Does Writing Have Rules?

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  And because I’m the sort of person I am, I’ve been reading writing books.  I was at a second-hand bookstore sale a while back, where I picked up a writing book that must have been written in the early 1900s, given the books it was referencing.  Actually, it’s quite fascinating to read.  He’s denouncing the method of teaching writing in American schools, because it’s entirely technical, and fails to address the craft of writing.

Actually, it’s surprising how similar a lot of it is to what gets repeated endlessly on writer’s forums nowadays, giving examples and general instructions for how to make a character who seems realistic without being boring, when prose is overwritten and purple and when it’s not descriptive enough, and so on and so forth.  Actually, it’s incredibly similar to a lot of what I’ve been reading from modern writing experts and enthusiasts.

But it does make me think.  The way the information is presented is nearly entirely opposite to the way I was used to it being presented nowadays.  That is, it’s presented as actual instructions.

Nowadays, if you get writing advice from anyone, you’ll see advice prefaced with “Well, if you’re good enough, you can make anything work, but …” or “I generally think …” or “I find it useful to think about …”, the latter two usually concluding with something along the lines of “… but other people do it differently, so whatever works for you.”  In some ways, this is a good thing.  Writing advice should not be didactic, and it shouldn’t be presented in such a way that people are afraid to try other things and see if they work.  Writing should be about finding what works for the individual writer (with caveats for the amount of advice one should accept from others, particularly beta readers, but that’s a topic for another post, I think), rather than an exercise in ticking boxes.

But.  And here comes the big ‘but’.  I did a creative writing course a year or so ago, which I found absolutely useless, because the teacher refused to give definite advice.  She avoided giving any real advice, to the point where lectures were just a series of slides of examples with very little idea what they were examples of, besides a statement about genre or a vague style (very descriptive – ethereal – blunt and sparse).  And when we were given advice, it was given with caveats and disclaimers until the point was muddled and confused.  There was always yes, but and no, but; I never really recalled any of the advice, because the point just got muddled.

And this, from the reactions of some new writers I know online and in real life, is a serious problem.  There’s no restrictions, yes, but there’s no guidance, either.  Think of the beta reader who only says “yes, I love it”, when all you want is someone to give you an idea of where to go from there.  That’s pretty much what happens for the new writer surrounded by “whatever works for you”.  Yes, of course, but if you don’t know how to find out what works for you, there’s no use in the advice.

I think the issue is that we focus more on the exceptions than the rules.  Writing advice isn’t invalidated with the phrase “but [insert genius writer X] didn’t do it that way!”.  It’s advice, and it won’t work for everyone – that’s just the way advice works.  But today, we treat advice as having to be true in all situations in order to be true in any one – the Nirvana fallacy.  And I think that’s really damaging to the ability to give solid writing advice, particularly for people who are just getting a handle on their writing techniques themselves.

However, I’m often asked for writing advice by friends with a literary bent, and usually they’re looking for something actually helpful.  Anything from beta reading a novel, to “I’ve got this idea; what do you think?”.  I do think it’s important to give guidelines that at least point a newbie in a direction of the right track.

So, here are some things I do.
First, I don’t give advice, I discuss advice.  If it’s a controversial grammar rule, I explain my position and why I hold that position – also for advice like where and when to use adverbs.  If it’s something a little more ‘whichever works for you’, like on how to outline a novel, or construct a good character, I explain my method and why it works for me, then discuss some other methods.  The more tools I can give someone to make a decision, the better.
Second, I always tell people to get more than one opinion on anything.  I don’t want to be a writer’s only beta reader, or only source of writing advice.  I’m biased, just by virtue of having an opinion at all.  I don’t change things in my own work until more than four other people have told me it’s a problem (with some personal caveats, like anything else), and I don’t expect anything less from anyone I give writing advice to.
Third, I watch my own advice for my own knee-jerk reactions.  I know my genre best, and what is a problem in my genre may not be so in another genre.  On an even more basic level, I might despise a particular character, not because of bad writing or any fault of the author, but because I, personally, dislike that particular character.  Maybe they remind me of my least favourite classmate in high school, but they’re well-written and well-rounded – I find I can be tempted to find reasons to tell someone to change the story because of things like that, when the problem’s not with me.
Maybe I find a particular trope overused beyond all saving when another reader thinks it’s an old trope with a fresh and exciting twist.

So, reader input time, if you feel inclined.  What am I wrong about?  What haven’t I thought about?  What do you guys do that I could apply to my own advice-giving process?

Paragraph structure

I could have written another travel blog update.  But we all  know I’ve done absolutely nothing for the past week or so except go to class and write essays (I promise I’ll do some sightseeing soon … honest!).  So here we go with the pretentious English student stuff again!

I was having an online discussion the other day about the construction of paragraphs.  And then I watched an entire group of writers say nearly exactly the same thing:
“I don’t really pay attention to them when I’m writing.  They just happen.”

Another one of those things.  Well, you’ve seen me flail about trying to describe the indescribable before (what makes a game ‘fun’?), so why not give it a shot with something I might actually be able to put together coherent thoughts on.

I am very much the same – when I’m writing, I just write.  I’m not thinking very hard about things like which sentence structure to use or how to break up paragraphs (unless I’m just being too clever for my own good.  Thankfully, pretentiousness usually gets removed in post).  So, I’m going to go about this explaining how I think about paragraphs as a concept, rather than my methods for writing them.  I’m also going to do it in dot-point form.  Don’t ask why.

1. Ideas.
I’m a big proponent of the idea that one sentence should contain one idea, usually.  That doesn’t mean sentences with more than one key idea can’t exist, just that they should be used sparingly and extra effort should be taken to keep them clear.
What, exactly, is an ‘idea’ in this context?  Last time I asked that question of someone, they answered “a complete thought”, which was actually less helpful.  I’ll probably come to a proper definition later, if the next thing I say doesn’t force me to come up with one right now.
Then, moving up a level, a paragraph should also contain one idea.
Yes, it’s entirely possible I do this just to frustrate you.
This is probably easiest to think about in a description paragraph.  Say you’re describing a room.  The room itself is a whole idea, but it’s composed of smaller, separate ideas.  So, you’d have a sentence for the table, a sentence for the wardrobe, a sentence for the bed, a sentence for the mysterious marks on the wall.  Maybe you spend two sentences on the mirror, one on the discoloured, spattered glass, and one on the ornate frame.  Individual ideas, and self-contained, but together, they make a larger, whole, also self-contained idea.
Ideally, this is how paragraphs should work – sectioning out the ideas on a page into manageable chunks so that the reader doesn’t get entirely lost in unbroken pages of seamless text.

2. Layers.
You’ve probably noticed I set out my paragraphs in two layers.  Either a new line, or with white space between paragraphs.  This, I find, is quite useful to group ideas together.  Say you have that room from before.  Sally’s just walking into her new house, and she’s going to bed.  You describe the room, then maybe you spend a paragraph on Sally getting into bed and settling down.  Her brother, David is in the room next door, and you want a paragraph where she’s listening to him getting into bed, trying to guess what he thinks about the house after that.
These are pretty obviously different – not only are the first two descriptive, while the third is thought, you’ve also switched the subject of the paragraph from Sally to David (my brain fought with me to write ‘object’ there – that’s what happens when you study grammar too much).  Yes, Sally is doing the thinking, but the paragraph is about David.  Therefore, you can group them.  The two descriptive paragraphs first, with a new line.  Then, the David paragraph with white space.
I usually use white space for scene breaks in novels (occasionally I have fun with the Insert Character function for other scene break indicators), but when I write a blog post, I’ll write a series of paragraphs about one idea, then whitespace to break onto the next.  Actually, my blog posts are structured much the same way as my essays, which makes me kind of worry that this is what I like to do with my spare time.
We all knew I have no life outside academia anyway.

3. Flair
The first two are what might be considered technical basics.  Once they’re down and sorted, it’s time to play with the formula a bit.
The basic thing that you’ll need to know about a paragraph to play with the structure is that the first sentence draws the reader’s attention most.  In regular paragraphs, this means that the first sentence sometimes acts as a sort of ‘topic sentence’ – one that indicates the subject of the paragraph as a whole, and is meant to transition from whatever the last paragraph was talking about.
“The room was quite large, actually” – this indicates we’ll be discussing the room.
“Sally switched on the light” – possibly an even more subtle indication of what will be in the paragraph to follow.  The reader assumes that Sally can now see into the room, and therefore the author will describe what she sees.
“Glen sighed” – this one could conceivably come on its own, but at the beginning of the paragraph it means we’re almost certainly going to see the narrator take a bit of time to explain why Glen is sighing, or make a judgement on Glen’s mood.  This one will almost always act as a transition, because Glen sighing has to be in response to something.  People don’t just sigh – there might not be an external catalyst (that is, they could be thinking about something), but there is always a reason for a sigh.  The transition is therefore Sally says something –> Glen sighs –> Sally/the narrator provides an explanation of/guess about why David is sighing (often also with Sally’s reaction to this – is she annoyed because he’s always so negative, or is she happy that he’s sympathising with her about her bad day at work?).
But enough about that – if essay teaching is at all the same for you as it was for me, you’re about sick to death of being told you “have to have a topic sentence” and “your topic sentence has to encapsulate everything you’ll talk about in the paragraph”.

The real question is, how does one have fun with this?
The one that you’ll see everyone use (it’s one of the first tricks an author learns when they’re first figuring out how to manipulate structure) is the one-sentence paragraph.  I used one just above.  Actually, you’ll find these everywhere with me – I probably overuse them.  The one-sentence paragraph is a quick and dirty way to emphasise something without caps or exclamation marks.
Compare the two paragraphs:
“Sally switched on the light.  The room was cold, but at least she’d warmed the bed with a hot water bottle.  She got into her pyjamas and snuggled up to her hot water bottle.  Next door, she could hear David thumping around, probably also getting ready for bed.  The door creaked.”

With:

“Sally switched on the light.  The room was cold, but at least she’d warmed the bed with a hot water bottle.  She got into her pyjamas and snuggled up to her hot water bottle.  Next door, she could hear David thumping around, probably also getting ready for bed.
The door creaked.”

For the first one, the reader probably assumes that it’s David’s door creaking.  Maybe he’s closing it.  Or perhaps it’s just an old house and Sally’s not yet used to the weird noises it makes.
In the second paragraph, you’re probably in a horror novel, and the Creature of Darkness and Too Many Spiky Bits is about to jump out and maul somebody.
Alright, maybe that’s going a bit far.  But certainly, setting out the door creaking from the rest of the paragraph draws attention to it, makes the reader think it’s significant somehow.  The question is now “why is the door creaking?”.

But how should we go beyond just this trick?  What else can the paragraph do?
Well, for one, varying paragraph lengths might work the same way as varying sentence lengths.  Shorter paragraphs read faster.
But they’re also capable of far more complex variation.  Think of a paragraph full of sentences like these ones – a couple of clauses long, but nothing too out of the ordinary.  What happens if you add in a one-clause sentence between two of them?  Something as short and simple as possible: The door creaked.  Sally heard David sobbing.  Glen left.
That’s really just enhancing the former point, though – what about if we go the other way?  What difference do you get if you have a paragraph full of short sentences, even fragments, followed by a long, coherent sentence?

“The fight was brutal.  Bloody.  Sam saw nothing but weapons and armour.  Something moved, and she swung.  She didn’t even think.  Someone attacked her.  She reacted.  Pain.  But her opponent was down.  She couldn’t spare a thought for him.  She had to move on.
And then, suddenly, before she had fully realised it, the fight was over, and she was standing alone.”

That first paragraph is probably the worst thing I’ve written this week (I am so not good at fight scenes), but notice how different this is to the long-sentences paragraph with one short sentence following? It’s much more of a slowing-down feeling, going from snatches and glimpses of something to being able to see the whole. 

That’s about all I’ve got the brain power to think of at the moment, but probably not the only variation.  If you have other ideas on how to change up paragraphs, leave a comment!  This is a blog, not an echo chamber for my grandiose ideas.

Plot Twists

Alright, after an absence-ish-thing, let’s have a post on narrative theory.  Since we’re talking about plot twists, spoiler warning ahead: I will be discussing endings/things meant to be surprising for the Matrix, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee movie).

So, I was having a discussion with someone the other day, and we got onto the subject of plot twists (because the people I know talk about that sort of thing).  She was saying that she prefers it when movies don’t give any hints as to their twist ending, because if there are any hints, then she’s likely to guess the twist.

This is something I’ve always been taught is sloppy writing, and something that is actually more likely to have ruined the ending for me than having guessed what was coming.  I know, I’ve been indoctrinated by the endless supplies of ‘good writing advice’ in books and on the Interwebs.  But is it just me?  Am I just thinking about this wrong?

I choose to believe that no, this is not a thing limited to me.  For one, the endless examples of writing advice agrees with me.

But on the flip side, those very same books like plot twists to be unexpected.  They like to be surprised by a book.

So, how do you reconcile those things?  And is it actually possible to please someone like me and someone like my mother at the same time?

Let’s start with the first question.  The trick to setting up a plot twist without making anything too obvious.  Unfortunately, the only real advice I can give for this one is “do it subtly”.  No, really.  That’s about it.  We’ll get onto a case study in a minute, but first, let me flail around trying to explain myself.  What I often hear is praise for a well-done plot twist is “I could have kicked myself for missing that” or “I thought it was really surprising, but when I went back and read it, I totally understood why it happened”.  The best plot twists require a second read-through to truly get.

Let’s start with the bad.  There are two kinds of bad: one is the didn’t see it coming bad, and one is the so obvious it’s boring bad.
For didn’t see it coming bad, let’s look at Way of the Dragon.  Spoilers start here.  The cook is working for the mob, and stabs two of the restaurant workers.  Throughout the movie, he’s been the voice of peace, telling people not to break the restaurant’s decor and giving everyone traditional money at New Year’s.  And then he up and stabs a couple of guys.  No lead-in, everything explained afterwards.  Sure, he had an understandable reason (wife and kids needed money), but he was never shown arguing for selling the restaurant and getting work elsewhere, he was never showing accidentally-on-purpose foiling any plans.  Always just encouraged the main characters, right up until he turned on them.  This is not a good use of your conflicted villain.

For the so-obvious-it’s-painful bad … well, honestly, I couldn’t come up with a good example for this.  Seen it a million times, can’t remember a single example.  But I’m betting you know who I’m talking about anyway.  It’s the character with shifty eyes that turns out to be “secretly” evil.  It’s the mysterious character in the corner of the room who turns out to be a trustworthy friend to the main characters.  This usually comes from the author telegraphing everything too early – giving characters “a weak chin”, “shifty eyes” – characteristics that tend to mean only one thing now, and then not playing with them enough to negate that.  Usually, these stories were trying their damndest, but the author just wasn’t subtle enough to weave in those clues.

So, how do you do it right?
The Matrix had an excellent plot twist.  Not the one about Neo actually being the One after the Oracle told him he wasn’t – that comes under obvious, not because it wasn’t done subtly, but because of narrative convention.  You don’t follow some complete nobody for an hour and a half without something special happening to them.  No, the one about – SPOILER – Cypher.  It’s possibly not a true plot twist, because it gets revealed halfway through the movie, but the first scene with the telephone took me three watchings to actually get.  You see a phone being tapped, and two voices.  One you recognise as Trinity.  The other, who assures her the phone isn’t bugged, is Cypher.  You kind of forget about that scene as you watch the rest of the movie, but it’s there, and you don’t even realise that it’s a deliberate lie until after you’ve watched it.  And for the parts he’s in, Cypher seems to be somewhat of a Sour Supporter – he’s doing his job, sure, but he jokes about wanting to have taken the blue pill, while appearing sympathetic to Neo.  Very easy to mistake the conversation for being just trying to make Neo feel welcome.  But once you see him in the restaurant with Agent Smith, suddenly it makes sense.

Now, is it possible to write a book or make a movie that pleases both people like me, who prefer non-obvious setup, and those who prefer no setup at all.

Well, yes.  Matrix telephone conversations.  Misdirection is the key.  Conversations that seem to be about one thing on the surface, but as you go, you realise they were about something else entirely.  Always give plausible reasons for someone acting oddly.  “I thought the character was upset about her father’s death, but it turned out she was also conflicted about selling out her friend to the villain”.
Always have characters act in character.  That includes for the misdirection and for the plot twist as well.  Sure, the shy, timid, compassionate one might actually be faking all that and be an axe murderer … but you can bet your last doughnut that you’d better have some good reasons for why they picked that particular cover, how they maintained that cover, and some foreshadowing that there might be something else to them.

Actually one of the best ways to do this is to use tropes, then subvert.  Puella Magi Madoka Magica has a plot twist only a handful of episodes into the show, which suddenly changes everything you thought you knew about the show.  How did they set that one up?  With the visuals alone.  Pastel colours, standard drawing style, very typical anime school uniforms, and character types you could pick out a mile away.  It conforms so exactly to its genre that when things get ugly, you’re forced to rethink everything.

So, at the end of this, that person who likes to have plot twists out of the blue?  I respect that view, and I see why you hold it.  But I’ll always prefer subtle setup.  It just feels more internally consistent, and less like sloppy writing.  And maybe I’m young and naive, but I still believe there’s a plot twist out there that even you wouldn’t see coming.

Sharing Some Frustration

Well, it’s finally happened.  I’ve finished the first draft of the novel.

On one hand, this means that I get to start revising.  On the other, it means an incredibly short blog post, because my brainspace is all out of words.  All gone.  I have used all of the words.  Except for the really odd ones, like somniloquence, or pluperfect.  But it’s really difficult to write a blog post using only those.

You were originally going to get an in-depth post about Guillermo del Toro, but that might have to wait.

Instead, I’m going to share a little about how I look at a work of fiction when I analyse it. This is how I do my I Can Explain episodes, and it’s the basis for any of the posts I make about looking into a particular work.  And also, y’know, most of my essays.  Because school is important, too.

So, dot point list:

  1. Look for archetypes.  Character archetypes, plot archetypes.  Is the author using them, subverting them, deconstructing them?  Why is that particular archetype used? How does it affect the story?  Did you notice it, or did you have to think?
  2. Look for motifs.  Images, lines, whatever.  How do they affect things?  Are they there as a reminder of something, or do they show character development?  Are they a symbol of a particular person, and if so, what do they symbolise about them?  Is it symbolic of a particular concept, and if so, what is that?
  3. How is pacing used?  Is there a section where the story slows down?  Speeds up?  Does it rush to the finale, or does it maintain speed and build tension?  Does that work for me, as a viewer/reader?  Why/why not?
  4. What does the ending say about the theme?  Does it support either side, or is it ambiguous?   Is it happy, sad, bittersweet, abrupt, unsatisfying?  Does it contradict itself?
  5. And finally, any really obvious allegories to real-world places, events or people?  How does the author think about those things – are they portrayed positively or negatively?  Does the author change anything, and if so, is it because the author would prefer it that way in real life?

And that’s about it.  Everything I say about a book or movie or TV show was found by answering one of those questions.

Hope that was interesting, will return less burned-out next time.