Jade City letter two: little projects and third person mysteries

Dear writers,

Welcome back to Reading with Daniel

This is my craft commentary for chapters two and three of Jade City, by Fonda Lee. 

Main topics:

  1. How to start a novel quickly without confusing your reader.
  2. The mysteries of third person POV.

(I'll send our schedule for reading the rest of the novel shortly.)

Reading with Daniel - Jade City - chapters two and three 

May 6th 2022: little plots and third-person distance

Quick summary: Hilo discovers a clue about the trouble in the Armpit; the head of the No Peak clan, Lan, feels frustrated with his advisor's lack of respect. The other major Green Bone clan on the island, the Mountain, seems to be seeking out trouble, but Lan advises Hilo to be cautious.

Writers always want to know: how to begin a novel quickly? We worry that readers will get impatient; we’ve been told the benefits of “in media res” and the drawbacks of info-dumping, early flashbacks etc.

But then we hit a second problem: if we start the story too quickly, we will confuse or alienate the reader. Introduce all our main characters in chapter one? Reader may start looking for a family tree at the back of the book. Start with a massive party scene? Your reader may well feel unsure who they are supposed to be supporting, or if they are even in the mood to follow the complex back and forth.

Now, some stories really are simple. But what most of us want is to tell memorable, engaging stories that, by the middle to three-quarters point, have shown the reader a fairly complex picture of the main character, the rest of the cast, and the fictional setting.

In Jade City, it seems to me that Fonda Lee is using a technique I often find myself recommending to novelists: to begin the story quickly, but to focus our attention on a small piece of it. This approach is effective because it solves our problem: the story can kick off from the first page (satisfying our “get started quickly” goal) but because we are holding back most of the complex stuff, and just focusing the reader’s attention on a small piece of the tale, we are also avoiding confusing the reader.

In my course, Plotting and Planning Your Novel, I encourage writers to imagine this “small piece” of the plot as the main character’s own plot, their personal storyline or “project.” You might also think of it as a little plot, a false plot, a ___ plot – propose other names in the comments!

How do we meet Hilo, for instance? The very first line, once the POV switches to him in chapter one, sets out his “little plot”:

“Shon Ju says there’s been trouble in the Armpit,” said Malik Kehn…

No delay, no reflection, no backstory, and no waiting around for an inciting incident to hit: the very first line gives us the plot that Hilo is pursuing in chapters one, two, and three. And it’s a pretty simple plot that requires little exposition, explanation of history, or knowledge of magical things – it is simply “someone is causing trouble in our territory.” 

This is the ideal little plot: simple enough that it can just get going.

And yet, readers can probably tell that this isn’t the “full” or “real” story of Jade City. We’ll have to wait for that. After all, it seems to me very unlikely that a five-hundred page novel is going to focus itself entirely on “the Armpit” and the death of Three-Fingered Gee. The very names seem to be hints not to fixate too much on those elements: don’t take them too seriously, Lee seems to be telling us.

Now, I’m reading this novel at the same pace you are, so I could be wrong, and I could imagine, I think, a gritty noir thriller that focuses the whole story on the death of a black-market gem carver. But I don’t get the sense that this is the plan here, especially as we have magical powers with capital letters ("Perception," for instance). That's not the tone Lee seems to be striking. So, most likely, this is just a “little plot” to get the story rolling, and while it’s definitely possible that by the end of the novel, we will have spent time in the Armpit and figured out who killed Gee, sooner or later, something bigger is going to come along. 

This little plot is just the way in.

Important note: what makes this “little” plot work so well is that it isn’t a pure “McGuffin.” It isn’t some completely arbitrary plot device that Lee dangles in front us and expects Hilo to chase after – a glowing briefcase, a lump of unobtanium. Instead, it makes sense that Hilo cares about trouble in the Armpit because, as we see in chapter two, his entire job and sense of belonging in his family revolves around keeping the clan’s wider community safe, protected, and loyal.

After all, this is how he responds to the failed robbery / murder in the bar, the Twice Lucky. His primary concern is how his response to these jade thieves will affect the prosperity of the bar, and how will that will have knock on effects on his family’s security.

The Twice Lucky might be a No Peak establishment today, but if the worst came to pass and the owner was forced to switch allegiance in exchange for keeping his family business and his head on his shoulders, Hilo held little illusion as to what choice he would make.

This little plot is compelling and natural for the reader to follow along because it is tied to Hilo’s self-worth and view of himself.

If you are unsure how to design a compelling opening to your novel -- try this out. Add a "little plot!"

Notice, too, how Lee uses this “little plot” to move us from location to location, even to facilitate the switching of POV. This is a complex novel with a lot of characters. But she does a great job of using the “little plot” to facilitate each jump in space and time.

Location 1: The Twice Lucky. 

Location 2: the waterfront away from the restaurant 

Location 3: the No Peak family residence

Why do we move from location one to two? So Hilo’s men can punish the thieves who disrupted one of Hilo’s clients (the owner of Twice Lucky). Why do we move from two to three? Because Hilo gets a lead – about trouble in the Armpit – that he thinks his boss, the Pillar, needs to hear about.

Even though we are moving around a lot, and shifting POVs, the little plot is helping us, as readers, stay on track.

Topic 2: The magic and mystery of third person POV.

(This topic will be particularly interesting to writers of historical fiction, social fiction -- anything where a primary concern is explaining how things work to the reader.)

One of the great strengths of third person POV is the easy way that the narrator / story can drift closer and away from the main character. When the main character can’t or won’t talk us through a situation, the narrator takes more of the responsibility. But when we are deep in the protagonist’s thoughts, the narrator vanishes as a presence and we are close up to the protagonist’s interior monologue.

There are moments in chapter two, for instance, where it’s unclear if the narrator is telling us something or Hilo is thinking it.

Take this moment, for example:

All eyes turned as Hilo crossed the room. He felt a stir of understanding go through the crowd. The nearest diners noticed what Bero, in his initial cursory glance, had not: Underneath Kaul Hilo’s smoke-colored sport jacket and the unfastened top two buttons of his baby-blue shirt, a long line of small jade stones was embedded in the skin of his collarbone like a necklace fused into his flesh.

The second sentence seems to belong to Hilo. He feels the shift in mood. But the long third sentence feels like the narrator speaking (using the character’s full name, even): the narrator is telling us what Bero missed and the restaurant-goers now saw (they realised that this was the fearsome Horn in their midst). It doesn’t feel like these are Hilo’s thoughts.

But a third-person narrator can complicate this situation even further. Take this passage:

A nervous ripple of laughter traveled through the dining room as people obeyed, turning back to their meals and companions, though they kept stealing glances at Kaul Hilo, the Maiks, and the two sorry teens on the floor. It wasn’t especially often that ordinary, jadeless citizens were witness to such a dramatic display of Green Bone abilities. They would go home and tell their friends about what they’d seen: how the thief had moved faster than any normal human being...

There is another passage like this, shortly afterwards. In both, it feels like the narrator speaking. The narrator is filling in the details how the people in the scene reacted.

But then a sentence appears:

The thought made Hilo feel better.

So actually, we are supposed to understand that these were Hilo's thoughts. The narrator was just speaking them for him, or translating his thoughts into "helpful narrator speak."

In other words, we can see multiple possibilities for third person narration:

  1. Close to the protagonist, hearing his thoughts, seeing what he sees.
  2. Distant from the protagonist, pointing out details beyond his normal range of awareness. 
  3. Speaking as the narrator, explaining something in the narrator's tone and viewpoint, but then attributing those ideas to the protagonist.

These modes can co-exist in the same sentence. Look at this moment from chapter three:

“To a Green Bone, it was not quiet—Lan could hear the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the whir of a small insect over the pond, the crunch of his own shoes along the smoothed pebble path....”

“To a Green Bone, it was not quiet”: this feels like the distant narrator adding in some extra details -- the rest of the sentence feels like close narration. 

It's a great way, if you are writing historical fiction, for instance, to weave in details of your historical world. Your narrator adds just a little more about the setting each time -- always related to what the POV character is experiencing -- dropping in a detail that the character would probably not think themselves in the moment. 

--

Note: can you do this in first person? Definitely. But it means that sometimes the protagonist / narrator is speaking as an outside observer, remembering the events of the novel. Sometimes they are rushing around, doing things; sometimes they pause to explain what their town looks like.

Something like this:

“To a Green Bone like me, it was not quiet—I heard the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the whir of a small insect over the pond, the crunch of his own shoes along the smoothed pebble path....”

This narrator switches between a distant first person before the dash -- and a closer, more immediate first person after it.

Try this out, in a very simple way, with this prompt:

https://form.questionscout.com/62753f59d0c48b8b16956f5e

--

For now – what did you think of this newsletter? Interesting? Doubts? Questions? Send me a reply! 

PS No spoilers in the comments, please! 

  • gonzalezperezadan says:

    Thanks Daniel for this craft commentary. I find really helpful the analysis you’ve made about the third person narrator and the different ways it can be expressed. Also, it’s really interesting how this “little-plot” starts to put in action the engines of the novel and show us the characters in action.

    I share with all of you some commentaries that came to my mind while reading these two chapters, about “hinting at the mistery” and “character development”:

    HINTING AT THE MISTERY

    Daniel made a point last week about the importance of letting the reader know exactly what they need, instead of giving them a long lecture about the world they’re starting to read. In this sense, I found really interesting how Fonda Lee had announced words like “Horn” or “Weather Man”, but it wasn’t until the end of chapter 3 that finally explained their meaning:

    “Lan looked between his Horn and his Weather Man. The two roles existed to be the right and left hand of the Pillar, responsible for the military and business arms of the clan, respectively.”

    And she did that only after presenting both characters (Hilo, the Horn and Doru, the Weather Man) and making them have a discussion/argument.

    If I had been writing it, I guess I would have feel the urge to explain what Horn or Weather Man was since the first moment I mentioned those terms. But I see now that doing it this way makes much more sense and it’s more interesting for the reader.

    BUILDING CHARACTERS

    I also find really interesting the noticeable contrast between these two characters: Hilo (younger brother = new generation, military, right hand, agressive, action) vs Doru (old = previous generation, business, left hand, calmed, negotiation), which makes their dialogue very interesting, and also defines clearly who’s speaking at any time (even with marks like the suffix Doru uses to speak to them). But I think it also starts to present us the character of the Pillar through his reaction to them, trying to keep balance between the both of them, but also feelinc inclined to the ideas of the younger brother.

    In a similar way, the two teenage thieves were quite different from each other, and the first chapter was a way to present us Hilo through their reaction to him.

  • trishmcdonald305 says:

    Love the depth you are bringing to this reading, very helpful.

  • I appreciated your comments about the little plot, what I think of as the Existing Problem. Even before we know the details of the story world or the conflict the book will be about, we have something to watch happening. It keeps our attention in the opening pages while we learn about the characters.

    And it makes the characters seem more real as well. They’re not just sitting around waiting for an inciting incident; they are in the midst of living their lives.

    The use of POV in this book is fascinating. I highlighted several passages as I read: careful descriptions of the physical changes that indicate emotion without hopping into other character’s heads but also where the narrator keeps a distance from the POV character at times. I wasn’t sure how to categorize this, but I can see how useful “drifting” away as a narrator can be. I’ve been writing in a very close third person, but I may need to rethink that.

    • The “existing problem” is a GREAT term for this. It really distinguishes the idea from the “inciting incident” model.

  • Hi all – all brilliant by the way thanks Daniel! Just wondered – watched Skyfall and in the beginning it’s all just about Bond getting the hard drive back (before the title sequence and song etc and after again) before the story expands into a much bigger thing…would that maybe be an example of a ‘little plot’ or a ‘small bit of the world’ to lead us into the bigger plot or is that something else? Sort of seems to make sense – those Bond plots become so huge you’d be lost if you weren’t sort of lead in step by step/thread by thread! Just curious – many thanks! 🙂

  • This was a valuable lesson, considering how POV can promptly shift from close to faraway. Tailoring the prompts to my project has taken a bit of practice, but I’m getting the hang of it. I found this one very useful. Thanks for giving us insight into writing — and a fascinating read!

  • sherrylinker says:

    This week’s newsletter topics touch on one of the things I’ve been struggling with in my own writing: determining how much is too much information too soon, too many characters, etc., while still starting the novel in medias res. This is a great example of Lee’s effective technique. Very interesting and I am learning so much. Thank you.

  • edonovan7650 says:

    You’ve touched on so many things I never think about when reading. I’m sure they will improve my writing.

  • allisongailb says:

    Hi all!

    This was a very interesting read as it’s really gotten me to think about my WIP. My MC moves from one country to another (USA to Jamaica – out of survival) and I’m thinking more about incorporating culture more into his arc as kind of object lessons (for want of a better term) as he grows and changes.

  • The little plot is something I have noticed especially in quest-adventure stories, where you start with the protagonist in the last stages of solving a mystery-problem, and then we move to the real question of the story. (one do the comments talks about James Bond movies or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for example). I like how you can add details in this section that could lead to great discoveries further into the story.
    I suppose it can be the same in character driving stories, where you establish the norm-average, and how the life of the protagonist works, until that moment where all changes, but it should give you enough details to get to know the personality of the protagonist, and clues of what needs to be change and the reason of it.
    As for the POV’s, I’m still confused when the narrators takes over. I know I have read it and I understand what I’m reading, but it isn’t easy to notice when it changes, or at least not to me or not yet.

    • Hi Monica — one idea is — would the character know this? Would the character think about this at this particular time? If not (to either of these) it generally feels like the narrator is speaking. For instance, I know my own height and eye colour, but I rarely think about it. If a piece of writing casually mentions a character’s height in inches, that sounds like a narrator speaking.

      Techniques like “Deep POV” teach you how to cut out this style of writing (where the narrator is in the forefront) in order to create more intense, more immediate reading experiences; this novel shows how helpful the style (a mix of distant and close POV) can be.

      Is that helpful?

      • Thanks! It helps a lot. I will check the “Deep POV” and use those two questions. You make sounds so simple!

      • Felicitas says:

        I am still wondering about POV: I very much enjoy the style Fonda Lee uses here – closer and further from the protagonist. However, in Germany we are usually told that in 3rd person POV like in 1st person to do this is actually a POV mistake, because we should only say what the protagonist can know himself, not interfere as a narrator, unless we write in the omniscient narrator style. What do you think about that please, Daniel? These two so different writing advices from German speaking and English speaking coaches still confuse me.

  • Veronique says:

    Very interesting to read one chapter or two, and then the craft comments.

  • grabirdwriter says:

    Your depth of thinking and detailed sentence analysis is really helpful.

    The way in which psychic distance (I think that’s what it’s called, but happy to be corrected) changes from sentence to sentence, even phrase to phrase is worthy of this level of analysis as it helps understanding and my craft.

    I wonder whether Fonda Lee considers these points when crafting a paragraph, or whether it simple comes naturally. I suspect the benefit of our analysis is to help our craft evolve to a natural state, rather than over-thinking when writing.

    • Definitely. The goal is to be able to do these things automatically and instinctively, when they are useful and appropriate! But I do believe that, to get there, you have to have it pointed out to you, described, analysed. Brain first, instinct second.

  • Cara Flett says:

    What a fabulous post! Thank you for sharing it, Daniel.

    To my mind, Fonda Lee not only starts JADE CITY quickly in a way that “doesn’t confuse the reader”, she starts every chapter the same way.

    In previous responses I mentioned how impressed I was at Lee’s ability to “show through action, internal monologue, and dialogue”. She continues “to show” essential facts about the characters, the plot, and the story world in Chapters Two and Three.

    One of the ways she manages this is by picking up where she left off at the end of the previous chapter. Chapter One breaks MID-CRISIS—Bero is caught by Tar Maik and ‘about to’ face the consequences of his actions…

    Lee reveals what these consequences are immediately at the beginning of Chapter Two! Story action begun in Chapter One climaxes at the beginning of Chapter Two, and is then slowly resolved by Kaul Hilo.

    In short, at the beginnings of Chapter Two, Lee picks up precisely where she left off at the end of Chapter One. Which is a brilliant way to ensure every chapter begins “in media res.”

    It’s also a brilliant way to set a consistent pace at the same time as you reveal aspects of the story world in bite-sized chunks—or in “small pieces” of story, or with a “little plot” as you say. This technique ensures readers never flip to the character glossary at the end to figure out who the characters are, or to the map at the beginning of the book to figure out where they are!

    “In media res”, Fonda Lee-style, does not always mean beginning with physical action. Chapter Three opens, with reflection, in Kaul Lanshinwan’s POV. It does, to pick up where Lee left us off at the end of Chapter Two when she promised readers that they were going to meet the Pillar:

    “When the boy had stuttered through a description, Hilo stood up. “Bring the car around,” he said to Kehn. ‘We’re taking these boys to see the Pillar’.”

    Lee not only keeps her promise, she introduces him to us at the beginning of Chapter Three, interacting with his normal world. Which is a great way to build the reader’s knowledge of the story world.

    That’s one of the things I like best about JADE CITY. Using 3rd person POV, Lee shares “small pieces” of story, when, and how, it’s needed. Sometimes we’re in a character’s thoughts. Other times we’re given a big picture overview of how things work in Janloon society. This varied use of 3rd person means that exposition is never cumbersome. It provides context for dialogue and the character responses shown that feels seamless.

    “Little plot” becomes “puzzle piece plot” as Lee assembles her story world, one piece at a time. I can’t wait to get to the end of the novel to see how she finishes her puzzle.

  • I found this lesson and the prompt very helpful. The use of micro plots to convey information without being overwhelming is likely used all the time without me noticing. I really appreciate having the prompts to reinforce the techniques. I agree, the little plots seem to revolve around current situations and even a mundane activity can be used to illustrate needed context.

  • Thanks for the in depth look at these chapters. I loved the newsletter and found it helpful to think about the text as you described.

    I find analysing POV the most fascinating, and in this story I was interested that the closest psychic/emotional distance paralleled with the farthest time distance (i.e. when we learnt about how he was trained from youth), and then the opposite – when Fonda Lee pans out to an external narrator – is the closest in time, more immediate, of how things are, rather than were.

  • diana.dale says:

    My story comes out naturally in third person POV but seeing the breakdown of the scenes helped me add elements I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. The prompts are extremely useful, I wish there were more.

  • Hope it’s not too late to comment on this lesson, and sorry for being behind! First, I am surprised to be liking this book so much; perhaps that is because it’s so well written. Your lesson helped me see the use of a “little plot,” as an appetizer (or could we call it an “ap’plot’izer”?) and I immediately changed the opening of the book I’m working on. Your second lesson point really opened my eyes to a greatly expanded us of third person POV. Thank you so much Daniel.
    Ann

    • This is a no shame zone! The goal is to help your writing — reading slow, fast, early or late doesn’t matter.

  • Aphrodite says:

    Lee’s use of POV and your analysis have been supremely helpful. I had been going in first person for my story, but found myself getting stuck. There’s information I want to share that the protagonist wouldn’t have a reason to share… It stopped feeling natural. Now I know why. And even though it’s a “little plot” that Lee uses to get things rolling, it’s still intriguing enough to keep me reading and I’m not confused.

  • I am really enjoying both the book and your commentary. I see what you mean about the options with third person POV, but struggle to recognize it. Lee makes it work seamlessly. What interested me more was how different Hilo appeared in chapter 3 from Lan’s perspective than he did in chapter 2. Maybe that’s because I’m working on how to differentiate my characters. It felt jarring at first but then I began to appreciate that who characters are and how they are perceived by others will mar us if they aren’t compatible and that maybe that’s a good thing.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    (Still catching up on all the exercises…)
    I especially like how much dialogue she’s mixing into the story, and how naturally it’s all fitting together.
    Likewise, the background information and the special powers of jade and how it affects the world are being introduced at a good pace, not overwhelming us, answering questions while leading to more, that draw us on.
    I also appreciate how often she dips into the character’s inner world, so we know what they’re thinking or feeling.

  • I write historical fiction and these comments about POV and narration are very helpful.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Pen
    >