Monday, March 17, 2008

Question from Notes on Craft

After the post "Notes on Craft: Plot-driven vs. Character-driven" Paralith asks:

What would you call a story that more or less rests on a certain environment? For example I read this sci fi last weekend which had fairly cliche characters and plot, but was based in the crazy universe where gravity is a billion times stronger than it is here and the people basically live in a cloud of air in space that's attracted to a black hole.

I'm just curious if you have a term for that.


But if we're thinking of sticking to the naming construct that's already been established I'd call it "idea-driven."

As a means of producing writing the style of idea-driven writing turns out more bad stories than any other method. People who start off saying "I'm going to write a book about loneliness, or love, or fear, or the depravity of the human spirit rarely ever end up with an interesting story. And that would be because a story is, first and foremost a story. It is a series of events (or just one event) involving people.


Nowhere in that equation is there room for an abstract idea.

But what about all those abstract ideas that you learned in high school English? What about all those times when people say things like "it's really a novel about loneliness"?

Those are concepts applied to the book after it's been written by English teachers and critics. Well-meaning English teachers and critics, but not the writer.

There was a great article in The Writer magazine that also appeared in part on the Glimmer Train website a few months ago addressed to young writers, particularly the naive MFA candidate about precisely this. The writer said he'd been teaching in college programs for two decades and the most common blunders students made, no matter how wonderful their prose, was that they would write stories about observation that could easily be titled something like "Things I Saw While Driving in My Car" or they set off to write about abstracted ideas. They wanted to write about war, or patriotism, or the suffering of the [insert group here] instead of telling a story.

The idea-driven story usually becomes boring because nothing happens in it, the characters become 2-dimensional because they're secondary to the idea. The writer often tries to keep the characters 2-dimensional because if they're too life-like they might steal the show instead of bending to the will of his idea. At worst, the story becomes preachy.

I frequently bitch about the writing of an ex-bf of mine, but he's given me such great examples of what not to do that I cannot but help use his sorry butt to illustrate my points! This ex-bf told me he was writing a novel.
Really? What about?
Oh. But what's it about?
But what happens? Who are the characters?
It's this guy and he makes these realizations about life.
...And that was all he'd tell me.
You can't set out to make someone realize they believe in an existential view of their life. Just like a therapist doesn't sit you down to make you realize you have mommy issues. You sit with the therapist and you talk. You tell her about what you're doing now, how you feel about that, you tell her about the past and perhaps through all these things strung together you realize you have been letting people cow you your entire life and it had nothing to do with your mother. The ex didn't know anything about his character except that he was going to inflict a philosophy on him and call it a novel.

Some of you may be shaking your head at me, and thinking that I'm demeaning the greatness of the novel into some busker's trade, but the truth is that when you approach life starting with abstract ideas it's called philosophy. If you read Plato's Cave it's essentially a yarn that Plato spins out in the name of describing how he sees the world. As an idea it holds together; as a story, it's underwhelming.

Not to hate on English teachers -- they were some of my favorite teachers all through school -- but I have a friend from college who is now teaching high school English and I think it might have gone to her brain, kinda like working at a glue factory.

She told me she wanted to write this short story but needed help with the middle. She had a smash bang finish all geared up that would fulfill a second layer of meaning but she was struggling to incorporate all four layers of allegory into it.

WOAH! Back up the soul train!

You cannot consciously write the four layers of allegory. I don't even remember what all of them are! It just sort of happens. You make the story, you go back. You read for continuity and for clumsy language. Then you read again for metaphor. Are there too many? Can I strengthen one to make it repeat and become a theme? Then you read it again and if it strums inside of you, if you strike it and it vibrates in a pleasant way like a well tuned guitar then it's done. The other two layers of allegory can be constructed by English teachers later on, for now, I've done my job by making it strum.

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