Guest blog today by writer friend David Marcoe. Enjoy!
All art centers on ideas. All narrative art, where it employs story (where the character is irreversibly changed by narrative’s end, as opposed to portraiture), revolves around conflict. All conflict in story revolves around polarized values and their collision; life/death, freedom/slavery, success/failure, love/hate, family/job, et al. Thus, all story conflict is by nature either moral or philosophical. Often it’s both.
Implicitly or explicitly, consciously or subconsciously, sincerely or insincerely, a storyteller says something about his characters and their world–and by extension our world and we who live in it–by the way a story unfolds; by what the characters do in response to the obstacles that arise in pursuit of their goal, with the framing of a story’s meaning created by its ending, its resolution of all prior conflict. What a storyteller says then flows from a worldview, the ground-level belief about reality. Even in short or shallow stories, a worldview remains offstage to supply assumptions that these narratives begin with.
A good story is a combination of heart and head, internally consistent and emotionally compelling, allowing a reader to believe in what they’re reading. We must be able to empathize with protagonists, able to relate to or at least understand them. The around them must be consistent, so even at their most alien we can accept their presence. The conflict which drives the plot must in turn drive the reader, being either relatable or evoking something in them (awe, mystery, dread), with a resolution which satisfies. Where rules and expectations are established, they must be followed (or creatively bent or broken; twists being unexpected, but seeming natural to what has come before).
This may all be remedial, but many would-be authors and writers want their work to *mean* something, yet lack an anatomy of story to see where that meaning fits. They write stories that are "overly didactic," "preachy" or just "boring." There a number of common mistakes:
A) Show, don’t tell. Yes, oldest advice in the world, but one so often forgotten it helps to list it first. Often, in stories called "dense" or "philosophical," characters will begin speaking more than acting, stopping to chide, declare or preach, often for an extended periods. The writer has so much to *say* and the simplest way is to put it in the character’s mouths.
1. The first and simplest mistake is that these conversations don’t naturally arise from what’s happening in the story; they feel like an interruption in what’s going on. Often enough, these moments haven’t been earned. Not enough has happened to the characters to require explanation from anyone, a character’s speech is at odds with the emotional/thematic tone of a scene (or with the character), a character has not earned enough trust with the audience to be a believable figure, or what’s being said just doesn’t match what’s happened in the story. Most often, where words can be placed believably as digressions in conversation that arises naturally what’s happening.
2. The second error is that these dialogues, monologues and soliloquies run too long; a profusion of detail does not equal profundity. What a character says must be the main thrust of what a storyteller wants to say and it has to be distilled to its most profound essence. A vivid description does not hang on a profusion of words, but one or two sharp and well-chosen descriptive words or phrases. In a similar way, wise words from a character often come as a nugget of an idea compellingly spoken. Give the reader room to think.
3. A character says more than does, or says one thing and does another. What is said must echo what happens in the story. And a character must act, must do; the implications of what a character represents much be expressed in their actions. This is the essence of "show" and the true essence of what you wish to "tell" your audience, with dialogue being a support and augmentation.
B) Too many ideas, too little space. When a storyteller has many things to say, they tend to cram stories full of the themes and ideas they want to talk about. If you were summarize the plot of a story, you will often find it to be far simpler in structure than it seemed when reading it. The main plot of a story is, in reality, going to hang on one or two big conflicts, which center on one or two big theme/ideas. Where other themes and ideas are explored, they are related to the main themes/idea, and are explored either in subplot or as opportunities that arise from telling the story, almost as a side-effect. That leads us to the next point…
C) Forking scenes and abstracted characters. Where an author *wants* something to happen in the story, in accordance with their views of it, they forget that in the story and its world exists with genre conventions, rules the world conforms to, characters with their motivations and personalities, and expectations established in the progression of plot. As a story moves through the arc of conflict, setting one scene on top of the other, it becomes more and more difficult to sharply bend the direction of the plot and maintain coherence, unless these sharp turns have been built to and earned through the progression of conflict.
1) Protagonists can be too abstracted, acting too much as a representation of an idea or a philosophy or otherwise not standing on their own as believable people with believable motivations. A writer must be able to work ideas into the lives of characters who live in the world of story. Even where they are symbols and allegories, they must first stand as characters realized.
2) Scenes calculated to drive the story toward a certain direction or outcome may not arise naturally and logically from the plot. Either things must be resolved in the planning stages, balancing believability with the ideas/themes behind the story, or a writer must be willing to accept that the plot needs a different direction.
D) A compelling opposite: villains and antagonists. Where a protagonist or hero represents one view and the antagonist or villain represents another, that villain/antagonist must be the strongest counterpoint possible to the protagonist/hero to create the most compelling conflict possible. If there is no doubt in your story, there is no victory.
E) Pulling punches and over-reaching. Sometimes the sensitivity of a storyteller may cause them to avoid uncomfortable areas into which their story may roam. The other side of the coin is the over-avid storyteller which draws out the conflict too much. Violence and sexuality are areas where this is common, on both sides, but it is also true of philosophical implications or even the overall mood of a story. The overriding question is, does it move the story forward, or is it excess? A second question is, do I need it to tell the story, or is it excessive or in bad taste?
For mood, a good rule of thumb is to punctuate; enough downbeats to keep the threat of the conflict looming, but enough upbeats to give the audience time catch their breath. Of course, genre conventions and emotionally believability also have be factored in.
In the end, where ideas intersect with the story, you are attempting to bring concretion to abstraction, to bring them into a world that the reader can believe in. But always, first and foremost, be a storyteller.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Elements of Writing Fiction – Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Elements of Writing Fiction – Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books by John Granger