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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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.

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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The hidden side to character: relationships (aka a blatant excuse to talk about Star Wars)

As with so many things, this might seem a little obvious, but before you snort and think ‘she’s at it again’ sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at the obvious. Sometimes things are so obvious they get overlooked and then, when the misinterpretations and abuses crop up, we don’t recognise them for what they are.

Character too often comes at us like a laundry list of traits, a static and unengaging wishlist; relationships are the sharp, working end, where what you want can be brought to life and cliché and stereotype shaken off. Or at least they offer that opportunity, if we pay attention to them.

The hidden part isn’t so much what they can do to reveal character, it’s that a good writer knows that character often exists in service to relationships. Because relationships aren’t merely the who, but the what, serving to not only further the plot but very often they can and do become subplots of their own. Many times they are the reason your reader is still with you, the true driving force of your story.

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Take one of the most despised films of recent times; take a trilogy of them: The Star Wars prequels. People – not just sci-fi freaks like me – loved the original trilogy. When the prequels were finally announced as going ahead they’d been nineteen years in the making and anticipation was high. But even so there were already stirrings, how could they live up to the originals?

But what was it precisely that made the originals so good, so good that our love has only grown not faded?

Not the special effects. We’ve kinda beat those. Advancements in technology were always cited as the principle reason Lucas started half way through his story with episode 4, fearing he couldn’t bring his vision of the first three to life until the special effects caught up with his imagination.

Not the acting

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Despite the late great Alec Guinness’ best efforts.

The recent episode, The Force Awakens, clearly believes it was all about the world, as it offers us substandard acting and mediocre special effects all bundled up in a story free nostalgia fest of OT memorabilia: canteenas, the Millenium Falcon and sand. A lot of sand.

I’m standing with Lucas on this one. I think the world building was one of the few things that he got right, along with far superior battles, for the most part. Where he got it wrong was his relationships.

I don’t merely mean the romance, although obviously the time put in to try and erase the image of a grown up Natalie Portman tucking wee Anakin in just served to bog the pace, leaving a bad soap-y taste in the mouth and damaging the entire trilogy timeline.

I mean the relationship at the heart of our intrigue: Obi-wan and Darth Vader, master and pupil, battling to the death. The most iconic and intriguing scene from the OT.

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Lucas did show at least an inkling of an awareness of this by the last film, Return of the Sith, which is centred around the showdown of Obi-wan and Anakin, completing his transformation to Darth Vadar. The anticipation for this battle, I think, is why so many want to count it as the best of the three, as it finally gave them what they had been waiting for.

However, the ground work had never been laid. Our investment in their relationship was still best encapsulated by that original scene. In the first film not only are we stuck with cute kiddie Anakin, trash talking insect racers and eyeing up Padme – ewww – but the relationship being built is between him and Qui-gon-jinn. Obi-wan is stuck in the ship and doesn’t even meet him until a good way through the film, where their sole interactions consist of talking about each other to others. It is Qui-gon who risks everything for the boy, Qui-gon who has Obi-wan’s devotion. The boy is an obligation and not even one that risks anything. As relationship set ups go that’s about as interesting… as.. well… any other risk free obligation. A teenage/young adult Anakin stealing his master’s admiration and trust, an almost equal, always threatening to usurp, yet still needing him, bound together in their admiration of the lost Qui-gon, now that might have held our interest.

And the fact that yet again in the second and third films they spend most of the time apart, wouldn’t have mattered.

All those vital elements that we aspiring storytellers are beaten over the head with, tension, conflict, agency, rise and fall, all of these exist organically within relationship. It is by definition what happens between two or more characters, it cannot be told, it must be realised by what unfolds, what is said and done. It is where story and character meet.

What is character but determination of incident? And what is incident but the illustration of character? – Henry James

Romance is predictably where most minds will go whenever you mention relationship, but as with Anakin and Obi-wan, they are often not the one we invest in. An interesting side-note on this can be found in fan fiction, a place rather interestingly were relationship has become a verb. The sheer volume of shipping that goes on between characters whose base relationship is antagonistic, troubled, platonic or any thing other than what the writer intended, shows that we invest in far more than what we are told to. I’m not sure that is always a credit to the writer. Relationships exist like an undercurrent, opposing riptides pushing and pulling at our emotions. However often I feel that the gap between what the writer seems to presume we want to read and what the reader actually plucks from the pages, is indicative of a rather rote and formulaic approach to relationships which relies, as does character, far too heavily on tell.

Just as Obi-wan tells us – you were like a brother to me!  – while we’re left to presume the bickering, rivalry, one-up-man-ship, and intimacy of a true sibling relationship, too many authors just tell us what our characters feel for one another. We’re told of their great passion – actually we’re told ad nauseum. Emphasis on the nauseum. It’s become de rigueur to build entire scenes around two characters telling us of their passion/love/devotion, and then through these endlessly repetitive scenes build entire relationships, build entire stories.

I can just about forgive this in romance. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t read the genre. I couldn’t stomach talking about my own relationships to that degree let alone reading about someone elses. However if it is something readers of the genre do enjoy, who am I to suggest another approach. In other genres, as the shipping fan fiction shows, many, many readers are far from satisfied with what is presented. Insta-love has become like Mary Sue, a put down of a very particular type of story, usually young adult and usually with paranormal elements, wherein story and plot and character are all side-lined in favour of what is called relationship but isn’t. Rather than show an interesting dynamic playing out between two interesting characters, we’re told about how interesting, nay amazing, these characters are and that alone apparently suffices.

Plot is a vital side to relationships. What happens shapes, guides, reflects back on who they are, who they might be, connecting and binding them. Too often these things seem to be kept distinct, or reduced to points of such base simplicity that story can only be the victim. Love is proven in acts of self sacrifice, but it’s never developed through acts of self. To return to Star Wars (cause why not) the love story that worked was Han and Leia. It draws on an abundance of well established tropes, which you are quite within your rights to call clichés, love/hate, opposites attract, even that initial latent hint of a love triangle (perhaps I saw them when I was too young, that never seemed too convincing to me) but interestingly, the one who rushes to her rescue is never Han. Luke is forever coming to save her, throwing off his training, abandoning his family, facing Darth unprepared, all recklessly for her (and later Han too). It becomes part of his personality, a hint at the recklessness we know undid his father. While Han is forever reluctant – a volunteer for Luke’s respect in the first film; a helpless patsy in the second; and the rescued in the last, by Leia herself, who like Luke has already shown her willingness to take risks and suffer for her beliefs. Perhaps that has categorised her life, all of it that we have known. Her actions don’t prove her love, they’re a natural part of story and character as we’ve already seen, it’s their cute bickering that we invest in, their innate differences, his arrogant ‘I know’, the way she echoes it back to him, the dynamic that’s peculiarly theirs, however stereotypical.

But romance is such a limited perspective. It doesn’t even have to involve two characters. Sometimes the most important relationship is between a character and society in general. The strict code and layers of bureaucracy that surround and bind the Jedi’s, create an interesting dynamic when juxtaposed with a boy raised in slavery, both shackles that deny him, both threaten to take what he loves. A dynamic yet again that the prequels squandered. In part because Anakin spends more time as Jedi than slave, and as a young boy he is presented as angelic and hopeful. Plus, ya know, he pod races in his spare time, instead of doing his homework which makes it difficult to sympathise.

Sometimes it is with different conflicting forces within themselves; light and dark, past and present. Beyond even Obi-wan, perhaps the most anticipated aspect of the prequels was the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, beautifully illustrated by this image.

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Yet you cannot help but feel that image became part of the issue. The contrast between innocence and evil would not have been nearly as stark if we’d replaced the young slave boy with a sneering (although quite sexy) Hayden Christiansen. What works in one medium doesn’t always translate. Even here that decision to cast the younger Anakin throws its shadow over everything that follows, as if the extreme actions of the last film, the slaughter of the young padawans, were yet again driven by the desire to wipe our memories of his saccharine sweetness. The beginning and the end weren’t ever in doubt, it was Lucas’ job to show us the journey, the decisions that led him to the dark side, and convince us. Because the most important relationship of all is that between writer and reader.

Linear Storytelling: Pure Imagination (Part 3)

The last book I read was a fantasy by a new rising author with a hit or two under her belt and plenty of favourable reviews. Rave reviews. I’m not going to name it. I’d feel mean. Not that it was unreadable. It was initially quite promising, quickly devolved into mildly diverting before sinking to who cares? Not me, being the answer. I’m a tough reader, in that I know exactly what I want, but I can’t believe this is what others want.

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Even if I had managed to fix the craft issues – and there were some of consequence – I was left with the depressing realisation it wouldn’t have saved it. Only a complete rewrite would do. Why? Because it needed a heck of a lot more imagination.

Imagination is a lot like creativity; most of us only consider a tiny fraction of what it comprises. Both are assigned solely to the weird wacky guys in the arts. Ignoring the fact that being weird and wacky, if you are weird and wacky in that way that countless other guys in the arts have been, requires little to no imagination and the straight laced accountant who tweaked the tax system might be a creative landmine.

This book was an intriguing idea with poor realisation. The world building was non-existent. The magic was quite literally hand waving. Consequence was – linear. And every page crowded with clichés. We can call them tropes but when that’s all you see, it’s too fine a slice from here to there.

I could simply call her lazy. Maybe she was.

I could simply call her arrogant. Maybe she was.

It’s hard to credit either because world building is just about the most fun a fantasy author can have. Clothes on or off. Seriously.. they’re weird…

I know, because if there is one thing that will make me write fantasy, as a sci-fi lover, it’s the world building. So even if you’re arrogant or lazy, I’m still hesitant to believe that the world building would be the thing you skip, not deliberately. The only conclusion is that she did what she believed to be the best she could. And a whole lot of people told her it was fine.

She wrote a bestselling fantasy book, calling her unimaginative might seem daft, and it might seem like there’s no cure. But if you can write, if you can conceive an interesting idea you can be pushed to be better. I’m sure every runner under the sun has bust their guts doing the best they could, but a few years of training and they’ll bust their guts for three points of a second less. And that’s the difference between being a champion and not.

This is my biggest bugbear with craft groups and writing sites, with amateur critiques. This writer had fine prose. A great little intro. Seduced me, stubborn ornery cow that I am, I’m sure it was worked to death. If she’d ever spent time on a writer’s critique site it would have been, certainly. But we never address the imagination. And until we do I don’t believe we’re ever going to get better. Agents don’t crit your world building. They’re big picture people, they want to know if they can sell that picture. If they can sell your voice. Your concept. Your central character. They might prefer a happier ending, or want a love interest squeezed in, but they aren’t looking at the nitty gritty.

And so the linear story form flourishes.

If you aren’t quite on board with me, there are exceptions. JK Rowling is the first that jumps to mind. Ever wondered what made her so different from every other writer, every kids boarding school and magic book out there? Try length. The Philosopher’s Stone was around double the standard word count for a middle grade novel. What she filled that with was detail. Immense, consistent, inventive, believable details of a world that made us wish it was real. King, Adams and Martin, Tolkien, Pratchett and Asimov are others. These writers stand out. They stand out across time. Not just through time. Because no one else can do what they do, quite like they can. Though god knows, plenty have tried. Tolkien developed three different languages and writing systems to accompany his worlds. Three whole languages.

Detail makes your world. Detail distinguishes your characters. Detail hooks your reader. Detail enriches your plot.

A great deal of this falls under show don’t tell – I’m not apologising, I could talk about that all day long – not least because if you try and sit and tell your reader all those details it’ll turn into a text book. Every step of your plot should be a way to reveal your world, every revelation of your world should be filtered through your character and every aspect of your character should drive every step of your plot.  That in and of itself is imagination. It’s not about coming up with something a bit weird or different, its about seeing how it plays out, every little consequence across many different levels – about understanding how a burnt soufflé in chapter one led to an act of treason in Chapter 12. It’s even about understanding how your decisions will be received by your readers. Imagination, like creativity, lies in the connection between the points, the trajectory, the path, the faint finger web of arteries leading to and away from your points of interest. Too many put all the attention on the points of interest and you know, making them wacky..

Consider one of the greatest discoveries of all time. A man sitting beneath a tree gets hit on the head by an apple. And suddenly he understands how the moon stays in the night sky. Somewhat embellished, but however it transpired it’s safe to say for most of us there is no obvious connection. No link between the two, but Newton and his immense imagination (unequalled apart from his arrogance apparently) saw the pattern beneath the surface that joined them.

That word beneath is key. Because creativity isn’t just about a imaginative plot, its about building up the outline, putting flesh on the bones. A well thought through world, a detailed backlot gives three dimensions to your story. It means your plot will hold water, even if its a bit holey, it means we won’t see the strings you’re pulling, even if they are pulling in an obvious direction. Or at least we probably won’t care. Yeah, boy gets girl, but what a tale, what a man, what a dame..

Star Wars is loaded with tropes. And in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “the dialogue is excruciating.”    

We have an innocent young ingénue, a princess in desperate need of rescuing. A big bad, who is literally big and bad, ooh and all in black, just in case you missed it. A rogue with a heart of gold, a wise old mentor.. And we win. We blow shit up. We get lucky. We accidentally press the right buttons. There was nothing unpredictable about any of it, not the first one. And it didn’t matter. Because also in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted…it remains a vivid experience.”

The world we were presented with was unlike anything we had ever seen. Lightsabers, death stars, wookies, Jawa’s, big buns. But it went beyond that, it was the ripples under the surface not yet realised that we’d fallen for. The connections between Obi-wan, Darth Vader and Luke. The only three who seem to have any awareness of this mysterious Force. The intrigue peaked by the casual mentions of the lost religion of the Jedi knights. Obi-wan’s strange, triumphant even, surrender to his own death. The friction between Leia and Han, the devotion of the rebellious R2D2. We like rogue’s with a heart of gold and wise old mentors, we just want you to bring them to life.

writers she could nver be

Books and films are different beasts in how they do this. A film can leave much more unexplored, as visual spectacle. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier or less important, but there’s a limit on how much you can realistically put in without putting your audience to sleep – hence big yellow letters at the start of Star Wars.

A magic system in a film is mostly about setting clear limits and establishing level of ability. In a book it can go so in depth it’s a like a university degree. In weird ass physics. This for me is where show and tell come into their own. Because while I love the depth a book can offer, I don’t want a lecture. Moreover, simply telling us this is sort of how magic works is actually one of the worst ways for the writer to renegotiate their own rules. Like in a textbook there are often addendums, footnotes. Or worse, as in the book I just read we can simply say, who knows how it works. I mean we use it every day, but we don’t really get it and it might just work this time. The minute I read this I know magic is going to work just cause. Our writer attempted to build up tension by implying it shouldn’t, then waved her magic hand and somehow it did. By the end of the book everything I knew about the magic and in fact the different worlds of her novel, was the same as what I knew at the beginning. Most of it was covered in the blurb.

I had no idea how magic functioned on an everyday level. I had no visual, sensory grasp of it. I couldn’t tell you if they cooked with it, if they altered their appearances or governed their world. If it made a difference in how well they did in society. How it was administered. Did they purchase spells? What did they teach in school? Was money a dictator of magic or magic a dictator of money? She did drop a few funny sounding words in. But only our hero uses them. He’s different. We’re told.

Returning to the seeming contradictions that make writing so much fun, one of the main issues that made this story and world so thin was her tendency to try and explain everything. As with everything else in linear storytelling doing what seems to be a good idea usually ends up being a really bad idea. Explain is an excellent synonym for tell. Every time you start to explain you’re shifting out of show and weakening your readers suspension of disbelief.

The force in the first three Star Wars films can be summarised with ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ In the – well technically the first three, but really the second three – we get midi-chlorians and it all starts to sound a little like an advert for toilet duck. However, in terms of what it can do, in the original three we have Jedi Mind tricks, lightsabers, vision of the future, some telekinesis, all in play in varying degrees. Oh and the lure of the dark side. In the second three we have Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, visions of the future, some … essentially everything we’ve already seen.

What details you bring in and how you bring them in is key. You’re not looking to give your readers an easily memorised wiki summary, you’re looking to embed them in it. Give them a visceral, sensory grasp of what it looks, feels, tastes like to live in this world.

The only magic system I’m even remotely well read in, is JK Rowling’s. I’ve seen plenty of spirited debates both viciously attacking and staunchly defending her world. This in itself is only possible because there was enough detail to substantiate different interpretations. Detail that many felt needed explaining, but often wasn’t. Detail that was sifted through every chapter, every scene, every line. It was a constant, specific and interconnected presence.

That artery of Newtonian connections is often effectively – ‘should’ even perhaps – be accessed through your characters. Nothing brings the varying classes of Rowlings hierarchy into focus as the way she distributes her magic and wealth, position and power, through her cast.

You’ll as a writer often come up against a warning about diluting focus and using to many characters. Not saying it’s bad advice, but here’s a few facts. In the book I just read, comprising several magical worlds, there are nine characters I can name, three I remember but can’t really name. And then ‘people’

In The Philosophers Stone, I stopped counting characters I could name around 21, because counting bores me and I think the point is made.

If you plan on writing epic world creating fantasy, you might want to actually populate that world. That’s not the same as shifting your point of view or using Omni. It’s not to say that each character must have their own arc, but they should be distinct. I can describe every one from Harry Potter, both rough physical descriptions, and basic personality traits. I’d really be struggling just with hair colour for the last book I read. I’d be struggling to write more than a couple of lines on any of the main characters.

The comparison’s continue. The backstory of the Wizarding War and it’s legacy is seen in virtually everyone’s inability to say Voldemort, in Ginny’s inability to speak to the legendary Harry Potter, in Dedaldus Diggle bowing to him mysteriously in a shop, the crowd in the Leaky cauldron, Mr Olivander’s owl eyed curiosity over his wand, in Draco’s confrontation on the train, in Quirrell and Snape and….

This more than anything is where the other book truly let me down, because a huge part of it is basically exploring this very issue, magic gone bad, the why’s and wherefores. It’s not background, it’s pretty much Main Plot. And yet it rests on two horribly clichéd characters who are really horrible cause …??

Even when the characters are imbued with certain traits, or behaviours which might illustrate our world, they are shallow and everything continually rests on the shoulders of our tiny little group of heroes and villains. No one man can represent a world that effectively. He can be a conduit, a filter through which to view it, but you need to build in those details, those characters that will allow the landscape, its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, to come to life. We humans that’s our downfall. When we say world we don’t mean the hills and the valleys, we mean the politicians and the farmers. We understand scope by how far away the last man stands, not by points on a map. When Ron is humiliated by his mother’s screeching in the dining hall, we feel his embarrassment because we can picture Draco and Neville, Lavender and Seamus, Percy and Fred and Oliver and Kate, all of them with all of their different responses, all of them looking at him, hearing his mother’s words.

When our Hero in LBIR (the last book I read) falls down, who’s there to see it? A shadowy nothing? Faceless mute crowds? People are a powerful way of taking an abstract concept and making it real. Know how in cop shows whenever a serial killer kidnaps someone, the family are always encouraged to use the name of that person to make them real? Well, it works in fiction too. Other serial killer analogies should be carefully scrutinised though.. Characters are your way to map your world, to make the edges distinct, but you have to make them distinct. Stereotypical can be distinct, as long as you don’t make them all the same stereotype. Give them a face, a name, a voice, a habit, give them details.

People are also wonderfully, stupidly illogical. At least if you’re applying linear logic. Human logic, the logic of emotion, the conflicting needs and desires and fears that drive us, are much less easy to predict. I despise contrived behaviour, and despite the fact it’s done by everyone, I’m still not advocating it, what I am saying is that when it comes to circumventing, or just plain ignoring plot holes this is your friend. If your characters and their behaviour hold true, we’re generally willing to overlook, a lot of the times don’t even notice the gaps, until some smart-ass points it out on Buzzfeed. According to Amy Farrah Fowler Indy was pointless in his own film, except Indy’s why we watched, not the ark.

So, a quick summary, cause even in fiction it can be a very necessary tool, and when your mind wanders as mine does, an exceptionally useful one.

When trying to avoid linear storytelling, something marked by moving – plodding – predictably from action to reaction, the best things to consider are: Consequence – how can you build more in? Expectation – how can we build more in? And remember never, ever explain yourself.

All clear? Grand..

Linear Storytelling: No Ordinary Plot ( Part 2 )

Ultimately linear storytelling is a plot issue. Plot is how we organize our story, how we ‘plot’ our course through the events of the tale. Amazing how they come up with these terms.. And every little decision we make, to go left, right, move forward, turn back, needs to be considered on multiple levels – tension, character, consistency – it needs to answer to what came before and what comes next, not just immediately but every other step taken will play its part. And I say that as someone who is a pantser.

writer-island

Many would argue the pantser is the prime linear sinner. (Ooh I like how that sounded.. linear sinner). How can we foreshadow events we haven’t conceived of yet, lay the breadcrumbs for a betrayal we never knew was coming? As we have nothing but the previous steps to guide us, the only line we can follow is action > reaction.

I disagree with this wholly. First a pantser still often starts with something in mind. At least, a story. And a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know we want to write about Superheroes who turn rotten and have to be brought down by ordinary people taking a stand. Your end – your guiding star – is built into your premise. We may build haphazardly, but as with a jigsaw different parts reveal themselves to us, even if we don’t put the pieces down yet. I think of myself more as someone who plans in my mind rather than on paper, somehow its easier to scrub and take fantastic leaps that the writing might unexpectedly offer when you’ve haven’t laid out a path in black and white.

Another accusation would be that genre writers are linear sinners, because they are beholden to the conventions of their form. A quest involves a mythical target of great value, a series of clues leading the way, and a ragtag crew with the requisite skills to get us there. Basically its a polite way of saying they are formulaic. I won’t delve into the issue of whether literary fiction is a genre all of its own, I’ll simply say that formula exists wherever there is a body of work. It’s the familiarity that presents the problem when it comes to linear storytelling. However ingenious certain ideas were at their inception, time and repetition will quickly erode their value.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself – The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

Formula is scored into our brains. We watch too much television, read too many books and as writers that’s going to bite us on the bottie if we’re not aware of it. A lot of writers aren’t aware of it.

One of the pitfalls here is different for the sake of different. We still need to be considering the whole, the internal logic of your world and story and providing something that will satisfy. Much like before it comes down to readers expectations. Only here we’re looking to subvert. The key to knowing the difference between what to change and what to keep? Emotional investment.

A romance reader is invested in seeing the main characters come together and there are certain ‘plot points’, for lack of a better phrase, that they definitely don’t want to see skipped over. As one friend of mine frequently rants – years later – ‘they didn’t even kiss!’ However, there are plenty of other steps along the way that exist only through repetition of established form and these works, despite following the successful model, fail to satisfy.

Or we see variations on the surface, changes to the superficial world that don’t carry through to the underlying form. Either in terms of leaving it essentially unaltered, something which insults the readers ability to recognise the manipulation. Readers are much more sophisticated than many writer’s credit them. The rise of the anti-hero who is actually just as self sacrificing and noble as a Ideal Hero, but you know he wears black and smirks a lot, is a good example of this.

Or they change the wrong element,  failing to understand why it was the way it was, and leave the reader disengaged or dissatisfied emotionally.

I want to take a moment to address that word, ’emotionally’, because some people tend to take issue with it. They think its applicable only to soap operas. They think when I talk about making it emotionally appealing I’m suggesting something along the lines of the abysmal Arrow or Smallville. Good lord no, that’s precisely what I am advocating against. They’ve alienated their primary audience precisely because they didn’t understand what would appeal to them. Emotional engagement speaks to excitement, intrigue, tension, curiosity. It doesn’t just mean weepy declarations of love and self-pitying angst fests. Just as relationships are not all sappy romances and likeable characters aren’t always nice guys. You’re a writer, engage with the word in all its dimensions.

Lets return to our quest. Because I know nothing about romance. There’s a scroll. You have been tasked with finding it and saving the Kingdom. You assemble your ragtag crew. There’s one clue, passed down through the generations. You solve it, it leads to another. Then another. You throw in some fanatical snake headed pursuers, a helpful smitten princess – mildly distracting our hero from his beautiful but prickly crewmate. A final face off with the King of the snake headed fanatics, and boom! we’re all saved..

What would you change to make it non-linear? Unpredictable and exciting?

A great deal of emphasis tends to go into the end twist. The mildly distracting Princess is the King(ess?) of the Snake heads! Gasp!

Not only is the twist so common it’s now a formula all of its own but something as superficial as this won’t remedy the plodding nature of the journey. The reason that Sixth Sense worked was because of how it altered the way we thought about everything that come before, how we perceived the character, his life, his purpose. The twist made it into an entirely different story. Not only is this particularly hard to do well, but even when it is, it tends to leave the writer unable to dig deeper into the world and characters for fear of revealing too much. The entire thing risks becoming a sleight of hand, balanced precariously on misdirection and withholding. And in books, far more than films, that’s a problem, we’re investing far more time to the journey, and most of us, we rather like digging.

What are we actually invested in? Do we care about the Kingdom? We haven’t spent much time there. I have seen an attempt to remedy this by creating alternate storylines wherein we spend time with the helpless Kingdom as it crumbles under the magical ravaging threat. If you make the threat incredibly interesting, this might work. Mostly however it ignores the reason we picked up a quest book in the first place – it’s the closest we’ll ever get to setting sail for high adventure. We’re explorers. Our gaze is forward fixed not backwards.

The Scroll then? The scroll is simply a means to saving the Kingdom. You can add another twist to this, a la Kung Fu Panda. Long lost, turned to ash, a old man behind a curtain. But the emphasis is still on saving the Kingdom, something we’re not that interested in. Even if you throw in that helpful princess and her elite fighting forces as a nice alternate solution and create a backwards loop, until you identify what it is that really hooks the reader, you’ll be left with something neat, clever but hollow. And yes linear, because trust me, your reader has already noted that elite fighting force. Your surprise will be expected, but their expectations will not be surprised.

The answer will vary from person to person, and the best answer you’ll find is when you ask yourself. And then ask yourself again, and then again. Most of us initially don’t know exactly why we are drawn to certain books and away from others. Like me struggling with why so many left me dissatisfied as a kid. We don’t know how to verbalise what we feel and we latch on to obvious superficial details, which is probably how genre arose in the first place. I don’t like much fantasy, yet some of my favourite books are fantasy. I almost never read historical fiction yet I adore both Austen and Lee.

That’s not to say many readers of fantasy don’t love fantasy. I used to say I was a sci-fi slut. I’d read anything from that section of the library. I’ve grown more discerning but yes, the weird and fantastical, the inventive and mind boggling has an allure of its own.

However, I don’t want to delve too much into character and worldbuilding, because these are the pieces and the board, and plot is the game. That doesn’t mean they are separate – they are never separate in good storytelling – but in this instalment the emphasis is on the relationships, the dynamics between the elements, how we use plot to reveal character and our fixed elements to drive the action.

 It was never about the monster. It was about the emotion. The monster came from that. We didn’t always make them unique. We tried as much as possible, but what was important was how they related to the characters and that’s what made them unique. – Joss Whedon

One of the main things that bothered me in both of the books I read recently, those that inspired this series, is how shallow and uninteresting the relationships were. In part of course this does come down to character and other fixed elements. Their needs, wants, fears and obligations were never well developed, or even mentioned in some cases. But it goes so much further. There was no tension, no growth, no conflict. In one, the main potential hot young love interest declares his love for our heroine before our adventure even begins. They even plan a date.  This explodes the ticking timebomb of their relationship and kills any will they/won’t they speculation. Some – I’m guessing the writer – might labour under the misapprehension that this is an annoying cliché best got rid of. How its done can certainly be annoying and clichéd, but all they are actually getting rid of is a good reason to read on, tension, stakes, curiosity about how things will pan out. When our heroine makes a tit of herself in front of Hot Young Potential Love Interest (HYPLI?) it doesn’t matter, he’s hers. Whey they run into that sexy alien, no worries, he’s hers. When he comes across like he’s thoroughly p’d off with her, she knows he’s still hers. If I am completely honest I couldn’t really figure out what he was doing there.

Blindly attempting to subvert formula, being different for the sake of it, often leads to contrived conflicts, going against established rules of character and world. Even those who identify (and it aint rocket science, sadly I’d be terrible at that) the importance of creating emotional draws, don’t seem to recognise how to do this, mostly they put the emphasis on the story and not on the reader and how the two interact. It leads to an over-reliance on blunt tools, such as raising the bad guy body count to that of an exponentially self replicating virus, trite montages, poor little unloved hero flashbacks, long monologues where our HYPLI tells our modest heroine of how amazing she doesn’t know she is and the inclusion of otherwise pointless characters such as dying children and siblings with random ailments (most of which cause big eyes and sickly sweet advice). The reason they feel the need to raise the stakes til the universe is ending, is because no matter how high they ratchet it up, they just don’t care. This is linear thinking. A sad thing causes sadness, an exciting thing causes excitement. Fiction is not that simple, especially in the written form. Car chases make me yawn, body counts are literally just numbers. You need to think beyond the obvious. The most exciting moment in The Chamber of Secrets was when a boy wrote his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle..

 There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT – Men In Black

A linear plot is marked by static signposts. Moving parts make it infinitely harder to see the full picture and predict the outcome. In short they keep your reader on their toes, excited, engaged. All your main elements should be interacting and acting on one another, changing one another, shifting the goalposts. Or signposts.

To return to our quest. We follow a clue, we turn up in our new exotic land, adventure ensues, odds overcome, clue found and we’re on to the next land. This fails to do the above, because no matter how interesting a diversion it was, it didn’t really matter much. Nothing that happened there apart from the clue was of consequence, and even finding the clue doesn’t deviate from our course, like the sun following the moon, it’s as expected. Even if this is where we meet our mildly distracting Princess who becomes either saving grace or King of all Evil, it doesn’t change the linear flow. She simply reappears at the end. But what if mildly distracting Princess ends up coming along with our crew? That’s really going to throw a spanner in the budding romance with Prickly But Beautiful. And should she turn out to be the King of All Evil, after becoming a member of the crew, friend, trusted ally?

That’s a particularly bold example. You can’t pick up a new crewmate in every harbour, that becomes a formula in itself. But the way that one change can create other changes throughout your story, is where the interest really lies. Men in Black use a similar format, tracking down clues which leads them ultimately to a face off – or skin off – with the Big Bad. In one early interview we have a squeeze-the-slightly-dodgy-informant-set -up, a standard of the genre, however the way in which they play with this format makes it a genius piece of subversion and non-linear revelation.

Not merely because of the way it plays with our expectations in all the ways that we want it to, but never would have predicted, but because of the way they subtly alter how Jay interprets his new world and develop the relationship between him and the stoic Kay. The noisy cricket, the tiny little Kinder egg gun, from the man who calls him ‘sport’ and ‘kid’ at every opportunity, but turns out to be so powerful it blows him out the window. Kay’s seemingly cold blooded act of murder, forcing Jay to turn his noisy cricket on him, right at the moment the man he’s just shot grows another head. He is increasingly being wrong footed and it is forcing him to put his trust in a man who explains nothing, and is as unpredictable as the new world. Of course Jay isn’t quite the trusting type, yet.

To return to an analogy I used in the first part of this, think of it like throwing a pebble in a pond. Too many writers think it causes only one ripple moving in one direction. In reality the ripples are everywhere, moving forward, back, sideways. And when they bump into those static elements, those signposts stuck in the water, more ripples form.

Consequence is your friend if you are remotely interested in depth and nuance. Not a shocker that I like this. I like the little touches, the details. It’s hard to even think of an example because the real little touches, they fade into the background, but it’s this background that allows everything else, the important things, to stand out. A good way to get a handle on ripples is to understand the currents that drive them. Some might refer to these as themes. They aren’t always obvious til the end, but good writing is re-writing. In Men in Black a recurring theme is seen in the way the obvious is subverted, from Jay ignoring the monsters and shooting the little girl in the training test to the galaxy on the cats collar. The theme is things are not always what you think; small can be powerful, ugly can be beautiful. Using a theme this way, a link between your ripples, creates a sort of alternate storyline beneath the surface adding depth and making that line a little less linear.

No, I’m not finished yet. One more instalment, then I might have a handle on this. Here’s a pressie in the meantime. I still love this!! You have no soul if your foot doesn’t start tapping immediately.