So I’ve finally read Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been strongly recommended to me by many people over many years. It was definitely worth the read, and I was particularly drawn into the essay “About 5,750 Words” which should be required reading for any storyteller in any medium. In it, Delany presents a compelling metaphor for the act of writing, presenting it as a gradual revelation of the story’s essence where each word simultaneously moves the story forward and changes our perception of everything that came before. It puts me in mind of a writer-as-sculptor, chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal the shape beneath. Each strike of the hammer is the next word on the page.
NOTE: Delany is one of those amazing writers who instantly put me in a philosophical frame of mind. So bear that in mind: I don’t know how practical my thoughts are going to be, but they do represent the way my mind is drifting beneath his wind.
Honestly, I was surprised to find the revelatory metaphor so compelling. When it comes to craft, I’ve always fallen into the ultra-rationalist camp. I like to believe that I am (or that I should be) in absolute control of every aspect of my storytelling. Before writing word one, I have always liked to know where my characters and story were going, and how they were going to get there. That doesn’t mean I need to have an entire book in my head before writing, but it does mean I need to know where a particular scene (at the least) is going. Writing as a revelatory act just didn’t – conceptually – work for me. But I find that the more I write, the more my outlook on this is changing. Partially, this is a question of experience and a broadening of my toolkit o’craft. But it also stems from what I consider the driving force of narrative: the quest for unity in storytelling.
When I think of the greatest stories I’ve ever read I find that every level of their storytelling is pulling in the same direction. Stories affect us on a physiological and psychological level, exerting both a rational and emotional influence on us. Basically, when we read, our bodies and minds are like great echo chambers where everything feeds back on everything else, amplifying the essential notes to a thunderous roar. Stories like Hugo’s Les Misérables, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and John Crowley’s Little, Big use their action, emotions, and themes in concert to resonate like a struck gong. I’ve come to believe that the secret to that kind of amplified resonance is a perfect (or near perfect) unity between the story’s action, emotions, and themes and the structure, pacing, and words through which they are expressed.
The Essence of Story
On a prosaic level, a story is just a bunch of words or images set down and consumed in sequence. But at the heart of each story, there lies some ephemeral truth that we as artists wish to communicate. Every story ever created might have a very different kind of truth: Zamyatin’s We warns us against the logical extremes of Marxism. Crowley’s Little, Big shows us something about family and the cycles of life. Jackson’s “Flower Garden” points us to the horror of unstated small-town bigotry. These truths could not be more different. Yet they are the unifying elements which tie together the events of their respective story, the structures of those events, their pace, and the words used to express them.
In that sense, I agree with Delany that our job as writers is to identify the underlying essence of the story. That essence is a chimerical questing beast: I don’t think any of us can ever truly internalize every aspect of a story’s essence. Any mere mortal’s brain would probably explode. But we can and should get our reaching fingers around the last, loose strand of that beast’s tail. And having plucked that strand free, to take a page from Baron Cuvier’s playbook and extrapolate the rest of the creature as best we can.
Different writers approach this in different fashions. My own preference is to consciously consider the essence of the story before or during its initial writing. But I know plenty of great authors who don’t give it any conscious thought until after it has been written. Their initial focus is on telling a fun story: they let their subconscious build the story’s essence, tie it into their words, and then try to amplify it during revision. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and both ultimately lead us to the moment when a story gains meaning and achieves artistry. In my own writing, I’d really like to master both techniques, though I have a long way to go with both.
Words, Words, Words: The Only Things the Reader Sees
Fortunately or unfortunately, we can’t just download the essence of our stories into the audience’s brain (though I imagine there’s a good SF story in that concept, come to think of it). So we have to use symbols and metaphors to approximate that essence, employing language (the most basic symbol) to do so. Which is what brings us to Delany and Chekhov. Consider the following two quotes:
A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
|Samuel Delany||Anton Chekhov|
The Chekhov quote is often used by folks blathering on about “show, don’t tell” and I’ll put it bluntly: they don’t get it. All writers – yes, even Chekhov – rely on “telling” to a greater or lesser degree, so that truism is only helpful for the most basic writing. Delany and Chekhov are implying the same concept: they are each indicating that the words we use become the very essence of the story we are trying to communicate. Chekhov’s two nouns (his “glint of light” and “broken glass”) communicate more as images than his earlier verb (“shining”). We don’t need to know the story’s plot for those words to evoke emotions. The words themselves and the rhythm of their sequence do all of the heavy lifting. And to Delany’s point, Chekhov’s simple exhortation is effective because he first paints a picture (of the moon shining), and then refines it with more powerful and evocative language.
Word choice and sequence matters, because unless we’re working in a graphical medium, it’s the only tool we have. But when those words align with the emotions, themes, and (manipulative) intentions of the storyteller, then we achieve unity, and by the same token, the inevitability of prose that most folks like to call “style” or “economy”.
Plot and the Essence of Story
When I think about plot, I usually think of it as independent from the essence of my story. The truth of my stories is only tangentially related to the plot. While I find Ayn Rand’s screeds and self-aggrandizement to be incredibly annoying, I love the concept of plot and plot-theme which she introduces in her The Art of Fiction. What she calls the plot-theme is for me the essence of the story. It is what the story is about, its philosophical and emotional core. It is the truth that I wish to communicate. But plot is just Stuff That Happens, which, if I’ve done my job correctly, expresses the plot-theme succinctly and powerfully. And it does so by making the story’s essence accessible for the reader.
Consider the essence of Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. One can likely reduce it to the warning that if we aren’t careful, we risk repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Stated so baldly, the power of that essence is blunted. It becomes bland, polemic, and boring. But it is through Miller’s plot (what happens) that the story’s essence is demonstrated in action. Through the characters, and the events they experience, we gain a means of emotionally investing in the story’s essential truth…before that truth is fully revealed at the book’s conclusion. Our engagement with the book becomes emotional as well as intellectual, thus increasing the story’s effect on us.
When done properly, every plot point in a story contributes to the story’s final essence. This contribution, or the story’s essence itself, might not be apparent until the very end of the book. But if when we turn the last page the characters have consistently acted in support of the story’s unstated essence, we will find ourselves satisfied and the story ringing in our hearts and minds.
Writing as a Revelatory Act: A Writing Exercise
In his essay “About 5,750 Words”, Delany performs a neat trick: he writes a single descriptive sentence, and painstakingly, word-by-word shows how each word revises and clarifies the initial image that the author has in his head. It’s a neat trick, because it literally puts into practice the concept quoted above. And it shows how one can consciously construct a unified, economical story.
Of course, Delany does this trick for didactic purposes: I suspect that when he sits down to write fiction, he does not weigh each word five or six times before deciding on it. Doing so would likely mean decades spent on a single book. Yet I find myself fascinated by this concept of each word simultaneously revising and building on the words that came before it. Given the underlying essence of story, it makes that story’s expression a revelatory act: likely as surprising to the author as to the reader. And that kind of revelation would be awesome.
Because of the way my brain is wired, I strive to do everything on purpose. But of course, that’s an aspiration and I doubt I ever really come close to meeting it. But sometimes, a reader’s comments really surprise me. For example, one of my beta readers recently sent me her feedback on a draft of a finished novel. In her feedback, she mentioned how much she liked the fact that two opposing characters at different points in the story mirror each other in their personal desires for vengeance. She thought it really added and amplified the philosophical and emotional themes at play between those characters.
And this floored me, because while I wrote the words and mapped out the plot, this was just a happy accident. I wish I was cool enough to do that on purpose. But in fact, it was a revelation to me, because at no point in the process did I tell myself “These enemies will be mirror images of each other along the dimension of vengeance by which their themes will be amplified.” It just worked out that way. And even after I’d written it, I didn’t notice that that’s how the characters and their actions related to each other. Which on one level, just goes to show that even a self-conscious writer’s subconscious has a heavy hand, and that readers will always find something the writer didn’t expect in every story. Of course, on another level it might mean I wasn’t paying enough conscious attention to my story – which if that’s the case is a little more worrying.
Which brings me back to the trick that Delany employs in “About 5,750 Words”. I get the impression that letting the imagination run free and consciously considering each word individually and in sequence may produce the same kind of revelatory experience. If nothing else, I suppose it will exponentially increase my awareness of word choice. It’s probably not a viable technique for writing long pieces, but I think I’m going to do a writing exercise at some point where I write an entire short story one word at a painstaking time…without prior consideration of the story’s essence. On one level, this sounds almost like free-writing (an exercise I always found frustrating and useless). But I think it is actually more its opposite: because each word is carefully weighed and selected, it will hopefully yield some of the most unified and essential writing I could hope for.
At least, that’s the theory. And I figure it’s a worthy experiment to try. Would you like to see the results of the experiment up here on the blog? Since it’s just a crazy experiment (I don’t expect the creature to live), it might be fun to dissect it. What do you think? And how do you approach getting that kind of unity into your stories?