The last book I read was a fantasy by a new rising author with a hit or two under her belt and plenty of favourable reviews. Rave reviews. I’m not going to name it. I’d feel mean. Not that it was unreadable. It was initially quite promising, quickly devolved into mildly diverting before sinking to who cares? Not me, being the answer. I’m a tough reader, in that I know exactly what I want, but I can’t believe this is what others want.
Even if I had managed to fix the craft issues – and there were some of consequence – I was left with the depressing realisation it wouldn’t have saved it. Only a complete rewrite would do. Why? Because it needed a heck of a lot more imagination.
Imagination is a lot like creativity; most of us only consider a tiny fraction of what it comprises. Both are assigned solely to the weird wacky guys in the arts. Ignoring the fact that being weird and wacky, if you are weird and wacky in that way that countless other guys in the arts have been, requires little to no imagination and the straight laced accountant who tweaked the tax system might be a creative landmine.
This book was an intriguing idea with poor realisation. The world building was non-existent. The magic was quite literally hand waving. Consequence was – linear. And every page crowded with clichés. We can call them tropes but when that’s all you see, it’s too fine a slice from here to there.
I could simply call her lazy. Maybe she was.
I could simply call her arrogant. Maybe she was.
It’s hard to credit either because world building is just about the most fun a fantasy author can have. Clothes on or off. Seriously.. they’re weird…
I know, because if there is one thing that will make me write fantasy, as a sci-fi lover, it’s the world building. So even if you’re arrogant or lazy, I’m still hesitant to believe that the world building would be the thing you skip, not deliberately. The only conclusion is that she did what she believed to be the best she could. And a whole lot of people told her it was fine.
She wrote a bestselling fantasy book, calling her unimaginative might seem daft, and it might seem like there’s no cure. But if you can write, if you can conceive an interesting idea you can be pushed to be better. I’m sure every runner under the sun has bust their guts doing the best they could, but a few years of training and they’ll bust their guts for three points of a second less. And that’s the difference between being a champion and not.
This is my biggest bugbear with craft groups and writing sites, with amateur critiques. This writer had fine prose. A great little intro. Seduced me, stubborn ornery cow that I am, I’m sure it was worked to death. If she’d ever spent time on a writer’s critique site it would have been, certainly. But we never address the imagination. And until we do I don’t believe we’re ever going to get better. Agents don’t crit your world building. They’re big picture people, they want to know if they can sell that picture. If they can sell your voice. Your concept. Your central character. They might prefer a happier ending, or want a love interest squeezed in, but they aren’t looking at the nitty gritty.
And so the linear story form flourishes.
If you aren’t quite on board with me, there are exceptions. JK Rowling is the first that jumps to mind. Ever wondered what made her so different from every other writer, every kids boarding school and magic book out there? Try length. The Philosopher’s Stone was around double the standard word count for a middle grade novel. What she filled that with was detail. Immense, consistent, inventive, believable details of a world that made us wish it was real. King, Adams and Martin, Tolkien, Pratchett and Asimov are others. These writers stand out. They stand out across time. Not just through time. Because no one else can do what they do, quite like they can. Though god knows, plenty have tried. Tolkien developed three different languages and writing systems to accompany his worlds. Three whole languages.
Detail makes your world. Detail distinguishes your characters. Detail hooks your reader. Detail enriches your plot.
A great deal of this falls under show don’t tell – I’m not apologising, I could talk about that all day long – not least because if you try and sit and tell your reader all those details it’ll turn into a text book. Every step of your plot should be a way to reveal your world, every revelation of your world should be filtered through your character and every aspect of your character should drive every step of your plot. That in and of itself is imagination. It’s not about coming up with something a bit weird or different, its about seeing how it plays out, every little consequence across many different levels – about understanding how a burnt soufflé in chapter one led to an act of treason in Chapter 12. It’s even about understanding how your decisions will be received by your readers. Imagination, like creativity, lies in the connection between the points, the trajectory, the path, the faint finger web of arteries leading to and away from your points of interest. Too many put all the attention on the points of interest and you know, making them wacky..
Consider one of the greatest discoveries of all time. A man sitting beneath a tree gets hit on the head by an apple. And suddenly he understands how the moon stays in the night sky. Somewhat embellished, but however it transpired it’s safe to say for most of us there is no obvious connection. No link between the two, but Newton and his immense imagination (unequalled apart from his arrogance apparently) saw the pattern beneath the surface that joined them.
That word beneath is key. Because creativity isn’t just about a imaginative plot, its about building up the outline, putting flesh on the bones. A well thought through world, a detailed backlot gives three dimensions to your story. It means your plot will hold water, even if its a bit holey, it means we won’t see the strings you’re pulling, even if they are pulling in an obvious direction. Or at least we probably won’t care. Yeah, boy gets girl, but what a tale, what a man, what a dame..
Star Wars is loaded with tropes. And in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “the dialogue is excruciating.”
We have an innocent young ingénue, a princess in desperate need of rescuing. A big bad, who is literally big and bad, ooh and all in black, just in case you missed it. A rogue with a heart of gold, a wise old mentor.. And we win. We blow shit up. We get lucky. We accidentally press the right buttons. There was nothing unpredictable about any of it, not the first one. And it didn’t matter. Because also in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted…it remains a vivid experience.”
The world we were presented with was unlike anything we had ever seen. Lightsabers, death stars, wookies, Jawa’s, big buns. But it went beyond that, it was the ripples under the surface not yet realised that we’d fallen for. The connections between Obi-wan, Darth Vader and Luke. The only three who seem to have any awareness of this mysterious Force. The intrigue peaked by the casual mentions of the lost religion of the Jedi knights. Obi-wan’s strange, triumphant even, surrender to his own death. The friction between Leia and Han, the devotion of the rebellious R2D2. We like rogue’s with a heart of gold and wise old mentors, we just want you to bring them to life.
Books and films are different beasts in how they do this. A film can leave much more unexplored, as visual spectacle. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier or less important, but there’s a limit on how much you can realistically put in without putting your audience to sleep – hence big yellow letters at the start of Star Wars.
A magic system in a film is mostly about setting clear limits and establishing level of ability. In a book it can go so in depth it’s a like a university degree. In weird ass physics. This for me is where show and tell come into their own. Because while I love the depth a book can offer, I don’t want a lecture. Moreover, simply telling us this is sort of how magic works is actually one of the worst ways for the writer to renegotiate their own rules. Like in a textbook there are often addendums, footnotes. Or worse, as in the book I just read we can simply say, who knows how it works. I mean we use it every day, but we don’t really get it and it might just work this time. The minute I read this I know magic is going to work just cause. Our writer attempted to build up tension by implying it shouldn’t, then waved her magic hand and somehow it did. By the end of the book everything I knew about the magic and in fact the different worlds of her novel, was the same as what I knew at the beginning. Most of it was covered in the blurb.
I had no idea how magic functioned on an everyday level. I had no visual, sensory grasp of it. I couldn’t tell you if they cooked with it, if they altered their appearances or governed their world. If it made a difference in how well they did in society. How it was administered. Did they purchase spells? What did they teach in school? Was money a dictator of magic or magic a dictator of money? She did drop a few funny sounding words in. But only our hero uses them. He’s different. We’re told.
Returning to the seeming contradictions that make writing so much fun, one of the main issues that made this story and world so thin was her tendency to try and explain everything. As with everything else in linear storytelling doing what seems to be a good idea usually ends up being a really bad idea. Explain is an excellent synonym for tell. Every time you start to explain you’re shifting out of show and weakening your readers suspension of disbelief.
The force in the first three Star Wars films can be summarised with ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ In the – well technically the first three, but really the second three – we get midi-chlorians and it all starts to sound a little like an advert for toilet duck. However, in terms of what it can do, in the original three we have Jedi Mind tricks, lightsabers, vision of the future, some telekinesis, all in play in varying degrees. Oh and the lure of the dark side. In the second three we have Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, visions of the future, some … essentially everything we’ve already seen.
What details you bring in and how you bring them in is key. You’re not looking to give your readers an easily memorised wiki summary, you’re looking to embed them in it. Give them a visceral, sensory grasp of what it looks, feels, tastes like to live in this world.
The only magic system I’m even remotely well read in, is JK Rowling’s. I’ve seen plenty of spirited debates both viciously attacking and staunchly defending her world. This in itself is only possible because there was enough detail to substantiate different interpretations. Detail that many felt needed explaining, but often wasn’t. Detail that was sifted through every chapter, every scene, every line. It was a constant, specific and interconnected presence.
That artery of Newtonian connections is often effectively – ‘should’ even perhaps – be accessed through your characters. Nothing brings the varying classes of Rowlings hierarchy into focus as the way she distributes her magic and wealth, position and power, through her cast.
You’ll as a writer often come up against a warning about diluting focus and using to many characters. Not saying it’s bad advice, but here’s a few facts. In the book I just read, comprising several magical worlds, there are nine characters I can name, three I remember but can’t really name. And then ‘people’
In The Philosophers Stone, I stopped counting characters I could name around 21, because counting bores me and I think the point is made.
If you plan on writing epic world creating fantasy, you might want to actually populate that world. That’s not the same as shifting your point of view or using Omni. It’s not to say that each character must have their own arc, but they should be distinct. I can describe every one from Harry Potter, both rough physical descriptions, and basic personality traits. I’d really be struggling just with hair colour for the last book I read. I’d be struggling to write more than a couple of lines on any of the main characters.
The comparison’s continue. The backstory of the Wizarding War and it’s legacy is seen in virtually everyone’s inability to say Voldemort, in Ginny’s inability to speak to the legendary Harry Potter, in Dedaldus Diggle bowing to him mysteriously in a shop, the crowd in the Leaky cauldron, Mr Olivander’s owl eyed curiosity over his wand, in Draco’s confrontation on the train, in Quirrell and Snape and….
This more than anything is where the other book truly let me down, because a huge part of it is basically exploring this very issue, magic gone bad, the why’s and wherefores. It’s not background, it’s pretty much Main Plot. And yet it rests on two horribly clichéd characters who are really horrible cause …??
Even when the characters are imbued with certain traits, or behaviours which might illustrate our world, they are shallow and everything continually rests on the shoulders of our tiny little group of heroes and villains. No one man can represent a world that effectively. He can be a conduit, a filter through which to view it, but you need to build in those details, those characters that will allow the landscape, its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, to come to life. We humans that’s our downfall. When we say world we don’t mean the hills and the valleys, we mean the politicians and the farmers. We understand scope by how far away the last man stands, not by points on a map. When Ron is humiliated by his mother’s screeching in the dining hall, we feel his embarrassment because we can picture Draco and Neville, Lavender and Seamus, Percy and Fred and Oliver and Kate, all of them with all of their different responses, all of them looking at him, hearing his mother’s words.
When our Hero in LBIR (the last book I read) falls down, who’s there to see it? A shadowy nothing? Faceless mute crowds? People are a powerful way of taking an abstract concept and making it real. Know how in cop shows whenever a serial killer kidnaps someone, the family are always encouraged to use the name of that person to make them real? Well, it works in fiction too. Other serial killer analogies should be carefully scrutinised though.. Characters are your way to map your world, to make the edges distinct, but you have to make them distinct. Stereotypical can be distinct, as long as you don’t make them all the same stereotype. Give them a face, a name, a voice, a habit, give them details.
People are also wonderfully, stupidly illogical. At least if you’re applying linear logic. Human logic, the logic of emotion, the conflicting needs and desires and fears that drive us, are much less easy to predict. I despise contrived behaviour, and despite the fact it’s done by everyone, I’m still not advocating it, what I am saying is that when it comes to circumventing, or just plain ignoring plot holes this is your friend. If your characters and their behaviour hold true, we’re generally willing to overlook, a lot of the times don’t even notice the gaps, until some smart-ass points it out on Buzzfeed. According to Amy Farrah Fowler Indy was pointless in his own film, except Indy’s why we watched, not the ark.
So, a quick summary, cause even in fiction it can be a very necessary tool, and when your mind wanders as mine does, an exceptionally useful one.
When trying to avoid linear storytelling, something marked by moving – plodding – predictably from action to reaction, the best things to consider are: Consequence – how can you build more in? Expectation – how can we build more in? And remember never, ever explain yourself.
All clear? Grand..