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This week, I continue my study of POV and Narrative Device by looking at “Waters of Versailles,” a novella written by Kelly Robson, the winner of the 2016 Aurora Prize for Canadian short fiction and finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award for best novella.
Content Warning: The story contains a mildly explicit sex scene.
- Beginning Hook – Sylvain is engaged in sex with Annette when the pipes of his magical plumbing in the Palace of Versailles begin to leak, and he decides to leave it to his servant Leblanc to handle, but when the leaks don’t stop and Leblanc is found dead, Sylvain must decide whether to give the nixie a song (which she wants) or a gift (which would save him time). He tells little fish to behave herself and she’ll earn a present, and the plumbing begins flowing again for a while.
- Middle Build – While trying to make amends to Annette for his lack of attention, Sylvain learns that the king’s mistress wants a cold Champagne fountain for the king’s birthday, and Sylvain demurs, but when the mistress issues a direct challenge as a way for Sylvain to become “distinguished in the king’s gaze,” he must decide whether to accept the challenge. Sylvain introduces little fish to ice and Champagne and entices her into the project with a song.
- Ending Payoff – For the king’s birthday, Sylvain had little fish create a Champagne fountain, and he soon learns that no one truly appreciates it and he is a joke to the mistress, but when he finds a boy banging on the fountain with his ring, he must decide whether to protect his reputation or little fish. Sylvain breaks the fountain to get to little fish before telling little fish she can let all the water go. The water floods the palace, and little fish and Sylvain leave Paris for his home in the mountains.
Genre: Status-Tragic (Secondary Performance external genre)
Here is Friedman’s cause and effect statement for the Status-Tragic genre: When a sympathetic protagonist, ambitious and sophisticated enough to see the consequences of their actions, lacks an adequate mentor and makes a serious mistake in their attempt to rise, the result is a tragic fall in social standing.
If you see a Morality story here, that’s not an unreasonable conclusion. Tragic and Morality protagonists share sophistication and a strong will at the start and both subordinate the needs of others. The key difference I see is the in specifics of the character’s purpose. In other words, Sylvain puts his needs/wants above those of others because he seeks to rise in society.
Looking for other examples? An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is Shawn’s primary example, but you might also look at the character arcs for most of the characters who pursued the iron throne in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Stannis Baratheon is an excellent example.
A note about novellas: Anne will cover this in more detail, but here are the basics: Most sources put novella length somewhere between fifteen and forty thousand words. They allow deeper exploration than a short story, but obviously aren’t as long or complex as a novel. If you’re wondering what length your story should be and don’t find “long enough to tell the story adequately” useful, consider consulting Mary Robinette Kowal’s story-length formula based on Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient. I’ll include a link to the episode of Writing Excuses in the show notes.
Valerie: I agree with your assessment Leslie, but I just wanted to mention how important it is to really reflect on genre. While the status is clear here, there’s definitely an element of worldview revelation in that Sylvain discovers that the upper crust sees him as a joke. It’s possible to have elements of multiple genres in a story, and sometimes, when the storyteller is really talented, two entirely different interpretations are possible. We saw that with Thelma and Louise. It can be analyzed as an action story or as a women’s society story.
Anne: I saw Status/Sentimental because it has a win-but-lose ending rather than a total tragic sellout. Sylvain escapes with the nixie and returns to the mountains they both love. He sacrifices worldly success for a new more inward definition of success that involves caring for another being. I found the ending happy and satisfying.
Leslie: I see where you’re coming from because the ending does feel satisfying, but Sylvain doesn’t adjust his goal of rising within the court or his willingness to sacrifice the little fish until the very end. Compare with Rocky, who at the end of the middle build realizes he must adjust his goal. He chooses to go the distance against Creed instead of attempting to win the championship.
The Principle – Leslie – POV and Narrative Device
POV and narrative device together answer the question, how do I deliver my story to the reader?
POV tells you whether your story is first person or omniscient, for example, and whether it’s written in past or present tense. The narrative device or situation specifies who what conveys the story, to whom, when, from where, in what form, and why.
My bite size episode on choosing your POV can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.
What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?
I begin my analysis by looking at the problem presented by the premise, so what’s the premise here? Sylvain is an officer from the country who wants to move up in society within the court of King Louis XV in 1738 and who must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice to gain status. The obvious external problem is that his attempt to rise within society depends on the cooperation of a nixie, a water sprite (part human, part salamander) he took from a glacier lake in infancy. She possesses an independent mind and agenda not necessarily in aligned with his own.
This is a cautionary tale about selling out, which is a lovely example of some ideas Shawn has been talking about lately, the power hierarchy and growth hierarchy. We risk compromising our personal moral code when we pursue status for its own sake, rather than pursuing the expression of our individual gifts.
I see several problems presented by the premise.
- How do you show the character’s journey of not understanding they have compromised their moral code in attempting to rise within society to seeing it clearly?
- Sylvain exploits little fish for his own gain, but we need to care about and root for him anyway. The story needs to rely on suspense but be close enough to Sylvain’s experience that we do care about him.
- The story’s focus is on present events, but some events from the past are needed to illuminate the dilemma and help us empathize with Sylvain.
- The writer needs to keep the story narrowly focused as a novella while presenting fantasy elements, historical details, and multiple levels within society.
What’s the controlling idea? The typical controlling idea for a Status-Tragic story is Failure results when a person sells out their values for unworthy goals. To make it more specific to this story, we might say, Failure results because Sylvain expresses his gift and exploits little fish for unworthy goals to impress those who can’t appreciate it.
What’s the POV? Selective Omniscience: This is not a god-like narrator moving from mind to mind and speaking to us directly. It’s as if we’re observing the mind of a single character (or multiple characters for multiple selective omniscience), but not from their point of view. The words are ones Sylvain would use, not those of a third-party narrator.
There are some mental gymnastics involved in understanding this construct of selective omniscience, but it reminds me of meditation, and the way some part of the self observes and records experiences and thoughts as memories, or a reflecting self, rather than the thinker of thoughts. It’s as if a first person narrative were translated without comment by the writer of the story.
*Correction to past episode: After reviewing “Waters of Versailles,” I would now say that “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro is Neutral Omniscience (with a god-like narrator) than Selective Omniscience, like we have here. I’ll make a note in the show notes for that episode to explain my current thinking.
What’s the Narrative Device?
With selective omniscience, the narrative device is covert because everything is coming through the mind of the character. The goal is for the narrating entity to be invisible. The writing style is a bit complex and is full of sensory detail but doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.
Who? The “reflecting character” conveys the experiences and thoughts without commentary.
To whom? If it is the “reflecting character” who tells the story, to whom are they delivering the story? I would say it’s for the individual who is experiencing the story, in this case Sylvain. But we gain access to this through the imagination of Kelly Robson, the writer, who translates the ideas and events into words.
In what form (by implication)? Really it’s like a replay of experience and thought so that it feels cinematic. Incidentally, I think this would make an interesting film.
Kim: Agreed! I keep imagining Guillermo del Toro on the job. Can you elaborate on what makes something cinematic?
Leslie: Great question! Because the reflecting self is only “reflecting” the experiences and thoughts of the character, it has the quality of memory, a film playing before the mind’s eye. But again, it’s translated by the writer, so it has something in common with the descriptive narration available for people who have impaired vision. The style of presentation reflects the POV character, but it’s not self-conscious, the way a first-person narration would be. It’s as if the character isn’t aware that someone is eavesdropping on their thoughts and experience. I haven’t done Anne’s analysis, but my guess is this story possesses several of the qualities of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” and Brokeback Mountain that made them great material for film adaptation by skilled filmmakers, even though the POV in those stories is different, neutral and editorial omniscient respectively.
Why is the story being told? With this form, we don’t have an interested narrating entity. It’s neutral. But I think it’s useful to consider why we choose to tell stories this way. It isn’t something specific to this story but to stories written in this point of view. Humans possess autobiographical memory from around age four, and accessing and organizing autobiographical memory is one way we make sense of our lives and our environment. It makes sense that we would want to tell stories from this point of view. (If you want to follow this thread consider beginning with the “Narratives from the Crib” study mentioned in chapter 3 of The Tipping Point.) We want access to experiences and thoughts besides our own so we can gain more knowledge. Through our imagination and the fictional construct of selective omniscience, we create and read stories that allow us to see into the mind of another and experience life the way they do.
When? Sometime after the events of the story.
Where? Sylvain is the protagonist within the story.
How well does it work? I think this POV choice works really well in this story. Selective Omniscience gives us a neutral reflecting character to convey experiences and show how the character reacts to them. This is an ideal vehicle for a story that it is “one big crisis,” as Anne mentioned in our pre-recording discussions. Our attention is directed to the details relevant to the way Sylvain responds to his situation, just as the mind would do—it would attempt to reach for relevant facts and memories to help identify problems and solutions. The real exploration of this story is not how Sylvain designs the system of pipes and makes the whole system work (the presence of the water sprite takes care of those questions), we want to learn what he’s willing to sacrifice to move up in society.
So if we’re not concerned with the mechanics of the plumbing, how does the writer direct our attention to the real issue, and which details accomplish this? We’re shown current events and how Sylvain is trying to identify tools and obstacles in pursuit of what he wants. We are privy to his thoughts so we know his subjective opinion to what he observes and experiences, in other words, what everything means to him. We see how he responds in the moment and because Robson makes the scene Crises clear, and we learn which options are foreclosed to Sylvain because of his initial responses. We’re shown past events that are relevant to particular current situations so we understand how Sylvain has come to be here.
Observing through the mind of the protagonist in third-person gives us the advantage of intimacy without the self-conscious telling of the story we would get with first-person narration. Sylvain doesn’t know we’re observing, so the narration isn’t altered for the benefit of an audience.
We can’t observe the character from the outside, except through the actions and words of other characters (or physical mirrors), as we could with editorial or neutral omniscience. We see less direct action than we would with first person as well. No one addresses the reader directly, so if the writer wants to employ dramatic irony, in other words give the reader more information than the POV character possesses, they must do so through symbolism or implication. In this way, selective omniscience dictates the writer’s style to a certain extent.
With a god-like Editorial or Neutral Omniscient POV, the narration comes through a narrating entity, which becomes another character to consider. But that form provides fewer technical constraints to guide the writer or provide objective limits on which details to include. That can be difficult for a new writer. The constraints of selective omniscient, however, come from the character’s mind, which provides natural constraints.
Kim – Life Values through C&OS
I am so glad Leslie chose this story for us this week. First because it was so much fun to read, second because it’s a fantastic example of a global Status story, and third because it’s a novella–an excellent length of story to study: it’s short enough that you can read it one sitting and long enough that it has multiple scenes and chapters with which to set up, build, and payoff the LV changes of the genre arc. Novellas are consumable like a film, but closer in form to a novel than a short story, allowing us to examine the author’s choice for both structure and line. In short, it’s been an extremely useful exercise!
This season, I’ve been studying how to craft beginnings, which has morphed slightly into C&OS because a large function of the beginning (aside from hooking reader interest) is to set up the story by introducing the life values at stake through conventions (the genre-specific characters, settings, and circumstances of your story) so that they can be turned at the first obligatory scene–the inciting incident.
Today I want to look at the C&OS that unfold over the course of the story to hopefully demonstrate how the a genre’s C&OS ARE the tangible representation of the LV change across the story, creating the genre arc.
Conventions for Status Genre
- Strong Mentor Figure – Because this is a Tragic story, the mentor is either absent or flawed, or the protagonist is too blinded by ambition to heed the guidance. In Sylvain’s case, the mentor is absent. He does have fellow strivers who offer him sound observations and advice, but he does not yield his futile pursuit of success.
- Big Social Problem as subtext – class and exploitation of others
- Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another). – the King’s mistress who praises him in public and then insults him in private (by naming the monkey after him), and in this regard even Annette to some extent
- The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out – Annette and Gerard are both fellow strivers who play the game, and they both act as heralds for Sylvain. They are not blinded by their ambition, they see it all clearly.
- A clear Point of No Return/Truth Will Out moment, when Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be – When Sylvain learns the monkey has been named after him. This Revelatory Turning Point results in utter disillusionment for Sylvain. His realizes that all his striving and accomplishments are meaningless. He recognizes that his success is false (the negation of the negation) and then by abandoning his pursuit of it, actually moves up the LV spectrum to Failure.
- Ironic Win-But-Lose or Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending – he loses his status at the palace (Failure) but gains his moral code and a position of esteem in caring for Little Fish, as her Papa.
What I noticed about the Obligatory Scenes is that you can think of them in context of the 19k word novella AND the larger context of Sylvain’s life. His backstory leading up to this installment of his life IS A STATUS story.
- An Inciting opportunity or challenge
- In terms of the novella it’s a challenge: the pipes begin to leak (which I posit is truly cause by Leblanc’s death, and Little Fish not having anyone to play with).
- In terms of Sylvain’s life, it’s an opportunity: the state of disrepair of Versailles fountains.
- Protagonist leaves home to seek fortune.
- Novella – he continues to always seek to maintain and gain Success through his chosen means: freshwater plumbing throughout the palace. There is no refusal of the call. The protagonist is all in.
- Sylvain’s life – he heads to Versailles and captures a nixie on his way to help him.
- Forced to adapt to a new environment, Protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates himself or herself.
- Novella – Even after Leblanc’s death, Sylvain continues to try to keep up appearances. He keeps striving to fix everything. He is constantly at odds with keeping up appearances which often backfires (the way he exits a room for example). When he first sees the crack in the ceiling above the statue Hermes he “fled like a rabbit panicking for its burrow, no attention to dignity”. In a later scene, when the crack really begins to come undone, he distracts Annette from the falling plaster with a dip but she slaps him and calls him a beast in front of onlookers.
- Sylvain’s life – When he first brings the Nixie to the cistern, he cannot coax her out of his canteen and he is frustrated. Leblanc schools him re: his misunderstanding of the nixie and his expectations for her. Leblanc demonstrates a better way.
- The Protagonist learns what the Antagonist’s Object of Desire is and sets out to achieve it for him- or herself.
- Novella – This seems two-fold. One: the continued pressure from courtiers for him to perform amazing feats and Two: that the Nixie is bored. This prompts him to come up with solutions to satisfy both and achieve more esteem/status (Velvet sleeves)
- Sylvain’s life – This seems to be Sylvain’s transition from merely fixing the fountains to creating their indoor plumbing spectacle and the thrones that denote status among the courtiers.
- Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
- Novella – the King’s mistress decides she no longer wants a water toilet … because it’s not special anymore. Now all the courtiers have one (which he solved with the velvet tubes) So he feels like he has to do something better … the champagne fountain.
- Sylvain’s life – This is where this novella opens … his initial strategy to exploit the nixie’s powers to gain favor and status with the courtiers and the King fails when Leblanc dies. Sylvain has never taken an interest in Little Fish himself. He’s only been focused on his own ambition and has been short-sighted. This is one of his major mistakes (something all Status-Tragic protagonist’s make)
- During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their morality.
- This is where the Novella and Sylvain’s life align: He learns that the King’s mistress has named the monkey Sylvain … and that he is not respected or regarded the way he thought and therefore his success/status is a ruse. He recognizes that he is at the negation of the negation.
- The Core Event: Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that they strived to join.
- He destroys the champagne fountain and rescues Little Fish, then tells her to let all the water go, something she hadn’t done even when the pipes were leaking.
“Let the water go, my little one,” Sylvain whispered.
She blinked up at him. “Be a bad girl, Papa?” Her brow furrowed in confusion.
“The water pipes, the reservoirs. Let it all go.”
“Go ahead, little fish.”
She relaxed in his arms, as if she had been holding her breath a long time and could finally breathe.
This is a payoff to one of the opening sentences in chapter two:
The little fish could turn the palace into a fishbowl if she wanted, Sylvain thought, and a shudder ran through his gut.
- Protagonist saves or loses him/herself based on their action in the Core Event.
- He loses his status, ending in failure, but is no longer exploiting the Nixie. Instead he values her and cares for her. Together they leave Versailles to return home.
Even in cautionary Status stories that end negative on the global LV spectrum, the protagonist will often attempt to make amends and assist another, even though it is too late for them. This story felt like a positive ending (because the image of Sylvain leaving the palace life behind to return home and care for Little Fish is tender to me) even though the story as a while is cautionary. We see this in many cautionary tales (whether Status-Pathetic, Status-Tragic, Morality-Punitive) that even when we’ve reached the negation of the negation, it’s never too late to make a contribution to others.
Couple other threads I noticed that I wanted to point out
- Sylvain’s worldview shift re: little fish.
- Creature / Animal – Calls her a creature through chapter five, after that, all mentions of creature refer to the monkey or when the boys see her at the very end.
She couldn’t understand. She was an animal. Any understanding of death was just simple instinct—the hand of fate to be avoided in the moment of crisis.
- Intelligent animal – she remembers his song and Leblanc
“You sang once.”
He had, that was true. How could she remember?
“Leblanc,” she sobbed. “Leblanc gone.”
She hadn’t mentioned Leblanc in days. Sylvain had assumed she’d forgotten the old man, but some hounds missed their masters for years. Why had he assumed the little fish would have coarser feelings than an animal?
She was an animal, though. She would have drowned the monkey and toyed with its corpse. There was no point in coddling her—he would be stern and unyielding.
- Child – Calls her child in dialogue “spoiled child”, more salamander than child, half-grown child and then at the End of chapter 11 “no more than any child”
Sylvain leaned back and loosened her arms a bit so he could examine her closely. Her eyes were keen, her skin bright. She was strong and healthy, and if she was a bit troublesome and a little demanding, it was no more than any child.
- Items and people being fake vs genuine
- Annette’s arousal wasn’t feigned after all (surprise)
- Coin he offers little fish
He made a show of reluctantly reaching into his breast pocket and withdrawing a coin. It was small change—no palace servant would stoop to pick it up—but it had been polished to gleaming.
He rolled the coin between his thumb and forefinger, letting it wink and sparkle in the glow of her skin.
- His night with Annette
Though he was bone tired from long nights planning the palace’s new array of velvet tubes, he had given Annette a very good facsimile of devotion and several hours of his time. Surely she couldn’t want more from him.
- Mistress and her sister at the birthday party
Goodwill bloomed between them, or a decent counterfeit of it, but their attending ladies stood like two armies across an invisible border.
Valerie – Forces of Antagonism
As I continue my study of Forces of Antagonism, I’ve been focusing on their role in a story. Why do we need them? What purpose do they serve? I’ve heard things like “the middle build belongs to the villain,” and “it’s the villain that makes the hero heroic” but what does that really mean?
I’ve already mentioned that Forces of Antagonism come in three varieties: internal, external and societal. While all three might be present in a story, one of them takes priority. Which one of them takes priority has to do with the genre.
“Waters of Versailles” is a global internal genre story, so, not surprisingly the primary force of antagonism comes from with Sylvain. He’s his own worst enemy. His pride, his desire to climb the social ladder is what should ultimately lead to his downfall. Little fish is an external antagonist, and of course, Madame Tessé represents the societal antagonist.
Listing the Forces of Antagonism is easy; examining how they function is a bit trickier.
Antagonists serve many purposes, but I’ve got time here to focus on three; they create conflict in the story, they reveal character and in short, they drive the plot.
Conflict at every unit of story, is essential. Without conflict, you haven’t got a story. The conflict must get more intense as the complications progress and the stakes escalate. The protagonist wants something, but there are people, conditions, and circumstances getting in his way. These, clearly, are the Forces of Antagonsim, so you can see one of the reasons why it’s so important to have clearly defined objects of desire.
What does Sylvain want? To rise in the ranks of society. What’s standing in the way of him getting it? First and foremost, it’s his inability to realize that people like Madame Tessé will never see him as anything other than the toilet man. He is a joke to them. This speaks to his internal need. Little fish stands in the way of him getting it because initially, he can’t control her. And of course, society through Madame Tessé and her cohorts, won’t allow him to be anything other than their servant.
So yes, technically conflict is there and antagonists exist on all three levels. But unfortunately, I don’t think they’re as effective as they need to be to maintain a story of this length. I think I see what the author was trying to do; I think she was handing off the antagonist role like a relay of villains, but none of them are particularly formidable.
The reason you need to create a great villain is to ensure that the hero is put through his paces. This is what reveals character. It’s by going toe-to-toe with the bad guy that the good guy finds out what he’s made of. Remember that protagonists are revealed by their action under pressure. Well, it’s the antagonist that creates the pressure points; the crisis moments that lead to climactic actions.
Little Fish behaves in only one way, therefore she can only create one kind of situation which reveals only one aspect of his character. Madame Tessé is a completely flat character. When it comes to Sylvain, she too behaves in only one way, therefore, the pressure she puts him under can only reveal one aspect of his personality. The way he deals with Madame is pretty much the same way he deals with everyone who is at a higher station than him. There are small variances, but it amounts to the same thing. We don’t get new aspects of Sylvain’s character showing up.
In terms of the internal Force of Antagonism, we don’t get to explore that a whole lot. Sylvain isn’t tested enough because the complications don’t progress and the stakes don’t rise. Sylvain’s object of desire is clear. There’s no problem there. But, as far as he’s concerned, there’s only one thing standing in the way of it; he needs to get more toilets to more people. He needs to do more incredible things with water (the champagne fountain is a variation on the obstacle that is easily overcome). As soon as he finds out there’s another obstacle (the attitudes of the upper crust), he throws in the towel.
Compare this to the way George Bailey is tested in It’s a Wonderful Life. George has a series of obstacles to overcome, each one tests him a little more until finally he’s so distraught he considers suicide.
And if you’re thinking that there isn’t enough space in a novella to develop all this, I encourage you to go back and read Alice Munro. Her stories are much shorter and much more complex. A few weeks ago, Leslie and I talked about why writers should study masterworks and Leslie said, “they’re called masterworks, not mediocre works”. That really hit home with me and I think Waters of Versailles is a mediocre work. It’s not a horrible story. There are definitely things about it that work. But there are problems with it, and if this is the only level of writing that you read, then you’ll never realize what the novella can actually be.
This loops us back to Shawn’s comment about reading widely and deeply.
If the Forces of Antagonism had been properly designed and developed, then we wouldn’t need Annette’s on-the-nose comments about Sylvain being a striver. It’s painfully on the nose. The whole story is about him trying to move up the ranks in society. We should see him facing various challenges that make his social climb more and more difficult. We shouldn’t need a herald to tell us. And by the way, who is Annette speaking to in these passages? It’s not Sylvain because he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s the reader she’s speaking to.
In film and theatre there’s the concept of the fourth wall. Rarely do the actors address the audience directly; even rarer still is having an actor address the audience without ruining the story. A current example of an actor breaking the fourth wall (to the outrage of viewers) is Judy Dench’s song at the end of the film version of Cats. That movie has been panned by both critics and audiences and one of the things that is repeatedly cited is this direct address.
The obvious prose version of breaking the fourth wall would be to have an author suddenly switch to second person point of view. But having characters do what Annette does, is another way.
Kudos to Kelly Robson for wanting to give Sylvain depth of character; that is, for having his public self and his private self at odds with one another. This is exactly what I was talking about a couple of episodes ago when Leslie and I talked about character development. There’s a difference between true character and characterization, as Robert McKee describes it. Characterization is all the stuff we observe on the surface. True character is who the person is on the inside.
What we need to do as writers, is create Forces of Antagonism that reveal that true character by forcing him to act, or make a decision, under pressure. The only real crisis moment for Sylvain comes at the end when he finds out that Madame Tessé has named the monkey after him. His action in that moment of pressure reveals his true character. And what does he do? He has little fish burst the pipes so that water wreaks havoc and creates a whole lot of surface damage to the castle. Then, he leaves. Essentially, he vandalizes the palace and runs away.
So at his core, Sylvain is juvenile.
Honestly, I’m not sure that’s the effect the author was going for. This action under pressure calls into question his object of desire. How badly did Sylvain want social status?
We need the antagonist to create conflict that reveals character, but what’s more, the pressure points have got to be varied. This is the plot I’m talking about now. As writers, we can’t repeat a complication in exactly the same way because it’s boring. The story doesn’t move forward and the reader will know exactly what the protagonist will do, and how the whole thing will play out.
“Waters of Versailles” repeats the same couple of obstacles over and over. That’s partially because the antagonists are flat, but it’s also because there’s only one real complication at play here and that’s whether little fish will make the pipes leak or not. Believe it or not, that’s the one question driving this entire narrative. Yes, we know Sylvain wants to move up in society, but until the last couple of pages we’re led to believe that whether he’ll do that depends on whether he can continue to deliver indoor plumbing.
The plumbing doesn’t exist because of his engineering prowess. He has not ingeniously figured out how to plumb the castle. He does it by manipulating and bullying little fish (more evidence of his juvenile nature, by the way). That means she has the power to destroy him. The novella’s opening sentence refers to leaks, and the whole opening scene does a fantastic job of presenting the situation Sylvain has created for himself.
The problem is that’s the only real challenge he faces. There’s leaks and then there’s no leaks. Sylvain has only one situation to react to and he does it the same way every time. When he visits little fish in the cisterns, he does the same thing each time; he brings her a gift to effectively bribe her to do his bidding. Yes, the gifts get more elaborate, but ultimately it’s a repeat of the same complication. Because the complications don’t progress, the stakes don’t escalate.
So, to recap, Forces of Antagonism—among other things—create conflict, reveal character and drive the story. Therefore, while the most important character in your story is the protagonist, the second most important is the antagonist.
Anne – Why choose novella length?
With “Waters of Versailles,” it’s clear to me that we’re in a different category than we’ve been in with the truly short stories we’ve looked at so far this season–“Pilgrims” last week and “Wolves of Karelia” back in January.
To me, reading and understanding those stories felt more like reading poetry than like reading a novel. Each story required close attention and careful scanning to really unlock its meaning. Each story did at least as much evoking or implying as it did actual storytelling.
We moved into long short story territory with Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” at 10,500 words. That story was easier to grasp on the first read, at least in part because Munro had 4000 or 5000 more words to stretch out in. She had room to expand on ideas, leave more clues, and show more details.
Now, with “Waters of Versailles,” we’ve got twice as many words, and it reads much more like a novel than like a short story.
The protagonist, Sylvain, has 13 or 14 full scenes in which to experience the full arc of his status story. There’s room for two significant secondary characters–Annette and the nixie–and a fairly large cast of named but minor characters who populate the halls of Versailles.
There’s time for detailed descriptions of fashions, the champagne fountain, the nixie’s lair in the cistern, the landscape of the Alps. The author didn’t have to rely wholly on subtle word choices and repeat motifs to carry the weight of the story that she wanted to tell. I don’t disagree in principle with Valerie, that the character arc lacks subtlety, but I’d argue that Kelly Robson knows her audience–fantasy readers. The whole heart of the story is the unique use of a mythical creature in an otherwise realistic historical setting, and the funny “what-if?” idea of giving toilets to the 18th century French aristocracy.
I think it’s fair here to leave aside the Nobel Prize-winning skill level and the literary style that elevate Munro’s work, because this story aspires to different standards for a different audience. It requires very little interpretation. Everything is vividly described. It’s all easy to access. It would make a good, funny, light, popular movie.
As a quick reminder, here’s how “Waters of Versailles” conforms to the seven Hollywood Don’ts–the seven rules not to break if you want to write a movie-like story.
- It’s between 15,000 and 80,000 words. That’s pretty much the definition of a novella-length work.
- It’s written in clear scenes and has the three-act structure of a beginning, a middle and an end. Nothing odd about the structure. As published, the scenes are even numbered for us.
- It doesn’t depend on a particular authorial voice or style to deliver its message and it doesn’t depend on a tone such as sarcasm or irony. It’s a straightforward linear story arc with a mostly hidden and unobtrusive narrative device, as Leslie has pointed out.
- It contains no literary allusions, philosophical ideas, or abstract meditations.
- There’s not a lot of symbolism, as far as I can tell, except what the period setting suggests about power and status and how all this would come to guillotines in 50 more years.
- It’s not in first person, and there’s also little internal, free-indirect narration, so there’d be no need for the dreaded voiceover in a film version. Words and actions that are on the page will translate very well to film.
- And finally, there’s the rule about too much historical detail. As a film, the story would need reasonably accurate period costumes and a setting that can pass for Versailles, but there’s no complex political reality that the audience needs to understand. Show us the huge silk gowns and towering powdered wigs and the glittering grand galleries of Versailles, and we will know all we need to know.
So here’s a question I’ve been thinking about: if “Pilgrims” last week could have benefited by being 30% longer (as it was before Liz Gilbert had to cut it to the bone to get it published), could “Waters of Versailles” be shorter?
Sure. The story spine–Sylvain’s Status arc–could have come across without a parrot, or the details of the nixie’s lair. It could have worked without the funeral scene for Leblanc, and with fewer near-disasters with the leaking pipes. The main ideas could have come across without so much banter and byplay between Sylvain and Annette. Several scenes could have been shorter. I don’t disagree with Valerie that the middle build complications don’t escalate as strongly as they should, so a couple of them could have been eliminated.
But brevity is not everything.
I enjoyed the story at least in part because the author, Kelly Robson, used the novella length to play. She knows her audience. She developed an original fantasy idea set in a lush and decadent real-world historical setting, and she made it fun. She took time to show us the pregnant wife who kisses Sylvain in gratitude for delivering her a toilet. She gave us time to watch the nixie grow and change. She had room to develop Sylvain’s descent into being a total sellout in several incremental steps, each bolstered by events arising from the setting–what room are they in, how powerful are the people being inconvenienced by the leaks? She reveled in the details of court dress and sexual shenanigans. She gave us enough landscape and background to understand what Sylvain really wants and misses.
In the past, publishing gatekeepers dictated the market: weekly magazines published short stories. Book publishers published novels of varying lengths. Novellas would be generally too long for the magazines but a little too skinny for the bookshelves, and would be included in anthologies, quarterly reviews, maybe the New Yorker. I found this great description by Beth Carswell on the Abe Books site:
Poor novellas. They are the middle-child, the Jan Brady of the book world – too short to be novels, too long to be short stories. Overlooked in many lists of excellent literature, novellas just don’t get their due, and some readers might not even realize that some of their most beloved stories were novellas. Lacking the compact one-two punch of a short story and the delicious, slowly-unfolding anticipation in a novel, it might be easy to dismiss the novella as a bland middle ground. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes a novella is just the thing.
So why would you write a novella? Or more to the point, why would I write one, since that’s what I seem to be doing at present with my “Brokeback Mountain”-inspired story for the Masterwork Experiment. Until today’s episode, I had no idea that there was a formula for deciding your story’s length, but now I do, so I quickly applied it to my story.
Mary Robinette Kowal, who came up with the formula–thank you, Leslie–says you add the number of characters and the number of locations and multiply that sum by 750, essentially because you’ll need an average of 750 words to flesh out each of them.
There’s a bit more to it than that, and you can learn about it on the Writing Excuses podcast, but after putting my story-in-progress through the formula, I came up with about 40,000 words.
Now, my style has become leaner over the years and my awareness of exposition has become keener. I know how to get rid of excess or non-working scenes. Those things aren’t what’s pushing my novella into novel territory.
Complexity is doing that. I find that the stories I want to tell need that one additional character and that one additional location, and the additional subplot that ties those elements in. It was such a relief to find out that my being a long writer arises more from interesting ideas than from boring bad habits.
But if my publisher, like Liz Gilbert’s publisher, tells me this current story needs to be under 25,000 words, I need to focus on only one of my two main ideas, and let the other one go. I need to cut at least one big event and make the story work without it. Secondary and tertiary characters need fewer lines and less agency in the story.
So why write a novella? Because in today’s world of self-publishing and ebooks, you can. Today’s readers might appreciate that Jan-Brady Goldilocks zone of a story they they don’t have to commit to for longer than a short flight or a long commute. There’s plenty of room to play, and the format doesn’t require that you painstakingly prove the value of every single word by making them all do double and triple duty. If you have a relatively simple story to tell, with one or two main characters and one or two locations and one or two main ideas, then the novella is a great target to aim for.
Also, if you have movie-adaptation dreams, the novella format could be your best friend.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. What have we learned this week?
Kim: I want writers to takeaway that C&OS are not extra or optional–they are the tangible representations of the genre arc itself.
Valerie: For me, “Waters of Versailles” really drives home the need for writers to spend time developing their antagonists. They’re the second most important characters in a story and without them, the protagonist doesn’t arc and the plot fizzles.
Anne: I feel like our analysis of this week’s story drives home an important point about writing what you want to write, and letting the story you want to write dictate the length and format. Maybe your idea isn’t big enough for a full length novel. Or maybe you’re not the kind of writer who’s going to hone every word to within an inch of its life in order to craft a short story. That’s okay. Write a novella! Have fun! Even in the absence of one or two important storytelling principles, you might still get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula. Go for it.
Leslie: I started my POV and Narrative Device quest about eighteen months ago because I wanted to understand the fundamentals of how writers make this important technical choice. The more I study and compare examples, the more I realize how useful it is to decide based on all the facts before you begin to write. That’s not to say you’re doomed if you’ve already written one or more drafts of your story and haven’t given it much thought. You can reconsider anytime along the journey of writing your story, but the ideal time to begin thinking about this choice is before you write because POV and Narrative Device affect every other technical decision you make in your story.
One of the best ways to fulfill the promise of the initial inspiration for your story is to choose the POV that is the best vehicle for your particular message and premise—of course. You can guess or use trial and error, but the better course is to understand what the options are and what effects they create. Practical aspects, for example, first person or selective omniscient POV limit you to a single point of view character at a time. That’s obvious. But how do you choose between them? It depends on your story and what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Understanding the options and an intimate knowledge of your story will help you write a better story.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Karen McDaniel in the Story Grid Guild. Karen writes:
I would love to hear an in depth discussion of Story [Life] Values. Some of the ones I’m coming up with are “certain to uncertain”, “dismayed to re-energized”, “excluded to included”, or “apprehensive to hopeful”. I’m just not confident about my understanding of this area.
Part of my question involves whether the value shift in a scene in a genre HAS to be in the same continuum as the genre overall – in a thriller does every scene need to deal with life/death?
Leslie: An in-depth discussion about life values would have my fellow Rountablers pulling the plug on me, but let me see what I can offer to shed a little light on the topic. I’ll include links in the show notes, so be sure to visit for those.
A great place to start for life values is with Valerie’s post, “Value Shift 101,” and I recommend “Simply Irreversible” a post by Valerie and Kim about progressive complications that includes some solid Life Value information as well. I wrote a post about the intersection of the macro and micro that includes life value changes.
To answer your second question first, individual scenes don’t need to turn on the global life value (for example Life/Death for Action, Success/Failure for Status, Justice/Injustice for Crime), unless they are one of the Obligatory Scenes or one of the 15 core scenes that make up the story spine. But the description of the scene’s life value shift should help you see how it moves the protagonist and their situation along that continuum—or not. It’s great information either way.
As we think about answers to the Story Grid scene analysis questions or entries in the spreadsheet, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to achieve with the process. Scene descriptions are meant to help you revise your novel, so they should as clearly as possible distill the content of the scene into a few words that immediately capture the most relevant change that occurs.
This can be a very subjective process as Shawn mentioned in a recent episode of the Story Grid Podcast. The life value descriptions you list sound completely valid for a given scene. The question is, does it describe what’s happening in a useful way to allow you to see if the scene turns and whether it affects the global story?
As with any skill, you’ll gain proficiency and confidence with study and practice. How can you practice? Review The Silence of the Lambs and Pride and Prejudice and Contender and Masterwork Guides as they’re published. Read the text of the scene first, make your best guess at the life value shift in the scene, then look at what Shawn or one of the Story Grid editors has suggested. Reconsider and adjust as needed. You could also join a study group to review stories or scenes and compare answers. If you get a different answer, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but consider if you would adjust your answer in light of seeing what someone else concludes.
I hope that helps! Thanks for your question, Karen.
If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.
This season I’m studying POV/Narrative Device in preparation for my upcoming Story Grid Beat on the topic. If you have questions, please comment below, send me a message in the Story Grid Guild, or visit me directly at writership.com/POV.
Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.
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