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Descriptive Specificity

I’m pretty sure I didn’t properly cover this last time. Also, I’m going to be taking a hiatus – yes, even though I was late getting this out – until the start of October, for medical reasons. Sorry?

 

One of the biggest problems I see in a lot of writing is the meaninglessness of the descriptions given. Now, there are plenty of common descriptions which are evocative – or at least meaningful – and conjure an image on their own; everyone, for instance, will be able to picture roughly the same thing when the prose tells them that “Lord Doomdoom laughed maniacally and pulled the lever”. But what about “Princess Prettypink smiled. She had a charming smile”? Different people find different things charming. Saying that a smile is charming, but nothing else, doesn’t actually tell the reader anything (except that the author wants them to root for this character). A wide grin, with all teeth showing, can be charming – but so can a bashful little lift of a corner of the mouth, while biting the bottom lip. Which did Prettypink do? Or perhaps her smile was neither of those. There’s no way to tell, and no way to clearly conjure an image.

Meaningless, vague and cliché, descriptions do not describe the people, places, and things in a specific story. They – at best – conjure up a generic and hazy form. The charming smile on Princess Prettypink is not Prettypink’s smile. It is the same, generic smile that every badly written heroine wears at some point or another. There is nothing of her in it and, thus, nothing of it connects to her.

When you’re telling the readers about the people in your story (i.e. prose) you want them to imagine the people in your story. Not generic people. Now, obviously, I’m not saying you should never use descriptions like these – if every action was described in depth then every short story would be longer than A Song of Ice and Fire (and if you described a thing the same, unique, way every time the thing is mentioned; the reader will eventually tear their own hair out in frustration). The point is that it’s not good to only use generic descriptions. Real people all do similar things very differently. Ask yourself, for example, how your character smiles, not what is considered to be a charming smile.

Specificity, when correctly used, tells the readers far more about who a character is – and grounds the character in a realistic-feeling world – far more than generic or vague descriptions do. For example, there is technically nothing wrong with “Martha put a hand beneath her chin”, but it also doesn’t really describe anything. Palm down will indicate a different mood than palm up, and different again from the thinker-esque position of the chin on the fist and the palm inward – and that’s not even getting into the different ways finger position can be indicative.

If “Martha put her hand beneath her chin, which tilted her head sideways slightly as she listened,” it tells the reader that she’s got her hand slightly to the side – which is a more comfortable position, and the image it evokes (the tilted head and hand beneath the chin) is one of someone getting comfortable to listen to something they’re only half interested in.

But, if “Martha put her hand beneath her chin and tapped her fingernails against her lower lip”, the readers know that she’s thinking about something – perhaps dramatically to make a point – and that she has no intention of remaining in that position for long, because it’s uncomfortable.

Either way; the reader gets a far clearer picture of Martha than the generic description gives. Here’s another example – which version tells you more about the character?

Peony Prettypink lay in the grass, her long auburn hair around her like a fall of autumn leaves; sometimes brushing against her cheek, and her chest rose and fell gently as she slept.

Peony Prettypink lay haphazardly in the grass. Sunlight glinted off her nibbled toenails whenever she flexed her feet – as though she was walking in her dreams. Her nose twitched when the wind dragged strands of her tangled auburn hair across her face.

The first might be the prettier picture, but it’s a description which could apply to any redhead asleep in some grass. It’s not Prettypink specifically who is sleeping there. The second one is clearly a distinct person.

But it goes beyond just how you describe something. Choosing meaningful descriptions can also be about movements themselves. Why, for instance, automatically have someone settling in to listen put their chin in their hand? Why not say “Martha dropped an elbow to the table and made a loose fist behind her ear as she listened”? Then it becomes Martha, not a vague generic, who is sitting there listening. It grounds the character in the reality of their specific behaviour.

There is so much variety in even the tiniest of human behaviours. It’s a shame that so many authors prefer to stick with generic descriptions that they don’t have to think about to come up with.

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Posted by on September 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Dense Descriptions and Descriptive Density

I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.

 

We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.)  While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.

No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume.  Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.

This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.

For example, which of these descriptions works the best?

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)

Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.

Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.

Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.

Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.

Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.

Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.

And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.

 

1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.

2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.

3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).

Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).

4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).

In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!

In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.

5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.

6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.

7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.

8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.

 

Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Character Building

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).

 

This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).

 

Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.

 

…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Plotting

Plotting. It’s the thing that every amateur novelist on the internet urges you to avoid during the month of November and every writing class tells you must have so carefully worked out, before you start writing, that your outline is more like an abridged version of the story and every time your characters start to develop away from it you have to put them in a metaphorical straightjacket.

A more realistic statement on the matter would be that, while it is necessary to do some basic plotting before you write to avoid your work deteriorating into a mess of “and then”s with nothing to hold them together, the amount of plotting you need to do has no fixed amount. It is ultimately dependent on both the author and the type of story – although in every method it is still true that you should not continually try to force your characters to follow the plot you’ve laid out for them if they insist upon taking you down a different road. For all that they are flaunted about by their adherents as if they are the one true answer to everything (that would be 42) the two extremes of plotting are hardly the only methods available. Ultimately, what method you choose (be it one of these or some other I have failed to catalogue) to plot by, (mostly) before you start writing, depends not only on where you’re starting from, but also what works best for your genre and for you.

 

Roadmap Method: This is the method most commonly used by people who know where they are and where they want to end up (and possibly a few places they’d like to stop at along the way) but aren’t overly concerned with how they get there – and who are therefore inclined to plot as they write, so long as they keep going in the right general direction. It is, as the name suggests, plotting your story as if you were looking at a roadmap (or travelling on a road) and trying to decide the route to take. You know where your car, and story, will be starting from, and you know what place they need to end up. But instead of plotting out the sequence of events before you start writing, or driving, you follow the most logical routes – based on road signs and what the setting allows for, on other traffic and the behaviour of characters, and on the way the streets and shops are laid out and what plot events can occur if you choose to drive by or stop at them. This type of plotting means beginning with a very vague outline, perhaps entirely a few vague ideas in your head, instead of a specific one, and then constantly adjusting (just as you would if you were driving in a new place) to work with the way things pan out. This method requires an author to keep a firm eye on the “road” their story is taking, because it is all too easy to go on excessive detours, because this or that looked interesting, and then find that you have gone completely the wrong way, or must double back, or have been circling a roundabout for three hours …while the rest of traffic tries to figure out if you’re street art or just an idiot.

Conclusion: Some people can write naturally in this method without crashing their story into anything, but for beginner writers who don’t find that it comes naturally it’s probably best saved for later projects (just as rush hour driving in a strange city is best left until later for someone who’s just earned their learners plate). Learners and experienced drivers alike must always keep in mind that every choice of turn, speed, and stop, must help them to get from A to B, else they’re likely to run out of gas or end up with their story driving down a one way street and trying to do an illegal turn. (If you can’t imagine why that would be a bad thing, re-imagine the situation with your readers as very enthusiastically vindictive traffic cops.)

Tapestry Pattern Method: This is a good method for people who like to have lists or plan ahead – as well as for anyone writing for the first time, since its key benefit is that it allows you to keep track of all your plot threads (and where they’re going) without becoming obsessively rigid and stifling the story if it wants to do thing differently. It’s also great for keeping on top of things when you’ve got a lot of different story arcs rising and falling around each other. Unlike the Roadmap Method, the Tapestry Pattern Method means that you work out your plot (and all subplots) before you start writing; like laying out the pattern for a tapestry before you start to weave. Generally speaking, with this method, you write up a chapter list – giving bullet point explanations for what things happen in each chapter – so that you have the frame of the story there in its complete form and can see exactly why each thing happens. This also allows you to rework your plot on the grand scale before you begin so that each particular plot thread gets to arc and fall in the right places, without being left to dangle unwisely long. This is akin to having a pattern to work from – and knowing how much of each type of thread you will need and where to start weaving them in – before you create the tapestry (the story) in its filled in, colourful, complete form. This method, of writing up the chapter list or laying out the patter before you begin, also allows you to do something which truly rigid plotting would not: it allows you to – if necessary or if you made a mistake – miss weaving the weft through some of the warp (or drop a stitch, if you want to use, more common, knitting terminology, instead of weaving) or change the plan of your story slightly because you just can’t fit something somewhere. Even better: it allows you to work out with ease exactly how failing to weave or ignoring a thread, or changing colours, at any one point will alter the entire shape of the story tapestry. This is invaluable; because it means that you stop and work out how to work with it, instead of making one change and then finding out down the line that you’ve made yourself a huge knot because you didn’t factor it in. This also means, in none metaphorical speak, that you don’t merely write up one chapter-by-chapter plot outline and then only look at what each chapter’s section says, but that you re-write the outline as you go along, to compensate for changes you make (allowing you to create a slightly differently patterned tapestry than what you’d originally planned, but avoid ending up with a giant knot or fraying mess).

Conclusion: Tapestry Pattern Method is a good choice for any writer who doesn’t mind planning ahead, but especially for beginner writers and those who have a great many plot threads and character arcs which need to have their page time and pacing carefully monitored. Any writer using this method, however, needs to keep in mind that they are working with fabric and patterns, not hard rules set in stone, and anyone who has trouble changing a plan once it’s set in motion would be advised to treat this method with caution.

Jigsaw Puzzle Method: Unlike the previous two methods, the Jigsaw Puzzle Method is not suitable for any type of story (depending on type of author), but rather is suited to one specific kind of story: those which are inspired by the ending and worked backward. Thus this is the best method for the writing of detective and mystery stories. In this method the author starts out knowing the solution to the puzzle or the end situation of their story – just as a puzzler begins working on a jigsaw puzzle with the complete picture on the puzzle box. Then the author, or puzzler, must take all the individual pieces and figure out how they go together to make that ending or image. As with putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to begin with the frame (or a very rough outline – setting the boundaries of the story). After that, however, the method is not about figuring out the order of things until the end of the process, when the best order for the plot to progress will have naturally revealed itself, but about figuring out how all the different pieces of plot, world, setting, and characterisation fit together. Some will naturally tie into each other (once you know – from the finished image – that character X has something to hide, and possibly how they were hiding it, you will know what clues to must be portrayed of it before its reveal and how that character’s pieces connect to the other pieces around them), but there will be no obligatory order in which to start putting it together (that character’s pieces might all tie into place, so that you know roughly what order their clues get revealed in, but float unattached to the main frame until later – unconnected – work allows you to see where they would fit well and slide them into place). The method, thus, begins by writing up the ending scenario or solution. Then you draw lines backward from each fact or image detail in that ending and writing down the steps required to reach it (and what clues it would leave). You then right up a basic frame (“story begins with detective getting request for aid in mystery”,
detective meets suspects”, “near climax detective is almost murdered”, “detective gathers everyone in a room and explains what went down”). Finally, you jigsaw the various events and clues – taking care to watch how they interlock (what has to come before what, what could trigger or flow into something else, etc) – into that framework until you have a cohesive plot outline which matches the solution or ending image perfectly.

Conclusion: This back to front method is pretty much vital for writing anything with a mystery or puzzle of some kind as the main point, but all the plot-thread-reverse-tracking can be a bit of a headache for those who simply started out knowing where they wanted to end up (came up with the idea for a cool climax or ending first), in which case other methods – such as the Roadmap Method – may be more suitable. The Jigsaw Puzzle Method also requires that the author be able to view the plot in a non-linear fashion, and to move the plot and timeline around to suit the needs of sets of cause and effect which ripple out from the complete solution at the end. While excellent for keeping mysteries from contradicting themselves, it can be a headache for anyone not tied to the restrictions of the puzzle-solving types of genre.

Bricklaying Method: This method is akin to the worldbuilding method of starting from a point of major change in recent history (world, local, or personal history). Compare it to coming across a partially-made garden path, where the brickwork which has been done so far has a distinct pattern to it, but it is abruptly left unfinished and all the materials needed to complete it are sitting to the side: awaiting use. The author, or avid bricklayer, can see what has happened up until now (the bricks already set down in hardened mortar being immovable, each representing some incident or plot point) and can continue on using the same pattern, or alter the pattern, as they please. However, they will always be constrained by the fact that they have only the left over materials to use and so must judge how wise it is to make any given pattern. For example, if the pattern was so far chiefly red bricks with a simple diamond pattern of black bricks worked into it, then the author could add three rows of black only brickwork if they so pleased, but they would likely have none left for the rest of the path (massive action in the middle and then talking only for the rest of the story). This method differs from the Tapestry Pattern Method as there is not pre-laid out pattern etched into the ground for the bricklayer to follow the rest of the way. Instead the bricklayer decides how to direct the path and work the pattern by checking back on what has come before and what options they have left – making it up as they go by analysing and comparing to that which has come before. If the story the path is telling is a personal drama, for instance, a crossing point of two lines of different coloured bricks might represent a pair of characters fighting over some issue, in which case the remaining bricks that sit to the side of the path are each representative of the feelings and arguments those characters might have as a consequence of the fight, and which of those the bricklayer chooses to put down – and in what pattern – decides how, based on the building materials on offer from what came before, the story shall progress.

Conclusion: This method works very well for both those people who like to take stock of what has recently happened and what options are immediately available from that and those who have a visual organisational bent and find it easier to understand their plot by drawing up the lines of events in some artistic rendition of patterned squiggles. The author can use the paper or blank image as the ‘main’ or background bricks their pattern is set into, and then use different colours and shapes to show how the characters and plot points interconnect and what they do. However, for those who do not like to constantly look backward before asking “now what” and/or dislike moving forward without a distinct plan it can be a less than appealing method. Writers using this method should also keep a close eye on how many of each type of “brick” they have left (how many big reveals, new characters, types of plot point, etc, they can get away with).

Obligatory Chess Metaphor Method: Have I mentioned that I hate the cliché old chess metaphor? Never mind. This method is the best for those authors who are trying to plot out a political or strategy-heavy work. In order to use this method successfully, an author has to be able to write without playing any favourites among their characters – and that means treating protagonists and antagonists equally. It works thus: imagine how many sides your story has which are fighting each other (this may be armies, or individuals, or both) and imagine that each one is a different colour and side of a chessboard (this almost inevitably means your imaginary chess set will now be rainbow-hued and possible hexagonal – just go with it). It’s possible that your sides/characters are not all starting with an even number of pieces (which is why, were it slightly better known, a D&D comparison would work better, but oh well). In order to keep track of everything, the author will need to make a timeline as they plot – noting down what each side does at each instance. Now, whichever side instigates the plot takes the first move. The author has to imagine themselves as playing that side of the chess game (white, in this case). After this the author needs to go to their timeline page and write down the “opening play” of Round Zero. Next the author needs to imagine themselves playing each of the other sides of the chess game (we’ll say: black, red, yellow, blue, and green, for this metaphor) and each of those sides gets one move to respond to the white pieces’ move. Now here’s the most important thing: you have to play white as if you’re playing to win, but you also have to play black, red, yellow, blue, and green as if you are playing that side to win. Write down these moves in a line called Round One, under Round Zero. This is where it gets confusing. The author will probably do best to cycle through all the colours/sides in a set pattern for all of the remaining rounds (however many that may be) so that they don’t forget any of them, but each round is played to counter the previous round’s moves (by all the sides) and so if red comes after white in the circuit of playing each side, which the author performs each round, then the author must remember to counter only white’s move from the previous round and not the current move (which, supposedly, is happening at the same time). This also means you have to be ware of moves which could cancel each other out (playing from blue side and putting a rook on one square and then playing as purple and putting a knight on the same “empty” square – next round both sides will need to deal with that clash).

Conclusion: This is an excellent method for those writing politics, plotting (as in being sneaky, not story-plotting), and/or strategy heavy works. However, for it to work effectively the author really must be able to play every side as if they want that side to win and most authors have pre-decided who their heroes and villains are and will rig the game by playing less wisely as their less favoured sides. The key with this method is that you have to accept that your designated hero side might lose if you’re using this method correctly and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is an extremely difficult method to pull off, because you really do have to think every action everyone takes through as if you were playing chess against [as many people as there are characters or sides] at once.

Globetrotting Method: As with worldbuilding before, this method is best used if you have a starting point in the form of a world map and want to figure out your plot from there. This method lends itself to journey focused stories, such as but not limited to; adventures, and tends to follow the basic structure of “I’ve made a really awesome map and named all the places, but [happy place name] is near [evil whatever of doom], I wonder how they handle that? And how does stuff from [place on the left] get to [place on the other side of the map] anyway?”. This, you could argue, isn’t much of a structure at all. But this is the method of plotting for those who love travel and the question of where would be interesting to visit. But author beware: anyone using this method should plan it as if they were genuinely in the shoes of their characters and embarking on a journey (thus considering: best travel route to reach destination, amount of money on hand at the beginning to reach destination, and purpose of travel) else they may drive their readers batty by attempting to visit every place on the map. The map isn’t a checklist. Un-visited places are ripe pickings for sequels. In this case, the map shows you where you are, where you want to go, and what dangers (and other travellers) stand between the start and end. In this way it is very much like the Roadmap Method, but where the Roadmap is a fairly small distance (and a metaphor to boot!), the Globetrotting Method means examining the entire world for an interesting journey and deciding the plot based on actual (not metaphorical) locations and traffic issues, rather than treating the roadways as a guideline for possible routes the story might take. In truth the Globetrotting Method is more akin to the Tapestry Pattern Method, as you begin by deciding what would be an interesting journey/nice pattern, and then make a list of how your plot goes from A to B in a step by step form. It’s just that where the Tapestry Pattern Method can take any type of plot and leaves room for adjusting the plotting and chapter list later, the Globetrotting Method creates a travel checklist “go to A, go through B to C and try not to get mugged there then head to D” (the plan the characters have for their travels) and then corrects it to what will actually happen “go to A, go around B because of confusion with guards at A, go to C and get mugged, pit stop at E to regain funds, go to D by way of M” – all according to what the map makes possible. Then these two alternate journey plans are used as a plot outline or chapter list which is followed from beginning to end.

Conclusion: This is a good method for those who like travel stories and exploration. However, it comes with the risk of trying to go everywhere or taking stupid paths if the map itself is not firmly adhered to. It also comes with the binding issue that maps – once complete and making coherent sense – are damn near impossible to change and therefore hugely constrict the number of options an author has for altering their course or getting out of a corner they’ve written themselves into. If you have created an awesome world and you don’t have a story to tell in it yet, then plotting from a map as starting point can be a great way of developing a story – but you have to keep in mind all of the realities of such a journey.

Central Object Method: This is the last method I will list, but is hardly the least of them. The Central Object Method is the method of plotting you want if you’re starting from an idea for an object or item (which could be a location such as a Temple of Doom, or a rare object like a Crystal Skull, or just a casino vault with lots of money). As you can guess, this method leans heavily toward action, heist, and adventure plots, because the plot is built out – both forward and backward – from a stationary object. Once the author has envisioned an object (which will be the objective of the major characters) they will have to decide where it is. The plot will thus be build backward (how did the main characters get into the room with it, how did they reach the room/cave, how did they get on the plane which they used to reach the room, how did they get to wherever they got the idea to find the item and left for the plane from, where were they before they got the idea to go find the item, by taking the plane to the room and the item inside it). But it will, be this before or after building backward, also be built forward (now that the character is in the room with the item how do they get it, how do they get out of the room, how do they get back to the plane/other mode of transportation, and how do they get back to where they started or where they will end).

Conclusion: This method is very much a start from the middle sort of deal, but for stories which are built on physical items, rather than emotional entanglements, it can be a very good method of plotting. It is important, however, to give equal attention to both the building forward and the building backward, else you might end up with a good beginning and middle of your work, only to have your main character do something insane like survive a nuclear blast in a refrigerator because you paid less attention to building out in that direction. It is also important to remember that either the characters must go in a different direction as they go to the item and away with it, or there must be a strong parallel of movement in both directions (go through the same locations with different plot actions within them).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Less is More

The advice, especially to writers, is so common that it has been reduced to a meaningless cliché. Nevertheless it is, in certain cases, good advice – the key is to know when having less is more for your story and when having more is less (work) for your story. This time we’re going to focus on the first of those (I’ll explain the second another time).

 

1. When you use the right word, not its second cousin. The funny thing about writings is that, oddly enough, you have to love words as well as stories. All words carry connotations with them – subtle things that are used and noticed subconsciously by most people, but which can totally alter the way something is viewed. It also has a huge effect on how smooth or clunky a work is, as a writer who chooses wisely can drastically reduce the amount of words they need to say something – which in turn allows them to include far more information (depth, characterisation, plot, setting, etc) in a work of the same size. Writing is about making every word count. It might seem like a good idea to describe the universe as being a light, creamy, white-brown, but it is much easier for readers to know what you mean (and for your word count) to just to admit you’re not describing a particularly exciting colour and just use beige. If you’re willing to expand your vocabulary a little – and trust that your readers are not gibbering idiots who cannot understand if they ever have to look up a word or two, provided that its place in the text makes its approximate meaning clear – you will find that just about everything does have a word to describe it in English (and other languages). Why waste time and reader patience with a cliché like brightly coloured flowers when you can say zinnias? The key here is that using the right word rather than a less accurate word (why say someone is very irritated when they are actually wroth?) and specificity together allow an author to use very few words to create a deep and complex image for the reader, rather than something which is generic.

2. When you have people plotting. Real manipulators know better than to use many-stepped plots. (Also, caveat, not all manipulation is negative – we just tend to use other words for it or avoid admitting to what’s involved when we talk about keeping people away from surprise birthday parties, talking down the suicidal, etc.) If you’ve ever heard the quote “no plan survives contact with the enemy” you’ll know precisely why plots should be kept as simple as possible. Yes, readers might be able to follow something as complex as “To gain the throne [motive] I will: [plot] convince my lover to murder her husband so that we can be together [1] and to send a warning to her sister to make them suspicious of [other people] so that my lover’s family and [other party] will go to war [2], so that I can gain the rank needed to marry my lover [3] only to kill her because it was her sister who I got killed I really wanted and she’s delivered me her niece who’ll do [4], and who I’ll marry off to my (now late) lover-wife’s heir’s heir [5], and then have the heir killed so the heir’s heir and my lover-niece can inherit [6], and then take them to war [7] since the war I started exhausted everyone else’s armies, then – once that’s won – place heir’s heir and niece-lover on the throne [8], kill off heir’s heir once heir’s heir has an heir [9] and marry grieving niece-lover [10], then kill off heir’s heir’s heir [11] and inherit throne”. Each step there has, on average, twenty things that could go wrong, easily five potential witnesses who would need to be silenced, and enemies to come into contact with every step of the way because each manipulated person’s freewill and potential to do the unexpected is an extra enemy (and no true manipulator claims to be always able to know what someone will do, true manipulators just know to keep on their toes so that they can compensate when someone inevitably goes off the rails). A wiser plan than the above would be “Step one: sow political chaos in realm so advancement opportunities arise, Step Two: ???, Step Three: Profit”. This is because you really do need to re-evaluate every step of the way, so every plan should essentially be one step, because then people and coincidences and random pebbles that cripple horses (for want of a nail, etc, etc) alter everything and you need to start planning again.

The first of those plans is a theory someone gave for what Littlefinger is up to in A Song of Ice and Fire, but the second is likely a much more realistic version of his plans, because Littlefinger is canonically a good manipulator. See, here’s the thing: to an outsider, when a plot seems to have finished and reaped its rewards, it can seem like the manipulator planned it all out carefully from the start. But it just isn’t so – it looks like that because the non-manipulator only sees the final product, so if you’re going to write about a character explaining their plot it’s best that they have something very simple and then improvise and re-plot the rest of the way. Writers and tacticians often use chess metaphors to describe plotting, but here’s the thing writers tend to forget: your manipulator is not playing chess against themselves. Real chess players re-evaluate and often change strategies during play. This holds true whether you’re trying to win a political victory or ensure your prophesised child hero/sacrificial lamb permanently kills the Dark Lord you never managed to permanently kill (that Dumbledore’s plotting succeeded was sheer dumb luck; it’s an excellent example of a plot that shouldn’t have worked but somehow, due to author meddling and ignoring all the highly probable things that could have screwed it up from the beginning, it did – which is a BAD THING, by the way). It holds true regardless of whether you’re trying to talk down a suicidal person, trick a confession out of someone, take over the world, discredit an evil rival, or just about anything else where having to plot or manipulate can be involved. Oh yeah, and it also holds true if you’re planning to have a situation where something was made extremely convoluted so that people be unable to do something – for instance, the wisdom of people who lock things with fifteen special keys that all must be turned at once to open the door to the secret temple might seem like a cunning plan, but a wise manipulator would know that eventually someone’s going to come along who thinks the best solution to everything is TNT.

3. When you’re describing a person. Most people who go looking for writing advice already know better than to describe – especially as an introduction – someone’s physical appearance in lurid detail. Some people still do block-dump physical descriptions at the start of their work, for instance most of the Potter books give a block-dump description of what the titular character looks like (green eyes, glasses, messy black hair, knobby knees/small build, and plot-important scar) near the start, but they are typically wise enough to confine it to a line or two and then not really bring up appearances again for the rest of the work. This is the “give a clear indication of what they look like so readers can imagine it and then get on with the plot” method of describing characters. It’s hardly the only, or even the best, method – although it gets points for treating a physical description as an unfortunate necessity rather than an important event to be lavishly and time-consuming-ly covered from every angle.

Here’s the thing: giving a physical description of a character as something separate from describing the way they make people feel and their own nature isn’t obligatory – or even a good idea in all situations. This doesn’t mean you should fall into the good looking = good fallacy of clichés, but you can say a hell of a lot more about a person by mixing them together. Here’s the other thing: you need to choose what is important to describe – that which is interesting or of note – rather than just describing the standard description items (hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, fitness level/body shape, occasionally face general shape and nose type). I mention them one after another because it’s easier to show them as they work together. Which of these gives you more of a feeling for the character?

“She had dark brown hair, which fell to her shoulders. Her brown eyes were set in a narrow face with high cheekbones. She was tall, thin, and beautiful. She was also cruel.” (32 words)

OR

“The dark woman would have been beautiful if only her nature were not so obvious in the coldness of her sharp features.”(22 words)

The one tells you the typical things about what the character looks like. The later tells you something about who the person is and what they look like. Things like eye colour and hair colour can easily be slipped in at other points (“she brushed a stray lock of brown hair away from her face”, for instance). When giving description it always helps to make them do double duty – to make them give both appearance and personality, or backstory (or triple duty). Everyone has hair and eye colours. Not everyone has nibbled nails or lines from frowning regularly. A few less common descriptors can give a far better impression both of the appearance and nature of a character than a lot of common descriptors.

4. When you’re giving backstory. Backstory shapes behaviour. This means that the best place to show backstory is in behaviour. For example: if you have a character whose little sister died, you don’t need them (especially if they’re taciturn by nature) to go into a long spiel about how it happened; you can imply in the way they mention that they had a little sister who died. A character who smiles sadly, trying not to cry, when they bring up a late little sister and who seems irrationally concerned with car safety is already telling the readers the salient points of what happened without need for the character, or prose, to stop and talk about what a good relationship the characters had and the tragic vehicular accident which took the younger’s life (most likely recently). The character who bitterly brings up their dead sibling often and seems dissatisfied when they mention them is already telling the readers that they have unfinished business and bad blood with the sibling, but that they miss them and probably weren’t involved in the death. The character who surprises people by sympathetically giving their first mention ever of a dead little sister when pulling out a kept child’s toy, and who has a sort of grim satisfaction when they mention that it’s what got them into disease research, the character is already telling the readers that their little sibling was terminally ill and was probably given a mercy-kill. And so on. If you have an ex-slave character you don’t need halt a chapter to give a long explanation of the horrors they faced as a slave if you can convincingly have them rub their scarred wrists and mutter a lot number to themselves as they pass some auctioneers in a slaving city during the chapter. After all, most people in reality do not tell their life stories in detail to others – strangers would think they were creepy if they did and non-strangers already know or pick up the important bits as they go.

5. When you are showing how people feel. Show; don’t tell is a rule which is often correctly applied to the portrayal of emotion, but too much showing gives you melodrama. Unless you are deliberately writing a melodrama you do not want to be writing melodrama. This is because of escalation – every time you give an overly lavish description to how someone is feeling, then when you have to describe a stronger feeling you have to describe it even more lavishly. For example, if you write “HOW. DARE. YOU!!!!!!!” he exclaimed, roaring then the response or when you show that character more upset than that you have to add even more to make it clear. While if you write “How dare you?” he roared you don’t have to worry about starting to sound silly when the emotions run higher. Admittedly that’s a slightly exaggerated example, but it works.

VI. Wen u’r beeing kriateive wif speling nd naymes. Funnily enough, naturally occurring languages have shaped themselves to be easily understood – and are what the readers will understand easiest. This also means that you can only go so far with altering or creating names before your readers will no longer be able to pronounce them as you desire because the spelling and pronunciation rules are so alien from the readers’ language. Books like JKR’s Potter series work well with old but real names to give a feeling of a strange new world without tripping up readers terribly, while books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series manages to get creative with naming without tripping anyone up by changing one letter in otherwise normal names – and by applying a standard rule of spelling of pronunciation, rather than changing things willy-nilly.

 

And on a final note, if you want further reason to view less is more as a good idea in general: consider how much more readable the later points in this post were than the earlier ones.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2016 in On Writing

 

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The Neat-Complex Axis

So despite having called this blog Inspector Faerie I seem to be doing very little actual inspecting of faerie and folklore. Yet again I find myself too bored of or too tired to write another bestiary type post – to either continue on by examining more traditional vampires (Strigoi, Mullo, etc) or to keep the bestiary posts going with other folkloric creatures (Nuckelavee, Djinn, etc) until I can find the energy to get back to finishing the traditional vampire series – even though that is what I intended to do. Does anyone actually care whether or not I keep going with that? Either way; have another decidedly not folklore-focused post:

The Neat-Complex Axis

I had a conversation a while back wherein I tried to articulate this and – much to my frustration – the person I was conversing with assumed I was talking about quality and could not be made to understand that this was not about quality, not about depth, and not about genre. It’s about form. So maybe I should get around to actually saying what it is I’m talking about…

In my experience people tend to define stories as falling into certain categories which are made by two conditions: they are separated as binaries (it is one or it the other) and whichever categorical divide is made it is always the only category division used (a book is either judged as Deep Vs Shallow OR Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, but never both). Furthermore, while genre is divided into more than two categories, books are typically divided as Humorous Vs Serious if such a division is made outside of genre description (which it should be, given that a humorous sci-fi would require very different framework than a serious one and even horror can split into humorous and serious). I found, as I struggled to articulate what it was that made me like one book but not another, that these binary categories (Deep Vs Shallow, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Humorous Vs Serious) were both insufficient to describe the difference I was trying to express and, worse, many carried baggage (Deep Vs Shallow is often wrongly equated with quality – a book doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful to be good quality writing) which made it impossible to use them to express what I was trying to say and which made it hopeless to attempt to repurpose them. Consequently, I had to come up with new terms to describe what I was trying to say.

Now, I assume that people who academically study fiction have already got terms for this – but I’m “just” a writer: that makes me a layman when it comes to writing, as far as academia is concerned and as I tend to talk to other writers rather than those who’ve made an academic study of writing I needed terms for laymen. (If anyone reading this does professionally – whether as a teacher in schools or an academic making a study – make a living off telling people that authors of other works meant/was inspired by/was using as a metaphor [X] in their work when the author themselves has explicitly stated that their works meant/were inspired by/was using as a metaphor [Y] kindly quit lying to your students/readers by insisting that you as the academic or teacher know better what the author meant than the fucking author! Also, if the author hasn’t stated what something meant/etc, don’t put words in their mouth by saying “the author meant” or “this represents” say “the author meant [y] but it also works as a representation of [X]” or “to me it represents” or “it is generally thought to…” Tolkien, for instance, stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was not about World War 1 – or 2 – but people still teach in schools that it was! Dear people who claim that “The death of the author” excuses claiming that the author meant something they never said they meant: you are not fucking telepaths; you don’t know what the author meant and you sure as hell don’t know what they meant better than they did – stop talking in fucking absolutes and telling authors they don’t know what their own work represents!) But I digress. Mostly because it pisses me off that some people in this world make a living off claiming to know better than the author of a work what the author meant or intended, but I still digress.

All genres – no matter how tightly they cling to reality – are essentially not reality. Drama set in as real as possible reality still ultimately create something which is not real and must do a tiny, tiny, bit of worldbuilding – even if it merely a town or a house on a street and the people who live in it. The choices the author makes build how that barely-alternate Earth works. Meanwhile, all the Speculative Fiction genres take worldbuilding to the other extreme and sometimes create entire galaxies and new laws of physics. No matter what genre, though, they all bound by several axis of form: Humorous Vs Serious, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Deep Vs Shallow, and – as I’ve come to call it – Neat Vs Complex. It occurs to me, as I write this, that I ought to explain precisely what I mean with the earlier terms (and why I call them separate axes) before I move on to explaining that concept which I had no words for until I came up with Neat Vs Complex.

Tone; Humorous VS Serious: I must repeat, at this point, that this is about form rather than genre. Every genre (except comedy and parody, of course) can be divided into those which take a humorous tone to the proceedings and those which take everything very seriously (which is not to say that either is of lesser quality or that to be humorous a work must be a comedy). This is a matter of how a story treats itself – does the work take itself seriously with everything being treated with a grim solemn attitude or is it able to laugh gently at what happens with in, giving the work a light and gentle touch even when it portrays tragedy? This, I must emphasise, is not the same as Deep Vs Shallow – both Humorous and Serious can be Deep or Shallow. A Deep and Humorous work is called a Satire, while a Shallow and Humorous work is Slapstick; a Deep and Serious work is filled with layers of meaning and musing which are held within a frame of gravitas because the story is treated with the same solemn weight as reality, while a Shallow and Serious work takes itself very sombrely – treating the events inside with the same weight as reality – but is a gentle adventure which does not drag one many layers into the world and does not focus on heavy topics. All four of these, of course, can be written well or written poorly. Humorous Vs Serious is, essentially, a question of whether or not the story (prose, if not characters) is able to admit that the stakes are not that high because ultimately nothing is serious as all is fiction (faintly amused even at its most grim moments), or if the story takes itself very seriously and treats everything with gravitas (unwilling to laugh even at its absurdities).

Quality; Good Writing Vs Bad Writing: Every genre, yes even porn, can be written well or written poorly. This axis is a technical one and has nothing to do with the tone, or meaning, or encapsulation of a story. This is the axis of Twilight VS Literacy. This is the axis of “is the plot full of holes?”, “what the fuck is that comma doing there‽”, “those characters are pure cardboard”, “nice word but not the right word”, “this prose needs tightening up”, and “that doesn’t make any sense, damn you, Mary-Sue”. Quality of writing cannot be judged on genre, on depth, on tone, or on encapsulation – it is purely a matter of the technical skill of writing. This axis is, therefore, entirely unrelated to the others. I mention it only because otherwise people misunderstand and assume that because they believe things must be deep and serious to be worthwhile that Deep Vs Shallow is about quality – which it is not.

Layering; Deep Vs Shallow: Imagine a pond. It’s in your backyard and it’s just big enough for a few little fish to live and for you to occasionally dip your feet in (no higher than your ankles else you hit the bottom and get mud between your toes) and cool down comfortably. This is Shallow writing – the world and characters created are not flat (like a slick of raindrops on stairs) but only gently immersive: you cannot dive into this world, nor can you be pulled out to sea and drowned. It is more than just a surface – it is not like the flat slipperiness of droplets on tiles and 2D writing – but there are not many levels of meanings. Characters on this level are 3D enough but the reader is not required to delve into their psyche – the reader can follow along next to, rather than in, the believable character without having to immerse themselves in the character’s thought patterns. The world is gently formed; it is not a cardboard cut-out but it is also not filled with a rich history and unending locations and cultures. The Shallow story is not one to forget the world in but it is safe and comfortable and good for relaxing. The midpoint of this axis is not a pond: it is a swimming pool. You can swim up and down, dive in and dunk your head completely under the surface of the story, but at all times you can see the edges and it does not take more than a slight kick to break the surface again and return yourself to reality. There is more history, but not an entire history, and characters can be followed within but gently so. It is big enough to play in, but ultimately it is still mostly safe. The other end of the axis is the ocean. This is Deep writing – the world is layers upon layers of histories and meanings. The reader is immersed in the character’s psyches. Although it is a wonderful and seemingly unending thought-world to explore it is also easy, very terrifyingly easy, to be sucked under, or to lose sight of shore completely, and drown in the world because it is all too much. This axis, I cannot repeat enough, is not about quality – it is about layers of world and about how immersed the reader wishes to be. A light read while in the airport or waiting for a meeting is a gently refreshing thing – a story which you can just dip your feet in, because it is Shallow. But if you want to completely lose yourself while you read and be immersed in a richly layered world you want a Deep (and typically fucking heavy) read, which may well leave you questioning your existence months later. Neither kind of work is less than the other: they both have their time and place.

 

So if that’s what I mean by Humorous VS Serious (tone), Good VS Bad (quality) and Deep Vs Shallow (layering), what – you may wonder – the heck was I struggling to explain when I came up with Neat Vs Complex? Well, I’d found that more than tone, layering or genre (but not quality, quality is the deciding factor in the “do I read this?” question) it was how, for lack of a better term, the story was or was not encapsulated that made it enjoyable for me.

Encapsulation; Neat Vs Complex: Imagine two little model villages. On model is standing loose on the table, but the other is encased in a snow globe. Apart from turning it upside-down to make the “snow” drift from point A to point B (like reading a book from start to finish) there is nothing I – or anything else outside – can do to affect that little village. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out because it is an encapsulated world all of its own: everything it needs and everything that has any effect is within the constraints of that little globe. It is, in a word, Neat. Nothing from outside can come in and make it messy or complicated. All the relevant characters are within the constraints of the globe, the nearby area of the world, all of the major plot events can be reached without leaving the village and everything – essentially – which is relevant or important to the plot is already secure within that globe. There are no random occurrences from outside; a cat could run through the other model village and knock things over, but inside the snow globe no cats can mess things up. There are no loose plot threads in such a Neat work – if there’s a prophecy you can be assured that it will refer to characters you already know and who all happen to live within the same country, or city, and who are conveniently both alive at the same time and aware of each other. Prophecies also make sense. Heroes fighting for the safety of their spaceship never need to worry about how the politics of something happening to their trading partners on the other side of the galaxy will affect them because if it was important those trading partners would be within the “village” of the hero. The romantic heroine seeking her true love never needs to go that far to find him or fails and the other potential love interest is conveniently shuffled to the side somehow (and there is no “he still has custody of the kids” or other such problems standing in the way of the plot). The murderer who the detective must track down is always someone in the area and on their suspects list. The villain is always defeated by the one who it most suits the audience’s sense of justice to do so. Good and Evil are politely separated into two teams and proceed to duke it out. It’s Neat. Some people like Neat – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Neat’s not the only way to write a story. The opposite, which I elected to avoid calling “messy” for fear of giving it a negative bent, is Complex. The opposite of Complex I have called Neat because (like “messy”) it would have come across negatively if I called it “uncomplicated”.

Complex fiction is what happens when Setting, rather than Plot, is king of the story. Neat stories may be Deep with layers and mention many historical facts of their world, but these facts ultimately are either only mentioned because they are the key to wherever plot point C is hidden or in order to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot alone. Complex stories, on the other hand, don’t need to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot because the plot-train with the characters will be happily chugging through the countryside when BAM it gets derailed by a passing herd of history.

…Okay, that might not have been the best metaphor. Consider it this way: in a Neat story the hero with the need to avenge a relative will be the one who kills the Dark Overperson, which is awfully convenient given that no matter how many people the Overperson must have pissed off it is the one we readers are following who takes up action and gets the satisfaction of just revenge. That is, as mentioned, awfully convenient – this convenience is what makes it Neat – but the audience gets to feel along with the hero and see him do exactly what they’ve been hoping he will do. In a Complex story, on the other hand, the hero with the need to avenge a relative may find that someone else the Dark Overperson’s pissed off – who the hero has possibly never heard of before this point – has already done the Overperson in, which removes the “isn’t that convenient for the plot” issue because it is more realistic (reality is messy and complicated) but also robs the audience of the chance to see the dramatic Hero VS Overperson fight they (and the hero) had been anticipating. Done badly the first is trite and cliché while the second is deus ex machina. But done well both are perfectly valid stories. It’s just that different people like different levels of complexity. It comes down to the question of whether one likes the satisfaction of a realistic plot or a tidy plot.

Okay, so let’s look at some examples (as if this post wasn’t long enough already). I’m only going to look at Good Quality Writing for this to make it extra clear that I am not saying any of these differing forms are lesser than the others, because they’re not. So, ta-da! Examples:

Humorous, Deep and Complex: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unmistakeably humorous in tone, is made up of layer after layer of (not always relevant) worldbuilding and the cast is constantly being side-swiped by unexpected problems and solutions from all through the deep layers of worldbuilding which happen to have nothing else to do with the main characters’ plots than that they (sometimes literally) crashed into each other, making the setting very complex. It also sometimes has not so subtle philosophical and political points buried in there (“they have to vote for a [corrupt] lizard or the wrong lizard might win”, anyone?) but that’s a different definition of deep than is used here.

Humorous, Shallow and Complex: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is also without a doubt a humorous work, and although it sometimes gets a touch political (again not the definition of deep herein used) it ultimately does not build layer upon layer of character’s psyches, of history, or of cultural worldbuilding. Meanwhile the surreal work is based on the principle of making it impossible to know what is coming next and each little sketch’s plot has no guarantee that it will be solved by the tidy inclusion of what has come before and not, say, interrupted by a general who insists that it must end because it is silly, or a cartoon foot, or the audience, or just wander off into another skit. It’s complex.

Humorous, Deep and Neat: The Discworld Series is unabashedly pun-filled and humour to its core – even the more serious later books – and is filled with layer upon layer of history, geography, cultures and character’s psyches (admittedly, the history is somewhat skewed on account of history having been broken in the past and the history monks having to patch it up, but in general…). The world, although Deep, is also a Neat world – despite how astonishingly bizarre it can seem because it turns many clichés on their heads. The Discworld runs on an element called Narrativium; meaning that plotting itself is a force of nature in that world and that the world will reshape itself to the plot at times over the plot being reshaped by the world. Although the Discworld can seem like an utterly mad place, the heroes who solve the problems are usually the same heroes who found out about the problems and, when not going to the moon or switching places with a kangaroo in what is definitely not Australia, the heroes typically do not get involved with things too far away …unless, of course, the majority of the plot takes place there. It’s a Neat world – Vimes solves the problems the Patrician tricked him into getting involved with, Granny Weatherwax uses the same tricks subtly shown earlier to defeat the most recent threat to Lancre, and calling an orang-utan a “monkey” results in pain; just as warned.

Humorous, Shallow and Neat: The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best and longest amusing comedic plays in the modern English language. It is all about the wit and for all that the characters take things very seriously, the work itself does not and thus it is humorous. Although time has added extra layers to the work, as happens to all works set in what their authors viewed as the “now”, the play has very little in the way of depths – the characters are fairly straightforward (with uncomplicated inner thoughts), the culture is precisely as it was in reality with no layers added and no histories created, so the reader or playgoer does not have to do more than dunk their feet in a pond which reflects their reality. The play is also extremely Neat: the mysterious parentage of Earnest (who is not called Earnest) is revealed by Prism who (conveniently) works for him (rather than say, having left the country after misplacing him as an infant, which most people would have!) and (conveniently) he is revealed to be the brother of Earnest (who is also not called Earnest) who is his closest friend (how convenient) and (conveniently) makes him a suitable match for the woman he wants to marry. It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t so convenient.

Serious, Deep and Complex: A Song of Ice and Fire is a work which takes itself seriously. There is nothing amusing about the fact that humanity is too busy being corrupt and at war for petty things while a potentially world-ending force goes near unchecked. The set up could have been played for laughs, but instead it focuses on the tragedy and the gravity of the situation. The world is unquestionably Deep: the history of the entire world is mapped out and has affects on the plot, characterisation and cultures. The map is not merely filled in at a few key points, but a complete world geography which interacts. The cultures are shown through stories, sayings, and a whole variety of behaviours – and each culture is fleshed out, with its own take on the history of the world. This world (Planatos?) is also unquestionably Complex: there is no deus ex machina to rescue the hero from being murdered, those who seem to be set up to have the big dramatic duel to the death so that the more heroic can vanquish the worse while the audience cheers for them never happens, characters long, cunning plans are thrown out the window (pardon the phrase) when their legendary fighter dies of circumstances brought about by a minor injury, and minor characters turn up all the time having been forgotten by or having never met the heroes (term used loosely) to pursue their own goals with no regard for the viewpoint characters’. Oh, yeah, and prophecies are obscure little buggers which sometimes outright fail to happen and the meaning of which no one can agree on. It’s entirely possible, give the sort of world it is, that the guy who thought he was the saviour and then thought his son was and then died IS going to turn out to be the saviour and the world will be even more screwed because he’s dead. It’s messy and it’s realistic – complex to the core.

Serious, Shallow and Complex: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may seem to be the odd one out here, but as I have said before this is about form not genre. Doyle’s writings, presented as Watsons (and Holmes’, on occasion) do take themselves as seriously as any real criminal investigation would. The world, however, is a Shallow one – like with Wilde’s play, the setting is a mirror to reality in which the reader may comfortably soak their feet rather than risking diving in and being washed away as Martin’s readers are. The characterisation is deep enough, but still counts under Shallow because the people presented are not so different or deeply investigated that the reader risks losing themselves in the characters. The works are unmistakeably Complex, as Doyle wrote before Agatha Christie set the standard for mysteries as “logic puzzles for the reader to solve set in literary form” and so Holmes – unlike just about every detective after him – is free to run about the city looking for the connection between a lost Christmas fowl and a jewel theft, to solve cryptography issues without allowing the readers to see all of the symbols, to have his investigations crashed by someone he didn’t know about looking into the same (or another) mystery, and, yes, to get the answer totally and utterly wrong.

Serious, Deep and Neat: The Lord of the Rings is one of the great epic fantasies of the English language and although it purports to be in a fantastical setting it treats itself with seriousness befitting the grandeur of the events unfolding – and rightly so, as Tolkien was in favour of treating fantasy with dignity and depth. Depth is something which Tolkien’s world (both Arda and the Undying Lands) has in abundance – with culture in every phrase, saying, song and random burst of un-translated Quenya (or is it Sindarin? Maybe both). The history is rich and reaches literally back to the creation of the world, the geography nearly complete (the East, alone, was a little vague) and the characters are immersive in nature because they are so much part of their world. It is, ultimately, a Neat world, though, because (possibly because Eru was nudging things but given his deistic hands-off approach highly unlikely) it has an awful lot of convenient situations – Isildur’s heir happens to turn up at just the right time, the one ring happens to be found by the right sort of person at the right time and handed over to the next right sort of person to handle the mission of its destruction (conveniently) just before the bad guys can work out where their glittery weapon of mass destruction is and ultimately, every character who is important is one the main characters get introduced to at some point and who are of some high regard (there are no “random” murders by common people with a reason to fuck things up, for instance).

Serious, Shallow and Neat: The Harry Potter Series takes itself seriously (perhaps more than it needs to because, seriously, how is it up to the one British teenager to stop Voldemort else the world is doomed when he’s so far only been a threat to Britain, France and bits of eastern Europe? There’s plenty of other continents worth of wizards who could fight him once he became a threat to them – not to mention normal humans who would probably drop a few nukes if Britain came under control of a mad dictator and started attacking with unknown super weapons/magic, would horcruxes really survive that? But I’m getting ahead of myself). Although the Potterverse offers up a great deal of facts about the history of wizards, the majority of the history and culture is a reflection of the modern world and the world of a few hundred years before – Christmas is celebrated by people who learn at eleven how to perform what the bible counts as miracles, the people are essentially just modern people in robes and the historical facts, while interesting to a fan, have no connection or bearing to each other or the story …nor any affect on either. The geography is …splotchy. London and Scotland are where they belong and that’s about it. It is a slightly deeper pond, but at most you can put your legs in up to the mid-calves, rather than just the ankles. It is still Shallow and comfortable, there is no great effort involved as the world is not truly immersive (everything in the magical world is current real society with a few trappings – such as the four house school system, etc). This does not make the world any less fun, but it does make the world non-immersive and Shallow. The world is also, quite undeniably, Neat (both as in cool and as in tidy). The prophecy is fairly straightforward and all players in it, conveniently, know about each other, grew up in the same greater city area (Surrey and London) and went to the same school. All of the plot items needed are to be found in dramatically meaningful locations (conveniently so) and characters duel to the death against plot-appropriate enemies (even if some revenges are unexpected – what happened to Bellatrix, for instance, was Neat in a different way than expected but still Neat). No random victim the hero doesn’t know even tries to put a sniper’s bullet through the back of an enemy’s head, no external politics (that includes muggles) come into play and, as I said before, it’s awfully convenient that the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord is a local boy instead of, say, pissed off foreign governments. It’s Neat. The story, although set in Britain, is self-contained to the point that the magical world of Harry Potter might as well be alternate Britain in a snow globe for all that the rest of the world affects it.

 

Some people like Complex worlds and find Neat worlds to be too simplistic and convenient. Some people like Neat worlds and find Complex worlds to be too chaotic and messy. Some people like both. And some people don’t read fiction. Nevertheless, liking or disliking based on encapsulation (Complex or Neat) is very different than liking or disliking something because of its quality (Good or Bad), or layering (Deep or Shallow), or tone (Humorous or Serious), and is worth having words for, because it makes explaining why you like one but not the other of two well written works in the same genre.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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