Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking the lumps

"If your story is flat, your story is flat now" is a very telling observation made by Sam DelanyFigure 15 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...Image via Wikipedia and it's one that regularly hits me between the keys. It's the curse of every writer, bar Ted Chiang perhaps, to realise that what they are producing does not match the purity of the original idea. Many, many times every word that is put down only seems to slubber that gloss.

Some of that is inevitable and perhaps desirable because the working out of a story always means getting the parts to fit. Simply putting together all the parts supplied by the muse would produce a work that would be pretty much unreadable.

One aspect of story writing that is particularly difficult for me is adding emotional weight to a character's journey. Especially as the aphorism to "show, don't tell" is always on my mind. I could just write about someone's state of mind but feel that I should do more. Hence my being haunted by Delany's quote about the flatness. I've often asked myself how I add that weight but now realise that is the wrong question. That weight should arise from the events of the story. There should be emotion built in. That's easy to say but hard to do.

So this quote from Donald Maass was a real "Oh, right" moment.

"Describing grief is fine but not as effective as your protagonist saying goodbye to her dying mother - and even that is not as good as saying goodbye after a rich experience of mother-daughter love - and even that is not as good as if that love was hard won."

So, it's the cumulative effect that is important, the stakes have to be high and the story has to show that building up. That is a relief to read because it means that when I get that feeling of a story lacking emotion it is usually in the first draft. That's not to say that it would be easy to fix in the edit but it gives me a framework on which to hang my revisions. Good.

That advice feels particularly relevant for my current work in progress. It has a main character who is emotionally stunted because to make any connection with anyone where he was raised was potentially fatal. It was a very treacherous place.

The idea for the story was that the culture that has kidnapped/freed him did so because it needs his skills as cold, merciless killer. It still does but maybe it can be more complicated than that. Maybe it can also civilise, thaw, him a bit. He will not go unchanged by immersion in another place. The emotional punch could be him unbending but it will have to be preceded by lots of heartlessness and failed attempts at making a connection. Plus he'll have the prejudice about where he comes from to contend with to frustrate his emotional growth.
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Mike Keyton said...

Good post, Mark. I find it difficult to 'write' about writing, so I don't :) But what you describe is spot on. My present WIP )too crude as yet to workshop, is still in that first draft stage where the emphasis seems to be on getting from A to B with the pieces fitting. Subtle descriptions, worked out emotions and some historical/geographical detail will have to wait for the second draft. I hope :)

markb said...

I used to feel like I'd failed if a first draft wasn't working out and spent a lot of time editing the first thousands words or so to get them right. Now, I'm with you - get the words down and fix it in the edit.

Juliette Wade said...

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