Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, April 27, 2008

YA book recs wanted: Rashomon

At dinner we were discussing how to write a story with a cast of thousands, and also how to write a book that covers a brief time period. One of the techniques we talked about was the "Rashomon" method, where the story is re-told from different viewpoints, and each time you get a completely different idea about what happened and what the people are like.

The Distant Future of Fandom (age 12) thought this was a great idea, and asked for recommendations for suitable books written this way. We couldn't think of any, so I ask you for recs. Her reading level is near-adult, but she doesn't want anything with sex or violence (including most horror), and nothing where the story revolves around romance ("bo-ring").

In talking about cast-of-thousands stories we talked about The Odyssey, which the DFoF is currently reading as her "outside the curriculum" book for English class. And we also talked about books with very compressed time-frames, and how that's easiest if it's the end of the world (or other sweaping traumatic event). But, she said, you *could* have a book about only one ordinary day if it were done in enough detail. Especially if it's a thought-diary, where you put in everything the person thinks.

Yes, that's right. Our 12-year-old deduced the existence of Joyce's "Ulysses". I don't know whether to be more smug or more staggered.

While I'm at it, I'll record my comment from the Dreamcafe post:

The reason they’re telling you not to do cast-of-thousands stories is that *most* of them suck like a hoover — see most disaster novels, the kind that have a cast list and that flip from one set of characters to the next in a set rotation.

Any time you need a cast list, you’re probably doin’ it wrong, because that means there are too many characters for the reader to keep track of who’s who. The reader can only keep track of actual characters at some rate — characters introduced per 5000 words is probably the metric to use — which is not infinite. It also depends on the rate at which the reader (viewer) will consume what you’re writing. Tolstoy & Dickens had a lot of “readers” who were actually getting the works as read-alouds, which is much slower and gives the readers a lot more time to absorb each character before going on to the next.

Steven (and Terry Pratchett) have built up enormous casts by the more modern method of writing series, where each book is a mix of older characters and new ones. I think adding new characters in spurts like that is particularly effective, because they come as “sets” which are easier to remember.

It’s like, imagine you’re at a con (or conference) where you have to meet 50 people in two days, then go home and write up your impressions of each one. You can talk to each person for an hour, never sleep, and if you’re me when you get home it will be all a blur. And you’ll have Con Crud.

Or you can meet them as panels of 5, two hours per panel, still have time for sleep and personal hygiene, and when you come home each person will have a context and a prayer that you’ll remember them.

You’ll still probably have Con Crud, though.

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  • I would recommend a YA book I recently finished called Bitter Tastes, by Victoria Rosendahl. It's a story about a girl who tries to fit into her new school but can't because of her secret.
    Victoria's book Bitter Tastes, reminds me of Nancy Drew I
    read it along with my daughter and we had a great time trying to guess what would happen next.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:09 PM  

  • I found the website of Bitter Tastes

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:40 PM  

  • Thanks. Ooo, that does look interesting, and very much her sort of thing.

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 6:56 PM  

  • One writer -- and I wish I could remember who -- spoke of the "third person disaster" viewpoint. A comprehensive picture of a huge disaster is assembled, like a mosaic, from the viewpoints of those DOOMED by the disaster. Imagine Mr. X, wandering along the beach, pondering the sad state of his marriage. He looks up; tsunami! AAAGGH! Fade to black.

    Perhaps this makes the human carnage more moving than a newspaper report would be: "Mr. X, a 52-year-old plumber, was killed by the tsunami."

    But after a few dozen characters have been introduced and then killed, one starts to grow numb.

    By Blogger Zora, at 2:01 PM  

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