-handed, but if you haven’t read Watchmen, it’s a story of a character who builds his life raft from a ship that crashes, out of the corpses of his friends who died, in order to get away. If you read Watchmen, building upon the corpses your own survival, is a big metaphor and theme. But it’s so subtle, that it just kind of…
[Dan] Well, it’s subtle and it works because both stories are interesting. The superhero one is, and the pirate one is, and if you’re an English major, you could put it together and go, “Aha!”
[Piper] I think also the story within a story concept gives you the opportunity to pull cultures together and merge them. Like Carol Severance did it really wonderfully in a sci-fi novel called Reefsong. I fell in love with this years and years ago. This is not a recent release. The concept was just that we had colonized a mostly ocean planet called Lesaat and the people there… You had your overall governing governance or fed… Corporate owners of the planet, and then you had people who had come from all different Polynesian cultures coming to the islands on the planet to make new lives for themselves. They developed their own culture and they pulled stories within stories from their heritage, from all the different Polynesian heritage, and kind of made a new… A) they genetically created a new generation, and that new generation made up a new story of how… And I’m going to pronounce this wrong… Lesaat, an octopus God, came and moved from Earth to the new planet, and how he decided to do it. The entire story within a story of telling how he came was really wonderful, to build how these people had come to make a new life for themselves. So that was… It really drew me into the novel.

[Brandon] That sounds awesome. Though it’s not technically our book of the week this week.
[Piper] No. Not technically.
[Brandon] Not technically because Absolute Trust is technically our book of the week.
[Piper] It is.
[Brandon] But I’ll bet you could read them both. Tell us about Absolute Trust.
[Piper] Absolute Trust is a bit of a genre change. It is romantic suspense. It is the third book in my True Heroes series, which features ex-military veterans… Well. Kind of redundant there. Ex-military heroes who have started a kennel to build new lives for themselves, and they train military working dogs. In particular, Absolute Trust is the culmination, where we get to meet the actual kennel owner and his longtime childhood sweetheart who he left to go to the military, never explained why. Now, someone’s trying to blow up Sophie. So he’s got to make sure she survives.

[Brandon] Excellent. Excellent. So, let’s take this a little bit of a different direction. Cover one more topic on this. Flashbacks. I don’t know if we can do flashbacks justice when… I’m batting 1000 today on my pronunciations.
[Brandon] I don’t know if we can do flashbacks well.
[Dan] Flashbacks are hard, because every writing teacher I have ever had has said, “They’re really hard to do well, just don’t bother with them.”
[Brandon] Which is terrible advice.
[Dan] I don’t know if I’ve ever used one.
[Brandon] It’s terrible advice because…
[Howard] I’ve used one in the first Flight of the Runewright story. There’s a moment where he has been overcome by the magical insanity stuff, and he has a memory, he remembers an event that drops a puzzle piece in place for us. It’s short. I changed tense. I went from first person present tense to first person past tense in order to illustrate it. But that transition… It was within the bounds of a short story. I stuck a little bitty flashback, and it worked fine.

[Brandon] So let’s talk here just… Let’s talk about the advantages of flashbacks. We will put the warning on, they are hard to do. Readers get a little… Get tired of them if… Particularly if you do them poorly. They get bored, they’re like, “Oh, no. Why couldn’t you just do this in the story?”
[Piper] This has to be concise.
[Brandon] What makes them work? Why do we include them, even though they are hard to use?
[Dan] Well, because… Okay. So what I’m thinking of right now is I just read Nexus by Ramez Naam, which is awesome. There’s a… One of the two main characters in there, she has some horrible past. Throughout the book, there are hints as to what that past is. When we get to the part where she actually tells us, it’s done kind of sort of as a flashback. It’s a story within a story, where she’s telling him, but it’s done very narratively, flashback-style. The reason that that works is because it’s a whole chapter. It’s pages and pages and pages. If that was just her saying, “And then I did this. And then I did this.” It wouldn’t have the impact of being there in the moment, seeing an awful thing happen to her and watching her react to it.
[Piper] I think one of the things to think about when you’re about to do a flashback is why do people have flashbacks in reality? The most effective ones that I’ve seen or I’ve managed to use myself are ones that are inciting a visceral response. This is a flashback that’s happened that’s given someone PTSD, or given them a trauma of some sort, or even if it’s a happy, happy moment, that they have to summon up to be able to deal with the present. So using a flashback for that reason, even if it’s a micro-flashback of just a line or two lines and really tight and concise, can be incredibly effective. But it’s…
[Brandon] That’s excellent advice. I agree with that wholeheartedly.
[Howard] The wrong reason to do a flashback is, “Oh, I forgot to tell you.”
[Brandon] Or…
[Piper] About this backstory.
[Brandon] Or this part is boring, so I won’t start my book with that.
[Howard] Yeah, I’m going to put it someplace else.
[Brandon] I will put it someplace else. Anytime you’re like, “This is too boring,” then you should be aware. Though, I will point out, the Stormlight Archive, my best-selling series, is a flashback series. In that I start five characters at a event, then they are going on with their lives, and each book flashes back to show how they all got to the beginning of the book, the first book. So I deeply use flashback. There’s something like 18 in the current book. They’re… Most of them are full chapters of flashback. I like this is a nonlinear storytelling method.
[Howard] A straight chronological story, often you really have to shoehorn things in order to get the narrative arc that’s going to give you the maximum emotional effect. A flashback is a great tool for reordering some of these elements, so that you’ve queued up the emotional effects for the right place in the arc.

[Brandon] All right. Well, I’m going to call this one here. Though I think we could probably keep talking on flashbacks forever. We have talked about them before on Writing Excuses. So you can go through the archives and find those. I’m going to give us some homework. Because I want you to try a frame story. I want you to take a story you’ve already written, and I want you to set that with a next level of context. Somebody’s telling that story. You’re not going to change the story you’ve written at all. You’re going to add a frame story. Something at the beginning and the end. Either in a first-person narrative or a third person narrative, where you give context to the story being told. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.