Welcome to my first and probably last tutorial. This will potentially expand to cover a broader subject material as more things strike me as particularly relevant.
The idea behind this thread is sort of following the general principles behind an FAQ. That is to say, over my seven or so years of professional writing experience, there have been a series of trends in writing which have become especially apparent to me because of their complicated nature. It is my intention to address these quandaries individually and attempt to provide one or more workable solutions to each of them. This guide is strongly suggested for advanced writers only, because I feel as though newer writers should develop their fundamental skills first, before worrying about the more abstract and lesser-known writing faux pas.
The inspiration for this thread is derived from many years of brewing on the subject with no place to appropriately vent my concerns (and in fact, this is likely still not quite the appropriate place, but it is somewhere, and somewhere is better than nowhere). This thread deals with writing as a general thing, and is not specifically limited to one mode. However, there will be times when I reference a form to emphasize a point, be it games, novels, short stories, etc.
As for the motivation to actually post it here: thank Prof. Meow Meow for that (or scorn him, whichever seems appropriate after your reading). He convinced me that this would be valuable to someone
, surely. So, without further ado:HOW TO WORK AROUND COMPLEX WRITING PROBLEMSProblem number 1: How to Fit an Enormous Amount of Information Into a "Project" Without Being Boring.
I believe that the most appropriate response for those interested in brevity is, "gradually."
The most important thing you can do is avoid gratuitous exposition, or text that has to explain things
. Remember also that dialogue's purpose is to help define your characters by how they interact; it is not a tool for explaining the situation to the readers. Long-winded discussions between characters that recap what has happened, or what needs to happen are examples of lazy writing
and need to be avoided. Your best bet is to interject hints that operate in the concrete or physical realm of your characters. If you are skilled enough to do so, metaphor can be used to great effect. Represent pieces of information symbolically, as this will help cut down a lot of the needless information.
The other, most obvious and often ill-used method of embedding information is flashback
. You may find it appropriate to interject a scene (or multiple scenes) in order to provide a context in which the desired information will be situated. This is an effective method because it puts the information into scene-format
, which is to say that it takes place at specific location, incorporates action and dialogue, etc.
However, you may still find that the information you desire to incorporate doesn't seem to fit. You may have tried sneaking it in little-by-little and found that it feels forced, awkward, out of place and inappropriate. Here's where being a writer can mean making difficult decisions: If you find this to be the case, leave it out. Don't incorporate it. All too often, writers make the mistake of evaluating their information (or even their written words) as sacred; I can assure you now, from the perspective of an editor, that it is not. A valid cliche is the saying, "There is no such thing as good writing. Only good re-writing." Good writing is generally born from the revision process, so do not panic if everything you want to say simply can't be said. Save it, keep it in a file somewhere, and move on.Problem number 2: Creating the Character from Scratch Using Exercises.
I would like to discuss "writing exercises," very briefly. The most frequent (and most irritating) of these take the form of character-development exercises, which is specifically what I mean to address. Character-development exercises are lists, often questions that a writer might ask him or herself about the nature of their character in an attempt to make them more defined and complex. I've seen these exercises comprised of a hundred or more questions asking everything from hair color to religious beliefs to what they would do in situation X
. It would be wrong of me to assert that these are a waste of time, because I'm certain that they have the potential to spark a chain of contiguous thoughts that are in some way profitable. However, I will say straightforwardly that almost all of these questions are useless and irrelevant.
A respected novelist once told me in a conference that you need to know one thing about your character, and that is this: "What do they want more than anything else in the world?" Think about that for a little bit, and let it sink it. The answer to that question will be, in some form or another, what your story will be about.
This is a very simplified expression, and some readers at this point will be skeptical. What about conflicts? What about secondary-characters and branching story-arcs and all the complexities of the writing world?
Next, consider this: What is stopping your character from obtaining that thing which they want more than anything in the world? Suddenly, there is a conflict. Some sort of resistance that makes the journey from beginning to end a valuable experience.
This is the backbone of any story, and for it to grow in complexity, its shape will follow the same pattern. For secondary-characters, consider who the main character will interact with while attempting to obtain what it is he/she desires most. It could also be that what they want directly correlates to these other people.
If it is relevant and will help develop and shape your character powerfully, consider what he/she wants the second-most, and what is stopping him/her from obtaining it. Instant side-plot, additional development, potential for complexity, etc.
If you take nothing else from this section, consider this: start simple, add more as is needed. Trim off what is not.Problem number 3: Producing the Concrete, Working with Metaphors, and Avoiding the Abstract.
Another problem that a lot of writers have is attempting to create meaning from abstract ideas or emotions. Somewhere along the line, metaphors have become associated with the ambiguous. Things which are not clearly defined are expected to store hidden meaning, as though it is possible to transcend the physical boundaries of writing and speak truths directly into our brains. I am here to tell you that this is not the case
A word you may hear frequently if you attend any number of workshops or writing conferences is "concrete." This does not refer to the grayish material that your sidewalk may be composed of, but rather refers to anything in writing that is "grounded," "physical," "tactile" or "real." Describing things that we can touch, taste, see, feel--these would all be considered concrete descriptions. Describing an emotion like sadness or anger is NOT concrete, but rather, abstract. These two principles are generally considered opposites in the writing realm.
When attempting to represent something abstract, it is useful to turn immediately to the concrete for a frame of reference in order to portray or symbolize the abstraction in a way which we can identify. This is how metaphors are formed. To simplify this would be to say that "all metaphors start in the concrete." To portray sadness, it could be a bird's nest scattered among parked cars. It could be a wool mitten lost in a snowy field. We are generally selfish creatures, and an abstract notion of sadness does not compel most of us very far. But put the specific concrete details in a scene, or present them in a striking metaphor, and it will have a surprising impact.Problem number 4: Working With a Metaphysical Experience Without Being Heavy-Handed.
This is not an easy task, and I have saved it for last because it will be useful to possess the information given in the prior examples when considering this one. The word "metaphysical" is, by itself, a complicated and somewhat troubling thing to overcome. It literally can mean "concerned with abstract thought or subjects," which seems counter-intuitive to my previous point. I would prefer to melt this definition in with another one, which is, "immaterial or incorporeal." In writing, the metaphysical is a seemingly intangible realm that exists somewhere outside of what is definitively real. This is not to say that it is abstract in the sense that it is vague and distracting, but rather that it is not quite physically accessible.
Think of a time in your life where something happened in a place that you could not explain, but that left a profound impact on you. It could be at home, perhaps at night when things began to take on a shape which seemed unnatural. It could be during a conversation in the middle of the day, where something was exchanged that became surreal, almost supernatural-feeling, aided by the environment in some way. Perhaps you saw a thing of beauty which affected you in such a way that you had an epiphany of sorts. The things which took place during that moment, whether they were purely internalized or were aided by the condition of your circumstances, are the metaphysical experiences to which I am referring.
This may seem strangely specific, but I think you would be surprised to find that nearly every successful short story or novel contains a character who experiences some profound metaphysical revelation and is somehow changed by it. Knowing that, however, the trick becomes writing your own without the common failing of it being too heavy-handed, forced, or trite.
The most obvious of these concerns is that for it to be meaningful, it must come from somewhere genuine. Your love or hatred for a character can drive them to undergo a metaphysical (usually life-changing or paradigm-shifting) experience, but if you do not feel strongly about them, then the writing will not affect the reader strongly either. I believe it was Orwell who said "if the writer is not in tears when he writes it, the reader will not be in tears when he reads it." This may be a little dramatic, but it underlines my point, even if somewhat extremely.
Secondly, think back to problem 3: the experience can be purely internal and psychological, but the portrayal must still be tangible and concrete. It can be represented metaphorically or through a concrete description of what's happening at the time. It may even be that the reader shares in the event which triggers the epiphany, and rather than being told about it, experiences it first-hand. The other popular (and accurate) writing cliche that applies here is "show, don't tell." Show us what your character sees, hears and touches and allow us to be engaged in the metaphysical experience along with them, even to the point where we can simply infer
what has changed.Problem number 5: In Soviet Russia, Form Copies in You!
One of the most complex and difficult writing quandaries I have encountered is that of form
. It is a popular (and unadvised) opinion that novels must be something entirely new for them to be successful. This could not be much farther from the truth, except to say the exact opposite (that it must be precisely the same as the novels preceding it). This balance has plagued writers for thousands of years, since the original epics were merely spoken word. Every writer will tell you that in order to be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Everything that you read informs you in some way, and whether or not you choose to take directly the form of a previous novel, your decision will have been affected by it in some capacity. You cannot produce something worthwhile by escaping tradition entirely, and likewise, you cannot produce something worthwhile by imitating it precisely.
But all of this begs the question: How much is too much? At what point does the line blur from allegory, allusion or common tropes to plagiarism or insincerity? The nature of blurred lines is that they cannot be clearly defined, but I can at least hope to excavate around it some.
Around the time of World War I, humankind began largely to view itself as distinctly separate from the past before it. Their faith in God, the natural world, and any semblance of order became fragmented and broken. The war had massively disturbed their paradigm, and the resulting literature became known as "Modernist." This is perhaps the single most radical change in global literature ever recorded, particularly for such a brief period (Modernism is generally considered to have only lasted from around WWI until WWII). The romanticism of the previous centuries was considered largely obsolete, foolish and naive--the byproduct of a culture now lost to the chaos of a world at war. But lo and behold, the two greatest figureheads of the Modernist period, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, both of whom were educated in the Western canon, produced two pieces of work which would be considered the most important in American history: "The Waste Land" and Ulysses
, respectively. In "The Waste Land," generally considered the epitome of Modernist poems, Eliot calls upon several dozens of classical works--quoting them directly, referencing their characters, alluding to their outcomes, etc, while in Ulysses
, Joyce has produced a mirror image of The Odyssey
, paralleling the latter work's events in what is referred to as "a demonstration and summation of the entire movement," referring to Modernism. The point of this history lesson is to underline the following:
Even amidst the most profound change in Western literature in recent years (if not all time), and even in a time that strove to portray the obsolescence of past literature, all writing was still built upon the foundation set before it, and in the act of trying to rebel against it, they were still forced to use classical literature as a mold so that they could break it in places
.Problem number 6: Inter-Story Form
Now that we have an understanding of the big picture, it's time to get a bit more focused. We know that stealing from good literature is a good thing. We know that simply trying to imitate is a bad thing. And among the good things to steal, the shape of a story is a great place to start. If you are an avid reader, you will undoubtedly begin to pick up on narrative patterns that many or all stories have in common. Perhaps you've taken a writing class and seen our old friend, the narrative arc:
Exposition is the language which begins a story and sets the scene. Complication is the commonly-used word to indicate that there is some sort of conflict which makes the story a little more challenging and interesting. A climax, of course, is the peak of tension in the story, where the rising action ceases to rise, and then begins its descent into the denouement, also called "falling action," and eases the reader into a catharsis for the home-stretch. This is probably what you will encounter any time you study creative writing in an introductory-level or even intermediate class.
BUT FAR BE IT FROM ME TO KEEP THINGS SIMPLE.
I have, therefore, prepared a new chart which indicates an even more specific tension and resolution--one that you will find nearly all great short stories and novels adhere to surprisingly well. Please do not mistake this chart as the steps to victory, but rather, consider it a foundation onto which you can build your own masterpiece.
Here we have what I will refer to as the TENSION TRIANGLE, although you will not find this anywhere online. The bottom corners represent characters who possess either predominantly good or evil traits (evil being an oversimplified phrase to here represent Biblical notions of evil--i.e., sin). They then will either encounter opportunity or adversity (this is sort of a more specific version of complication) indicated by the lines moving from the bottom corners to the center of the opposite side of the triangle (notice, for example, the line from Good to Adversity). It is then imperative that the person faced with either adversity or opportunity will typically sink a bit into a place of evil (or sin) before rising up to the top, having been exposed to some form of human love: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, etc., and then, corresponding with the denouement or falling action, will descend into a state of homeostasis or equilibrium through catharsis, and hopefully also achieve grace.
Not convinced that this disturbingly specific chart will apply to very many narrative arcs? Look at it this way:
- A "good" person encounters adversity, good guy falls into sin, good guy is confronted by some form of love, good guy is redeemed.
- A "bad" person encounters opportunity, bad guy is humanized with good traits, bad guy does something bad, is shown some sort of love regardless, bad guy achieves a state of equilibrium (perhaps even grace) from the love.
You will find that short fiction, in particular, follows this form of drastic lows and highs very closely, but most of the great novels can also be broken down in this way. The greater the fall and the higher the distance required to rise before achieving grace, the higher the tension. A character does not have to achieve grace, but there has to be a definitive transition from the beginning to the end--grace is, most often, the counterpoint to our natural state of existence, and so it stands to reason that it is the point farthest away, the point for which we must change the most to reach, and therefore the highest point of tension. If this chart is unclear or you have some questions regarding its confusing nature, please feel free to ask. Please also note that nobody is intrinsically wholly good or bad. It is the combination of both good and evil traits which make us both real and terrifying.Problem Number 8: Writing Satire that Matters
Satire is a strange, amorphous and difficult to understand thing. By its very nature, it seems to defeat itself: it writes against itself, often against the very act of writing, and deconstructs or draws attention to the failings or absurdities in something. In such a mode, is it even possible to attach "rules" or criteria to it? Doesn't it consciously break out of the criteria?
First of all, let me clear something up that helps me sleep at night: all of the critical theory applied to writing is man made. It was not pre-ordained by some cosmic figure. Mark Cox taught me this while we stood in the shadow of an old brick chapel swatting bees away from our faces. All of the rules and criteria we use to write by are not guard-rails preventing us from slipping off the road into failure and carnage, but rather, a language which allows us to speak about the things we already understand to be true, and to help us understand the things we do not.
Having said that, there is still good and bad writing, engaging, provocative, emotionally powerful, intellectually provoking, timeless and lyrically stunning writing, and then there is writing which is none of those things. So we return to the original question: how can we write something which seems to purposely distance itself from its subject and still have it be writing which becomes more than purely entertainment or cheap thrills? The answer, I believe, lies in a quote by Sherwood Anderson in an essay called, "Man and His Imagination." In it, Anderson writes that we, as artists, must have a sense of obligation to the imagined beings we create. Even if we create them in a way where we do not agree with their strange and seemingly irreconcilable actions, we must treat them kindly, with humility, compassion and tenderness. In today's generation of writers, it is a popular theory that we must distance ourselves ironically--be always self-aware and winking at the reader, or else it risks becoming cliche or feeling outdated. Particularly in the mode of satire, writers feel as though it is necessary to be both scribe and judge all at once; none of these assumptions are accurate, and in fact, it is this disingenuousness, I believe, that poisons the post modern writer's work as a whole.
The trick to writing successful satire, I believe, lies in the ability to draw attention the absurdity in a subject without pulling back from the narrative and making any direct claims to the reader. In all writing, allowing the circumstances to speak for themselves is necessary. Remaining ambivalent is good--showing tenderness and compassion towards the subject even while its flaws are exposed is even better, and gives a deeper meaning and significance to the piece of writing as a whole. Suddenly, it is not a rant or didactic moral story; it is not an exercise in ironic detachment and bitter sarcasm; it is a thought-provoking work with moral complexity, of emotional resonance, of human imperfection.
This is not to say that satire cannot contain irony and humor; on the contrary, irony is significant in nearly all great writing, but it is the kind of cosmic, universal irony that tangles itself into what we call fate. Humor is a perfectly valid mode of writing, but if it is at the expense of your subject and they are not, in some way, redeemed in an equal or greater measure, the piece risks slipping into writing purely for effect and enters the realm of Reader's Digest
Thanks for reading, and happy writing!
This post has been edited by Drunken Paladin: Jul 3 2011, 03:31 AM