It's definitely not wanky."
Yes, this is where we get really controversial. Because I’m going to suggest, that every good author out there tells. A lot.
When showing not telling is done well, like Mr Chekhov, then of course it brings writing alive, makes it immediate. But it doesn't always work: particularly when the protagonists are involved in fast-moving, high octane action, it very often doesn't work at all. And you can tell these poor souls who’ve been on writing courses and had it drummed into them: “Show not tell, show not tell…” till they’re too petrified to tell the reader anything at all, and we’re left groping in the dark.
What just happened? Um... well, the protagonist seemed to get hurt – heard something – saw something flash by – and her vision went blurry, but, er...
Re-read. And re-read. And read on. And finally work it out… by which time, flow has been lost and you’re incredibly irritated. Why couldn’t you just say she got knocked on the head?
Because that author thinks they can’t. It’s not allowed. It’s – oh no – bad writing.
You can even go online now and find banks of “show not tell” phrases for demonstrating a character’s emotions. For instance:
“her eyes widened” = surprise
“he folded his arms and scowled” = angry
and so on and so on. I find that bizarre and yet curiously interesting. The point of show not tell, surely at least in part, is to make things immediate and fresh. If you need to lift phrases like the above from a word bank, you are immediately:
The failure of Divergent vs Hunger Games
(I’m going to use the movies and the books interchangeably here: they tell the same story – or lack thereof – and the final movie in the Divergent series never got made.)
Why did Divergent not go the course?
The short answer is, that movie number two (Insurgent) sucked but we all went to see it anyway, cos movie number one (Divergent) was pretty decent with some interesting visuals (dystopian City of Chicago, high speed train, flying fox over cityscape spring to mind) and a fine lead in Shailene Woodley. Number two did pretty well at the box office because we were all ready and willing to go see it after number one: the producers foolishly decided to pay attention to box office ratings rather than how people actually felt about the movie, and on the back of this split book number three, a la Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, into two movies… but no one bothered to go to number three, cos two was so rubbish.
So, number three failed catastrophically, and number four never got made.
Why did movie number two (Insurgent) fail? Not box office, but as a movie.
I could talk about the implausibility of the basic premise (everyone is one of five simplistic personality types, and has to stick to that caste for life); plus any number of characterisation/psychology flaws that grew more obvious and annoying as the story progressed – but I won’t, because I suspect a lot of the target readership/audience was happy to overlook that stuff.
But what they couldn’t overlook – though maybe they didn’t understand the basic problem – was the failure of story.
The fact is, number one worked perfectly well as a stand-alone. At the end of Divergent, Tris and 4 have basically foiled the plot of evil clever-caste woman Kate Winslett, stopped the soldier-caste from carrying out her plans for city-wide domination through a kind of drugged/implanted hypnosis, and balance consequently should have been restored.
But – Tris and 4 choose to run away, as if still on the run. Why? The soldier-caste was acting under duress to carry out Winslett’s plans: as Tris and 4 got rid of the duress, Winslett should have been toothless and beaten. She no longer had a docile army carrying out her evil will. Victory was Tris’s, but she ran away – obviously so the author could manufacture another book in the series. But the subsequent books didn’t work. For that very reason: basically, the plot was already fully resolved.
As a stand-alone, Divergent worked well. Beyond that, it had nowhere to go.
By comparison – Hunger Games did string out the finale into two movies, so number three dragged a little – it was basically just filler while we waited for number four – but the plot had to happen: it had inevitablity, that final confrontation between good and evil, killing the monster President Snow (plus twist) as Mr Booker would theorize.
And Harry Potter is crafted by a plotting whizz: JK is the grand master of complex plot chess. Six novels of increasing hugeosity, but everything that happens is consistent, mysteries within mysteries, wheels within wheels, powerful characterization and growth, and it all moves towards the inevitable massive climactic confrontation between the good of Hogwarts and evil of Voldemort.
You can of course read ever-more complex models of story. Personally I can’t believe anyone in the history of the world has ever written a story to those formulae: story-by-numbers. It might be that you can use a formula after the idea, to see if the narrative has legs or needs something else: but I do doubt powerful drama could ever come from thinking: oh, now I’ve thought of my inciting incident, so now I need a mentor and something to raise the stakes…
Much more likely, you get an exciting idea that grabs you by the throat and you can’t wait to scribble down what will happen next…
For me, the best way to think about story is to think about example narratives that really work. Stephen Pressfield
uses the first Bourne movie as a brilliant example (ps I wouldn’t call it the understory: it is simply the story, what gives the movie its narrative drive. Without this mystery, the movie would be a series of disconnected incidents. Serial events are not story).
When Bourne, the mystery man fished out of the Mediterranean one stormy night with total amnesia, is picked up by police as an itinerant on a Zurich midwinter park bench, he flips, knocks them cold in micro-seconds and disarms them. I remember this scene well, the first time I saw the movie: it is breathtaking in its intensity, and the emotion it engenders in the viewer. Instantly we know what we suspected: that Bourne is no ordinary man. That his amnesia is due to some deeply traumatic event. That he is a man of violence, and there are dark and turbulent events in his past. That he needs to find out who he really is, before that past can catch up with him…
That is the problem before us. The inciting incident, I suppose, has already happened: Bourne has apparently been shot and tossed or fallen overboard from some anonymous vessel. But the real mystery now, is his identity. And we are desperate to find out, to follow his journey (Matt Damon is a brilliant actor, understated but we root for him so much). And then it is given increasing urgency (raising the stakes relentlessly) by the fact that he is being pursued.
Story is often the poor relation in Creative Writing courses. “Plot-driven” is a dirty word(s), rather down-market. Great writers, it is assumed, profoundly analyse character: introspection, complex relationships and personal growth, sometimes with a dash of cultural or sexual oppression to season the mix, are sensitively portrayed through fine use of language. That is what Real Writers should be writing about.
Hm. Christopher Booker – not on my dystopian shortlist, cos the Seven Basic Plots is too long, but very interesting anyway – deals at some length with the history of story. In my NZ Book Council interview I said:
“According to Christopher Booker, stories are one of the oldest forms of human communication and connection: imagine primitive man and woman spinning stories round the campfire on long dark winter nights ten thousand years before TV, to entertain and make sense of a puzzling world.”
At a time when the world was a scary, largely unknown place and human beings struggled to survive in it, stories of creation and humanity’s place in it gave reassurance and created a logic where human existence was inevitable. Stories begin with a situation where the world is out of synch, out of balance due to some dramatic event (the precipitating incident); the rest of the story is about our hero’s journey to restore balance to the world. Stories are in our genes, and that’s not reaching: they really are. They are emotional comfort food: they excite, they engage, and then they make the world right again (read Booker if you want the fine details).
So – the literary sniffing re narrative and “plot-driven”? It is a puzzle, actually, as to why narrative is so under-valued. As if a good story is tricking the reader into reading on, when the reader should be thirsting to unveil the author’s wisdoms and insights without that cheap lure. Well – the problem there is that if you ignore the cheap lure, most readers simply can’t be bothered. Story is why we read: we need our characters to strive, to be oppressed. Characters need to overcome. Introspective burblings about self are, for most readers, suicidally dull. Why should we care? But give us a story, and we’re gripped: then you can reveal as many wisdoms, insights, and even introspective burbles as you like.
Of course stories do not stand alone: characters and language make the plot come alive, and then the hero’s journey (as she overcomes the something that needs overcoming) can be as internal or external as you like. But without a story, your story is dead in the water.
Illustration: I read a best-selling UK author, Martina Cole. I’d not heard of her but was astonished to read that she’s prolific, writes about East London Gangland, and is incredibly successful
Well, I can honestly say that I hated the writing. It was clunky, tell not show in spades, often awkward dialogue, over-writing… But, I couldn’t put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen. The plot dragged me along, kicking and screaming faintly (but this isn’t good writing!! Why am I still gripped by this??) The answer is – because Martina Cole understands story: she has a perfect grasp of narrative drive, and her story grabs you by the throat so that even when you’re drowning in clichés – you still power on.
And the characters were, for all the flaws in style, strong and believable. Which is important. Plot doesn’t work unless the reader believes in those struggling characters.
Photo courtesy joao-silas-40292-unsplash.jpg
Stephen King wrote (to loosely paraphrase) that some writers are good, and they can work to get better (this cohort is most of us); some writers are great, and that’s a different thing altogether, like a God-given gift of immortality; and some writers are bad, and a bad writer is a lost cause. You can never make a bad writer into a good one. Which is something no one wants to hear, but it does make me wonder. When I read something with clunky sentences, dismal dialogue, weak characterisation, burbling and metaphor-ridden introspection, or (almost worst of all) no narrative drive – I kind of feel helpless. If I were this poor soul’s writing tutor, where would I start? What would I say?
The answer is, I wouldn’t, cos I’m lazy like that and was born without the eternal optimism gene. But I would think – carry on. Write for fun, because it makes you happy, because it’s therapeutic, because it unburdens your soul. Don’t expect readers. Just do it for yourself. And that’s okay.
But for those of us who want to get good…
Stephen King, in addition to the above, also wrote that every writer needs to do only one thing to learn how to write well, and that is
Read, read, read. The world is full of books. If you want to write, read at least some good ones. Bad ones don’t hurt, either. You don’t need to analyse every book, though you might, if you’re that kind of person. If you read enough the understanding will seep into your bones anyway; but if you don’t read, then you can never understand how it’s done. Reading is the first prerequisite of writing. And actual books, not books about writing. Books that show and don’t tell, ha ha.
So – if I had to cherry pick, for the sake of argument – if the world were to end tomorrow, and leave just a very few select texts about creative writing – what would be my dystopian first picks?
In dystopian brief:
Stephen King (I’ve already told you the best bits)
The Pixar rules of storytelling
Barbara Kingsolver’s five writing strategies (btw one of them is the starting point for my hero’s journey, mentioned in an earlier post)
Oh, and the ten thousand hours rule. Whether or not you subscribe to that rule as a scientific fact, the only way to be a good writer (apart from reading, which is like training for the Writing Big Game), is to write. And write. And write. Until you get really really good at it… Match Fit, so to speak.
There’s a lot more you could read, libraries of it to be honest. But they’re my go-to basics. Read them, and they’ll take you to most of the places you want to go.
Remember this: there are basically only three things you need to get right:
I’m going to delve a little more deeply into story. Not tips, more musings. And to make it sound expert not random, I’m going to call it:
The Importance Of Narrative Drive
Possible cover for future literary magazine.
"Non-wanky submissions only, please."
Photo courtesy jakob-owens-208989-unsplash
And there is a paradox right there – as if a great writer can be made by “tips.” If that were the case, then we’d all be great writers.
So, I’ve been thinking about the art and craft of writing.
A writer sits down and thinks they have something to say. What's more, they invariably think that whatever it is they've got to say, is so important and well-imagined and beautifully crafted that other people should give many hours of their lives reading their thoughts, feelings and ideas.
What kind of a person even thinks like that? Hm. Writing could be considered bizarrely egotistical, especially the poetic and literary varieties. I’ve got a writer friend who agonises about this, a lot. Like, it’s a great vanity to think other people want to read your literary ramblings. She calls such ramblings “wanky.” It’s a word I’ve rather taken to. One day I will found a literary magazine and the tagline will be: “non-wanky submissions only, please.”
Which is where story comes in. And the importance of narrative drive. More on that later.
I've done creative writing courses, and read about creative writing, and used to worry that I didn’t read or study more. I don’t, now. I've changed (the hero’s journey? Maybe anti-hero). For what it’s worth, I've cobbled together some less than coherent thoughts. You will not find much in the way of conventional writing wisdom here. Just some personal thoughts on what it takes to be a writer – which, because writing is so BIG, I'm taking to be the kind of writing that I like, and try to write. It's definitely not wanky.