03 September, 2012

Follow the What!?

"The reader follows the character, not the story," wrote Scott Bradfield.

As this quote exemplifies, the thing about most good writing advice is that it sucks.

It's like a fog horn.  You're lost, drifting alone, blinded by doubts as well as hope.  You hear some distant calling.  You face the general direction.  Eventually if you persevere it becomes a distant light.  You're not sure.  It could be the moon.  Perhaps you'll just circle your lonely planet, wind up where you started.  But you persevere anyway.  Then it becomes blinding, and your eyes adjust and you can see, and then you realise this glimmer you've captured only helps make obvious further darkness, farther down the ocean.  And then you begin all over again.

When Scott said this to me I was confused, pleased, and I was certain that it had instantly raised my level of understanding.  Then I tried to write, and realised that it hadn't helped a smeg.  I'd only heard the fog horn.  It was years before I'd found the light and I'm now in every artists eternal struggle with using such knowledge:  the struggle with craft for perfection.

The ideal of a writer is to reach readers.  I'll re-iterate this point a million times (that's not a numerical promise--see End User Licence agreement 1.3:  smeg smeg bollocks et cetera).  Again, as with most advice, it seems obvious but it's vital to ponder about.  Imagine each story is a crystal ball.  Most are all cloudy and convoluted.  Ideas certainly tend to start that way.  But the reader wants a story.  They've picked up your ball and stared into it.  The clarity with which they see your magic is the quality of your story.

Now, you're going to hear many terms that separate a story into its elements, and these are important to understand, and mostly so because you don't want to lose sight of the ultimate unity of a story for incomplete understanding of what its components are for--forest for the trees and such.

I'll write a post on each element alone to discuss each in greater depth, but for now I'll make an overview to illustrate a point.  Most writers and editors will differentiate four story elements:  plot, character, setting, theme.  That's also what you'll hear a million (not an actual million, see above disclaimer) times on your way to meeting your first good writer.  Now, it's true in a sense, but the trouble is, if you think too hard about it you'll get confused because it's so infuriatingly incomplete.  The (good) writers who make this differentiation have a holistic understanding of these elements.

So, plot:  The aforementioned bad teachers will define this is the "action" of your story.  They're wrong, but only because they don't know what "action" means.  It isn't a story's happenstance.  It's about what happens.  Many writers will talk about a story's "arc".  They don't mean, as how-to journals will tell you, that a story has a "hook", a "climax" and an "end".  Those terms are misleading.  Rather, something compelling happens and this is carried forward to a satisfying conclusion.  See the difference?  (We'll return to this distinction many times.  Everything in a good story is action of a type, and this is very confusing.  For now, let's just focus on the difference between these two ideologies.)  In the latter, the focus is on the reader, not the words; an ultimate goal, not component elements.  Good writing isn't decoding an idea, it's making the idea evocative for readers.  Too much focus on components and we can forget their purpose. 

Character:  Who is in your story?  Why are they there?  See how these questions apply equally to every story element?  This has been discussed in "Readers and Characters".  Some will tell you that characters are a story's people, but since not all stories have people, this must be bollocks.  Characters are a story's personalities.  It is those personalities, those human connections, through which the reader will experience the story.

Setting:  Where are we?  Sometimes where a story takes place will be more important than other times, some will tell you, but sadly, this is also bollocks.  A setting will always influence the mood of a piece and its characters (intrinsically as one).  There aren't degrees of importance in art, only quality of execution.  However, in some stories the setting will be more integral for the overall purpose, and if that's true, a setting isn't just where a story takes place.  It's the mood of your piece.  It's possible for the story's atmosphere be the chief opponent of our main character.  Just look at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Theme:  Here's a tricky one.  When something looks simple in art, you can bet it's one of the more difficult things to understand.  Often a thing's simplicity means simply that there are no guidelines.  Theme means your story's "idea", right?  Wrong.  "Idea" can mean anything from a cat shaped door-mat that stirred your imagination to the general premise that people should be nicer to each other.  Not every story has a theme, and not every story wants one.  It isn't the "purpose", because that's to impact upon the reader.  It isn't the "moral", because some of the deepest themes don't attempt to define right and wrong.  You might ask a writer, "What's it about?" and receive for reply, "A dog/cat hybrid named Lassfield!"  Then you ask, "Okay, but what's it about?" and receive a blank stare.  A theme is a story's idea about the universe.  I avoid saying it's about "life", here, because it need not even be about that.  I must say "universe" simply to be all-encompassing, and I think that illustrates just how encompassing the notion of "theme" really is.

Now, let's go waaaaaaaaaay back to our metaphor about the crystal ball.  We've just taken the ball and smashed it on the floor.  Thankfully, I haven't mislabelled the shards, but the rest is still up to you:  figure out how to stick it all back together again.  It may seem impossible, but the list of authors who can do it is long, and it's the most definite, least luck dependent way to become successful.  I'll make a post on each element individually to discuss them in greater depth, but you should always refer back to this post.  The point here is that they're all shards of the same ball.  You should never, in creating a story, keep them separate.  Even to say they "support each other" fails to define their nature.  In essence, they are one.  As with most advice, this last bit sucks.  It doesn't mean anything right away.  But it does help.  It's a fog horn.  Keep your ears open to it, acutely as you learn.

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