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Friday, July 06, 2007


I'm stuck and here's a story about it

Have a look at this. It's from a website called Strange Horizons, which describes itself as an 'online speculative fiction magazine'; it has a couple of pages that may well be useful to the hopeful writer, entitled Stories We've Seen Too Often, and Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often.

It's an interesting mix. Some of them are fairly sweeping; number 9 in the horror section, for instance, is 'Person is targeted by Evil Thing; in the end, Evil Thing kills person', which is the plot of pretty much every M.R. James ghost story, and James was (at least according to me) the best ghost story writer of the English language. On the other hand, I guess it's his execution rather than his plots which makes him so, and I can see how that could be a dull story. Some of them, on the other hand, are always going to be horrible structures; the non-horror section 4d is 'Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real: In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.', which hurts just to read about, never mind reading the story.

Well, they're interesting in themselves, but it's 4d, and also non-horror 2 - 'Creative person is having trouble creating' - which particularly struck me, as they're a recognisable phenomenon: the story about wanting to write a story. There are probably infinite variations on this theme, but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for them when rereading your work, because they tend to exasperate editors.

I've seen other examples cited elsewhere, and would be delighted to hear of more...

There's what the Turkey City Lexicon calls the 'White Room Syndrome' - a character wakes up on a blank page-style white room and spends a long time wondering what's going on, because the writer themself has not yet decided.

There's something I read in an essay in a writing class years ago (and I've remembered the advice and forgotten the source, so if this was your idea, anyone, let me know and I'll attribute it), but it's the story that begins with a character reflecting on their dull, empty, meaningless life, which is really the writer complaining of their boredom with writing the story and inability to invent an interesting, full, meaningful story. A reflection on the ennui of modern living is a story, but a character complaining that nothing ever happens to them is blaming the author, not modern society. It's the difference between productive and pointless inactivity.

There's the quest structure in which the word 'plot' could comfortably replace the word 'grail', 'balance of the world', or whatever it is that the characters are trying to reach: if we don't find the plot, everything will fall apart. (Or fall into shadow, or be eaten by the void, or any other metaphor you choose for 'be a non-story'.) Not every quest story works like this: the good ones are essentially road-movies where interesting things happen along the way. They work particularly well if the grail is actually relevant to their day-to-day experiences. Suppose the heroes have to reach it because if they don't, the evil wizard will get there first and use it to destroy all the blue people; under those circumstances, the blue people are going to be part of the story, and it'll actually be about something - genocide, war, prejudice, blueness, whatever. It's vague threats like 'the world will cease to be' or 'everything will fall into nothingness' that really are the problem, because then you can start substituting the word 'story' for the word 'world': the story will cease to be, fall apart and sink into nothingness. If nothing interesting happens apart from trying to get to the grail, and there's no particular reason why they need the grail apart from 'the author has decided it's important, and anyway without it they'd have nothing to do', you're looking at a story in which the writer is groping after a plot rather than telling a tale.

(Note - a possible exception to this is the Neverending Story plot, where the setup is similar but it's the protagonist's imagination, rather than the writer's, that this quest-world represents. But if you're going to do that, the protagonist needs to have a life in the real world as well, which is relevant to the things that happen in the imaginary world, and your structure will need proper discipline. Your protagonist has to feel like a real person, or the reader will start assuming that they're a blind for the author's desire to write - which they are, of course, but you want to hide that.)

There's the literary story which is so heavily influenced by a writer that the author admires that all you can take away from the story is their admiration, rather than anything new. I'd quote John Fowles's ideas about art with a pinch of salt, because I don't agree with everything he says, but there is a useful point in The Collector, where an artist, shown a student's derivative work, decides to be honest rather than placating and says: 'They're teaching you to express personality at the Slade - personality in general. But however good you get at translating personality into line or paint it's no go if your personality isn't worth translating ... It's rather like your voice. You put up with your voice and speak with it because you haven't any choice. But it's what you say that counts ... A picture is like a window straight through to your inmost heart. And all you've done here is build a lot of little windows on to a heart full of other fashionable artists' paintings.' The same applies to writing. I've sat through a lot of student plays, for example, that told me nothing about the world, and almost nothing about the author, except that they admired Stoppard, Beckett or whoever. You can fall into this trap if you're inexperienced, or stuck, or nervous - writing exposes you, and you can hide behind influences - but in the end it's just a more educated version of groping in the dark: rather than the story saying 'I've got writer's block', it says 'I've got writer's block and I wish I was like Writer X.'

There's what I'll call the Homework Excuse story, where you tackle straight-on the difficulty of writing. With sufficient wit and flair, you can pull it off - Adaptation was a big hit, and that, I've heard, was written because Charlie Kaufmann genuinely couldn't work out how to adapt The Orchid Thief, so he did his best writing about how he couldn't adapt it and handed it over in fear and trembling convinced that he'd killed his career. But there are two caveats here: one, Kaufman is a superb surreal comedian and you need to be that good to make it work; two, he was working on commission. If a reader picks up your story, they haven't actually asked you to write it, so an unsuccessful story about how hard you found writing it is an excuse for not doing homework that nobody actually set you. Under those circumstances, it's likely that the reader may think, 'Well, why didn't you just not write it in the first place?' And 'because I wanted to write something' is a reason that only compels writers, not readers.

There are, in short a considerable number of different ways that your story can end up telling the reader nothing except that you're trying to write something. But in the end, it taxes readers' patience. If the story is all about wanting to write a story, they can feel, then go away and come back when you've actually written one.

It's better to chance your arm and come up with something that might be awful. You don't learn without taking risks. But trying to write too closely about how you're feeling at the moment when you pick up the pen isn't going to do it; there's more in you than that. Stories about writer's block, which may feel like a safe option, are regrettably common, but glorious failures are at least individual. I've seen some utterly bizarre stories in my time, which didn't work at all, but you have to at least respect the authors for giving it a go, and who knows? Their next one might be brilliant.

Anyone suggest any other variations? Because I'm sure there are a multitude of them.

Let's not forget the one where the author talks to his protagonist about why he/she isn't going to write about the boring protagonist. And of course the protagonist argues with the author about that.

Arrrrgh. I wrote that one when I was 17. I cringe every time I think about it. I cringe even more when I think that I actually showed that story to friends and asked them to read it. Thank goodness I stopped short of turning it in for a class assignment....

Not entirely on-topic, but today I was reading the first chapter of a book online, and it spent the first paragraph--the book's opening paragraph--talking about stuff that at the start of the second paragraph we're told isn't that interesting to the protag.

Words fail me. Really. If it's not that important to the book's central character, why open the book with it?

/me grumbles. And stops reading.
Fictional throat-clearing. Useful to a writer, but best cleared up by an editor...
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