What is Focalisation

Some say that focalization is the same thing as point of view. But I think it’s actually a bit more subtle than that.  

Third person limited is a really good perspective for explaining how focalisation works. Harry Potter is a classic example of third-person limited, where the world of witches and wizards is presented to us through Harry. But, we also see the other characters strictly from his perspective. This means that the audience is as ignorant about the true intentions of Snape, Dumbledore and many of the adult characters. 

The mysteries unfold in a way that’s intriguing because we only have Harry’s very limited point of view when it comes to the characters motivations and history. And the limitations of his perspective become clearer throughout the book series as we learn about the complicated past of the characters. Their pasts and reasoning don’t fit into his simple, straightforward view of people and morality in the first book.  

In contrast, third-person omniscient allows for exploration of many perspectives. The writer can look into the thoughts of any character, so the gaps in one characters knowledge and worldview, can be filled by another character. Little Women uses third-person omniscient, with Louisa May Alcott exploring the thoughts of the sisters, as well as others to tell the audience information the sisters aren’t privy to at the time. 

So, focalisation is more defined by the limitations of a character’s point of view, rather than just their point of view. 

First person can function in a similar way to third person limited, in that we have the perspective of a person, while getting through the plot that their perspective is flawed in some way. But in first person, we are even closer to the character’s thoughts. They’re the narrator, but in a plot where character complexities exist, they shouldn’t be an impartial one. In other words, they should be an unreliable narrator. 

The children’s book, Pagan’s Crusade by Catherine Jinks sees the crusades of Israel through the perspective of Pagan, a cynical, sixteen-year-old boy seeing war for the first. His reactions to the adults are meant to be humorous and rather sad in their naivety. The reader sees the war through the limited perspective of a teenage boy growing up in a hostile environment. And that’s the effect focalisation. 

Focalisation can easily be called point of view. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s what takes the story from an impartially told documentary, to a narrative exploring the flaws in the characters worldview. It allows for the progression of both character and themes. 

To me, focalisation is really just good characterisation. And good characterisation naturally fuels the themes as a result. 

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Show Don’t Tell

Shine a spotlight on story elements

Yes, I know this is some of the most cliched writing advice, but I found there’s a simple way to distill this idea down to one phrase. Just one thing to keep in mind that helps me show an emotion, idea or theme. 

Be specific. 

That’s it really. If you feel like you’re summarising events rather than telling a story, think about how to bring descriptions to life for the reader in more detail. It’s not a report or a list. Writing is one of the most difficult and satisfying things in the world because you’re creating images and new worlds with words.

Telling: 

It was too cold, so Jeremy went home.

Showing:

Jeremy pulled his thick calico jacket tighter around his shoulders. He trudged through the snow, his apartment in view. Jeremy imagined the warmth of his heater surrounding him as a shiver flew throughout his body.

Okay, so the second one builds a character and shows him going home. We know what the cold was like now. It doesn’t feel like we’re just giving a description of what a friend did earlier today. We’ve got the components of a story here.

Being specific when creating a story builds interest, but too much detail can make them lose interest, and fast.

Stay on target. I remember when Carl Sagan decided to spend two and a half freaking pages ruminating over the contents of an airplane ticket in Contact. My eyelids started drooping a lot at that point. 

What’s the colour of Jeremy’s coat? What brand of shoes is wearing? How about the colour of socks? What exactly is the temperature that day? I could write several paragraphs about those things. But that just bore readers (and me) to tears. 

When you’re diving into a description, ask yourself if it contributes to the story or character-building in some way. 

Showing that it’s cold, get us to empathise with Jeremy’s reason for going home. We get enough detail to understand why he makes that decision. The colour of his socks doesn’t contribute anything to the story, so it’s not necessary. 

Writing often requires you to do a balancing, and showing is no different. The “Be specific” rule is great when you remember to keep it focused on the things that matter most to the narrative.  

Creating Character Arcs: Part 3

Act 3: Confronting the Lie and Conclusions

Traditionally, the hero is meant to overcome the things in their way. The heroes confront and overcome their Lie by facing their foil. In both Thor and The Prince of Egypt, their brothers are their biggest obstacles. Family dysfunction makes for good drama. Just ask Shakespeare.

Thor:

In Thor, Loki holds onto the Lie of kingship, while Ramses holds onto the Lie that the system he inherited must be upheld at all costs. Loki believes he can earn his adoptive family’s love by killing his people, the Frost Giants.

He wants to take the right of kingship and prove he’s worthy of his adoptive family. And he does this by taking on the same Lie his brother held about might making right. But by the time Thor confronts his brother, he’s rejected that way of thinking. He’s not the cocky prince out to start a fight anymore. He earned back his hammer and godly status by throwing putting aside his pride and acting selflessly.

The Prince of Egypt:

Ramses’ father pressured him to live up to his legacy as the all-powerful, “morning and evening star.” If Ramses failed to live up to these incredibly lofty standards, he would be the “weak link” that would bring down the whole dynasty.

Ramses defines himself by his status as Pharaoh and lives with his father’s admonition not to be the “weak link” in back of his mind. It becomes his driving force when Moses pleads for him to let his people go. Moses let go of the Lie of his own entitlement once his sense of identity was shattered but Ramses steadfastly holds onto it.

Thor and Moses’ brothers believe in the Lie, while they grow away from it. Having a foil who goes in the opposite direction to the hero is a great way to create compelling character drama. It also highlights how far your hero has come, while giving them not necessarily a villain, but an antagonist force who offers an opposing view.

The end of a positive change arc has the main character not just rejecting the lie, but overcoming it. Thor rejects his initial beliefs of might makes right by reaching out to his brother, both literally and figuratively in an attempt to help him. But Loki, unable to overcome his Lie, rejects his brother’s help.

Ramses loses his only son as a result of not letting Moses’ people go. But even as Ramses finally agrees to let the slaves leave, he plans revenge. The final hurdle Moses and his people must face is Ramses and his men, charging at them before leaving Egypt. This is one last show of power for Ramses while he’s grieving. Moses manages to start anew, guiding his people safely to a better life in a new land, while Ramses loses everything because of stubbornness and pride.

A positive change character arc shows the main character coming to a better place emotionally and often physically. And to highlight this, their foil often ends in the direction the hero could have potentially gone if they hadn’t changed.

All stories are based on a problem, often both internal and external, that the hero must solve. Building conflict and showing how they go about overcoming it is what gets people invested in a story. Writing a gripping character arc and weaving it into your plot can seem like a daunting task. But following a basic structure can make it flow naturally.

Creating Character Arcs: Part 2

Character Arcs, Act 2: Leaving the Lie

This act centers around the fallout around the Lie being stripped away from our protagonists. Writer, Brandon Sanderson describes it as the point where the hero starts taking, “real, proactive action — with often bad results.”

Thor: Thor still clings to his Lie when he arrives on Earth and is forced to live as a normal human being. He makes demands when confined to a hospital bed and throws his title as the son of Odin around.

But instead of receiving the usual fawning treatment he would at this declaration, he just gets sedated and treated like he’s unhinged. Thor has to spend the rest of act 2 learning humility and building relationships with the people on Earth.

He becomes invested in Jane’s research and life. His inability to left Mjolnir shows that he isn’t worthy because of his attachment to the Lie that might makes right. So, he has to earn it back by showing compassion and selflessness. This leads Thor to take on Loki’s Destroyer robot and facing down with his brother in the final confrontation.

The Prince of Egypt:

Meanwhile, Moses is still in his own environment, but he’s forced to view it from a different perspective. When Moses’ pleas for the overseer to stop whipping an old slave don’t work, Moses pushes the overseer off the scaffolding, accidentally killing him.

Moses’ action against the Lie of his previously sheltered existence in a dramatic way. This is Moses’ first steps towards tearing down the system of slavery.

Unlike Thor, Moses then goes into self-exile, hating being surrounded by the Lie that defined his life. He then makes a new life for himself among the people of Tziporah, the woman his people took as a slave. After some inevitable awkwardness, Moses finds his place among his new home as a Shepard and eventually falls in love with Tziporah.

Moses has successfully left the Lie behind and constructed a new life. That is until God recruits him to return home and free his people. This leads Moses to confront his brother, who stubbornly refuses to free the slaves.

The conclusion has the heroes facing down the Lie and the antagonists who refuse to let go of theirs.

Creating Character Arcs: Part 1

Character Arcs: Act 1

Compelling, fun and memorable character arcs that leave a big impression are something we search for in media. We all love to see a flawed character grow and change onscreen. It’s a challenge to create a good story with characters you want to follow. But the right structure can help shape both character and story.

Writer, K.M. Weiland describes character arcs in her book, Creating Character Arcs. She outlines a defining “Lie” a character tells themselves about their identity that shapes their world-view.

In what Weiland describes as a positive change arc, the plot takes the Lie that’s holding the hero back and dismantles it throughout the story. And in the end, they come to understand a new truth about the world and themselves.

Turning to popular culture, two great examples of well- structured positive change arc are the first Thor movie and DreamWorks, The Prince of Egypt. They work so well because they’re both about entitled princes whose Lie is that they think the world revolves around them. Everything is fine and the system they live in because they’re comfortable living at the top. However, they’re rattled out of their apathy by life-changing events that force them to start caring.

Act 1: Introduction to the character and their Lie
 So, the first act in the three-act structure is all about set up. We’re introduced to the main character and the world they live in.

Thor:

The first time we see adult Thor, he’s grandstanding in front of a crowd, and later, flipping over a table when he doesn’t get his way.

We’re shown is Lie vividly from the start, and that’s his right of kingship, and that swinging his hammer around should fix every problem.

The Prince of Egypt:

After we’ve shown the situation of the slaves and how Moses came to be in the care of his adoptive family, we cut to Moses and Ramses as young men. We first see them in the middle of an intense and reckless chariot race. There’s property damage and Moses nearly rammed his adoptive brother into the side of a wall in the name of fun!

What’s Moses’ Lie? His father’s kingdom is his playground, and everything exists for him and his family.

This is how you show where your character is at the beginning of your story and constructs the basis for their arc. You show their normal environment and how they act in that environment.

The Inciting Incident:

Now we have the set-up, the story is ready to leap into the inciting incident. This propels the narrative forward, taking the main protagonist from their known world and challenging their Lie in a dramatic way.

Thor:

The first Thor does this by having Thor and his friends travel to Jutonhiem to fight the Frost giants behind Odin’s back. Thor gets busted because of his jealous little brother, and as a result, he loses everything. In a fit of rage, Odin takes away his son’s hammer and title, banishing him to some backwater place called Earth!

At the end of act 1, Thor lost everything that he’d built his identity on. Act 2 begins with him literally run over a car and tasered. All his pride is thoroughly stomped on by the narrative.

The Prince of Egypt:

After an encounter with his biological sister and brother, Moses is forced to question his heritage. He then stumbles on the “history etched on every wall” that shows the Pharaoh ordering the deaths of all the children of slaves. Moses’ Lie that he’s deserving of all he has because of his birth status is completely shattered.

Like Thor, everything he built his identity on has been stripped away. Act 2 will focus on the fallout from their Lie being taken from them, and how they move forward from there.