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Posts tagged ‘Writing Techniques’

CROSSROADS: The Techniques of “Literary” Speculative Fiction

Amazing Stories LogoSomehow, we seem to keep coming back around to Thursday. And what will we do this Thursday? The same thing we do every Thursday. Try and take over the world. Post another Crossroads essay over at Amazing Stories.

This week, I continue our discussion of the intersection between mainstream literary fiction and SF/F. Last week, I outlined a general theory suggesting that literary fiction and speculative fiction are not binary conditions, but instead that they each shade into each other depending on what narrative axis we’re considering. Continuing that exploration, this week I take a look at the techniques that speculative fiction deploys in works “closer in kind” to works of literary fiction.

I do hope you’ll stop by and take a look!

Crossroads: “Literary” Speculative Fiction and Literary Sensibilities

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Starting a Story with Cultural Touchstones, Narrative Voice, and Precision (part 1 of 3)

I mentioned last week about how I’ve been on a spy fiction kick recently, and all of the deceptions and double-crosses have left me thinking quite a bit about trust in fiction. Because really, every piece of fiction is a lie. And yet when we sit down to enjoy it, we’re willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and offer some modicum of trust (on credit, of course). And this begs the question: why? How do writers earn that trust, and how can we manipulate it?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on initially gaining a reader’s trust with a story’s opening. On Saturday, I’ll post I posted the second installment focusing on how world-building, consequential plotting and story structure affect reader trust. And on Tuesday I’ll post I posted the final installment, focusing on character consistency and narrator/character reliability.

Reader Trust as the Foundation of Fiction

The act of reading is an act of profound trust: without ever articulating it, the reader tells us that they will approach our words as truth in order to derive some benefit (catharsis, enlightenment, etc.) at the end of the story. Coleridge called this a willing suspension of disbelief, and while I know many people have a problem with that phrase, I’ve always really liked it. When we read a story, we are giving the author the benefit of the doubt: we’re not scoring points and indicating every falsehood the author tells us. Instead, we’re accepting the author’s lies fiction at face value because we believe that at the story’s conclusion, the experience will have been worth it.

This trust is not automatic. Nor is it easy. Reading a story takes effort, and some (Italo Calvino, say) take more effort than others (Dan Brown). In speculative fiction, this trust is even more important because we ask more of our readers. When reading secondary world fantasy or far-future science fiction, the reader needs to internalize our world-building. To be immersed in our imagined environment takes more investment on the part of the reader (more new words to remember, more fictional context to internalize). When reading a locked-room mystery, the reader inherently trusts that everything will be explained at the story’s end. If the reader is to be emotionally invested in a character, they must trust that the character’s actions have meaning and consequence.

Trust is what gets the reader to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to turn the page, and to read the next chapter. The reader needs to have confidence that the author will make their journey worthwhile: the moment they lose that confidence, the book gets put down and (at best) forgotten.

Reader Psychology, Reader Trust and Writer Control

Reader trust is only partially in the writer’s control. A reader’s willingness to trust an author is based partially in their own psychology, and partially in the writing itself. Obviously, a reader is likely to cut a much-loved author more slack than someone brand new to them. That’s because the author has built up a pre-existing level of trust, even if the text itself does not engender that trust. For example, I slogged through most of China Miéville’s Kraken despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it because on past experience I trusted Miéville to make it worth the effort in the end. When the book didn’t satisfy, my level of trust in the author for subsequent books decreased (although so far Embassytown has been undoing the damage). Short of only writing books that don’t suck, there is nothing a writer can do about this: there will always be readers new to our books, so I figure it’s best not to stress over it.

The reader’s preconceived tastes are equally important. Many people know what they like and only read within that one particular genre or sub-genre. When reading outside of their comfort zone, their level of trust may be nonexistent. Someone who only ever reads police procedurals is likely to be a harder convert to Amish romance. As writers, we might deplore this kind of blinkered reading, but it remains a fact. And one that we can do very little about: there will always be readers who we can’t convert.

Equally important is the reader’s state of receptivity. While Frank Herbert’s Gurney Halleck might gripe that mood is a thing for cattle and love-play, the fact is that the reader’s state of mind affects how they read. Some days, I’m in the mood to be immersed. I want something fun, vivid, and escapist. Other days, I want the mental challenge of unreliable narrators and non-linear structure. And sometimes, I just want to read some dry non-fiction. If I try to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for, my willingness to trust the author is decreased. However, the author does have some influence over the reader’s mood. Before the reader has even finished the first page, we have control over the book’s technical execution, its cultural touchstones, and the narrative voice. And all three affect the reader’s frame of mind.

Technical Execution: Sine qua non for Reader Trust

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we do. When we see a book that is poorly designed, shoddily structured, or badly proof-read, the level of trust we’re willing to offer the author decreases. This, actually, is one of the issues I run into with self-published eBooks. When I see a traditionally published book, I know that a team of experienced people worked to make it the best book possible. That team worked for (typically) about a year after the book was finished to line-edit, copy-edit, proof-read, and design the final work. The fact that the editors actually acquired the book means that someone (actually a committee, more typically) thought the author worthy of their trust. Even if that book still has mistakes, even if it still has a lousy cover, the editorial team’s efforts contribute to increase my trust.

Many (and thankfully an increasing number of) self-published eBooks are well-edited, copy-edited, proof-read, and designed. But when compared to traditionally published novels, a greater share of self-pubbed eBooks are not. I have been burned so often by unprofessional self-pubbed eBooks that my level of trust for the entire category is (unfortunately) decreased by association. That may be unfair to those eBook publishers who work their butts off to execute well, but hey: that’s the capricious judgment of the consumer.

The quality of a book’s technical execution is the cost of entry to reader trust. A book can break all the rules of syntax (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange comes to mind) and still be excellent. But there is an inherent difference between breaking rules by design and breaking them through inattention. That difference is precision, and the sense of the author’s ineluctable control over their words. If the reader cracks open the first page, and they see haphazardly misspelled words, broken clauses, and meaningless tense shifts, their level of trust will drop through the floor because we are asking them to work too hard to get to the story.

Language is the rail on which the story runs. Would you trust a train where the passengers needed to fix it while riding?

Cultural Touchstones, Clichés, and Psychological Baggage

Assuming the writing is technically well-executed, we still need to wrestle with the reader’s frame of mind. One of the tools for doing so is what I call cultural touchstones. Writers are told to avoid clichés like pestilential vermin, but I believe that clichés have a use in fiction. They are able to cast a concise and powerful spell on the reader, and used appropriately, they become a shortcut into the reader’s mental/emotional state. While they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of all else, they can be incredibly valuable for getting the reader into the desired frame of mind.

Imagine for a moment a preschool, where twenty toddlers (our readers) are running wild and screaming bloody murder. The teacher, a much put upon soul, claps and shouts “Story time!” All of the readers kids take their seats, and look up expectantly. In this idealized scenario, our brave teacher is able to shift her audience’s mental state just by giving them a practiced touchstone, a pair of words that establishes their expectations based on their past experiences. Clichés work the same way.

Consider the sonorous phrase “Once upon a time…” If we come from a western cultural background, this hackneyed cliché is steeped in history and associations. It brings to mind princesses, wicked queens, fairy godmothers, and wolves in the woods. It carries with it a host of psychological baggage associations, which we can use when we tell stories. If we start a story with that phrase, we set certain expectations in the reader’s mind. They can safely assume that we will be dealing with the tropes of fairy tale, that the story will follow certain conventions relevant to the subgenre. Unless the author subsequently shows us that they intend to subvert those conventions, we should not expect a cyberpunk dystopia to follow.

Famous clichés (“Once upon a time…”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”) only work effectively when put to use tactically and consciously. They are the literary equivalent of a cannon. If they sneak into our writing haphazardly, then our writing will quite simply suck. We will be pushing the reader’s emotional buttons not wisely, but too well. Used sparingly, they have the narrative effect of slamming the reader into the desired mental state. Their impact is fast and powerful, but lacks in subtlety and nuance. For more finely grained control of your reader’s mental state, consider using imagery as cultural touchstones and narrative voice as a modulator.

Cultural Touchstones and Narrative Voice without the Cliché

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are inherently concerned with the conventions of fairy tales, yet she has enormous discipline in avoiding the clichés of the sub-genre. Consider how she opens Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the series:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show — it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons, 1990

Wrede does not use a single cliché, even though her subject matter is ostensibly fairy-tale related. Instead, she relies on imagery that is already associated with fairy tales (knights and dragons, royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, etc.) to put the reader in a fairy tale frame of mind. But by avoiding a reliance on a hoary old cliché, Wrede also gains the space to employ the second tool for managing reader receptivity: narrative voice.

In her first paragraph, she describes a stereotypical fairy tale kingdom. But through the application of careful phrases she establishes a sense of whimsy (“…the number five was fashionable”, “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show”). These images and concepts are not cultural touchstones the way dragons or fairy godmothers are. Instead, they are included to show the reader that the narrator has a sense of humor and acknowledges the inherent silliness of all fairy tales. This contributes to reader trust in two key fashions: juxtaposed against the fairy tale imagery, it establishes that the author is familiar with the conventions of the subgenre, which in turn establishes Wrede’s authority and instills confidence. Second, it undermines (though does not yet subvert) fairy tale conventions, telegraphing to the reader that the author intends to play with expectations. This second contribution sets the stage for Wrede’s masterful one-sentence second paragraph (“Cimorene hated it.”), where she packs characterization, theme, and pacing acceleration into three short words.

This use of voice draws the reader in through unity of character, purpose, and precise execution. Examining the text closely, every word serves a purpose. Even the design contributes to its effectiveness: we have three editions of this book in our house (and an eBook edition on my phone) and every single edition has the first and second paragraphs on the book’s first page. It is the totality of those two paragraphs that Wrede uses as a hook. If she dropped the first paragraph altogether, the second paragraph (the classically “interesting” paragraph with character and emotional engagement) would be meaningless and emotionally dull. It is that slow first paragraph that gives her second paragraph context, like a steep hill on a roller-coaster.

Timing and Reader Trust: When Should the Reader Be Hooked?

Just about every piece of writing advice tells us to hook the reader ASAP, preferably in the first sentence. Like all generalities, it is generally good advice. But there are alternatives available, which may potentially make more sense for our story. Wrede’s first sentence, while interesting, is not a classically interesting hook. It fails to introduce a character, conflict, dramatic action, or thematic factors. Yet the precision of its prose and the sense of whimsy communicated through the voice is likely to get us to the second sentence, which in turn brings us to the third, and so on. Until we get to the second paragraph, have finished the first page, and find ourselves thinking “Okay, Wrede, you’ve earned our trust (for now). Let’s see where this goes.”

When I write, I like to think of it as getting the reader to the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next page, then the next chapter. Every sentence and every paragraph is a chance for me to degrade, lose, or (worst of all) betray the reader’s trust. The more of their trust I’ve built up, and the sooner I do so, the better. If I can earn a page’s worth of trust in my first sentence, great. Sometimes, that is possible. But if not? Well, that’s not the end of the world. So long as I can identify the point by which I need their trust, and so long as the writing to earn and maintain that trust is precise, I’m ahead of the game.

I’ve read many stories that never really earned my trust and just meandered into the action. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know what I’m talking about: front-loaded prologues offering backstory that only interests the author, epigraphs that I suspect most folks don’t even read, etc. Sometimes, slow beginnings are the best way to start a story. But the greatest tool an author has to get the reader through that slow start is the precision of their words. Nabokov pulls this off superlatively in Lolita, where even with a distancing framing device and an unreliable (and unsympathetic) narrator, every word follows inevitably and beautifully from its antecedent.

I generally don’t notice that precision consciously on my first reading of a text. When executed well, it should be invisible (if we can count the rivets on the engine, the train isn’t moving fast enough). But even if it’s not consciously noticed, it still affects how I perceive the story and the author. Precise control of language establishes confidence that the author’s expert hand is on the tiller, and thus builds reader trust. That trust isn’t limitless, and eventually the story must hook me. But precision will typically get me past the first paragraph, which in turn might earn the author the second paragraph, then the first page, and so on until I find myself immersed in the story. It’s a chain of chances, and precision connects the links.

Beyond the story’s opening, trust must be cultivated and maintained. In speculative fiction especially, that often hinges on how world-building is managed, or on the book’s plot structure, and the reliability/consistency of characterization and narration.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday Check out the second installment on world-building, story structure, and consequential plotting.

Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction

The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers

What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

Flirting and Writing Good Dialogue

I love exposition: flowing sentences, tight action, enveloping description. Prose is great. But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering what makes dialogue tick.

Well-written dialogue is not conversation. Have you ever listened to the way people speak? Our conversations (regardless of our erudition) are almost always inane. Want proof? Spend an hour or two in a cafe listening to the conversations around you. Are they interesting? Do they raise tension? Do they give us deeper, subtle insight into the speakers? Only marginally. We waste words, meander around topics, count on body language to fill in gaps, and stutter over halting words like “Umm” and “Uhh” and “Well”. It’s a signal-to-noise problem: in our everyday discussions, there is far too much noise to isolate a clean narrative signal. Well-written dialogue may not be conversation, but I think of it as a particular type of conversation: flirting.

Writing Dialogue with Game

It’s a great feeling when our game is on, and every exchange is tantalizing, enticing, teasing, and provocative. Our goal in flirting is always to draw someone in deeper: into our heart, our head, or – fine – our pants. Sure, there’s a functional level to it: on the surface, we might be talking about where to get dinner that night. But we all know what’s really going on, and odds are it doesn’t have much to do with oysters on the half-shell.

Conceptual Diagram for Good Dialogue

Functional versus Emotional Dialogue

Good dialogue works the same way. Superficially, information needs to be exchanged and decisions need to be made to either move the plot forward or lay the groundwork for doing so later. That’s the functional level of dialogue. But as the writer, we use that exchange to flirt with the reader. Below that functional level, we want to draw them in, heighten the underlying tension, and make them care deeply about the characters involved. So how can we do that?

Less is More: Make Every Word Count

When I have been particularly flirtatious (not that it happens often, but it has happened…once…I think), I feel like every sentence, every word I uttered made the other person dig me more. That’s not because my every utterance was gold. It’s because everything I said was just enough and not too much to accomplish my functional and emotional goals.

Imagine you’re trying to ask someone out to dinner. Your functional goal is for them to share a meal with you. Your emotional goal is for them to want to. If you come at them with a multiple-paragraph emotion-laden monologue, at best you’ll be shot down. At worst, out comes the pepper spray. In that conversation, you want to give them just enough to want more – more conversation, more shared experiences, more of you. Brevity – in this instance – is your friend. Of course, you don’t want to just bark “Yo! Dinner?” That’s probably going a little too far in the opposite direction. It has no emotional resonance, no hidden layers of private meaning.

Probably the best tool I’ve found to find the happy medium is the comic book panel. As I’ve talked about before, panels are the basic building block of sequential art. Each panel uses both art and dialogue to manage the reader’s experience. But here’s the thing: a panel is a limited space. If we want the art to do its job, then the panel naturally constrains the amount of dialogue it can contain.

A good rule of thumb is for panels to not exceed twenty-five words of dialogue. That previous sentence has fifteen. Now we’re up to twenty.

There. That paragraph directly above is the amount of dialogue that will typically fit comfortably in a panel. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for wasted clauses, wasted words, wasted feelings. It needs to be absolutely tight: one sentence, two sentences, maybe three. It may be an exchange, or in that one panel one person may be the only one speaking. But thinking about dialogue in terms of twenty-five word panels within a scene really helps me to pare my characters’ dialogue to the bare essentials.

What did you say? Making Every Word Clear

Clarity’s another important factor. When flirting, if every other sentence is “What? What did you say?” odds are it’ll be quite a turn off. The same holds true for dialogue. We want our readers to instantly understand the surface level of dialogue so that they can internalize the underlying emotional level.

This is why I’m always nervous about dialect in dialogue, especially in genre fiction. One of the defining characteristics of speculative literature is the use of neologism to signify new concepts. The creation of new terms and new concepts is so important that Istvan Csicsery-Ronay dubbed it science fiction’s “first beauty” in his excellent The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. We use new words and alien languages as a world-building tool, to defamiliarize the user and transport them to a reality where our fantastical story can take place. But before we can grok Valentine Michael Smith’s dialogue, we need to grok the word itself.

Like so many aspects of writing, this is a balancing act. And one that even experienced and skilled authors can get wrong. For example, I have loved China Miéville’s writing since his first novel, King Rat. Yet I found myself unable to enjoy his more recent Kraken because I found that it took so much effort to understand what the characters were saying on a superficial level, that I lacked the energy to get emotionally invested. Were the dialogue there slightly clearer, no doubt I would have loved the characters and the story as much as his other books.

Coming at Dialogue From the Side

Flirting is as much about what is left unsaid as what is stated. Good dialogue is the same. Sol Stein describes it as obliquity in Stein On Writing, and I think that’s a pretty good description of both flirting and writing good dialogue. Consider the following two exchanges:

DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“I want to eat a garden salad, have two glasses of red wine, and engage in coitus with you,” Jane said.

OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

The first is painfully direct and clinical. It leaves nothing to either John’s or the reader’s imagination. The second does not – in fact – answer John’s question. It leaves the entire answer to the imagination. The entire experience – and its emotional significance – is left for our reader to find between the lines.

In some cases, the direct approach is smart. Used in counterpoint to oblique dialog, it can be used to drive the point home. Consider a slightly modified direct approach:

DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“Have sex,” Jane said.

Here, the frank approach to the underlying subject matter stands out against more oblique dialogue. If every exchange read like this one, the book would turn monotone. And if every exchange were perfectly oblique, the book would be abstruse. When focusing on principal characters and particularly meaningful scenes, I try to go beyond the merely functional and lean towards obliquity. But with judicious application, a little directness adds extra spice.

Blending Prose and Dialogue

In one sense, comic books have it easy. Sequential artists have an extremely expressive medium (art) to place the dialog in context. They can communicate tone, setting, attitude in fractions of a second. Those of us laboring in prose have exposition to do the same, but text is by its nature less expressive than illustration. So how do we intersperse prose into dialogue for best effect?

Just about any good writing book or teacher will tell you to avoid active reporting clauses (he said/she said). It’s still like flirting. If someone were trying to flirt with us and they screamed every statement, growled every question, and sighed every punctuation mark, odds are we’d remember a pressing engagement elsewhere pretty quickly (unless both people involved are angsty teenagers, in which case they might not even notice). But that does not mean we’re limited to the factual he said/she said.

We can also play with placement. Consider our earlier oblique passage. What would happen if we moved the reporting clause elsewhere in the second sentence?

ORIGINAL OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

MODIFIED OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this,” Jane said, “a little of that.”

Moving the reporting clause to the middle of the sentence introduces a beat that the reader won’t even consciously notice. Instead, they’ll pause for a half-second as they read it and fill that pause with meaning. Maybe they’ll picture Jane winking, or giving a mischievous little smile.

We can also substitute actions for the reporting clauses, though this may be a slippery slope. Consider:

ORIGINAL OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this, a little of that,” Jane said.

MODIFIED OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

“A little of this,” Jane said, “a little of that.”

ACTIVE OBLIQUE “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

Jane took his hand. “A little of this, a little of that.”

ACTIVE DIRECT “What would you like to do tonight?” John asked.

Jane took his hand. “Have sex.”

By prefacing Jane’s statement with a simple action, we can help put it in context. It’s like a marker guiding the reader to the conclusion we want them to reach. This should be used sparingly however, because it can otherwise lead to problems. For example, if a character says something while “spinning” many readers will imagine them twirling like a top while speaking…which is probably not the effect you were going for.

The Transparency of Great Dialogue

I’ve never heard a book described as “having great dialogue but really lousy prose.” (though the opposite is unfortunately common). The reason for that is that truly great dialogue is utterly transparent: its effects on us are palpable, but indistinguishable from the those of the book as a whole. We can’t truly say whether we’re invested because of the dialogue or the prose. What we know is that the dialogue supplements the prose and gives us pulls us deeper into the story. If the prose is an attractive person spotted across a dance floor, then the dialogue is the test of whether they’re nice. And can hold a conversation.

Some Assembly Required: Building Pacing and Emotional Flow with Legos

The other week, I pulled a sentence at random out of John Crowley’s classic Little, Big. I used it to illustrate a point about narrative voice, but a couple of days later I had an epiphany: the same sentence can also illuminate pacing and a story’s emotional flow.

Legos Tell Stories

When I was a kid, I spent just about every waking moment building adventures out of Legos. Back then (despite my fiancée’s assertions, dinosaurs did not roam the earth), Legos lacked variety. There were blocks…and blocks. A handful of different sizes, and that was about it. But despite their limited palette, I could tell just about any story my five year old self could imagine using those blocks. I built castles, and spaceships, and horses, and windmills. Fantasy, science fiction, monsters: I was only limited by my imagination.

Handful of Standard Lego Bricks

Lego Color Bricks, via Wikipedia

Fast forward a few years, and you’ll still find me playing with building blocks. Only now, I use words, sentences, and paragraphs to tell stories instead of little plastic bricks. At its most basic, a story is composed of letters. Those letters build up words, which in turn comprise sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters, then acts, then books, then series, and so on. But those letters are not necessarily our story’s real building blocks: instead, think of them as the long-chain polymers that make up our true Lego pieces. And the specific mix of Legos will differ across stories and media.

Literal Building Blocks: Panels, Scenes, and Shots in Visual Mediums

Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938) “Hawks of the Sea” by Will Eisner, via

It’s easiest to see these building blocks at work in visual media like sequential art (comics, graphic novels) and film. Some people might argue that dialog is key to these media, but I disagree. Dialog doesn’t frame the story: dialog is what gets framed.

For sequential art, Scott McCloud1 and Will Eisner2 both explained brilliantly how the page is the medium’s real building block. Each page is composed of one or more panels that depict some action occurring in time. The composition of each panel and its relationship to others on the page establishes tension and moves us from one state to another. The page frames a finite emotional progression, while the panels that make up that page control our sensation of time (the story’s pacing) throughout the journey.

The same paradigm works for film. A screenwriter’s scenes function the same way as a comic book page, where each scene represents a finite emotional arc through which the audience and characters travel. Each scene takes us from an initial point A to a subsequent point B, and the director uses one or more shots to get us there. Shots structure and control the flow of time and tension throughout the encapsulating scene, just as sequential panels structure the flow on a comic book page.

Visual media impose structural constraints by their very nature, which helps make their building blocks easier to spot. But when writing prose, those constraints go right out the window.

The Building Blocks of Prose Pacing: Sentences

The structure of our prose affects how we perceive the flow of time. Hemingway’s short declarative sentences communicate speed. Proust’s meandering sentences, with their convoluted clauses and tangential commentary, establish a more laconic feeling. Short paragraphs and short chapters read faster than longer ones. But it is their relationship to emotion that determines the real pace of the story.

In Little, Big, Crowley uses the sentence as his primary building block. Practically every sentence in that book takes the reader on its own miniature emotional arc:

Sentence #1: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.”
Sentence #2: “That there was such a house in the world, lit and open and empty, became a story in those days; there were other stories, people were in motion, stories were all they cared to hear, stories were all they believed in, life had got that hard.”
Sentence #3: “But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising.”
John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Even the utilitarian sentences that describe an almost-incidental action contain an emotional arc. If Little, Big is composed of Legos, then they are sentence-shaped.

The sentence length, structure, punctuation, and emotion-laden words control the story’s pace. Each sentence demands that we pause and savor what it has done to us. Without those miniature emotional arcs, the text would be meandering, dull, and lifeless. But by employing brilliant tricks of emotional association, Crowley’s manipulation of our emotional state becomes transparent and, like Smoky Barnable, we find ourselves enraptured in the liminal fairyland of Edgewood.

Paragraphs as Building Blocks

Compare this to G.K. Chesteron’s The Man Who Was Thursday. While his individual sentences lack the emotional depth of Crowley’s, we remain moved by his paragraphs (again, selected at random):

Paragraph #1: As the wood grew first thinner and then smaller with distance, he could see the sunlit slopes beyond it and above it; and across these was still moving the square black mob like one monstrous beetle. In the very strong sunlight and with his own very strong eyes, which were almost telescopic, Syme could see this mass of men quite plainly. He could see them as separate human figures; but he was increasingly surprised by the way in which they moved as one man. They seemed to be dressed in dark clothes and plain hats, like any common crowd out of the streets; but they did not spread and sprawl and trail by various lines to the attack, as would be natural in an ordinary mob. They moved with a sort of dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons.
Paragraph #2: Syme’s laughter at all this had about it a wild weakness of relief. He laughed at the idea of the paralytic Professor being really a young actor dressed up as if for the foot-lights. But he felt that he would have laughed as loudly if a pepperpot had fallen over.
Paragraph #3: At first the large stone stair seemed to Syme as deserted as a pyramid; but before he reached the top he had realised that there was a man leaning over the parapet of the Embankment and looking out across the river. As a figure he was quite conventional, clad in a silk hat and frock-coat of the more formal type of fashion; he had a red flower in his buttonhole. As Syme drew nearer to him step by step, he did not even move a hair; and Syme could come close enough to notice even in the dim, pale morning light that his face was long, pale and intellectual, and ended in a small triangular tuft of dark beard at the very point of the chin, all else being clean-shaven. This scrap of hair almost seemed a mere oversight; the rest of the face was of the type that is best shaven—clear-cut, ascetic, and in its way noble. Syme drew closer and closer, noting all this, and still the figure did not stir.
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908

Taken individually, the sentences are utilitarian. Most are solely descriptive, with no emotional imagery employed to direct our mental state. Yet in each paragraph, certain imaginative descriptions are employed with laser precision to manipulate our emotions (a “staring army of automatons”, “wild weakness of relief”, or “deserted as a pyramid”). Each sentence is just a sentence, but with his paragraphs Chesterton increases and decreases tension like a sound engineer mixing in a recording studio.

Still other authors use scenes or whole chapters as their basic building block. While I won’t quote entire chapters here, I recommend taking a look at how Steven Erikson or Yasunari Kawabata manage it (particularly in Gardens of the Moon and The Master of Go, respectively).

Picking Legos out of the Box

So enough theory: what practical conclusions can we draw from this? If each story has a set of natural building blocks, then we have to identify it. The set will depend on the story’s medium, its audience, and the emotions we want to evoke. I suspect a spy thriller is unlikely to use sentences as its building blocks: to get an emotional response from individual sentences would slow the action too much to work within spy thriller conventions. By contrast an introspective memoir might luxuriate in the kind of sentence-level emotional manipulation that Crowley executes.

While this may just be my own idiosyncrasy, I find that once I know what the basic building block of a story is, it becomes much easier to write. If I know that I start a [sentence / paragraph / scene / chapter] at emotional point A, and need to get to point B by its end, the amorphous task of writing becomes easier. It’s not just a question of knowing where to go: that’s just plotting. Instead, it’s grokking the space I have to operate in. While I’m not a painter, I imagine it’s like understanding the bounds imposed by a piece of canvas. Within those bounds, I am limited solely by my imagination. But by figuring out which Legos I’m really using, it lets me have fun building stories.

In Conclusion: Some Fun Lego Constructions

And to conclude with the Lego metaphor, here are some fun Lego projects that some amazingly talented people have constructed:

10,000-piece Sandcrawler

Functional Antikythera Mechanism

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