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The Four Principles of Puppetry

I've been listening to some old episodes of the podcast Writing Excuses, and one grabbed my attention, stood above many of the others. Again. Because I'd listened to it before and thought the same thing.

3.14: The Four Principles of Puppetry, with Mary Robinette Kowal | Writing Excuses

This is from 2009, and Mary Robinette Kowal was not at that time a regular on the podcast.

As a professional puppeteer and a writer of speculative fiction, she had some great insight into how writing was a lot like puppetry. Four basic principles of puppetry could be used to describe important principles in writing. I really love these, so I thought I'd share them.

Here are the key points, the four principles, as summarized in the transcript, with some additional thoughts I've added. [Keep in mind that the terms are used for puppetry, at least by Kowal, so they might seem a little odd.]

1. Focus. "Focus indicates thought. As a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. Show them what you want them to think about."

Mary Kowal: "Focus indicates thought. What the puppet is thinking about is what it is looking at. The same is true when you're writing. Because as a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. You have to rely on their imagination to build that picture based on that one thing at a time you can show them. So when you are showing them something, you're controlling what they are thinking about. So what you are having them focus on needs to be what you want them to think about."

For me, this is a big one.

Some months ago, I was helping a MS friend go over an early draft of a story opening, and I noticed that although it was written in third limited and the information that was being given was information the character would have and was information relevant to the story, there was too much information being introduced at once. In a way, this was like using an infodump, but as an infodump it wasn't particularly bad; the issue wasn't too much irrelevant information or too on-the-nose delivery of information, per se. Rather, the reader's eyes were being moved hither and thither instead of being directed in what might be called a kind of "one shot scene" had it been a movie.

In a one shot scene (or long take), the camera moves fluidly across the scene. Similarly, a third limited view won't jump about (a la quick cuts etc.) Characters can sometimes think of diverse things, have a mind bobbing about. But that can also be jarring for a reader, especially when what's happening should be slower paced or is intended to be a delivery of the physical scene the character is currently traversing.

Example 1: If you are describing a large market square, rather than describe what sits on the far east side then what sits on the far west side, then what sits on the north side, then back to something on the east side that sits beside the previously described building on the east side....It's better to make it more fluid, imo. Again, this might be very dependent on whether you are writing third limited. Basically, the character's eyes would hit that building on the east side, move to the building or alley beside it, then move north or south or toward the middle of the square–i.e., it's a long take–unless, of course, there's some reason the character might be making sudden turns or desperately looking for something.

But beyond how a character would naturally view the scene, there's the reader's attention to consider. Trying to keep theses disjointed objects in mind when flickering about hither and thither makes building an image difficult (or at least an impression of that scene, if not a perfect image of it.) Similarly, jumping between multiple characters when describing them for the first time, back and forth and focusing on a different part each time (hair, eye color, clothing, etc.) can work against you.

Example 2: While on the way to an important meeting, a character might realistically think about a range of relevant ideas, issues, histories, etc. concerning her destination–background information–but even though many of these things might come into play eight paragraphs later or in the next scene or be very important to the story as a whole, that importance can be lost on a reader by the time the reader reaches those later points. This is similar to the problem of describing a physical milieu by jumping about rather than using a long take. You might be much better off to save those thoughts until the moment (or nearer the moment) when that information is important/relevant to what's happening.

Both of the above examples relate to what Mary Kowal said about "that one thing at a time you can show them." The reader, in the midst of reading, is focused on this one thing, these particular words right here before her.

2. Breath. "Breath indicates emotion. Speed tells people how you feel about what you are doing. Writing is a way to capture storytelling to share with people when we're not in the room."

3. Muscle. "Create the illusion that characters are moving of their own volition."

4. Meaningful movement. "Every move should mean something."

Ok, I'm skipping #2 and #3 for now, but they are explained in the podcast.

#4 also strikes me as being especially important.

Mary Kowal: "That idea is that with puppetry, you generally speaking don't have facial expressions. Everything that you've got is body language. So it has to mean something every time the puppet moves. You'll see a lot of bad puppeteers who walk into a room and they bobbed the puppet's head up every time it says something. We call it head bobbing."

In other words, the audience can become distracted by the movement of the bobbing heads, and that's not meaningful movement. It has no purpose, signifies nothing.

She gives an example. When there needs to be a pause in dialogue, new writers will sometimes insert an unimportant bit of information:

"Yes, Timoch, the Gremsalf forces appear to be gathering in the Valley of Tears." He took a sip of water. "And to the north, there have been signs that the Red Wolves are on the move."​

That sip of water is pretty much insignificant, a random "bobbing." Sometimes this is done merely to give a sense of movement or being alive, I think; but it's wasted space.

Mary Koval's idea is that one should try to convey deeper significance, something about plot or a character's emotional state, unspoken thoughts, or deeper....character, instead.

And I pretty much agree.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Hmm...

My tales - the longer ones anyhow and most of the shorter ones - the rule is - one chapter, one POV character. I describe - or try to describe the world/situation as they would see it. Part of this comes from the introduction to the old 'Thieves World' anthologies - a visiting farmer and a thief are likely to have radically different takes upon viewing a market.

As to 'muscle,' I strive to have my characters do something during the course of conversations, be it eating, pointing at something, shuffling from foot to foot, or glancing about.
 

pmmg

Vala
For me, the insightful part was about not just controlling where the puppet look but the audience instead. I thought it did well at seeing the tool we all use in a different way, but...I am not sure if it added anything to what I may be applying already. I'll keep it in the tool bag if I find something could be enhanced by such knowledge.
 
As to 'muscle,' I strive to have my characters do something during the course of conversations, be it eating, pointing at something, shuffling from foot to foot, or glancing about.

I think the general point from that podcast is to pick movements or actions that add to the tale in some way. A tone, an emotional or mental reaction to what is happening, and so forth.

The "sip of water" (or wine, or tea, or whatever) is something I've encounter lots and lots and lots of times. Maybe thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal I'm now incapable of reading through that without irritation. Oh, I think one here and there is not so bad. Sometimes people are just sipping tea having a relatively pleasant conversation. A whole page of it is irritating for sure.
 
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For me, the insightful part was about not just controlling where the puppet look but the audience instead. I thought it did well at seeing the tool we all use in a different way, but...I am not sure if it added anything to what I may be applying already. I'll keep it in the tool bag if I find something could be enhanced by such knowledge.

I think the "one thing at a time" advice is pretty good. It's something I'd never given enough thought. Keeping an audience focused on one thing at a time seems too important to gloss over. I think developing habits of writing deep POVs probably helps us do this naturally. Keeping a character in the here-and-now.
 
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