story craft #13 Going Hot

MJG Story Craft 1 Comment

Going hot is a term Orson Scott Card uses (in his book Characters and Viewpoint) to describe entering a character’s stream of consciousness. We go into their head and work through their motivations and drives alongside them.

It’s something I’m dealing with a lot now in the (third?) redraft of my fantasy book Dawn Rising, learning how to add it in as an intrinsic part of the story. In the first few drafts I hardly did it all, so the book (may have) read like sections of a Dungeon Master’s hand-book, cold and with little sympathetic investment.

Card goes hot to great effect in books like Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, getting us deep into character, showing us revelations live as they happen, making us care. He also does it to great detriment at times, following every single thought for extended periods of time (in books like Ender in Exile) over issues that are really not that interesting, with characters who are unimportant.

filmic hot vs. written hot

So this hot/cold thing is important. In early drafts of Dawn Rising I was largely cold- I rarely went into anybody’s heads- having learnt that lesson too well from Robert Mckee’s great book STORY. Of course that book is about screen-writing, in which the film way of showing emotion and gaining sympathy is very different. The great strength of film is its ability to go hot from the outside in- we don`t need a monologue to know what a great actor is thinking or feeling, because we can read it on their face. That style doesn’ work nearly as well for writing though, where it’s much harder to show emotion from the outside in. We can’t do tight close-ups of the character’s face to show every wrinkle of their thoughts. If we try, and I have, we end up struggling to render complex emotions through a limited gamut of frowns, nods, head shakes, smiles, and tears.

Which gets repetitive. Instead we have to embrace the strength of writing, our own kind of hot, one which can be even hotter and tighter than film, since we go beyond the face and dive right into the thoughts that pull the face’s strings.

The question then is how much of it should we do, and when. The answer seems to be- we go hot whenever there’s something that needs thinking about, ie- some new development in the story.

Those new developments can be anything. A new location, a victory or defeat, a new person in the story, a new discovery.

put it in the microwave

As I said, my early drafts of Dawn Rising were pretty cold, external re-countings of a series of new developments. In the new draft all the new developments remain, but get heated up with the inner thoughts of the characters. There’s a fight, it changes the landscape, so the characters think about it. Then there’s a new discovery, it changes the world again, our characters need a little time to come to grips with it, and so do we, so we have it.

When done right, it must add reality to the story, and immediacy. If there’s a loss, we need to feel it from within a character’s head. We aren’t a character in the story ourselves, so we need to feel as the characters feel.

It takes quite a bit of getting used to to write this way. Sometimes I’ll have too much time hot, when there isn’t that much to think about- it gets repetitive, dull, even whiney. It becomes navel-gazing, thoughts going round in circles, leading to wimpishness and inaction. Other times I’ll not have enough and it will feel strange, like empty events are heaping up, with none of them having much meaning. The hot time is needed to process everything, to bed it in to the new reality.

These troubles happen most noticeably when I try to marry some of the newer draft sections with the older ones- like reheating leftovers in the microwave. They just don’t match, the hot/cold ratio is way off, and simply injecting a bit of inner thought into the old bits doesn’t seem to work. It may be necessary to wholly rewrite everything.

bricks and mortar

Now I see hot time as a kind of mortar, glue that holds the bricks of the story together, makes it cohesive. Is this voice? I suppose it’s part of it. It’s one thing I love about David Gemmell and Orson Scott Card, and often feel is lacking from works by writers like China Mieville or David Eddings. I don’t identify with their heroes, so I don’t care about them. They’re ciphers operating at a distance, their lives unimportant. But when Ender has to kill, or Druss has to sacrifice himself yet again, you know I’m right there with them.

Dawn Rising (Dawn Cycle 1) – 112,000 words

See my full back-catalogue of published short fiction in the Bibliography.

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