So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
- What does this character want immediately/externally?
- What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
- What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
- What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
- What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
- What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
Figuring that out is where plots come from!
An expository dump (or info dump) is a “a very large amount of information supplied all at once, expecially as background information in a narrative.” That’s a rather academic definition, and like most language definitions, it contains subjective terms. Exposition is simply text that explains something. Narratives need a certain amount of exposition to work. What I object to is large chunks of explanation that stops the action of the story. For example, a few years ago I wrote about a fantasy novel I stopped reading because the third or fourth chapter of the book consisted entirely of one character lecturing another about the history of the world. That’s sloppy writing, at best.
I don’t have anything against exposition, per se. There’s a lot of expository writing in some of my favorite novels. Just earlier this week, for instance, I was reading in Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair (which is a non-eurocentric steampunk novel, so far), a description of a small train. The description gave us some hints of how the fictional world’s technology differs from our own history, gave us a sense of not just the look of one of the supporting characters, but his personality, and also had hints about the social strata of the country which the viewpoint character was visiting. But this wasn’t a long passage. It was only two paragraphs. And rather than prattling on for pages about the history of the country, it gave us a few tidbits of information from which we could infer more. And it isn’t just description. Something is happening: a supporting character is arriving to some anticipation of the viewpoint character.
In my own writing you will find very little exposition. To me, the heart of any story are the triumphs, failures, hopes, and fears of the characters moving through it. Yes, I’ve done a lot of world building. If you ask, I can go on an length about all sorts of things in the history of the fictional world where my fantasy novels are set. I have to know all of that stuff to tell stories. But most readers are interested only in a fraction of it.
No one wants to read a scene in which one character prattles on about how ten years ago when the previous emperor died, a group of traitorous nobles assassinated several of the heirs in an attempt to grab the throne for themselves, including the motives of each of the conspirators, who died and who survived. When it was important to the plot I’m writing now, I had one character mention “the succession crisis in the capitol year ago.” There was another point where that history was relevant to the reason one character was hostile to another, and was able to have just a few lines of the argument between those characters give a few more details. But those lines also moved the plot point that was happening right that moment along, and gave the reader some insight into the personalities of the two arguers (as well as a couple of other characters who were trying to get them to stop arguing and deal with the problem at hand).
I do that because I trust that readers are smart enough to put pieces together and build their own picture of the world. I don’t need the reader to visualize exactly how the stitching on a character’s clothing looks, or the precise shape of the filigree on a particular piece of furniture, or to keep track of which pillows are round and which are square in order to follow the story.
If I wanted to tell the story of the succession crisis, I would make the crisis itself the story. I’d pick one of the characters involved as my protagonist and tell the tale. But if it’s backstory, we don’t need all the details. Sure, it’s handy to know that in the present timeline, one particular vampire-like character was one of the failed conspirators who was cursed by someone who loved one of the murdered heirs (hey, it’s a fantasy universe, why can’t we have a good curse every now and then?). That tells you how the character wound up an evil parasitic undead, and gives you some hints as to how trustworthy he is going to be to his alleged allies in the current story. It may also help the reader understand his motives at later points in the tale. But I was able to convey that in a couple of lines of dialog and keep moving on with the current tale.
Not everyone is as comfortable without all the details as I am. I understand that. And there’s a part of me that always worries that I haven’t given readers enough clues. So sometimes I do something like write a whole chapter worth of flashback, which I read and re-read and argue with myself about whether it’s really needed and do I really want pull the reader out of the current story.
And eventually I usually figure out that if I tweaked some dialog over here, and add a small scene where two characters who weren’t aware of the past events find some of the aftermath, and realize that yes, I should trust the reader to figure it out and move those flashbacks over into my big file of background information that the reader is never going to see.
Because part of trusting the story is trusting the reader to not just to follow it. I want the reader caught up in the story I’m telling right now. I want the reader turning the pages as quickly as they can, breathlessly asking, “And then what happens?”
Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.
In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.
Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.
In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.
I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.
To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.
Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.
Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.
When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.
“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen
Years ago a friend shared an article from Writer’s Digest that referenced the old Krazy Kat newspaper comic strip, which had a running gag involving one of the characters getting hit in the head with a brick. The article said that the place to begin your story is the moment your protagonist his hit in the head metaphorically by the problem or conflict or riddle which forms the basis of the plot. The moment when the character realizes this is a big problem. The moment when the character discovers that this isn’t just going to be another day in her life.
I read a lot of amateur fiction, fan fiction, and rough drafts of other people’s work. And I’ve noticed that lots of people don’t understand that. They start the story long before the brick. They may still start the story when something disruptive happens in the character’s life, but it’s more like a moment that they character stumbled on a door step, days or weeks or months before the brick.
The worst are stories that end with the brick. We meet a character who is in a difficult situation. We meet some of the other characters in the protagonist’s life. Things happen and the situation gets worse. We see the character struggle with the issue, trying to figure out what’s really happening. The character attempts to get out of the bad situation a few ways, and either fails entirely or achieves a temporary relief that leads to a worse situation. And then there’s a big dramatic, shocking moment… and the story just stops. We’ve finally reach a point where the story has gotten really interesting, and the writing snaps the book closed and snatches the story, metaphorically, from our hands.
I just finished a story like that, where the character suffers through a lot, persevering through an unjust imprisonment and enduring various indignities, making a teeny bit of headway with one of the other prisoners, and then finally learning a little bit about one (and only one) of the mysteries the writer had been teasing us with for the entire story, and then that was it—an previously unseen character whose existence had been hinted at appears, causes a lot of damage, rescues the other prisoner and leaves. We get a denouement in which the protagonist is released, receives an apology of sorts from some of the authorities and goes. We never know what happened to any of the specific people responsible for the imprisonment, we never learn why a lot of the things that happened to the character happened, et cetera.
That’s not an ending, that’s an abandonment!
I know that someone will defend the author’s decisions by saying that we don’t always get all the answers in real life, and that bad people don’t always get what we think they deserve, and so on. But this isn’t real life. It’s fiction. The difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has the make sense. The author is free to tell and omit what he or she wants, yes, but never forget that it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. You may not want to tell the story about the mysterious character who rescues one of the others in the end for whatever reason. But by structuring the rest of the story this way, the author has teased the reader. Worse than that, the author has misled the reader. The author has laid out a lot of intriguing questions, sprinkle in some enticing tidbits, clearly implying that those breadcrumbs would lead to something interesting. And then the author didn’t deliver.
It’s a bait and switch.
Don’t get me wrong: leaving some things open-ended for the reader to debate and wrestle with is all right. But the conflict introduced the beginning needs to be resolved (by the protagonist’s own actions) at the end. Not solved, necessarily, but resolved. I failure to solve the problem is a resolution, after all.
This particular “story” isn’t actually a story, it’s the backstory to a story the author didn’t write. At least the way it is structured. It’s like. Sci fi story I read a long time ago in which a journalist is approached by a crackpot claiming people are being replaced by robots. The journalist doesn’t believe the guy at first, then various things happen that make it seem there might be something sinister going on, then the crackpot suddenly changes his tune, insisting he was mistaken and off his meds. The story ends with the journalist laying in bed, unable to sleep, something makes him check his wife for a heartbeat. And the final line of the story is that he can’t hear a heart beat in her chest, just a mechanical whirring!
It might have even ended with more than one exclamation point.
That wasn’t an ending, that was a beginning. Because the interesting tale isn’t that people don’t believe dangerous things are happening around them. The most interesting conflict is: what do you do when you find out your loved one has been replaced by an android?
Go back to the brick. Crackpots spout nonsense at people all the time. You don’t have to be a journalist to have some stranger come up to you and make extraordinary claims. Just stand at a bus stop on a busy bus line for a few hours and it will happen a lot. If you are a journalist, it must be even more common place. So that wasn’t a brick, it wasn’t even a stumble. It was business as usual. The brick was finding out the crackpot was correct. The story scould have begun with, “Everything fell apart night John discovered his wife had no heart. He had been chuckling to himself just before hand. A crazy man had contacted him, insisting he had proof of a conspiracy. John had known it had to be a delusion, despite all the evidence and the strange incidents that happened with the cars with darkened windows and mysterious sounds behind closed doors. He had only checked as a joke. It would make a funny story to share at the next cocktail party. But then he put the stenthoscope to her sleeping chest…”
And then you go from there. You don’t need all the back story. You can fill in details later, if needed. Fit the facts the reader needs to understand in dialog, that sort of thing.
Find the brick. Hit your character in the head. And then show us what she does about it!
I always thought I was one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans. I was 16 years old when the first movie was released, and I saw it with two slightly older friends one of whom was a hard core science fiction/fantasy fan who subscribed to magazines and fanzines no one had heard of and was always talking about the intricacies of how this make-up artist did that thing, et cetera. Our small town in southwest Washington state had only two theatres back then and seldom got anything new, so these friends were always driving down to Portland, Oregon to see movies none of us had heard of.
They convinced me to go see this movie that they thought might be good on opening night. My mind was blown away. We hadn’t expected it to be so awesome. The next day we convinced several of our friends to caravan down in several cars to see Star Wars in a big group. They were equally as mind-blown.
We took another group of friends down a couple weekends later. Over the course of the summer of ’77, I drove myself and various friends down another 13 times to watch Star Wars again. The movie finally opened at one of our small town theatres in August, I think, and some friends who had refused to take the long drive to see it finally went with me to watch it on a fairly tiny screen. By that point, I not only knew every single line of dialog, but I could engage in trivia battles with my friends.
I organized excursions to go see each of the two sequels on opening day. For Return of the Jedi, two of my best friends and I got up at 4am to drive down to the big theatre in Oregon where I’d first seen Star Wars and Empire and we sat in line all day. I was 18th in line that morning for the first showing to the film.
I’m always a little amazed when I realize how many friends I have, now, who were too young to have experienced the movies the way I did. To them, Obi Wan, Luke, Leia, and Han weren’t cool characters in this awesome movie, they were beings of legend on a par with Santa Claus or Moses. And thus many of those friends have gone through all the phases of believing in the original tale, learning that it is a story that someone somewhere made up, becoming a bit cynical about the process of making movies and selling toys, and so on. Which isn’t to say they they don’t love the films. A lot of them revere them, and defend them as a treasured part of their childhood.
I didn’t go through those phases with this particular story. I was old enough that I could see which parts of the movie were homages to the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, which parts of the movie harkened to Westerns, and so on. That didn’t make me love the story any less, by no means. Look how many times I drove to watch it!
I didn’t own my own copy of the movie on VHS tape until I was nearly 30 years old. It was one of the first movies I bought after finally getting my own VCR. (That’s another thing, I’m old enough to remember when VCRs were a new gadget that only really well-to-do people could afford to own.)
To this day when I watch the original movie, I find it a little jarring to see those words “Episode IV – A New Hope” appear at the top of that initial screen crawl. That wasn’t there for that entire first run of the movie. It was added when the movie was released on home video, and in the re-release to theatres just before The Empire Strikes Back came out. It doesn’t matter that for 37 years that movie has been referred to as “Episode IV: A New Hope,” my visceral reaction is, “No. That isn’t the real name. The real name of the movie is simply ‘Star Wars.'”
I’m not recounting all of this to disparage anyone else’s appreciation of the film, or to try to prove that I’m more of an authority than anyone else. I chose my opening sentence to this post with a purpose. It implies something that I now want to make explicit: I always thought I was one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans, but I’m not the biggest. I can’t be. I have seen people very literally insist that they will cease to be friends with people if those people spoil the new movie for them.
And that’s simply insane.
Seriously, you are the sort of person who will discard another human being because they slip up and mention something about a movie?
I love Star Wars. It changed my life. It changed my view of storytelling. It set a standard that I still measure other stories against. And I’m a storyteller myself, now, who believes that storytelling is not merely fundamental to the definition of human, but that it is a transformational force which can move the world. I believe all of that, but I’m also able to understand that a plot twist is not more important than a human being. A literary surprise should not be more valuable to you than the love or affection you feel for another person.
I’ve made ludicrous statements myself, such as that I can’t be friends with someone who thinks The Phantom Menace was a good script. I’ve said things about movies or books or shows that I love and people who don’t share my enthusiasm which were insensitive at best, and outright cruel/pure assholery at worst. And then felt like a complete heel when I realized how I sounded. So I recognize that people might be being just a little hyperbolic. I realize that maybe these same people would regret it if they really did ostracize someone for “spoiling” the movie.
I hope, at least. Because here’s the thing: if you really love Star Wars that much, you should love the fact that other people love it. And maybe they don’t love it exactly the way you do. And maybe they love it so much that when they talk about it they reveal some details that you think of as spoilers, where as they think they’re just telling you it was awesome. It’s fine to let people know that you would like to be spoiler-free. And clearly, if someone tells you the ending for the malicious and intentional purpose of upsetting you, they are being an asshole and maybe you would be better off without them.
I try, myself, not to mention plot twists or reveals and the like of anything I’m watching or reading. I constantly bite my tongue about which clone is my favorite in the series Orphan Black, for instance, because merely mentioning my love of the character could spoil an important plot-twist that happens near the beginning of the second season. Even though it has been out for years, now, there are still friends I’m trying to get to watch the show, and I don’t want to ruin the joy I felt when that reveal happened.
But it’s just a story. It isn’t actually a matter of life and death. And just as we hurt people when we make disparaging remarks about things they like that we don’t, we also cause pain when we piss all over someone else’s enthusiasm. We shouldn’t do that. Especially about things they love.
I’m trying to learn not to do it. Won’t you join me?
But, getting the rough draft together is no mean feat. And it’s whole lot easier to revise something once you’ve got a rough draft than it is to create the first draft to begin with6.
Now, some people operate under the mistaken notion that by editing we mean going through the story line by line to correct spelling and get the punctuation right. No, that’s copy editing. And you do that at the very end. Which isn’t to say that you oughtn’t fix any spelling errors, typos, and so forth that you notice during the first editing pass, but that isn’t what editing is. It’s not even the most important part of editing.
Storytelling isn’t about creating perfectly structured sentences with perfectly spelled words and having every comma at just the right spot. One reason why that isn’t nearly as important as many people think is because there are a lot fewer rules of grammar than most people believe. There are wrong ways to use a comma, yes, but there are an infinite number of completely different but still right ways to use (or omit) one as well. A lot of the “rules” that people have learned aren’t rules at all. They aren’t even, often, good guidelines. They are preferences in some case—and outright myths in others.
Writing isn’t a simple algorithmic function. A story needs to live and breathe. A story has a mood, sometimes that mood changes as the tale moves along. Some parts of a story move more quickly than others. You may have a rapid fight scene with a lot of angry posturing and taunting between the opponents, followed by a more leisurely description of the aftermath, when the conquering heroine comforts the person she rescued. And you control pacing by varying things like length of sentence, length of paragraphs, choices of punctuation, and so on.
No style guide, no matter how good, can tell you how to structure a sentence to be brassy and defiant. You have to let the context be your guide.
But before you get to copy editing, you need to revise, restructure, and clean up your story. In my day job as a technical writer we have several terms for different types of editing. And the one you need to concern yourself with first is what we call a developmental edit. This is where you look at things such as the structure of the story, the plotting, the pacing, the characterization, the tone, and the overall reading experience. This is something that is very hard to do to your own work if you haven’t been writing for a long time, but it’s something you can learn, and just like writing, you learn it primarily by doing. But you also have to study.
Pick up some good books about structure and narrative7, and read at least one all the way through before you pick up your manuscript at start the edit pass. I admit, at least half of the reason I give this particular piece of advice is to give you some time away from your story. You need some emotional distance in order to look at your work objectively8.
Then you need to look at the story first as a whole. What is your central conflict that drives your main character’s actions? Does this conflict run like a thread from the beginning to the end of the story, or does it get tangled and cut off midway through, and another conflict entirely take over?
What about the emotional arc of each of your characters? This is another way of looking at the theme of the story. Why should the reader care about the things that happen to your leads and supporting characters? What is at stake and how do they feel about it? In what way do they change? Or what prevents them from changing?
Does the order of events make sense? Are you missing connecting scenes? Do you need to have a few characters spell out their motives a bit more?
Is the pacing of the story overall consistent with the plot? Does the pacing of individual scenes match the mood, purpose, and context of that scene?
Do your sub-plots compliment the main plot, or are they distractions? Does each sub-plot line up with the emotional arc of at least one character?
There’s a lot to work on. And at some point you’re going to have to let someone you trust (and by trust, I mean, they will give you their honest opinion) read what you’ve got to see how they react to it. So long as you remember Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Before you do that, you should try the trick of reading it aloud in an empty room. You will be amazed when you read a scene aloud to yourself at all of the things that are wrong with it which you never noticed while reading it silently.
Editing is work, but it has rewards. There will be moments during the editing process when you’re just sloughing through, and start wondering if it’s worth it. And there will be other moments that inspiration will strike and you’ll find yourself writing new bits or revising existing bits that feel as exciting as the best moments of the first draft.
Just remember: the goal is to tell the story the best that you can. Never forget that.
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
1. A writer I follow on Twitter re-tweeted another writer who said, “An agent recently told me that every December 1 she receives hundreds of unsolicited, awful, unedited manuscripts. Don’t be that person.” So, obviously, there are people who don’t realize that a rough draft needs edit and re-write passes2.
2. This shouldn’t surprise me. As the editor of a non-profit amateur publishing project for more than 20 years I frequently received unsolicited manuscripts from people who were absolutely aghast when we asked for re-writes. “Can’t you do that?”3.
3. And I’ve written before about people who have never written a thing in their lives and are convinced that their life experiences would make a great book—and then find out that I’m a writer. They are always shocked that I’m not willing let them tell me their anecdotes so that I will write it up for them for a promise of a small percentage of the proceeds?4
4. Though my favorite was still the woman who, after listening to my explanation of the project at our table in a Dealer’s Den of a sci fi convention, asked if we she could dictate her stories to us and we just write it down. I referred her to services that will do that and she was appalled that someone would actually charge to type her stories for her. “I’m doing the hard part! I thought it up!”5
5. See, it isn’t just artists who have to contend with this!
6. Even though there are times while working on the rough draft that you probably despaired of ever finishing, there were also times when the words just seemed to fly from your fingers. You didn’t always know what was coming next, but right that moment, inspiration was driving you, and it was fun.
7. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure by Jesse Lee Kercheval is an excellent place to start. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Garder is excellent. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham is very good. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. LeGuin is very good. There are a lot of other excellent choices. Lots of people swear by Stephen King’s On Writing, and it’s an excellent book, but I found it more useful in terms of thinking about the writing process than looking at the structure of a finished story.
8. Or as objectively as anyone can look at anything.
Over dinner last night, my husband pointed out2 that C.S. Lewis, even when writing stories that were meant to be Biblical allegory, remembered that the stories had to be stories first: fully-rounded characters that you care about facing obstacles that seem insurmountable which they overcome through their own actions. And that made me realize that even Lewis’s Christian apologetic novel, The Screwtape Letters was less preachy than some of the other stories we were discussing—because even while discoursing on the nature of human imperfection in the form of letters from a senior demon to his nephew (who is a Junior Tempter), Lewis created a demon who was, as a character, sympathetic and relatable.
I’ve written about this before, during which I quoted (and disagreed with) a Christian filmmaker’s argument that all fiction has a message. The same argument has been being repeated by a lot of people in the discussions specifically about sci fi/fantasy writing, with a new variant: maybe none of us (of any political opinion) notice the messages we agree with because we are so passionate about the things we believe.
I think this is just as wrong as the earlier version. All fiction tells stories, yes, and those stories will embody the values of the author in many ways. I’ve given the example that part of my fundamental temperament is a refusal to accept a no-win situation4, and therefore even when I write grim stories with unhappy endings5, there winds up being at least some hint of a glimmer of hope somewhere in the tone of the story.
But the C.S. Lewis example belies that notion that all fiction is message fic. Yes, some people find the allegory of the Narnia books not to their liking, but I haven’t met anyone who’s read them who can’t explain the plot. Yet, I read scores of reviews of “Parliament of Beast and Birds” earlier this summer (by some very smart people) who couldn’t find a plot6.
So I remain firm in believing that if your story is a message, you’re dong it wrong. That isn’t how you make good art.
I agree that messages are to be found in stories. But they ought to be more like that one alluded to in the Neal Gaiman quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” They are meanings that can be inferred by the reader. They are meanings that different readers will interpret in different ways. The interpretations of some readers can contradict the interpretations of other readers and can contradict the interpretation of the author.
Some readers will come away from the story knowing that dragons can be beaten. Others will come away convinced that wizards always find loopholes. Others will say that kings always find ways to take credit for other people’s work. Others may say the message is never to underestimate the damsel. And some, of course, will say the message is humans would rather kill an endangered species than learn how to live with them.
If the story is art, if the storyteller has done their job, the world of the story should be vivid enough and rich enough for readers to find and see all of those sorts of things in the tale. Which is what you want. You want the reader to be transported into a world that they will experience and interpret themselves. You want the reader to share your vision, yes, but you want that vision to take on a life of its own and for the reader to find visions of their own.
That is the opposite of a sermon, whose goal is to bring a person around to thinking the “right” way. To adhere to the truth as defined by the speaker.
I want my readers to run through the imaginary world and find new things that I never dreamed of.
1. Which is why many of us reviewing those stories commented along these lines: “Oh, Puppies, just because you agree with the message, it does not make the work any less message fiction.”
2. We were on the subject because he had been reading one of his favorite sci fi zine sites and had gotten pulled into the comments section of a book review, if I recall correctly3.
3. I was into my second glass of my favorite wine at my favorite restaurant, so I am probably getting the details wrong.
4. Intellectually, I know that lots of situations are no-win, but there’s always that one voice in the back of my head arguing that we should just spend a little more time and try something else…
5. And despite the fact that more than one reader has accused me of being a hopeless optimist who writes everything through rose-colored glasses, I actually have written more than a few tragedies.
6. Or figure out what the story was supposed to be about7.
7. Quick sum-up: imagine an idiot savant has read some Aesop’s Fables and then binge-read the entire Christian apocalyptic snuff-porn series, Left Behind8, and then attempts to write fanfic of it.
8. To be fair, much of the New Testament’s Book of Revelations is treated as snuff-porn by a lot of Xtians I knew growing up. One of them was me. It was my grandfather who pointed out to me that I was spending all my time and energy focusing on the end of the word, when god put us here to build each other up and make the world a better place.
Others argue in the opposite direction. Once you learn basic spelling and grammar, they claim, fiction writing is just about making things up. It’s not possible to get anything wrong. If you accidentally contradict yourself, well, it’s your story, change it! They believe it’s much more difficult to learn and understand all the parts of a device or program or process and then explain it in a concise way.
Both arguments are exactly wrong. And both contain as much truth as falsehood.
A writer’s job—whether she is a novelist, technical writer, journalist, or historian—is to take an idea or vision they have in their own head, and use words to evoke or transfer that same knowledge to the mind of the reader. That process, the meeting of minds, is ultimately the same whether you are describing how to configure a clustered server application, an adventure in a distant galaxy, or the process to make your great-grandma’s chicken noodle casserole.
There are specifics in each of those scenarios that are different, but they all use the same skills. And non-fiction is never as straight forward as people think. This is why you end up with situations, such as the Stonewall movie I’m feeling trepidatious over (and wrote about yesterday). If you’re trying to tell someone about a series of actual events, you still have to make narrative decisions about where to begin, how much background information to include and when, which events to include and which to leave out, and where to end it.For a novel or movie based on a historical event, that also means choosing viewpoint characters, constructing an emotional arc you think will resonate with the audience, and arranging events to follow that arc to reach a satisfying conclusion. Real life seldom happens in a neat, precise order that perfectly follows Freytag’s Triangle.
So you have to make compromises. You fudge the timing of events to make a more dramatic and satisfying story, perhaps. This is what we actually mean by “artistic license.” In order to tell the story in a way that moves people, you take a few liberties. In the 1995 movie about the Stonewall Riots that I mentioned yesterday, for instance, they take an event that happened in 1966 and drop it into 1969. The sip-in was an event organized by the Mattachine Society, the non-radical gay rights organization that had been around since 1950. Lots of states had laws against bars serving gay people—specifically in New York at the time, a bar could lose its license if it simultaneously served drinks to more than one gay person. A single openly gay person at a bar was okay, but two (such as a couple on a date!) was a big no-no. So this group of very respectable-looking people went from bar to bar, made a big announcement that they were gay, and asked to be served. They had to go to a bunch of bars before someone refused to serve them, at which point they could file a lawsuit, whose ultimate aim was to get the regulation thrown out in court as a violation of the Constitutional rights of association and assembly. Which they did.
None of the people involved in the sip-in had anything to do with the Stonewall riots later on. And the Stonewall Inn was not one of the bars where they tried to get served at. The makers of the 1995 movie, for whatever reason, decided to have the heroes of their movie being the guys that also stages the sip-in, and had them do it a month or so before the riots at Stonewall. It doesn’t really make much sense, and it certainly isn’t how it happened. The filmmaker was probably trying to come up with a way to show that his fictionalized versions of the real people who spontaneously rose up in the riots were actively fighting for their rights before that night. It was a way to show them as being active, aware participants in history, to give them agency in the plot. Because, apparently, deciding as an unarmed person to physically fight back against a bunch of armed police officers isn’t active enough!
I think that’s going to ultimately prove to be what’s happening with that brick-throwing scene that everyone is up in arms about in the trailer. The movie maker, having decided to tell the story through his fictional character who is not based on any specific participant in the riots, and who was crafted specifically to be an archetypical everyman, needs to do something active to show agency, and to move the audience to see him as the hero of his personal narrative. That doesn’t necessarily excuse it, but it would explain it.
It is a tough problem. When I was doing an edit pass on the first book in my Trickster series, I realized that I had spent so much time weaving all of the subplots together (and all the jokes—the word apocalypse may be in the title of the first book, but I am writing light fantasy!) so that all the characters get to the big climactic battle and have their emotional arcs culminate, I had turned my main protagonist (and one of the supporting protagonists) into a soccer ball. They were each propelled by events from one part of the plot to the next, seldom showing any agency. They each made decisions along the way, but I had wound up writing those scenes in such a way that each was always reacting to events outside his control. Fortunately it didn’t take a lot of revision to recast some of those scenes to make it clear that there were actual choices being made. I added one scene to give the main protagonist a more active role in shaping the end result of the plot. I think it worked.
As a storyteller, I know why these decisions about how to make a compelling tale out of historical events happen. Your hope is that the overall effect is to illuminate the past, show how far we’ve come, and introduce people unfamiliar with the topic to the struggles of the people involved. If not done right, you might still please the audience, but you’ve muddled things up, erased the real heroes, and sold the viewer a pretty but awful lie.
I wrote yesterday about why I believe storytelling shouldn’t be preaching. I’ve also written about how author’s values inform stories, usually not in the ways you think.
Sometimes stories come about because the author is trying to figure something out. We write the tale hoping to find that answer. I wrote a story set in my Trickster universe that was one of those. I’d had the bare bones of the conflict in my head for a long time, a kind of just-so story to answer a question about how one of the characters got into a particular vocation. But while I had an opening problem, I didn’t know how it ended, so it sat in my big list of story ideas on the hard disk for a couple of years.
Completely unrelated, I had been struggling for a long time to understand a particular zen koan. And it occurred to me, one day, that this character’s struggle might be something like the koan.
The next thing I knew, I was writing a story… And what came out was something called “The Luminous Pearl, or the Second Tail of Sora.”
Go give it a read, and tell me what you think.
Brandon Ambrosino, writing for Vox, asks, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” He’s writing specifically about the recently released movie, “Old Fashioned,” though he mentions a few other recent examples. The full article is worth a read, but I want to focus on a couple of points:
As Daniel Siedell, Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City, notes, “For [Evangelical Christians], culture is a tool, a more effective way of getting at political realities, or winning the battle of ideas in the public arena.”
Siedell uses the following analogy with his students to explain what he means.
Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what’s inside.
Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad they are.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn’t matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.
Ambrosino eventually disagrees with this point, but I don’t think he does so as vehemently as he should. Quality is not just the packaging. Quality is an inherent property of the entire work of art. When you think you can make a work of art and treat the artistic qualities of the work as superfluous, you are not making art. Period. I understand the mind set of the evangelicals, believe me! I was raised in that sub-culture, and once people noticed I had what they considered Talent, everything I wrote and did was evaluated through that lens of whether they felt it was proclaiming the message of Christ.
I tried to make one of Ambrosino’s points at the time: if the quality of what we produce is a turn-off, it doesn’t matter how important the message is. People will never listen to your message if they are bored by your story/movie/what have you. But it always fell on deaf ears.
Part of the problem with both my argument then and Ambrosino’s now is that we’re conceding something that we know is wrong. In order to try to make the argument that they should try to be better at making art in order to get their message across, we are buying into the fallacy that art is merely a means to deliver a message. It’s their argument:
Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it’s important to note that Christian films aren’t the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, “have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they’re embodying those messages in their storytelling.”
I’ve written before that it is impossible to create art that is true to yourself without your values informing the work. That’s not the same thing as a message. I know that I’m a big believer in hope, so my stories, even when I write things I considered very dark, always have some hint of a glimmer of hope. But that isn’t the same as a message. I don’t write a story because I wish it will make other people feel the same way about hope as I do. I write stories because the stories want to be told. My own perspective will always be to look for that glimmer of hope, so I see the stories that way.
But each reader will have his or her own perspective, as well. And even though I am the storyteller, it’s their story, too. Their interpretation of what the story means (to them) is just as valid as mine.
And while I often have very strong opinions about the stories, art, and music I love; I understand that they are my opinions. I may think that your opinion about that particular piece of art is utterly wrong, but I will defend your right to express it. I may debate you about it, but I expect you to argue back.
That’s the difference between trying to send a message and letting your belief inform your artistic endeavors. I don’t consider it a failure if a reader doesn’t agree with me at the end. I don’t even consider it a failure if some reader’s don’t like the story at all. I especially don’t consider it a failure if a reader feels compelled to tell me just how much they hated one of the characters, or that they are angry at me about how the story ended.
Because in order to hate a character, you have to believe in the character. In order to be angry about how the story ended, you have to become invested in how it ends.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from readers who tell me they liked something, or that they found a particular character adorable. Someone told me that recently about a pair of characters in one of my stories, and I just about died from pure happiness. But you know what? A few years ago when one reader wrote to tell me, in regards to a particularly ruthless character I had written about, “I don’t trust him at all!” and others wrote to tell me how much they loved the same character, I just about died from glee.
The people who are delivering messages want one and only one reaction to their story. You must agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, you have failed to learn the lesson they are so desperate to teach you.
And that’s completely backwards from how it ought to me.