What’s in a word: Story

Everyone thinks they know how to define story. It seems a very simple thing and I suppose whether or not you feel its worth digging beneath the surface of this one comes down to one question: how sophisticated does your understanding need to be?

Time and time again as writers we hear the phrase ‘Story is king’.

And you hear the protests.. oh but the words, the craft, the mastery of grammar..
Words are fun, words are playdoh, but

words are like the skin of a book. Wonderful at first blush but rarely weather well. Rather a beautiful soul even if it is wrapped in pimples.

For me, it always returns to story. That doesn’t make me want to read the Da Vinci Code – and that’s not a slur on those that do – it’s merely not my idea of great story. This is where I always seek to better myself. It’s the hill – as one fellow writer once put it – I’m willing to stand and fall upon. And there is ample suggestion (can suggestion be ample?) that most of us writers do, whether we wish it or not. Christopher Booker thought it so important he spent 34 years figuring it out.

So to the dictionary, bat-fans,

story n. narrative, a series of events, a tale of events – fictitious or true – designed to amuse, or instruct…

I’ve heard others. Many feel this is insufficient. Still others see ‘ a relation of events’ as plot, and plot and story as distinctly different. Some feel there must be a beginning, a middle and an end and everything else is writer’s choice. In fairness almost everything can fall under this definition, from a fart to an elevator ride, so as helpful and enlightening go, this one is in the figure it our for yourself bin.

Two definitions that crop up frequently are, the ‘What if?’ and the ‘Conflict/resolution’ crux. Many of the common story structures, especially those outlined by Quiller-Couch, seem to revolve around an inherent conflict, whether its man vs nature, man vs society or the more evocatively titled, Overcoming the Monster. Even the ‘What if’, I tend to find, very often revolves around a problem. Rarely is it, What if I had a lovely day with never ending rainbows and ice cream? Although why not, folks? And even if it were, the most common second step is – what are the problems this might cause? Still another conflict orientated story definition is the find out what your character really wants then put obstacles in her way.

As a basic definition I really don’t have a problem with this. And it would certainly be difficult to find a good story that doesn’t have some conflict at its core. Many consider conflict a driving part of why we are drawn to story in the first place. Lisa Cron believes that we developed our story telling skills as a tool to safely explore and overcome the unknown..

This is what the reader comes for – to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case…

In seven basic stories Christopher Booker outlines a series of forms he ascertains are not only the basic structures that form all stories but that they relate directly to Jungian archetypes. From Overcoming the monster to rags to riches, to Voyage and return, many of them certainly sound far more intriguing than Man vs nature, man vs man. Is the nature of the conflict as vital as the inclusion of conflict itself? The love-hate dynamic is a seemingly irremovable aspect of the modern romance, Hollywood has made a thousand forgettable rom-coms on the back of any old conflict will do, yet when we look at the success of Twilight or 50 Shades its not superior writing prose that has made them so popular. Something in what was presented spoke directly to a large proportion of the reading public, can even be held to have whetted their appetite and paved the way for many a romance writer to make their self-made fortunes, something that elevated it beyond the millions of other obstacle and conflict ridden romances.

We like big monsters and impossible odds, the indefatiguable hero and triumphs over disasters but is there more at play? Catharsis, empathy, understanding, exploration. Is conflict the central hook in these stories or a natural side effect? I mean, sometimes it feels like life is conflict, so how could story not incorporate it?

This article on Eastern storytelling traditions believes that the love of conflict has been trained into us by western – I suppose specifically they probably mean Hollywood – traditions and is not a necessary part of a story.

For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

Of course, you could argue he is interpreting conflict in a very narrow manner, that contrast itself is a conflict. A conflict of expectations, of understanding or experience. In my earlier piece I argued that one of the best uses of conflict is that between story and reader, what is given and what is desired. In this article, also looking at the differences between eastern and western traditions, it is the nature of the conflict that is highlighted.

Modern American stories are usually told from a single person’s point of view, and they’re about heroes taking charge and changing lives….

In East Asian fiction, protagonists are often victims of fate, rather than shapers of it…. They don’t assume that a single hero can fix a troubled world. Characters suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more, and then they die.

Most of the above speak very directly to structure. Another word commonly used for that is plot. And I don’t think story is plot. They overlap to such an extent they can sometimes sidestep in and play synonyms for one another but story goes deeper, incorporating the whole host of standard elements from character to theme, and somehow still ending up a nebulous number that is either more or less than the sum of its parts – depending on how well you pulled it off.

Is story defined only by its structure, something which can be reduced so easily to a few basic ingredients, like a fart, with a beginning a middle and an end?

For some story is something that has a point. This guy believes its one of the five necessary elements.

A good story has a point, or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is.  If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed.

And our Eastern-ophile believes it to be one of the fundamental differences in how the west and the east approach story.

Western cultures are individualist and idealize victory. East Asian cultures are collectivist and idealize harmony.

Yet this could equally be argued to be a form of propaganda. The use of stories to impart a moral imperative is long standing in all traditions. We’ve often used fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel as dire warnings to children of what might happen if they wander too far from home. Fairy tales have had a reincarnation of late, offering proof of their enduring appeal, yet when we look at  the recent remake of Little Red Riding hood, where our heroine ends up in love with a wolf, and willing to die to be with him, is it the moral, the overall point the original tale clearly set out to make, that has helped it survive?

Human brains tend to seek out meaning, I do believe that, but does it validate the point or moot it? Take the following..

A man walks into a bar, man orders three drinks. Man drinks three drinks. Man exits bar..

A series of events. No conflict, no overt point. A beginning, a middle, an end… but if someone tells you that story you want to find a meaning, you start guessing. Is is a riddle? Was he drinking for two who weren’t there? Was it a dare? You want to ask questions.. who was the man? What was his demeanour?

Present a human with a canvas covered in painted squiggles and you’ll receive this as an analysis.. ‘The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral.”

We’ve grown accustomed to story providing all the answers, often before it occurs to us to ask them, but Hemingway believed that the best way to write was to leave much unsaid, that a great writer approached his craft as if it were an iceberg, revealing only a tiny fraction of the whole.

Much of the oft-quoted, oft-reviled show-don’t-tell technique is believed to revolve around this desire to make the reader draw their own conclusions, whether of a moment or the story as a whole. For me this raises the interesting notion that a story may not be defined by its structure or meaning, or any individual, visible component, but rather by the response it elicits in the reader.

We can all react differently to the same story. The writer may deliver a man in a bar ordering a few drinks, but one reader might see someone building up his courage for a difficult task. Another reader might see an alcoholic. Yet another might see someone engaged in a quiet nightly ritual. Three and then home. No more no less, a man of routine, a lonely man? Waiting for someone, just once, to speak to him.

Not one of those is explicit, barely implicit, given how little is there, but none implausible. I remember a teacher once telling us all very firmly, there is only what is on the page. And in matters of textual analysis she was probably on the money, but for a reader, a listener, like us, they fill in the blanks, they surmise and extrapolate and they do so to serve their own desires, and according to their own understanding.

The writer can influence this. We’re not redundant – although sometimes I feel that way. If for instance we were to change the story to..

a man walks into a bar, a man orders three shots. A man downs three shots. A man walks out.

The first interpretation seems suddenly almost a cert – surely a man looking for dutch courage.

Equally, as much as we can narrow down interpretations with our word choice we can open up the possibilities and the depth by increasing the detail given.

A man walks into a bar wearing a tuxedo. He orders three shots. One hand remains in his pocket. He downs three shots. Still, with one hand in his pocket he slides a note across the bar, then leaves.

Now it’s not merely a man drinking for dutch courage, this could be said to be established, but we have enough to start speculating on what he might be preparing himself to face, a wedding? A speech? Is he groom or best man? Is there a ring in his pocket?

We can embellish though voice and tone, create a sense of place, time and personality.

This cat strolls into the bar, decked out in full tie and tails. He’s got one hand stuffed into his pocket, as if he don’t care. Flicks three fingers at the barkeep and says, ‘scotch’ like it mighta been years.

Then the question isn’t merely how much do we have to give to be a story and not merely a beginning or part of a story, but even if we offer a resolution – an answer – is it necessarily this that gives us satisfaction? The superficial conclusions, the ones offered up to us on a plate, that are easy to define, are not necessarily the ones that matter.

Is it even necessary to offer one up? Stephen King has become the King – so beautifully named – of the horror genre. Eclipsing all others and in fact he’s one of the most well recognised authors of all time. Yet he sucks at endings. Not always – Shawshank obviously worked. I don’t even remember ‘The Green Mile’. ‘The Dead Zone’ is hazy. ‘Pet Cemetery’ draws a blank. ‘The Stand’ I think I vaguely remember shaking my head at and thinking, eh? ‘Desperation’…?? I know I read these books. Was shaken to the quivery jellified core by aspects of them, depressed as hell by others, slightly queasy with some of the overt masculinity.. but the only endings I recall were the ones they made into films. And don’t ask me if they stayed true.. I don’t remember!

Take a look at ‘Game of Thrones’. The Never-ending story (with incest). On and on it rumbles and some don’t care, while others are starting to revolt at the clean lines of conclusion being drawn in the tv series. The neat tying up of Dany and Jon. Of War and succession, revelation and birth rights. A tale born not of right or destiny but machinations and consequences, the sweat and blood to make them, doesn’t really seem like it could ever truly resolve. Any more than life.

Then there are the stories with lacklustre ends. I’ll happily read any Poirot but the last, a dozen times over. The Mentalist is great in the early series but when the big bad monster was finally revealed it left only a sense of disappointment. Likewise Signs and the Happening both shot themselves in the tail – the resolution a reduction of the whole.

Orson Scott Card believes that story is determined by where you put your emphasis in terms of the four basic building blocks. These are: milieu, character, event and idea. Those who write milieu stories sell a world. Those readers who tend to play a lot of D&D and read exclusively Tolkeinesque fantasy novels are investing less in structure and more in the world itself. Structurally they may be overcoming the monster, or rags to riches (farm boy to saviour of the universe) even Voyage and Return to the Shire.. but what unites them? What draws them each and every time? The wonder of another time, simpler, clearer, the values of a bygone era, the comfort of magic and gods and beasts, something bigger than us, something worse than us.

Character stories tend to be about growth and transformation – and, although Nancy Kress holds that transformation itself is one of the seven basic plots, we could easily see sacrifice, another of the seven, as the means to transformation. Or revenge, or quest. So is it the structure or the character – their personality, struggles, inner demons – what makes the story work? He holds that works such as James Bond aren’t character driven, but are they? Is Pippy longstocking? Or Kinsey Milhone? Is it who they are, the life and possibilities, weaknesses, struggles and triumphs that drag us in each time.

Perhaps the most important part of Orson Scott Card’s theory is that of self-discovery –

Which one dominates? The one that the author cares about most. This is why the process of discovering the structure of a story is usually a process of self-discovery. Which aspect of the story matters most to you?

Because I think what a story is lies first with you. As a writer we’re often told write for yourself. Some hold it self- indulgent, but I don’t think that’s true. Discovery of the self is about the best way you’ll ever gain insight into humanity. We’re not that unique. We’re not that isolated. When we understand our own motivation, and needs we understand others. And we can better deliver the right story, with all the right parts moving in all the right ways. Some of us will always consider King the King, while some of us will be like, dude…ewww… And we’ll both be right.

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WHATS IN A WORD: TROPES

There are two main strands – camps? – that pop up whenever tropes get dropped into the conversation: Those who regard them as clichés and those who are very keen to remind us that they aren’t clichés.

And both have at their heart a fundamental flaw. The first being obvious – a trope and a cliché are not the same thing. The second – chances are if someone is talking about them, it’s because they’re clichéd.

On first pass the dictionary seems to be a little useless in helping untangle this. They still predominately define trope as ‘ a word or expression used in a figurative sense’ ie a literary device. In the sophisticated world of Tinternet we’ve come to mostly bypass this use, seeing no particular issue with just saying figure of speech or the overused, motif. In the age of TV Tropes as Wiki is wise to, we regard tropes as the common elements; the garden variety spices and meats of our entertainment. The wise old sage, the orphaned farm boy, the evil conglomerates and epic journeys of the hairy little everyman destined to save us all. They’re the bits we recognise and the bits we repeat. The only concern we seem to have is whether this is to be expected or clichéd.

The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works. – Wikipaedia

TV Tropes seems to sit somewhere in the middle, stating they believe that ‘tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.’ Story has undoubtedly developed its own inherent shorthand that infuses and informs language, even life. There are the obvious references like someone being referred to as a ‘Robin Hood’ to suggest they have strong philanthropic tendencies, and we can even consider the notion of air quotes as a direct almost avant-guarde influence of the narrative on our perception. I’m sure some clever little hipster somewhere has thrown out the line, ‘she said with italics in her voice’. I can only hope someone dumped their chai-mocha-chocha latte all over her..

Chai-mocha-chocha latte by the reckoning of TV Tropes could also be considered a trope. It’s symbolic of a type of person – hipster – a type of life – urban, professional – a type of attitude – the desire to be ‘in’. Its a symbol, a motif, a metonymic literary device. But regardless of the literal accuracy many would argue that it’s very different in nature from something such as the orphaned farm boy or the chosen one, hairy-toed or otherwise.

We can regard this s as a simple matter of sub-division, much as storytelling itself can be broken into categories, plot, character, world, theme etc. And the possible list is as endless as the debates on what makes a great story. Certainly if you read any list of tropes, browse a little on TV Tropes, it’ll seem like virtually anything you’ve read or seen can be considered one. As someone who appreciates an obscure name, just a few mentioned on there include, Prophecies Rhyme all the Time, Pardon my Klingon, My hovercraft is full of Eels and possibly my favourite, Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma.

On the Grand list of fantasy clichés street planning and good eyesight in the dark get a mention. Not sure they’d make it on to my Grand list, actually I’m not sure they’d make it on to my small and unimpressive list. The Grand list of sci-fi clichés did top even my weird attention to detail by noting ‘ the vast number of aliens who consider 20C to be room temperature,’ as an issue, and the inclusion of ‘intelligent confident women who can be bribed with a dress’ did make me wonder what sci-fi they were reading. However, apart from these couple of oddities, the rest of the list, as an avid sci-fi fan, read like a Name Your Favourite Sci-fi Movie quiz. And in almost each entry there were multiple answers..

An alien: Is stranded on Earth; (ET)(CONEHEADS)
Befriends a human child or falls in love with an Earth gal; (STARMAN) (EXPLORERS)

A virtual reality program is activated, and the distinction between reality and the program becomes confused or indistinguishable.  (TRON, THE MATRIX, WAR GAMES)

A human falls in love with a robot. (WEIRD SCIENCE, AI, BICENTENNIAL MAN, EX-MACHINA, BLADE RUNNER, HER)

A robot falls in love with a human. (FLUBBER, BICENTENTIAL MAN, D.A.R.R.Y.L, BLADE RUNNER)

Aliens travel a zillion miles to loot the Earth of resources which exist in far greater and much more easily exploitable quantities on the many uninhabited bodies they pass on the way to Earth. (INDEPENDENCE DAY, FIFTH WAVE, THE FACULTY, SIGNS, WAR OF THE WORLD)

A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware. (THE MATRIX, D.A.R.R.Y.L, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, EX-MACHINA, I,ROBOT)

An amended version of the original list puts checks against each item including a Star Fleet insignia for those that have appeared on the show – which is a lot. It does allow some leeway between those that are beyond redemption and those merely requiring some interesting inversion, however, all fall very much under cliché, making it quite clear there are no room for Trope Supporters here.

It seems no matter where you turn when addressing tropes you run up against the is it good or is it clichéd paradox. The original list offers something of a backhanded solution..

Clichés are not in themselves necessarily bad, but their overuse shows that the writer has forgotten what separates the strong tale from the hollow: “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner said. Where there is this conflict, the tale stands; where the conflict is absent, the tale falls flat, and in neither case does it matter how many ships get blown up.

Is this simply the inescapable truth of tropes? Or perhaps even worse, as that really annoying saying goes, we’ve run out of ideas. Usually in response to someone complaining about yet another Spider-Man reboot. Are all stories simply rehashes of rehashes of rehashes? The greatest tragedy of them all, human ingenuity is not infinite, although our capacity for reruns might be.

As someone stuck in that loop between hope and lingering belief we can do more, while being thoroughly bored and fed up with the same ideas playing on repeat every time I go to the cinema or pick up a book, I’m not ready to accept that. Yet again, I kinda think we need to go back to the origins..

Trope, n. a  figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.
~ a significant or recurrent theme; a motif:

The other stuff is just the fluff it’s picked up with time. Like mindless somehow attaching itself to entertainment, the common and overused have become ground in. Time and time again we see this happen, we supplant the form with the example.

Take the trope, A robot falls in love with a human. Or its roommate, a human falls in love with a robot, or its near to roommate, A complex computer system spontaneously becomes self-aware, even its not remotely near to roommate, The bureaucratic/reactionary mindset stands in the way of scientific progress. A researcher overcomes it through ability, purity of heart, and use of the scientific method. Or not. 

All of these are the same trope.

In fact we can shift away from science fiction and into fantasy and find the same trope,  perhaps, The hero’s best friend is a member of the alien/magical race currently oppressing humanity, thereby making him and his friend the target of racism and prejudice or An immortal being falls in love with a mortal and elects to give up his/her immortality so the two of them can live together.

It all depends really on how you explore it. Because none of them are actually tropes. They are examples of how tropes are commonly expressed. The underlying forms that drive them are the tropes. In the above case we could probably define the theme as ‘What makes us human?’ The technique used contrast or as I like to call it, fish on a bicycle. We can replace robot, with alien race or elves, or coming back to reality works such as ‘Walkabout’ addressing cultural differences and the way we attempt to bridge them finding the common ground of humanity, of universal experience. Elements found in all of the above include prejudice, a caste system, reluctance to accept something new/strange, entrenchment in old existing beliefs. The plot can shape itself around falling in love, or bonding through adversity, or finding a place you belong.

The issue with this, of course, is that the trope is hidden, it lies beneath the surface text, the superficialities of the genre and period. It’s that much more difficult to grasp and to satisfactorily pin down; they can feel vague, indistinct, they are in fact the very reason we seek the concrete story in order to define them. So we latch on to the surface familiarities. The problem however, is that while tropes are universal and almost impossible to avoid, probably totally impossible to avoid, that clichéd we’ve-seen-it-all-before feeling isn’t actually being addressed when we just change the superficial elements. In fact it can lead to the even worse, well-what-was-the-point-of-that-nonsense? feeling that plagues most of Hollywood today, and increasingly a great deal of literature too.

The questions we’re asking when we conceive and write our stories are always going to be what matters most. I write and read sci-fi because I like robots and spaceships, sarcastic AI’s and oddly human fishpeople, just as fantasy writers love them there epic journeys and the hairy little men who embark upon them. These are unlikely to change, although they will evolve a little. Superficially.

The shorthand of story is always growing. Latte’s weren’t really in the lexicon back in Austen’s day, and in my great great granddaughters it might be mocha-chocha-cosmica’s. Or fishpeople’s urine.. Who knows.. but we sci-fi writers do love to speculate..

Likewise the tics and tricks of style and technique are trends that ebb and flow with time and the development of the medium. The only thing that will seriously impinge on this is our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface. Whenever we start assuming we have all the answers, that the question is settled and the topic closed – dude just learn the difference between clichés and tropes – that’s when we risk stagnation.

And this is where TV Tropes and I diverge a little. They believe

Tropes….reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

I agree art and life should be intertwined, I’m not sure that’s why tropes are so ubiquitous or that they serve this aspect of art particularly well. I think in most cases tropes serve the artifice part of art. Many are specific to the medium they evolved within, such as slow motion or shaky cam on screen, versus arms akimbo and she spun on her heel in print. They reflect our desire to master and bind any art form to do our will. But most importantly the reason so many of them have become so common, so prevalent, so as to obscure, even over write the original trope, is that artists too often draw from art when they should be drawing from life. We’re building fiction on fiction on fiction. And we end up with that sensation of watching rehash of rehash, dislocated from reality or any meaningful point. We’re not looking around and asking questions, figuring out what we see, what we feel, we’re watching the screen, wide eyed and thinking wow if only I could do that..

I like to think its what Faulkner meant when he said, the human heart in conflict with itself. Although I admit, we’re back to vague again. But maybe that’s where tropes need to reside, in the shadowy nethers of definition. The minute we try to pin it down we risk reducing it and its potential applications, we turn the potential road into the only road. As so many of these stories do. You can have a human fall in love with a robot, or an elf, or a fish-person. You can do all of it with a single tear tracking down one cheek, a slow fade to black love scene and a fourth wall breaking epilogue. And still not be either a rehash or a cliché. Because 42 didn’t clear up life, the universe and everything else..Sorry, spoiler..

Robots, you might argue, especially those we can relate to, must be constructed from fiction. Admittedly the closest I’ve ever got is a fondness for my toaster. It’s cherry red and still works. If you look at these tropes

Alien species depicted as having no ethnic, religious, cultural, philosophical or political variance, especially:

Wise mystics
Stoic warriors
Pastoral innocents
Cowardly sneaks
Amazon babes

– in fact clichés #2,3,9,10,11,12,14,19,23.. and probably more, I stopped counting –  they’re all essentially the same complaint – they don’t reflect the life we’re living, merely the life we’ve read about. Mega-corporations may indeed be run by evil soulless monsters with armies of faceless minions but my day to day problems don’t involve taking them on in virtual gladiator ring, they involve trying not to scream at the poor guy in the call centre putting me on hold again. The newspapers talk about endless waiting lists and beds in hospital hallways, but I’ve yet to read about the rash of dead homeless missing their kidneys. Rather than blending life and art- tropes – so we can connect to the big questions of life, we’ve built lego blocks out of a few stories and are using them to construct highways of ideology.

Killer robots and AI have been depicted so often as our downfall that many humans cannot conceive the idea that either could evolve and not wish our destruction, even if its under the guise of ‘for our own protection.’ The notion that they might find us as interesting as the average ant, that they might seek out something other, snub us, hell, be already existing in cyberspace contentedly, living under our noses playing bridge and not giving a fuck if we fill the planet to the brim with plastic bottles*, is not even scorned, it would have to be considered for that. And if you are thinking, well uh sure, but realistically…

 – realistically? According to which reality? The Matrix or The Terminator? We’re actually starting to let our reality be defined by our fiction. The same people who argue there is no god, argue that AI must reflect its creator, as man reflects his..

Fiction owes nothing to fact. It bears no truth that need stand up in a court of law. That doesn’t however mean it doesn’t affect our perception like a prism. Cliches and tropes can be fun, comforting, they have their function, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking questions, poking holes and if we must address the questions of fiction within fiction, let us do it through the lens of life.

*bet you’re still thinking, come on that’s never gonna happen, but Terminator…totally could..

What’s in a Word: Originality

I thought it was about time I gave this place a dust. Got rid of some of those cobwebs – some of them are practically cities.. And before I get lost in that image let me introduce my second word I think it might be fun to re-examine.

Originality.

 

According to a few dictionaries around the web – it’s always interesting I think how they vary

Oxford dictionary:

n. the ability to think independently and creatively

Merriam Webster:

n. freshness of aspect, design, or style

Although it should be noted their first somewhat circular definition is – the state of being original. They define original in myriad ways, the first few of which all speak in various ways to being the ‘first’, ex. a Van Gogh original, I’ll make copies and give you the original, the source from which something sprung.

Dictionary.com backs this up

1.
the quality or state of being original.
2.
ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner; creative ability.

The Free Dictionary is more specific in where it places its emphasis.

The capacity to act or think independently

So how is it regarded in writing circles?

Well usually it begins with a cliché, fittingly. Because we are creative writers after all.

There is nothing new under the sun.

And in saying we prove ourselves true.

Good writers borrow, great writers steal (which I believe is a paraphrasing but don’t ask me to go find out who said it first..)

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Look, they’re not clichés, they’re idioms and we like them. Okay?..

But that’s just what we say when questioned directly about the concept. It almost inevitably leads to a lack of originality and oddly literal translations, more specifically it doesn’t actually reveal what our true attitude to originality is or how our behaviour tallies. And that is a big fat complicated contradictory mess. What seems quickly apparent is that we both equate originality with creativity yet refuse to allow our creativity to be judged by its originality. We almost seem to believe that because we are writers that is creative enough and anything we produce must therefore be good enough in this particular dimension. Perhaps why writing sites are so dominated by ‘rules’ and so rarely involve crits of actual stories.

What was the last thing you can think of that truly broke ground, within the realm of fiction? We seem almost universally to be embracing our lack of originality, from fanfiction to Hollywood reboots and even in that realm that some still, perhaps naively, regard as a haven of the different, the literary fringes.

Two articles – Contemporary Art isn’t Original, in the Guardian, and Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Remix, in the Literary Hub, both defend this growing trend, several years apart. One claiming that art is ‘a subtle game of variations and transformations, out of which, once in a while, comes the shudder of true artistic surprise’ while the other states it is all ‘a conversation between artists.’

And there is always historical weight to lend to the argument: Shakespeare a famous copyist, everyone knows he borrowed shamelessly from stuff that was around before, legends and histories and folk tales of old; Joyce drew directly on the structure of the Odyssey for Ulysees; and Wide Saragasso Sea is practically Bronte fanfiction. If it seems that what we remember is the unique its because we exist in a time when the mediocre masses who also mimicked and espoused the same styles, themes and plots, have been swept away. If only the first, the arbiters of the new movement, are remembered, the Hemingway standing above the James, the Dickens obliterating the Bulwer Lyttons, Shakespeare leaving poor Ben Jonson in the dust – and those are ones who did at least make some mark (a nobel prize should mean something..) – what are we really celebrating? Is it those who did it well, or were popular enough to be cited as influence? King, Leonard and McCarthy, three titans of contemporary literature have all cited Hemingway’s influence, only Hemingway cited James.

Lets go further. I challenge you to name one book, story, where we could not cite influence, draw parallels with another work, deconstruct the tropes used or structure followed. Even the unreadable Finnegans Wake is strongly influenced by nonsense literature and other linguistic experimentations, such as Stream of Consciousness, taken, as is his style, to an extreme most would find almost impossible. It did take him 17 years.

When Lincoln Michel states that, ‘the idea that finding your voice means existing in a vacuum, never touching or being touched by other literature is both absurd and stifling’ he’s right, so right in fact that the very presumption that those who object to something as unoriginal are thinking like this, is absurd.

Publishers are frequently attacked as hypocritical, citing a desire to hear a fresh new voice, all the while publishing those who write books which are as Jonathon Jones would hold it, ‘subtle variations’ on a theme. The Maze Runner, Breathe, the Uglies, Divergent, all 50 Shades of Hunger Games. Harry Potter is derided as nothing more original than a blending of Tolkien lore and urban legends.

We’re arguing degrees but as usual both sides retreat to poles accusing the other of extremes of thought that neither are guilty of. Isn’t it entirely possible that one man’s  remix is another’s cheap coat of paint?

Perhaps one interpretation of Picasso’s quote – yes, he’s generally the man folk attribute the quote to – is that when we borrow we must return intact, but when we steal it we can do anything we wish with it. A beautiful diamond is usually fenced in pieces. A car thief takes only the bits he wishes with no regard to maintaining the original form.

We are a far more sophisticated audience than three hundred years ago, we’ve read, and heard, and digested far more than our predecessors, stories are background noise, internet memes summing up tombs of worthy prose and playing while we watch 10 Things I hate About you and listening to Bowie talking about spiders on Mars. It’s always a possible answer that when we say plagiarism, we’re just that more adept at recognising the patterns beneath..

Always possible.

But given how happily we consume fan fiction of fan fiction, reboot upon remake, is it truly likely? In the cloistered halls of the I-generation our pool of influence seems to be ever-decreasing. You’d think that would make it easier to step outside the lines, but I wonder.

What is the opposite of originality? Conformity? Homogeneity? Belonging? Certainty?

To quote my mentor, Paul Arden..

Some risks have a future, and some people call them wrong. But being right may be like walking backwards proving where you’ve been.

Being wrong isn’t in the future, or in the past.

Being wrong isn’t anywhere but being here.

Original doesn’t equal good, it won’t guarantee success, may even inhibit it, there are countless studies constantly examining both the influence our environment plays and how much our thinking is inhibited by our social instincts, from Jungs Collective Unconscious to the Milgram Experiment. This study on perceptual tests shows how even something as seemingly innocuous as whether you grew up near mountains or flat plains can alter the way you measure a line.  It certainly isn’t easy to step out into the abyss to even, sometimes, know if you are, but I do believe it is necessary. Originality is the only way we grow. It’s a line worth debating.

I see authors act like homage, pastiche and remixing is some kind of lesser form of creation. An artform is a conversation between artists. Literature is massive ballroom stretching through time in which authors debate, rebut, woo, and chat with each other. – Good writers borrow, great writers remix.

They are not necessarily lesser acts of skill. They do not necessarily require less intelligence, or even potentially work (although..) but creation brings something new. When attempting to justify what they do in both articles the sum of the argument appears to be ‘everybody else does it, so why can’t I?’ And they show little ability to discern any qualitative difference between anything which shows its parts may have been ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’.

How do you have a conversation between artists? Kafka is unlikely to reply. Even if he were alive what sort of conversation is he to have with someone who simply parrots his own words back at him?

 Wicked makes no allusions about the origins or names of its characters, its Wizard of Oz influences, but it doesn’t parrot, or even really pay homage, rather it directly asks us to address our own prejudices, to show the folly in our thinking, the hideous presumptions that someone who’s been in a new land all of a few days can truly intimately know who to believe or who to kill. It uses the world and the established truths of that world, so well known to all, for a very specific reason.

Wide Saragasso Sea could be called a rebuttal. But if so it was one not to the author but to her fans, the masses of readers who happily condemned a woman they didn’t know in pursuit of swoon worthy feels..

‘A conversation between artists’ is a lovely phrase as long as we don’t examine it too deeply. As long as we don’t question and just let the words carry us along. Once we stop and take stock of the ground we’re trucking along, it starts to smack of emptiness. Of exclusivity, of futility, at best a competition like school boys trying to outdo one another with ever increasingly obscure quotes. A Pointless for the literary astute.

And I do like Pointless, but no quiz ever asked you to think outside the box. They just want you to know the box inside out. Knowledge and insight is the province of critics and professors, ours must surely resolve itself into creation.

As a writer when do we stop and ask, is it a crutch? We deride fan fiction as the playground of the literary unable, yet excuse ourselves. The author at the centre of this stated that her intent was to “rethink/adapt Gallant’s classic story for the present day with Pakistani characters and situations from my own context and community into Gallant’s structure, and in so doing to provide some commentary on our current political climate and the lives of American Muslims.

Yet one of the most interesting comments – one which didn’t get your sense of compassion and outrage competing with one another – was that from a second generation Pakistani immigrant, who seemed bewildered at the ‘stiff, repressed’ portrayal of a culture that seemed to simply echo that so common theme of American isolation and priority of wealth and status over community and bear no resemblance to his own experiences.  She stated her desire to portray current issues but did the author miss her mark by constraining herself under the struts of another’s vision, painted in another time and another culture?

Independent thinking seems a little like the Universe. We know it has a beginning and an end, but we can’t really conceive what lies beyond it.

Maybe we can’t see the unseen, know the unknown, but we can know more, we can see the lines that hold us in place. The more influences we can balance, the more informed the pattern and the more able to fill in the spaces between, to conjecture the unfinished possibilities.

To imagine.

To Create.

The rise of the superhero genre in the modern age: when they should be enjoying their retirement in Florida

A fellow writer just asked a very innocent question: What genre are Superhero’s?

writer-island

Poor fellow.

So started the inevitable war of lines. Where does science fiction begin and fantasy end? For those not in the know, despite the tendency to lump these two together for some of us – *who me? whistles innocently* – there are some very clear and very important distinctions. In attempting to answer as helpfully as possible ie avoid ranting at the poor fellow, something – a thought that had been blowing about the cobwebbed corners of my consciousness for some time, suddenly came into focus.

Why in this time, this era of virtual superhighways, when kids are being treated for minecraft addiction before puberty, and you’re more likely to get unfriended than wedgied, are superheroes so popular?

It made sense when they first captured our imaginations. The post war era was one of revolutionary change. We’d just survived a war that, like none before it, wasn’t won by men in trenches but men in labs. Rockets, cruise missiles, atomic bombs, radar, computers, no war has ever advanced technology at such a pace as World War II. In attempting to defend our way of life we changed it forever.

The impossible suddenly seemed possible in both wondrous and monstrous ways. The atomic bomb had brought the dangers of nuclear energy to the forefront of our less than reality checked media’s attention, while the thalidomide scandal in the early 60’s saw thousands of pregnant women take a new wonderdrug only to give birth to children with malformed limbs, organs – including eyes and hearts – and other severe, in many cases fatal, deformities. Science must have felt like a terrifying abyss of possibilities. And in that was born the Superhero.

superhero

Across the range of superheroes we see the sciences and their promises personified; the technology of Batman, the nuclear fallout of the Hulk, the space program in Superman. They meshed these two very distinct ideas, found a way to make them work together, advancement and destruction, man and machine, to balance the terrifying power of something beyond the human. In some odd way it makes me think of the old pagan traditions of praying to weather Gods. As if the best way we know to deal with anything this powerful is to reshape it in our own image.

Back then I’d have happily let them march under the banner of science fiction. At the forefront even. Cartoonish, overblown, yes, but in some ways that was a genuine reflection of how it must have felt, of the attitudes of the time. The ideas explored, issues raised, felt real, grotesquely, impossibly, possible.

Now? Batman is a car advert. Spiderman would probably just end up at A&E and Superman is an endless nerd debate about supersuit dry cleaners. Science has kept marching on and with it our credibility has been stretched. No one believes we’re exploring the possible anymore. Genetic modifications are more likely to keep your tomatoes fresh than give you the ability to climb up walls.

And no one cares.

They seem like tv’s in wooden boxes like a relic of a bygone era but in the last few years they’ve dominated the screen, large and small. Marvel’s extended universe is netting billions, with five shows currently running, over a dozen films already made and a dozen more in the pipeline. And don’t imagine DC isn’t fighting back, the Justice League will rise again in a theatre near you soon. Comic-cons around the world sell out in minutes, while sales of graphic novels – their original home – have risen year on year, netting over $870 million in 2014 compared to a mere $265 million in 2000.

It’s the biggest game in town.

And I for one, am very curious why.

One of the fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy – one that matters to me – is perspective. Sci-fi is always reaching forward, while fantasy predominately looks backwards. Despite superficial visual advancements much of the genre remains steeped in the past. Batman invents cool cars and abseiling equipment while in real life kids download dirty bomb schematics of the internet. Iron Man may be set against a background of arms dealing and terrorism, but his ultimate face off is still an unrealistically enhanced meglomaniac, one that armies and police forces are helpless against. One only he can defeat. The very idea of a lone hero feels left over from another age, one of Knights and chivalry, when one man armed with just a sword could fell the oncoming hordes. And perhaps that’s its appeal.

The humanity we foisted on the inhuman forces we were uncovering has morphed into a code. No longer just a face, but a set of values that cannot be transgressed, like the Knights oath, they promise to be bound by honour, justice, to put their powers into service for us. The science is no longer important, and with it goes any limitations, now its about power and control. We’ve returned to the weather gods. Despite their hi-tech weaponry and modern setting, they offer the comfort of the past and the promise that if we’re good, we’ll always be protected.

The superhero offers us a messiah, just like a religion. In the modern western world science was supposed to have bested that kind of thinking. While their popularity in the emerging modern east seems to run contrary to their strong allegiance to the notion of state over individuality. Perhaps its because the superhero of today is not a man, but an idea. Of sacrifice, of strength. Recent reincarnations of Superman have all but banished the Clark Kent aspect of the character. While the name remains, everything he embodied, the man behind the suit, the weakness, hopes, and fears have gone. In Man of Steel he was a Greek god in tight white tee-shirt and billowing locks. A rock video messiah, with a kick-ass mamma to match. Lois knows his powers as soon as she knows his face.

He – like all superheroes – is constantly asked to put friends and lovers to the side in order to serve the greater good. In the seventies Superman was defined by his love for Lois, turning back time and giving up his powers for her. He never stops trying – and failing – to win her love as Clark, as himself, a man not a birthright.

Today’s superheroes are blighted by equally unsuccessful love lives, but rarely is it down to being bad at flirting and a bit of acne. Rather they choose to reject love out of a sense of responsibility to protect. The most recent series of the Flash ended with our hero walking into a prison of Tantalus proportions in order to maintain the balance of life, just as he saves the girl. Their choice is their burden.

The Dark Knight reincarnation of Batman, which many might credit with spearheading the current resurgence of the genre, worked this particular angle to mythic proportions, with Batman hiding out as a reviled monster in the belief that this lie serves a better world. At the end, when he does get the girl, he does so after handing on the Superhero mantle. Only by ensuring the world is protected can he become a man again.

Identity has always been an integral part of the genre. Comics were not always the mainstream entertainment they are today. And it’s not a coincidence that the most common true identity of any superhero is the geek, the scientist, the underdog; woven in to their tapestry is every lonely teenage boy, from frustrated love to confusing physical changes to struggles with authority.

With their mainstream acceptance, it seems our heroes have gotten a cool new makeover. Deadpool and Iron Man wise crack like comedians on speed, and if they’re not witty then they’re stacked like – well like Thor. It more often feels like they are the authority – overworked, unappreciated and all encompassing.

Some might argue that they’ve simply evolved, grown up a little, gotten a little dirtier, as tends to happen as we get older. The Dark Knight stands as a landmark in tone, introducing grit, and a lot of grey filters to the world of Superheroes. At least in the cinematic universe. In the comic-verse anti-hero works such as Constantine and Jonah Hex, have been kicking around for a while. The problem is their flaws aren’t weaknesses – saying ‘I’m an unstoppable force against the darkness’ is a weakness is a little like saying in an interview that you work too hard. Growing up for most of us means we become more vulnerable, we accrue back injuries and mortgages, not body counts. But yet again that might be their appeal. Their audience nowadays seems just as likely to be worrying about the taxman stealing their retirement fund as bullies stealing their lunch money.

incredibles

We’re lulled into a false belief that we’re witnessing darkness, facing uncomfortable realities embodied in husky voices and unshaved jawlines, when what we’re really witnessing is the uncompromising scope of their power. Their darkness reassures us. It reinforces the code, the black and white morality in play. These are men who do not stop in their pursuit of justice, who do not tire of smiting the unworthy, who will not let death or love distract them. Iron Man will not let the Mandarin go unchecked because Pepper is in danger. They will always choose the righteous path, its just littered with a lot of bodies.

And perhaps most importantly in the anti-hero handbook, they choose who is righteous. In Winter Soldier we’re presented with the idea that the entire organisation of SHIELD is evil despite every life they’ve saved, every world ending plan they’ve thwarted because some folk in it had been plotting against them. Yet Cap has no problem defending said Winter Soldier, one of their evil plots, because ‘friend’.

In the current landscape I find that a little troubling. I’ve never had much time for simplistic notions of good and evil or of circumnavigating individual choice. Vigilantism isn’t about taking the law into your own hands, its about taking judgement into your own hands. Something some of us seem too eager to dole out.

The dark subtext to religion is that it doesn’t just offer comfort in the form of goodness will be rewarded, but that allegiance to great power will protect. If I play by their rules, by their definitions of right, I will be safe. The current resurgence of superheroes, the dark anti-superhero, seems to be reinforcing pack mentality, a might is right approach. They’re still defined by their ability to lift really heavy stuff and pile up a lot of henchmen. Even when dealing with ideas of evolution, evolution to a higher form of existence, power is defined by how dangerous you are, how many you can wipe out. They have to create increasingly ridiculous villains and outlandish plans in order to justify the superhero and the destruction his anachronistic powers leave in their wake. Like gods themselves, the battles seem not unlike some ancient clashing of the Greek Titans, certainly in terms of how little they pertain to real life threats. Ultron chips out a country sized meteor in order to give them lots of screaming innocents and crumbling buildings to justify their death tallies. While Whedon had to write a lot of monologue cliches in order to justify why anyone – let alone an alien AI created to protect the world – would ever want to go to such convoluted lengths to destroy it in a time with nuclear warheads, computer virus’s and weaponized diseases.

hulk-smash-loki

It may not be that their appeal is quite as actively nefarious as that. But there is no doubt power has an almost irresistible pull and nothing embodies it more than the simple act of knocking a man down. Violence has long been fetishized in Hollywood – and probably in literature and art of all kinds – but its never been as prevalent as it is today. The convergence of superheroes, the embodiment of goodness and self sacrifice, with all these elements, violence, power, the way it offers a simple black and white map to justice, vindication, may go some ways to explaining why they are so popular. A simple, fun answer, free of consequences or doubts. It’s a very long way from its science origins.

All of which sounds a lot like it adds up to someone who just doesn’t like superheroes. And honestly that’s not true. I may be more a Close Encounters of the Third Kind girl, but I was a mad x-men freak as a kid and still secretly want to write Rogue and Gambit fan fiction. Modern incarnations aren’t appealing to me, I don’t like many of the themes driving them, the twisted values that keep cropping up, the stand-in of violence for maturity, but the core ideas, the curiosity that drove the comics that gave birth to them are still worth exploring, identity, power, possibility, consequence. One of the other things that I believe defines science fiction is that it ask questions, rather than clings to dogma and old beliefs because they are safe. Science, in fiction or in a lab, seeks to push beyond the accepted into the treacherous territory of being wrong, making mistakes and not knowing where we’re going to end up.

Superheroes can still lead us there. If we’re willing to take a step into the unknown.

marvel

Why Do Storytellers Ignore Story?

It seems a little like meeting a man who insists the dust is wet and the sea is dry. Some things are just too obvious surely?

I’m usually pretty good at ‘getting – not agreeing – but getting where people are coming from with opinions that are different from mine. We’re driven by pretty similar things when it comes right down to it – love sex and rocky road ice-cream.

I get the endless drowning of story in sex and violence, why Voyager winched poor Seven into that costume, why Buffy’s hair was always perfect, I can even wrap my head around the endless machinations of the hideous folk that people stuff like Gone Girl, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Like it, no, agree with it, hell no, admire it… do I have to answer that?

But when writers skip right past the story, the story built into the premise, the plot, the characters, the very title! – not address it poorly, but just ignore it entirely. Can they not see it? Genuinely or is there some deeper reason they don’t want to address it?

Take Voyager. It was as the name implies a ship on an epic voyage. A voyage home. It’s on a mission into the badlands in the alpha quadrant to track down a missing Maquis vessel, tracing the route of the rebel ship they find themselves mysteriously transported across the galaxy to the delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home.

It’s a great premise.

Here’s more.

The rebel ship has a spy aboard – Tuvok – Captain Janeways confidant and security chief.

Captain Janeway destroys the mysterious array that transported both ships, acting under what she believes are Starfleet principles, the very principles that have left the Maquis as outcasts.

The Maquis vessel is sacrificed by Chakotay in order to protect both crews from an attacking native species, the Kazon

A ‘helpful’ trader manipulates them into saving his friend and creates the animosity that in part causes the Kazon to attack.

The two crews – because of Janeways actions – are now stuck together. Although Starfleet outnumber the Maquis considerably.

Besides Tuvok, there is another traitor, Paris, a jailbird, brought on board to help navigate the badlands, who sold them out for a reduced sentence.

The Maquis crew include a half Klingon who washed out of the academy, a Cardassian infiltrator and a beta-zoid sociopath.

I don’t think you could GET a premise more ripe with story. At the end of the opening episodes, you have both crews alone, in the debris of the battle…and there is Chakotey in full uniform beside Janeway as she announces how they’re all going to have to make their new crew members welcome ..

And all of a sudden it’s homeward bound only with pointy ears instead of wagging tails..

 

Oh story raises its head now and again but it’s tepid, token at best, raised and solved in a neat half hour, with no real sense of underlying tension or unrest. And the only time any true voice of dissent appears she is quickly relegated to a cartoon villain role, revealed to be a traitor, and departs – the same episode – to make an alliance with their new enemies the Kazon.

Can you set up something so ripe and not see its potential? I suppose its possible. Perhaps there were conflicts. Whedon has spoken somewhat openly about the demands of working within an established franchise when he stepped down from hemming the Avengers. Star Trek is huge and at the time Voyager was launched it was at its height, with Deep Space Nine still running and the popular TNG having not long wrapped. It may have been intended to fill that void, and veering from the well worn formula may have had opposition. It’s also worth remembering that DS9 is often considered the least Star Trek of the franchise, – with little trekking involved, a very alien-heavy main cast, and a willingness to undermine and question the untouchable Federation. The Maquis are never painted as villains, even when one of the crew is revealed to be a member, betraying them all, he is unrepentant to the end and shows both heroism and treachery.

Voyager rather than further exploiting this complex situation seems almost instead to function like party sponsored arbitrator, absolving the rebels of anything but misguided good intentions while not so subtly upholding Starfleet values and practices at every turn, moulding them all in the accepted Federation way..

Propaganda in writing is probably unavoidable but on behalf of a fictional institution? Yikes…

I’ve encountered a lot of threads on a lot of boards (its a weird way to be jaded, but I like the tobacca-chewing image) with writers saying, I have my characters – I’m great at characters! – or I have my setting – I’m great at world building! – but I can’t think of plot. And each and every time I think, but if you have characters, you have plot. If you have a world you have plot. You might suffer from too many to chose from, but you surely shouldn’t be faced with none?

Unless of course by character they mean 5’5, 124lbs, good student, average athlete, likes hotdogs, punk music and hates long walks on the beach. if so, please revise your previous assessment. You suck at characters. It’s not an e-harmony profile..

I have no difficulty wrapping my head around the issues with works such as Interstellar. Not to say its forgivable but they didn’t ignore the story sitting in front of their eyes, they just ignored the lack of story sitting in front of their eyes.

Ignoring causality, believability, and accountability in favour of visuals and cheap tricks that tickle the directors fancy – or wallet – is pretty standard. Hollywood is an odd mix of both wanton self indulgence and ruthless risk avoidance in pursuit of profit. Much of this results, as in the case of Voyager with a rigid adherence to formula over and above anything approaching character. The strings are so clearly marked you can see the reason written like chalk directions on a clapper board in front of every action, and its never, ‘because that’s how the character would naturally react’.

In Age of Ultron we have Tony Stark the troublemaking genius who pushes at every barrier just to test it, deciding to use mind blowing alien tech not because its mind blowing alien tech but to keep his superhero friends and family safe. Or Black widow – I mean the name says it all – but she eschews her name, training and flirt with everyone commit to no-one personality to fall headlong in love with a man who despite being a giant uncontrollable monster, is, we can only assume, a scintillating conversationalist..

And finally we have a villain, built from a desire to protect the world, who just wants to drop something really big on it.

Given the established party line is formula bad.. thank you Hulk, while character and conflict are both revered as good, you sort of wonder if this is an honest attempt gone wrong. Not just Age of Ultron, but much of Hollywood’s output. That they can’t in fact see how closely they are adhering to cliché, but rather imagine that they are plumbing the emotional depths of their characters.

Sometimes I think we get character and personality mixed up. We use the former in writing a lot, we talk about flaws and traits, depth and believability, yet we rarely end up with a personality, that unique messy blend that defines a person.

when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters – Earnest Hemingway

Character is the best most natural and compelling form of conflict there is. Their power to drive and shape plot, provide obstacles and generate tension is however, rendered utterly obsolete when they’re all the same character; when every writer is looking not to life, to the people around them, even within to the truth of their own feelings and reactions, but to tropes, to established patterns of behaviour within fiction, we’ve left story far behind.

Pixar storytelling rule #15 If you were your character in this situation how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations

Returning to Interstellar, we have a little girl who adores her father and wants to grow up to be a scientist just like him. When he has to go off to save the world (for her) she gets mad at him. Fair enough, it’s a standard trope but believable enough. I wouldn’t have behaved this way, nor can I imagine my brother or sister reacting similarly, but we grew up in a happy two parent home, with no threats of imminent world ending so who knows. Where the trouble starts to come is that in the few days that her father is traversing space and looking through his messages, a great deal more time has passed on earth. And his daughter is still mad. Twenty years later. It makes for a poignant moment for poor old dad, if you’re willing to go along with it. I’m not sure how any fully grown woman, fully cognizant of the tragedy facing mankind and how few remain who are skilled enough to offer any help could possibly still be mad, especially when all she has to do is chat into a laptop camera, as pain free apologies go they don’t come much easier.

Beyond character – as some might put it – you have world. I don’t personally think the two are distinct. World – at least any we know – is built by people, what we do, what we need, what we fear and how we deal with it all.

In the case of Interstellar you have again a lack, rather than avoidance. The world is dying, but no one knows why. Most of the action is not spend dealing with either figuring this out or attempting to deal with the reality of it, but navigating space where we are treated to a series of inconsequential, implausible and somewhat tenuously linked issues, none of which relate to the characters. The final solution does actually attempt to link back to the central (apparently) relationship of father and daughter, suggesting their deep abiding love could connect them across space and time. The same abiding love that left a grown woman perfectly content to see her father strive and die alone in space knowing his daughter is pissed off with him… mmmm I hope no one involved ever decides to love me..

But Voyager… ah Voyager. There is a reason fan-fiction is so ripe in the Star Trek community. It’s a rich ready made soil. A plethora of alien species, existing conflicts, and the unlimited possibilities of a new system without the tying strings and danger-free familiarity of the Federation controlled home territories.

Or consider Age of Ultron. Many films draw on the world we have here and now, positing an alien – literally or otherwise – element and then simply asking what if? I often find this sort of premise somewhat akin to superhero origin stories. Our instinct is the new is always preferable from a story pov, but in reality there is little new left. They’re all dealing with essentially the same thing, treading the same ground of shock and denial, horror and wonder, something that makes the second instalment or third much more appealing. We can go deeper. Or we can rehash. Hulk is targeted.. again. Tony and Steve butt heads .. again and none of it affects the seamless fighting dynamic of this disparate group who’ve barely seen each other – as all the intermediate franchise films demonstrate. New territory is provided by going against the established canon. The chemistry between Hawkeye and Black Widow fizzles to nothing as he suddenly has a wife and three kids (who were totally not worried when he was under the evil power of Loki), the fall of the triskelion – eh… the what now? and Fury’s surrender of power become irrelevant like all the other intervening events. While the world at large continues with the same old headline – Avengers: friend or foe?

Superhero films as a genre have always struck me as particularly guilty of the ‘ignore story’ protocol. Is this a matter of fearing to disrupt an existing audience? Comics themselves have grown in darkness and scope, holding firm as the lonely teenage geeks best friend but no longer afraid to piss off mom and dad by addressing everything from masturbation to sexual identity. In fact identity has always been at its core, it just got a little dirtier.

I get wanting to remain loyal to your fans, the aspirational quality that has always defined them whether it’s wisecracking Deadpool or earnest icon Superman. But to borrow that old adage about courage.. is aspiration defined by lack of struggle or the overcoming of struggles? It can’t be a coincidence that the vast majority of superheroes have such pathetic roots – bullied, belittled, orphaned, traumatised – but to render overcoming as simply as buying some spandex and coincidental as shit-other-folks-did-made-me-cool? Somewhat redefines ‘overcoming’…

Some recent films have seemed to attempt to address this. Chronicle is about powers gone wrong; Zach Snyder commits the ultimate sin when his superman kills; Spiderman lets a criminal walk free. Yet none of it speaks to the individual’s struggle. It’s portrayed as an attraction to the dark side(usually leggy and smelling of whisky), a contrived set up, a superficial attitude that never dints their self sacrificing heroics.

Nowhere else is this more agonisingly evident than in Superman and most specifically in his recent incarnations. The Clark Kent persona has been discarded, reduced to the equivalent of a fake moustache rather than the real man behind the blue suit. By removing all the inherent weaknesses of Clark Kent – the difficulty of growing up different, wondering where you really belong, having to conceal physical abnormalities, the desire to be loved and accepted for who you truly are, feeling inadequate in face of the expectations placed on you – you reduce Superman to less than even a ‘character’, to a symbol.

Lastly one of my pet hates is the curious paradox of the hero who must bear the ‘responsibility’ of his powers, yet in doing so renders all others free. The Flash must fight for Central City because no one else will.. well honestly if folk won’t stand up and help themselves. If all the brilliant bright minds, deep pockets, political powerhouses can’t ante up and do something then I’d honestly be saying screw you. The demands – the constant cries of save us! – has he abandoned us? – are embraced as staples of the genre, as evidence of his unique chosen-one stature rather than examined on a larger scale. No one addresses the very real evidence that the only people who put all their needs on someone else are usually abusers.

Now there is a story – does society abuse superheroes? I’m sure someone will be along to ignore it any day now..

Story Genius: Can A Book Tell You How to Write?

Lord that’s a dull title. I’m getting a little serious here.

I’ve been reading my first ever ‘craft book’, Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It was leant to me by an aficionado of her method and neatly coinciding as it did with my decision to write a piece on pantsing vs plotting, the different approaches writers take, it felt fortuitous… or at least indicative of many minds – the great and slightly bonkers  – thinking alike.

Structure, plotting, outlining, formula.. lots of different words all amounting to the same thing. A concern with shaping your story before you actually write, or even conceive your basic idea. The difference in words is to my mind nothing to do with their meaning, or their result, and everything to do with how writers wish their work to be perceived. Structure has integrity while formula is derided as the approach of hacks. And there could be some merit to that – structure does matter – but in every discussion I see on it, it’s reduced to a formula, in all but name.

The questions being asked aren’t, is this working structurally? Why is this bit falling flat? Why does interest flag by this point? (And even these I write with caveats) But rather, how do I structure my novel? Who has a good blueprint I can apply? By what page must I perform this plot point in order to comply with this model? As if structure were something to be welded on to an existing story or a pre-existing scaffold you must then wrap your story around. In short that it is something distinctly separate.

When I first started reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, I was really, I have to admit, incredibly curious. I’ve never read a book like this and while I have read snippets of others, I really wanted to see honestly, fairly, whether there was any merit to such a book. Any real craft lessons that could be applied and help a writer grow. I’m about three quarters of the way through and flagging. Initially I wasn’t completely dismissive, although every time I’d think she’s making some sense, she’d say something that would make me pull back and look around, as if to the shocked spectators, thinking ‘dude? Really?’

The foundation of her premise is that readers read with their emotions. Which I agree with. How you engage those emotions however is tricky and will vary reader to reader. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to acknowledge that on her part or that you’ll never appeal to everyone. She cites big selling examples, including Fifty Shades of Grey, The Little Engine That Could and Die Hard, showing a distinct lack of (taste) and appreciation of how the medium influences your approach, using them as indicators that there is one universal truth – the only truth we need concern ourselves with  – to how story works. Since at least one of those failed to work for me, that’s straight away problematic. Further, despite her claim, she doesn’t demonstrate how any of these fit into her blueprint, even loosely. Instead she uses them mostly to push her claim that all the other concerns we have over what makes a story great are irrelevant.

It’s true that Fifty Shades is horribly written – by beautiful writing standards, that is… And yet, the year Random House acquired the trilogy it catapulted them into the black. In fact, they gave every employee in the United States.. a five thousand dollar holiday bonus. Clearly something is going on here, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the “quality” of the writing. That something is story. – Lisa Cron

Much as I would like to, I can’t dismiss this out of hand. I do think it’s overly simplistic, no evaluation of Fifty Shades can be credible if it refuses to take into account that it was a/ fanfiction that piggy backed on the fame of another best seller and b/porn. Without knowing the exact figures I do know the entire genre of romance/erotica exploded (in a non-sticky sort of way..) around the time of its publication.

Great writing fails time and time again to prove its selling mettle to the public – The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, The Stud – and sadly far too many self published success stories seem to uphold this. As Fifty Shades does. Rejected by publishers, snaffled up by readers, books rushed out in a month or two, building sales and audiences, seeming to deliver exactly what a large percentage of the book buying public want at a fraction of the cost and some would say, quality.

The major issue I would have with all the cited examples (barring Die Hard, obviously) isn’t their lack of beautiful prose but their lack of interesting story, the very thing she claims helped them sell. I may be more sophisticated than the average reader – obviously darling.. but for all I have problems with many of the best sellers I equally take issue, the same issue, with the award winners. While they are full of elegant, unconventional and complex prose, they often sacrifice story in order to maintain this style, because the truth of the matter is the two are never separate. I would go further, nothing is ever separate, including your approach.

This is the fundamental flaw with Story Genius. It continually separates things that are inseparable, creating a sort of hierarchy of consideration with her one concern obliterating all others.  One wise reviewer pointed out that its done in the name of flogging her wares. The oft touted belief that without the surety of the seller, you’d never make a buck. It’s the same thing that stops a PM from shrugging and saying, mate I can’t predict the future, but we’re hopeful.  Instead we lie  – but in order to uphold that lie we twist everything and render it useless.

Take her approach to pantsting and plotting, both of which she cites as myths. She debunks the myth of pantsing by first admitting many great writers do it, (but you know not you.. ) and second by claiming that it persists only because it’s the easy option.

But if pantsing leads to failure, why is it so damn seductive?.. Simple: we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. – Lisa Cron

I can’t believe any writer would ever write that sentence.

And okay, she isn’t a writer, she is an agent, a story consultant, which explains the emphasis on flogging and wares. Yet she wrote this book, she created her ‘method’ surely she has some understanding? All I can say is I may be a rubbish planner, but I would still chose it and housework and treating a crocodile with gonorrhoea over writing. It is the writer’s eternal paradox

I hate writing. I love having written

Plotting she dismisses as surely each and every plotter ever, didn’t consider character.. em… She also takes aim at other well known methods, for the very same reason. None  – not even the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell consider the internal struggle of the character, concerning themselves solely with plotting the external.

..these guides zero in on the sequencing of events in and of themselves as if each “hero” gets tossed into a one-size-fits-all gauntlet. So something “big” happens by page 20, something “dangerous” by page 50.. and so on. Successful stories often do follow the external patterns these guides set forth, so its deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape.. – Lisa Cron

All of which echoes my own concerns. Story follows a certain organic path, by its nature it’s an exploration of a problem, a moment of change and all that entails. It’s easy, like horoscopes, to apply generalities to almost every successful one out there, if you are flexible enough about what ‘big’ means, just as easy to ignore that something equally ‘dangerous’ happens three pages later, and then again four pages on. The more problematic issue is when we try to change the story to fit the model, shifting that dangerous moment to an earlier scene so it’s at the right place. When in essence we separate form and content.

I recently had a discussion about Remember the Titans with a writer who believed it failed as an example of the Hero’s Journey, because there were multiple protagonists and there was no wise mentor. In actuality most of the characters have stories that function more like obstacles standing in the way of the Coach’s goal – to harmonize his team and make them successful. While the Coach works in the role of both hero and mentor. He must guide the young players to be better than their peers, their parents and their fears, in doing so he also points the way to himself. The other writer had applied such a literal interpretation of Campbell’s model that he couldn’t tolerate even these slight variations.

Cron’s desire to marry character with plot and structure very much meshes with my own view, yet despite this claim, in reality she seems to be effectively separating them at every step; identifying one aspect then moulding and adjusting the other to fit in. The example she uses throughout, a story her friend is writing, and I presume she is guiding, doesn’t appear to be an actual novel. And I can understand why. We start with a dog and a woman who doesn’t like dogs and end up with a writer with a partner on life support, a rabid stalker-stroke-fan, an alternate time lime with a girl breaking down on a football pitch, a studio deadline, and a famous actors dog…

Apparently it’s all about how our Protag is afraid to love – which leads to her kidnapping a dog which she doesn’t love and will never love, because she doesn’t love dogs but it will help her write a script all about the power of love…

I know, I know. It’s just as easy to make a story sound ridiculous as it is to make it fit the three act structure. But my eyebrows were disappearing further into my hairline with every plot  – sorry, character motivation, we explored. It felt disjointed and painfully contrived. Cron’s blueprint is hinged around identifying your characters inner struggle – something she designates the third rail, in the belief that like the third rail on a subway train, it’s what drives your story and by default your plot. The problem is that despite understanding there is an influence between the internal and external, they are still two distinct things in her head. And they are created as such. Then she simply searches, or directs her writer to search, for anything that might tie them together, no matter how tenuous they feel, no matter how often they have to rely on coincidence and convenience.

She has decided she is going to have to save Ruby from herself by removing her from her house and sweeping her off to wherever Nora lives (I know, I know, people will wonder how in the world one adult would have the power to do that to another. I’ll figure something out… ) – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

In pursuit of her one universal truth she has cast aside all other considerations, including plausibility and bizarrely for a character-based approach, character. There is never any question of who Ruby is. Her entire personality is distilled into one belief, the one which is her third rail. Again I find myself not entirely in disagreement. I’ve never particularly ascribed to the theory that your character must be fully worked out, in the sense that much of who your character is will never be revealed in your story. Sherlock Holmes and the Prostrate Exam is none of any readers concern. However, I’m not sure that her method has anything to do with character at all, and that she hasn’t in fact just switched terms on us. There is so much simplicity in this approach that I cannot see the character’s desire as anything other than the character’s goal by another name. Her internal struggle or ‘misbelief’ is just more obstacles. Her origin scene is just another inciting incident. Because we aren’t shaped that easily by one event. If changing our belief system where that easy we’d all be psychotic. We’ve taken the external plot structure and dressed it up in ‘character-y’ sounding words.

For all the talk of brain science, which again by any other name is simply psychology or rather the neurological underpinnings of our understanding of it, there is very little scientific rigour in evidence. Even the Myers-Brigg test is more sophisticated and that only measures four out of the agreed upon five personality factors, which determine much of our behaviour and how we will respond to external events. Take Sherlock again – while I haven’t given a great deal of thought to his prostrate, should I chose to I could well imagine how it might go. Why? Not as the third rail suggests because I have some notion of his one defining belief, but rather because I know what kind of man he is. Sanguine about matters that others find squeamish, arrogant to the point he always presumes he knows best, plain speaking as he believes efficacy trumps (others) ego’s, yet finds it difficult to deal with his own shortcomings, physical vulnerabilities as much as any other.

Knowing the who and what of your story, knowing that one does not exist without the other, character always driving plot, the external always impacting on the internal, is the best guide to writing I can think of. But Cron isn’t interested in guiding. Guiding is for those who believe in the myth of ‘the shitty first draft.’ To letting it all pour out. Forget guiding principles when you can tick boxes. Yet in that lovely contrary way that writing has, the more she limits us the more the story meanders. Her tightness of focus in character and worldview leading to an external plot that escalates in ever increasingly ridiculous events –  sister-napping, dog napping, coma’s, deranged fans –  inexplicable behaviour.. again dognapping? – and disconnect from the core message – love is worth it.. again dognapping?? You know those Hollywood films you watch where you spend the entire thing thinking, but why didn’t they just *insert obvious sensible action*?

According to Cron actually making sense is irrelevant. Cause brain science. I suspect brain scientists might want to disagree. She poo-poos the notion of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ claiming we have no control over it, that we are in fact hard wired to believe, that it is an evolutionary tool, a means of figuring out ‘what if’.

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.  – Lisa Cron

Noticed the problem? I’m fairly sure I’ll never find myself with a writing partner I never married lying in a coma, a sister who kidnaps me for my own good, a studio boss who wants to replace me with a fanfiction/stalker and the deep seated belief that kidnapping a dog will solve all this. That’s not a ‘what if’ I’m ever going to ask, nor am I even sure what I would be asking. Credibility matters. Plot matters.

I’m a character writer, I’m supposed to say it doesn’t.

But ..

PLOT MATTERS

Cron is absolutely determined that our internal struggle is the only thing that really matters; that external events need only work like switches on a railway track triggering our emotions, but beyond their ability to connect, the shape and form they take are utterly without meaning.

Yet if I say to you there was a pile up on the motorway your husband drives everyday.. I don’t need to tell you about your fear of abandonment because your mum always missed parents night, or that time you lost your pet turtle when you were five, you can in fact have lived a life without any bereavement at all and you’ll still have a pretty good idea of how gut wrenching such an announcement would be, how potentially life altering even those few minutes of uncertainty would feel. The external matters because it’s the world we have to navigate. It’s the world that smacks us down, lifts us up, terrifies, bewilders and excites. If we’re using story to figure out how to predict and survive what might be coming, it matters who we are, but it also matters what we face. Even the seemingly fantastical are often grounded in real day present fears, an apocalypse by another name is disaster. War, famine, plague – these are realities people through time and in the present day have had to deal with. Dystopia’s tend to speak to our fear of political control and to the need to conform, the consequences of not belonging, and again they draw from world’s we know have existed, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Iron Curtain to the incredible tales of North Korea.

Connection isn’t enough, story works best when plot and character are so interwoven you cannot separate one from the other. Its why Batman only works in Gotham, while Superman just makes it look dirty. It’s why hi-concept sells despite all that poor prose and idiotic characters. Ever heard of how the team behind Alien got the green light?

Jaws in Space

It’s the most famous tagline that’s never been used. Because all the emotion you need is in those three words, that one simple idea, event, what if, is what everything else flows out from. And sometimes that what if can be internal, or character based. Lolita. Animal Farm. Forrest Gump. Edward Scissorhands. We should be careful not to confuse complicated with complex. One has depth, but can usually be distilled down quite easily to a simple idea, event, individual. The other just meanders wildly and leaves the reader bewildered.

Cron’s story has no what if. Her very base premise, detailed in the blurb, the introduction and the opening chapters, is ignored. Ruby’s dilemma is convoluted, her fear of losing someone she loves natural and identifiable, but it’s disconnected from the story that is being told, from the initial idea dreamt up:

I kept thinking about a story with a woman at the centre who doesn’t like dogs. That’s all I had – this woman with this strange and somewhat unpopular characteristic – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

became..

what if a woman who’s spent her whole life believing she’s successfully hedged her bets against love (of people, of things, of dogs) is on the verge of losing everything – the one person she’s felt close to, her lifelong career and her grasp on reality? Mad with grief she has one chance to set things right but first she must convince those around her that she’s not suicidal so she devises a scheme to steal a dog… – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

It goes on…

..but when she can’t get rid of the dog..

And on..

..is what makes the inevitable grief of loss endurable.

Then ends with Cron’s applause…

Bingo!

Me – I’d say go back. There is one word in that initial idea, one word that resonates: Unpopular. And it seems oddly potent that it’s the one idea she’s refused to address in favour of a much more popular theme: better to have loved and lost..

Many writers and critics of writing would say that in the end we’re all writing about the same few things. Some might even go as far as saying we’re all writing about death: dying unloved, dying alone, dying unremembered, dying too soon… But themes, however powerful, aren’t what we write. They are what emerge from what we write. They are the dark shadows that lie beneath and the more you try to address them directly the more they slip through your fingers. It is the concrete world that allows us to grasp them. Cron’s basic premise, the what if’s, the power of emotion, is undeniable, it’s her failure to connect that successfully with the surface, the concrete form of story, that illustrates how much the two work together and fall, apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Do It?: Plotting, pantsing and gardening.

As someone who doesn’t regard The Rules as great dictates chipped into stone and then dissolved into binary ether and sent forth to confound us all (or even something deserving a capital), I feel like I should begin with an apology. There’s a possibility this might get a little biased…

I’m a pantser – which is an odd word for a Brit and always makes me want to assure folk I’m not just wandering around the house in my knickers.

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It’s never felt like a choice as much as a compunction. Something’s are bone deep. This is the way I write. I love the idea of organising my head. I periodically attempt it, before, during, after – more during and after. I like the surety, the systematic certainty of it whispers to me and I have often tried to whisper back, but for me when I create, I must create. That’s simply how it works. Only in the act do I find my inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, for all I talk of feeling the lure of the planner, I know well how alluring the pantser (ye know without that name sullying it) can seem. They are the epitome of the romantic writer, ink smudged across their pensive faces, caught in the mania of creation, the passionate scribbles of the possessed. We’re all a little in love with that image of ourselves, mostly because we know the reality and yeah, pants might be a better description..

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This debate goes right to the top. King calls himself a ‘discovery writer’, believing he doesn’t create anything, just keeps chipping away, one word at a time until he uncovers the story.

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses. ~  On Writing, Stephen King

George RR Martin believes in Gardeners and Architects.

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like… And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up.. they don’t how big it’s going to be, or what shape it’s going to take. I am much more a gardener than an architect.  ~ GRR Martin

As for the plotters, it would be so tempting to go with Patterson, whose entire writing is an outline. However there are a few others who have come out in favour of the planned approach. Grisham has claimed the more time dedicated to preparation the better the final work while JK Rowling imagines this is a basic outline…

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Beyond them are the middle-grounders, the ones who believe we’re all on a sliding scale that tends to tip us towards the middle where we’re all slightly pantsing and slightly plotting. Oddly in this instance I think the dichotomy has merit. There are inherent differences between the two that I believe matter and will show in the end.

That’s not to fully sway you towards one when you’re naturally drawn to another. Part of the reason I think the distinction is relevant is that how we write is such a personal issue that trying to force ourselves to fit to someone else’s style can be crippling. Lisa Cron, in Story Genius states that she believes only one percent of writers are capable of holding all their story in their head – nice to know I’m finally a one-percenter even if I can’t afford a car. Of course she also believes that both plotting and pantsing are flawed and instead preaches her blueprint, somehow magically different from your bog standard outline as it focuses on your character and their internal struggle rather than external events. Which in turn brings me to my second concern, something created almost entirely by the misdirection of semantics.

A blueprint is an outline. Which is also a plan. Which is something we plot. This is the heart of a plotter. It’s not someone who has an idea, or a scene playing in their head. It’s not someone who only writes events, it doesn’t preclude those who don’t delineate chapters, or call characters A,B and C. As we can see from JK’s outline, her concern isn’t simply plotting action, certainly not in detail, but takes a big picture approach, laying out the underlying thematic arcs, ‘prophecy’, key relationships, ‘Hagrid & Grawp’ as well as important scenes, such as ‘Ron and other w’s told about fathers injury’. Whether you snowflake from thematic logline to intricate outline, or research everything to do with police procedure before killing off your first victim, the point is you are amassing a body of material so you will know what to write.

Many pantser’s have an idea of something when we sit down to write. What that something is will vary considerably, not just person to person but work to work. I free write many shorts, I usually have a story idea in mind when I write a novel, not much when I started my first three, but as time has gone on, the list of what I would like to write just keeps growing, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on them – although I rarely get much past  a series of vague images in my head. Sometimes a scene or a unique character as well. Like I said it varies. Saying that adds up to a plan is like getting in the car to go on holiday and remembering to pack underwear. I may even have some sense of the destination, but it’s a long way away and I have no idea how I’m getting there or even if I will. I’m prepared for that but I haven’t planned for it. And that to my mind makes a difference.

Where you put the emphasis will guide where you put the emphasis in your story. If I’ve packed sunscreen, I’m going to be looking for the sun. I’ll drive south, to the coast. If I know how much money I have I’ll plan ahead to make sure I can stretch it out, know where the cheap petrol stations are, good camping or luxury hotels.. The more I know before hand the more it will inform the decisions I make, no matter how much I believe I am open to change.

But as I said, I’m not sure it’s a choice. Lisa Cron wants us to put the emphasis on characters. I’ve yet to read a story where the characters, their wants and needs, behaviour and personality weren’t a defining factor. Not necessarily to the benefit of the work, and that probably comes down to things you’re not even aware of. If you naturally incline towards a fascination with character it will show in your work; you’re always looking for interesting attitudes, unusual relationships. If you like battles and magic systems, rich playboys or sexy werewolves, it will show not by lack of characters but in how they come across – and not everyone will have a problem with that. Recycled tropes are as popular as ever. Lisa herself cites 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how her method works, but there are some of us character writers who think its an example of how it doesn’t work, sales be damned.  Planning or pantsing will not change this, but it might indicate slightly which you are more likely to benefit from.

As a character driven writer I need to let the characters lead. A plot driven writer is more likely to stunt the development of her characters and I wonder if it’s because they’ve boxed themselves in with a plan? Take JK for instance, a planner. It was evident early on in the books that Harry and Ginny would end up together, yet by the time it happens, I wouldn’t have shipped them for all the gold in Gringotts.  She hadn’t given Ginny time to breathe or room to grow into an interesting character in her own right. It felt like ticking a box.

I can’t help but feel the approach we take is knitted into our mental makeup – the very reason I know many dislike thinking of it as a dichotomy. Yet I can’t dissuade myself from this idea that our attitude defines our work in myriad nuanced, even unseen, yet important ways. I don’t know what is going to happen until its happening, til I’m there living, breathing, fighting.

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader ~ Robert Frost

Science has identified something known as the incubation effect, where creativity is fostered by a wandering mind. Ever get great ideas in the shower? Or taking the dog for a walk? These rote mechanical tasks free up our higher minds to make incredible leaps. Conversely when we try to force our focus we tend to follow well laid plans, the road already known. To take planning and pantsing to their absolute, I create as I write – or to be more specific as I type. This is my rote mechanical aid. While when I plan I sit thumbs twiddling, waiting for inspiration before I write a single word. Even there the attitude of the planner is defining, the emphasis always on the before. Before we write we must have something tangible, concrete in hand, fuelled by a belief that we cannot spin nothing into gold, cannot discover something that doesn’t already exist.

Maybe all writers need to believe enough to take that leap. Maybe that’s why every time, every story I think I got nothing.. until I start. I keep hoping it’ll get easier to trust I will always be able to unearth something, but thus far.. And sometimes I think that is the true lure of the plan. Writing is hard. Planning is naming spaceships and thinking about how much I really love my eccentric new android – he’s got a thing for cockroaches, so cute! – planning can very easily fall into procrastination. No matter how much stuff you accumulate the only thing that’s truly tangible is the writing. Until then you’re still in the before, facing a blank page.

I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into a plea to pants and its worth reminding myself that I love Harry Potter and never really liked King. And who can ever remember how his stories end?

As I said it’s a matter of listening to your bones. In my first ever drafts I got consumed with research to the point it was crippling and it distracted me from what I really wanted to write, what I believe is my strength: character dynamics. Likewise when you consider Tolkien it’s that world which has blueprinted an entire genre, the history, languages, geography and breath-taking scope that works. How much of this lies in planning and plotting? Martin is six books and thousands of words in and does anyone feel closer to a resolution? He, like King, has always struck me as a man who is exploring the nature of the darkness within us.

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It’s easy to read that as me condemning all plotters to the formula or action-heavy genres – which in itself isn’t a condemnation unless you’re not overly fond of reading it – but Joss Whedon, a man who puts huge emphasis on structure, can deliver larger than life personalities better than almost any screenwriter working today. He does however fall victim to trope-holes more than I suspect a man less inclined to plan would. I suspect it happens most when he is hemmed in not by his own creativity, however it comes to him, but other’s expectations.

I wrote down everything that I thought would be useful–what we hadn’t had enough of, what I thought had clicked, what we could improve–and also things that excited me about the second season. Once I had that memo out to the writers I felt like I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, but it was cute that I thought so ~ Joss Whedon

And that’s really how I’d like to leave it. The most important thing to remember when it comes time to try and figure out the best approach is to shake yourself free of any expectations, romantic notions of a real writer, wannabe’s selling you their latest four pronged, ten-horned, thrice guaranteed formula. Listen to you. There is room for every kind of writer, even bad ones. Thank god 😀

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