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 readers 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.
When we experience a story we enjoy—whether it’s a novel, movie, episode in a television series, comic book, whatever—it’s natural to want to feel that enjoyment again. This need can often be satisfied by re-reading or re-watching, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Maybe there was a supporting character that we become particularly enamored with and we just wish more of the story had focused on them. Or perhaps it was a subplot that really intrigued us and we’d like to see more of that particular dynamic. Or it could be a single line of dialog that alluded to a past event that sounds very interesting and we’d like to know more about what happened. Or it could just be that we want to know what happened next. None of those desires can be satisfied merely by repeating the original story.
In any case, we wind up clamoring, “More! More! Give me more!”
When you’re the storyteller, this is a very flattering thing to hear. The audience liked your story! They love your characters! They want more…. Read More…
I’ve written about how having an “idea” is not as important to storytelling as many think, and why specific questions about “ideas” can be so misleading as well as off-putting. As at least one commenter pointed out that while those posts show that focusing on ideas is the wrong thing to do, I don’t explain what the right thing to do is.
Except I did.
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.
In the first post I said that focusing on ideas is like a carpenter obsessing over a single nail instead of getting on with the task of building a house. And that analogy has the answer, if you just stop and ask, how does a carpenter learn how to build an entire house from scratch? The answer is that there isn’t a short simple answer. You have to learn about how the tools work. You have to learn about which building materials go where. You have to learn about foundations and framing and supports and seals and scores of other things. You have to practice. You have to have someone look over your work from time-to-time during your practice and tell you whether it seems to be working. You have to build little projects and then put them to the test—see if they do the job you intended them to do and how they hold up against the elements.
It’s not a simple process. No one, not even someone as awesome as Neil Gaiman nor as wise as Ray Bradbury, can tell you in only one or two sentences exactly, step-by-step, how to be a successful storyteller. We can tell you things that work for us. We can point you in the correct direction. We can offer encouragement.
We can give you truths in a nutshell, such as, “The way to be a writer is simply this: write.” But you have to understand that those sorts of truths are like zen koans. The answers come from you struggling with the simple statement and the unspoken complications within.
We can write articles and blog posts about our process. We can point you to excellent books on writing (Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, to name but a few). We can try to answer specific questions. But there are two very important things to remember about that. First, we’re humans trying to get along in life just like you, and time we spend giving advice to you is time that we aren’t writing or otherwise earning our own keep. Second, what any of us know took us years of trying, failing, trying again, and slowly learning how to fail less often, and you’re asking us to give you this hard-earned knowledge for free.
I got in trouble several years ago on a writer’s forum for stating one very important truth underlying all of this process. I haven’t mentioned it in a long time. That probably means its about time to bring it up: if there has never been a time in your life when you read voraciously—when getting to the end of a particular book was more important than sleeping or eating, when you rushed to get to the end of one book so you can start another, or when you read multiple dozens of books and even more short stories in a single year—then you can’t be a writer. You don’t have to read like that all of the time, but in order to understand stories you have to have been consumed by them, been enthralled by them, been so caught up with them that they seemed more real than you yourself.
There’s even neuroscience to back that up. Certain areas of the brain simply don’t fully develop if you don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure.
You also have to spend some time looking at some of the stories you love and analyzing how the author did it. You need to spend time looking at some stories you hate and analyzing why they don’t work for you.
You have to write. Get one word down after the other until you reach the end of the tale. Then you either set it aside (and start writing something else) for a while until you can pick it up, look at it objectively, see both the flaws and the good parts, and figure out how to do better. Doing better might by re-writing that story. Doing better might mean tossing that tale and moving on to others. You have to let readers read your stuff every now and then and find out whether it works. You have to learn which reader advice to ignore, and which to take to heart. You have to keep writing and trying to get better.
And by the way, when I said look at your work objectively, seeing both flaws and virtues, I mean exactly that. Too many look at their own work and see only flaws, and despair. Others look at their work and see no flaws at all, and think they have nothing to improve. Every work has some flaws, but every work has something in it that isn’t bad. If you can’t find both, you aren’t being objective.
This is as succinctly as I can put it without sounding like a platitude. And there is so much more I could say about each point. But all of this is really just me trying to unpack, just a little, a profound truth that that late, great Ray Bradbury like to say:
Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.
Certain questions come up again and again at writing panels, on writing forums, and in writing discussion groups. A lot of those questions are about “ideas.” Where does a writer get ideas? How do you know an idea is worth writing? How do you translate your idea into a story? And so on.
I put the word “ideas” in quotes in that first mention because I believe the people who ask these questions have a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. All words have different meanings depending on the context, of course, but I’m talking about something more than that. Because not only do the people who ask these questions misunderstand the word idea, they misunderstand the entire notion of story.
A story is not a collection of unique notions and eccentric characters presented in a series of shocking situations leading to a surprising ending. Some things we call stories contain all of those things, and in very rare occasions some good stories contain those elements, but that isn’t what a story is. If you want to turn to the dictionary, you might think of a story as a narrative designed to entertain the reader or listener—but that’s at best a mechanical definition of certain types of prose.
A story is a means to transfer a dream from the imagination of the storyteller to the imagination of the reader. Another way of putting it, a story is an incantation for evoking an experience in the mind of the listener.
Specific situations, characters, confrontations, and so forth are part of the arsenal of the storyteller, but they are building materials, not tools. And they are basic building materials, at that. Think of them as nails. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time agonizing over whether a specific nail is worthwhile for this project? No, unless a specific nail is obviously damaged in some manner. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about where he will find his next nail? No, nails are the kind of supplies a construction company buys in bulk. Does a carpenter spend a lot of time worrying about how to translate his bag of nails into a finished building? No, because nailing boards together is just one tiny part of the entire process of building something, and how to do that is a fundamental skill one should master long, long before attempting to build a house.
The sorts of things that people usually mean when they ask, “Where do you get your ideas” really are as fundamental and individually unimportant as a nail. Yes, if you’re building a house you will need good nails, and they’ll need to be used properly, but no single nail being slightly imperfect, or slightly out of place should ruin the entire structure.
The true skill of storytelling is the process of assembling all of those things together. And as you learn to do that, you start to realize that the parts you were focused on so intently when you were learning the craft are not the most important part of the story. It’s not where your nails came from, or how perfect each nail is.
It’s how you use them.
Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.
So I was scanning through my usual news sites a couple of weeks ago and saw a headline about the Guardians of the Galaxy that caught my eye. I’d already seen the movie the previous week, and had enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated. So I definitely went into the article with a bouncy fanboy attitude. The author talked about how the movie was better than he had expected, mentioned a few of the pros and cons of the overall story and construction, but then settled in to his main thesis: the characters audiences seemed most drawn to in the film were Rocket, the genetically-altered and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon, and Groot, a walking, (barely) talking tree—and the writer thought this was a bad thing.
He thought it was bad because those two characters are computer animated images, rather than being portrayed by human actors. He admitted that they were voiced by human actors, but “when pixels move us to tears more readily than actual people, that’s a problem.”
My pedantic side immediately wanted to post a comment that, since most theatres have made the switch to digital projection, every character in every movie people see in theatres are pixels rather than real—not to mention all the movies and series that people watch on TVs, computer monitors, phones, and tablets now. Even before digital movies, old-fashioned film wasn’t real people either, it was images projected on a screen by shining light through celluloid tinted with various chemicals.
All of that is missing a more fundamental point. None of the characters in films, plays, television series, et cetera, are real. They are all fictional characters being evoked by a combination of tricks and techniques of storytelling and acting.
I realize that I’m a bit biased, here. I have been a fan of comics from an early age. I grew up laughing at and following the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, and dozens of other cartoon characters. I have edited and published a science fiction fanzine that features talking animals, the occasional human, and all sorts of aliens for nearly twenty years. I’m currently engaged in writing a series of fantasy novels set in a world populated by talking animals, dragons, ghouls, kitsune, and any number of other non-human creatures. For the last few years, I have awaited the unveiling of a new season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with as much anticipation as a new season of Doctor Who or White Collar.
So maybe I’m just a bit too far out from normal to be commenting on this. However, the author of that particular article is someone I’ve read before. He’s the regular movie reviewer for a news site I read just about every day. I’ve seen many of his previous movie reviews, some of which I agreed with, some that I haven’t. Like many movie reviewers, he approaches his critiques from a literary rather than visual arts point of view. He always talks about plot, themes, narrative flow, viewpoint, characterization, and dialog.
So it’s a little strange that someone who approaches movies from such a strong literary perspective can’t understand the true appeal of any character. Readers have been meeting, getting to know, and coming to love imaginary characters for as long as fiction has existed. Characters like Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Sara Crewe, d’Artagnan (and his comrades Athos, Porthos, Aramis), Robin Hood, et cetera have been engaging readers for generations. For much of their history, those characters have been less than even pixels: people have read words on paper, and conjured the face, voice, and being of the character entirely in their imagination.
Yes, illustrated books, live theatre, and various recorded forms of movies and series have also breathed life into those imaginary characters, but those are all simply different forms of conveying and evoking the idea of the character in the minds of each of the viewers. It is still, ultimately, about the imagination of the audience embracing the story and the characters within it.
As a writer, I deal with imaginary characters constantly. My head is full of a mad assortment of characters, some of them characters I have created for my own stories, others are characters I have come to love (or love to hate) through stories created by other people. When I’m writing a story, my job is to try to evoke in the reader the story that I have imagined. An important part of that process is evoking characters that the reader will, at least temporarily, imagine as if they were real. And more importantly, will have feelings toward as if they were real.
That’s the entire point of art, to engage the audience, and make a connection between hearts and imaginations. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m telling a story verbally, in text, on stage, with painted images, or computer rendered animation. It doesn’t matter if the characters are named Jenny Nelson or Buffy Summers or Zoe Washburne or Applejack.
What matters is the story.
For at least a few minutes, can I make you care about what happens to these characters? Can I make you interested in how they got into the situation they find themselves in? Can I make you wonder what’s going to happen next? Can I so engage you that you can’t look away until you know how things turned out for the character?
Getting the audience engaged with the characters is never a bad thing. And if you think that some fictional characters are less “real” than others simply because of the medium through which the audience’s imagination is being engaged, then you don’t understand storytelling.