Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy
I blogged about description earlier, but recently I noted a section in John Gardner's book, The Art of Fiction: Notes of Craft for Young Writers. He mentions one thing that I not only neglected but also had never really considered before. It's a little bigger than it sounds at first. He mentions description in the role of verisimilitude.
I like that word. Let's all say it together: verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude isn't truth; it's truth-like. It's truthy. We write fiction, so we aim for the truth. But, in order to shelve our work on the fiction isle, it isn't literal truth itself. It's verisimilitude. To make fiction believable and real, writers reach for that sense of truth. How? Well, it's in the details. Yes, description is part of that, but John Gardner uses the word description in a much broader way. He means that, for example, in a world of dragons, when a character rides on the back of a dragon, she reacts in a believable way. She hugs close to the neck in much the same way she might while on a horse for the first time. She feels emotions that anyone would likely feel from the back of a ten-ton flying reptile. Not only that, but what she doesn't do also resonates with truth. (She doesn't try to hop off, for instance. She's a mile in the air now.)
So even though John Gardner's use of the word "description" goes beyond what a writer normally thinks, it applies to description perfectly well. So I have a new goal in mind when I choose which details to reveal in my work-in-progress: verisimilitude.
Kou-Kou by Georgios Iakovidis
I've been thinking about surprise lately. Surprise is a key, rarely-talked-about element of fiction.
By now, we've probably all heard about how the book Save the Cat is the basis for many Hollywood blockbusters. No surprise, if you've heard about it in the past. And while a lot of those movies follow the plot beats down to the page number, some work better than others. This is evident in both the sales and the critical reviews.
So why do some work better?
Well, there's a lot of discussion there, but I'm thinking specifically about surprise today. In this context, I mean that the writer does something the reader never expected. A good writer can surprise in dialogue, at which I think Joss Whedon often excels. The plot can surprise. The characters can surprise. And the narration can surprise. Really, anything can surprise the reader.
Surprise isn't merely important; it's critical. Imagine a well-written story with interesting characters and a strong, logical plot. It stays on the road. I walks the well-worn path. You read it, and it is exactly what you expect. While it's decient, the story never once does anything to surprise you, to make you smile or lift your eyebrows. Now, we won't call this story bad, but imagine the difference if every page does something you never expected. I'd be excited to turn the page and see what happens next. Even a less-than-spectacular story would keep me turning pages if this were the case.
How to surprise your reader? Tough question. That's where creativity becomes important. Sometimes, I think out what seems most obvious, then next obvious, and so on until I run out of ideas and choose something further down on the list. Other times, while writing, I make a note. Do something better here. My mind can work the problem over as I go about my day. Usually, when I come back to it later, I've come up with a few ideas. If nothing else works, there's no harm in talking to friends and other writers.
Maybe that works. But that's the thing about surprise--there's no formula.
Hemingway on Safari
I don't think writers have voice. Narrators have voice, and often writers are the narrators of their fiction, which lends to the idea that writers have a voice--which they're frequently encouraged to go find, somehow.
I think they would do better striving to understand narrative voice and how it influences a story. I'm certainly no expert--that's why I'm writing this blog--but here are my thoughts.
Why make the distinction between writer's voice and narrator voice? Because the same narrative voice won't work with each story. Some stories might yearn for a detached third-person observer narrator, others might benefit from a third-person commentator narration. Neither is deep in the character's head--a function of narrative distance. One offers only raw detail and facts. The other accompanies story with opinion, either through tone or more directly. (And there are other types of narrators, such as the unreliable narrator. These are just a couple examples.)
Voice changes with narrative distance, which is how close the narrator is to the mind of the point-of-view (POV) character. Some authors call it psychic distance.
A distant narrator--still limited to the POV of a single character for this example, remains outside of the character's head. John stepped onto the porch. It was early summer. It was hot. He was sweating.
Closer narrative distance--the writer reveals some internal mood or thought. John hated the heat. He hated sweating. He wasn't too fond of the porch, either.
Then, at its closest--the narrative becomes a kind of stream-of-conscious writing. Damn heat. Damn bugs. Porch needs fixin'. The voice is no longer a non-person narrator. It is the character's voice.
Now, along with this, there are omniscient POVs, which can be detached or also can comment on the story. There is also first-person, which tends to be deep, but not always. First person can, if the author chooses, be surprisingly distant.
All of this comes down to author choice. What kind of tense, narrator, distance and perspective used all define the storytelling technique, which in turn contributes to tone and mood of the story. They're important tools that deserve some thought in nearly any story.
In the end, each writer will also have some level of their own voice they can't escape. A familiar fan might recognize the style and voice of an author that uses a different name. (Personally, I think a good writer would be hard to recognize due to a strong narrative voice.)
Note that narrative distance is different than aesthetic distance.
I've noticed a poison that creeps into fiction. No matter how realistic or gritty the story, writers continually let it slip in. This week I noticed it watching an episode of Breaking Bad, season 4--one of the rare television shows worth watching if you can stomach it (though I've noticed I don't like it as much as some other writers.)
The poison is poison itself. Despite a wealth of information available in our world, I keep noticing the same trope--a toxin that reacts within seconds; is colorless, tasteless, and odorless; and has no side effects other than the victim falling unconscious or dead without more than a grimace or gasp. The details vary, but real toxins don't work like that.
In the Breaking Bad episode, several members of the cartel ingest poisoned drink all at once. Salud! Then, a few minutes later, it kills all of them at (almost) the same moment. They fall to the ground dead with barely a sound. The only exception to this was Gus, who purposely made himself vomit while everyone else was falling dead. Smart guy; he got away with just some stomach pain.
Breaking Bad generally portrays toxins realistically, such as its use of ricin, which is described incorrectly but is still better than fantasy poison. I was surprised to see such a ridiculous toxin on the show. There are toxins that act rapidly, but they have specific effects--not just an instant slumping to the ground--and no ingested toxin would affect all of its victims at exactly the same moment. Metabolism and stomach content would cause the results to vary quite a bit.
This is why writers are amazing. A writer that researches will know about a wider variety of topics than most other folks--especially when it comes to interesting ways of killing and disposing of bodies (just an observation.)
The lesson here is do research. I don't mean just a quick Google search. Talk to experts, read actual books, and dig deeper into how things work. This, to me, is what writers mean when they talk about honesty and truth in fiction. It's really just another way of saying fiction should be believable, realistic.
I spent the weekend pondering a quote by experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton.
"Language and image, each trespassing in the other's house, secrete disquieting disjunctions, conundrums, circularities. We are accustomed to the poetic strategy, within language, of bracketing a noun within the genus of yet another noun, which may come from an alien phylum, a foreign kingdom. Translation of that strategy into the economy of images yields artifacts....savagely grotesque, arch, silly....that seem to flee the rigors of self-reference; contradictory images, far from coalescing in a dialectical encounter, annihilate one another in a gesture that sweeps language clean of specification and seems on the point of suggesting a raw map of the preconscious work -- the material action-- of language.
It is as though the formation of the meaningful had some ultimate chemical origin, 'parts of speech' combine into propositional molecules through electrovalent attraction, or, where that attraction is lacking, remain in solution as free radicals. If art has had a scientific mission, we find it in the exposure of such mechanisms, in a nonlinear display of the occasions of meaning. For meaning is not, for image or word, in things; it is in people."
Man, I hope never start talking like that. Being able to talk like that would be keen, but actually talking like that in an everyday conversation would hurt my soul.
In the end, it's a fancy way of saying art and meaning center on people and not formula. Strict adherence to formula is art trying to impose meaning onto people. That's interesting, because wikipedia lists that Hollis guy (the other one) as a structural filmmaker (different, apparently, than the structure talked about in storytelling.)
Still the "...we find it in the exposure of such mechanisms, in a nonlinear display of the occasions of meaning..." has a lot of, well, meaning, for me.
Doubt is expected, especially on a large project, but dealing with a gender I'm not familiar with, from a generation I'm too removed from, in a setting that I've never seen, feels not just overwhelming, but altogether wrong sometimes. Also, Issues like how to format text message conversations present surprising challenges, like balancing convention with readability and avoiding sounding gimmicky. (There's a balance to be struck there.) I've worked my way through every problem I've hit on this book so far, but this one keeps coming back to haunt me. It's hard to tell if it's legit or just normal doubt. (If not this, would I doubt something else?)
So let's break this down. There's two areas of concern.
So what if she's young? She's a human being. She has passions, needs, backstory and quirks--all the things that should make a character in a story work. As long as I make those things plausible and explain what is necessary in narrative, there shouldn't be a problem. (Also, beta readers can help iron out teen-girl quirks along the way--too bad I don't know more teen girls. Well, you know what I mean. Readers. Then again, if I'm too far off, the chore of making it all believable might not be worth the effort right now.)
If this were a fantasy or science fiction novel, I'd be spending hours on constructing a unique world. Using a real world location is different only in that I replace making things up with research. Of course, with real-world locations, readers can call me out if the details are off. With fantasy and science fiction, it just has to be plausible. Still, New York City is daunting, (if not over-used in fiction. I'm still not sure why I chose it.)
Okay, I need to put some thought into this one.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.