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Over-analyzing fiction writing structure and why it is silly
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jfreedan
I hate showing my writing to authors, especially unpublished ones.

I blame creative writing workshops and books for this. When every writer is using Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to determine how to structure their manuscript, will the resulting story be innovative or homogenized? I lean toward homogenized.

It is often said "You must know the rules to know how to break them." I think this is bullshit. The reason? These "rules" did not exist when J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings-- which is why his work goes against a large portion of these style rules and was not harmed by them.

The Unwarranted Hate Against Exposition (often labeled "Infodumping")

Infodumping (a term that sounds derogatory since the word 'dump' brings to mind trash and fecal matter) is always bad, says the thinktank of creative writing workshops and books today.

All information should be slowly spread throughout a story, never in "large chunks". Don't make anything you write too wordy. Purple prose is always silly. Writing shouldn't look like poetry, one of the oldest forms of story-telling in the world.

Nevermind that a large portion of The Time Machine uses infodumping in narration. People don't like to read it, they just like to buy it and tell other people to read it.

We should also try not to use too many big words in a single paragraph, because literate people are stupid and can't understand sentence structuring more complicated than Dr. Seus.

I imagine if Tolkien tried to submit his Fellowship of the Ring manuscript today he would be strongly encouraged to cut out entire chapters and nearly every bit of backstory Gandalf speaks would need to be re-written into some kind of action-packed sequence. The story probably wouldn't even begin with Bilbo's birthday parties, since the scenes lack intensity. The first chapter also wouldn't skip forward twelve years on the second page, because that is "backstory".

The current thinktalk would want the story to begin with Gandalf sweeping into Frodo's house and throwing the ring into the fire. "That's where the story really begins," they would say.

No, that isn't where the story begins.

The story begins where Tolkien started the story, and it fits an established pattern for starting stories; "The Call to Adventure".

What is The Call to Adventure? It's a model from the monomyth theory of storytelling (the monomyth being a model that examined mythological stories to find similarities). It involves the protagonist beginning their adventure and leaving behind the "mundane world". It includes the need to establish the mundane world so the differences between it and the "world of adventure" are clear.

This is the problem with applying models when you don't fully understand them. "The Call to Adventure" seems to have been taken at face value without actually understanding what the label means.

"It says 'adventure', so that must mean the story must start right when the adventure does!"

No, that isn't what it means, at all.

Normally, the mundane world needs some establishment.


The problem I see is that many writers today are using cookie cutters on works of fiction that they got from some agent or author's blog, book or writing workshop in an attempt to homogenize the story. They do this under the impression it will "get them published", since similar stories like that have been published.  They are told to dislike certain narration techniques because of what a small number of people like and dislike, and ignore what everyone else likes.

However, if Tolkien followed their style rules, the flavor of his novel would be changed. It wouldn't read the same. It's difficult for me to believe a novel with a different flavor would produce the same amount of popularity. It is doubtful it would be as timeless as it is today.

J.K. Rowling breaks some of their style rules in her first Harry Potter novel. According to the current thinktank, the book should have started out "where the real story is". Applying their model, The Sorcerer's Stone doesn't start with Dumbledore and McGonagall talking about the backstory involving Voldemort and Harry's parents. Nor would it have a point of view from Uncle Verne and his distaste of all things abnormal.

According to the modern thinktank's model, it would start with Harry Potter receiving a letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft, and then whisk him off on a magical adventure into a new world, with nothing of the muggle world explored or described.

I believe much of the flavor of the story would be lost if Rowling took their advice. Harry Potter may not have been as successful if she did that. In my opinion, it is because of the detailed and often humorous "backstory", or "character chit chat" (which doesn't really move the story forward but nevertheless makes the story interesting and funny) that makes it a wonderful read.

By watching the films, you can see the detrimental effect of applying this kind of cookie-cutter to the Harry Potter stories. Entire characters become removed or merged. Plot details are left out. Personalities change. Well written, entertaining and funny chapters that give important backstory get chopped into a single infododump of dialogue that still manages to leave important details out.

(The Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring films have managed to be decent films despite the alterations. Other films based on books, such as Eragon and The Seeker, have not been as fortunate.)

In the case of the first chapters of Book 1, the "backstory" they would cut out is actually the establishment of the mundane world Harry is leaving behind. It happens at the start of every book. It's formulaic, but rather successful because it establishes familiarity for the reader, creating a bond with a non-existent person.

We live in the mundane world.

We all want to leave the mundane world.

When a character leaves a mundane world and entes a world of adventure, we the readers leave the mundane world and enter a world of adventure.

Yet, the current thinktank believes every story should start 'in medias res', in the middle of action because all readers today have the attention spans of a water flea. (What a negative opinion to have of the people you want to buy your books!)

Not to say that you can't start a book in the middle of action. I'm just saying that shouldn't be the only acceptable way to start a story. I often get the feeling some stories could have greatly benefited from exposition at the start, before tossing the reader into some foreign world where they have to re-read sentences in an effort to understand what the hell is going on.

Exposition isn't bad.

Exposition is what makes The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy funny, interesting, and original.

The Star Wars films start with an infodump. Audiences don't seem to mind.

Silly Lists That are Ultimately Meaningless

Not long ago, there was a thing with agents at one of these writer's conferences where agents talked about what makes them stop reading.

In order to illustrate how petty some of their comments are, I've linked to books these agents would have rejected if they really used these guidelines:

10. Overdone description that doesn’t move the story forward

All Harry Potter Books REJECTED!

Lord of the Rings
REJECTED!

Heart of Darkness
, REJECTED!

Stephen King's It
, REJECTED!

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
, REJECTED!

9. Spoon-feeding the reader what the character is thinking

Moby Dick, REJECTED!

8. Having the characters address each other repeatedly by name, as in, “John, let’s go!”

Of Mice and Men, REJECTED!

Journey to the Center of the Earth, REJECTED!

7. Introducing a character with first and last name, as in, “John Smith entered the room.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, REJECTED!

Emma, REJECTED!

Sense and Sensibility, REJECTED!

Around the World in Eighty Days, REJECTED!

6. Beginning a story with dialogue

I'm not sure why this was mentioned. I'm sure they are out there, but I can't recall a book that opens with dialogue, so there can't be many of them out there.

5. Opening with a cliché

What is
cliché and why is it necessarily bad?

Is it
cliché to begin a story with a piece of fictional writing, as was very popular throughout the 18th and 19th century, as shown in such works such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's 'A Modern Prometheus' (aka Frankstein) and Johathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels?

What about the current trend of starting stories in the middle of action? That could be
cliché .

The Iliad starts with a prayer to the Muses, which was a popular way to start stories in Homer's age. Is that
cliché? Does that mean The Iliad is bad?

A Wrinkle in Time opens with the ultimate novel
cliché: It was a dark and stormy night. Yet more than thirty years after it was first published, I still find reprints in bookstores.

4. Yanking the reader out of the action with backstory

A Tale of Two Cities, REJECTED!

Les Miserables, REJECTED!

Oliver Twist, REJECTED!

Lolita, REJECTED!

3. Not giving the reader a sense of place or where the story is going

The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, REJECTED! (seriously, Huck breaks the third wall at the start of the story!)

2. Characters are MIA until bottom of page 2

20,000 Leagues under the Sea, REJECTED!

1. Telling instead of showing

See my comments on exposition above.

Many of these works are considered important pieces of literature that have had a huge impact on human culture. Who is to say that there will not be future stories written in similar ways that could have great impact on our culture? The idea that these masterpieces might be rejected for silly reasons and not given their time to shine is a scary one. What stories are we, the public, missing out on because of a handful of fickle people who aren't reading stories but checking to see if they conform to a narrow list of pre-determined criteria that goes well beyond spelling, grammar and punctuation and into a sea of pet peeves that are not backed by market research?

If anything, market research proves their opinions are wrong.

There are agents who reject manuscripts where dialogue doesn't start within two pages. I supposed these agents would have foolishly rejected Stephen King's It, which has no dialogue until the bottom of the third page.

Because this is the year 2009 and not 1754, you'd think by now we would have realized homogenizing writing makes writing bland and uninteresting to read. Aside from correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, there should be no clearly defined laws on how to write a good story. There should only be loosely-defined techniques that have been used to create stories, and the author should be free to use these techniques in any combination they like to tell their story. That is how new techniques are discovered. That is how timeless stories are created. Do you think Jane Austen was concerned about whether repeatedly writing the first and last name of characters would distract readers? A better question should be, "Should Jane Austen even have cared?".

It has been said that writers need not please everyone, only the person buying their story. When I hear someone say this, what they are implying is the publisher is the person purchasing their story, but I disagree: if you want to have any longevity as an author, who you should be pleasing is the typical reader who doesn't know anything about the many theories of writing stories, and is only looking for an entertaining piece of literature to occupy their time.

When I read a story, I apply a Zen philosophy to my reading: I do not think about how I would have written the story. I do not check to ensure it conforms to what I read from a creative writing guide book, or heard some agent talk about.

I only focus on the words the author wrote on the page.

I can recognize stories that follow the currently popular  thinktank model, but usually only after the fact.

I don't enjoy the cookie cutters. I have a hard time forgetting that I'm reading a book because they lack detail, or don't provide enough, or just sound too similar to one another.

A good book will transport you into another world, if you'd only let it do so.

It's hard to be transported to another world when you are too focused on comparing the paragraphs to one model of writing, and dissecting it bit by bit, never experiencing the work as a whole like it was intended to be.

These cookie cutter books read more like a film screenplay and less like a novel. Screenplays do not often list many details because the medium is different-- much of the detail will be shown in what the camera captures. Describing anything in detail just wastes paper and makes it harder for the production crew to do their job since they have to wade through words to find the bare minimum details they need.

Novels are different-- you must build the environment in the reader's head.


You could try to make the argument that what worked for past authors will not work for current or future authors because the English language has "advanced"-- but has it really? How has it advanced? Structurally, it is the same. We have some new words and new cultures have given us new dialects of speaking these words, but the language itself and how it has been used is precisely the same. Are we so arrogant to think that the way we write today is so superior to the way our forefathers and foremothers did? Even when those older works are more widely read than the newer stories written by the modern so-called "creative writing experts"?


I said at the beginning of this essay that I hate showing my writing to other authors. The reason is because I rarely encounter authors who can forget they are authors, and just read a story like they did when they were a child, before they had ever written a story themselves.

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Well said. A good story will always stand on its own regardless of any rules imposed by publishers.

And it is far to easy to get mired in this rules muck. For me, feel has a lot to do with it. I believe any good writer can tell if the story is flowing and if it keeps their interest.

Thanks for the post,
Sunryo

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