Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Story As Ritual

According to Friedrich Nietschze's theory in "The Birth of Tragedy", theatre emerged from Greek religious rituals. And even today, over 2,000 years later, the power of ritual casts a long shadow over the stories we read, hear and see.

Now, Nietschze is complicated stuff and I want to keep this blog as brief as possible (and don't get me started on much I loathe Wagner), but let's put it like this...

When you watch, say, a professional wrestling match (which I do sometimes), you'll notice how predictable these events are.
The pattern in a pro-wrestling match never changes:
-The "good" wrestler enters, greets the audience, projects his persona.
-The "evil" wrestler enters, sneers, offends the audience, projects arrogance.
-They fight; the "evil" wrestler cheats - and may win the first round;
-...but eventually the "hero" wrestler "reaches deeper down than ever before", beats the evil wrestler senseless, and wins.

Most popular fiction follows a similar pattern. You think James Bond movies are repetitive? Ian Fleming's James Bond novels were just as repetitive - he knew the winning formula and didn't change it one bit - and readers loved them that way.

Most readers have strict expectations and don't want to feel cheated. The ritual is supposed to be followed.
Good triumphs over evil.
Society is preserved.
A sequel is promised.
The Heroine marries the Hero at the end.
The detective Solves the Case.
The Dark Lord drops off a cliff.
The White Middle-Class Guy prevails, and the Darkies are Kept Down.

Would it kill the fans if, just once, the heroine said at the end of a paperback-romance like Her Outsourcing Prince: "You may be a rich alpha male, but I don't want to marry you. You have some personal issues that all the love in the world couldn't change. Bye... - The End" ...?

As it happens, there are successful exceptions to the rule: Gone With The Wind ends in divorce.

Writers should be aware of the rituals. If you follow them too rigidly, the story becomes mundane. There are always ways to put a fresh spin on the expected ending.

In the movie industry, films are test-screened with alternate endings. Maybe writers could also try to write several alternate endings, and "test-screen" them?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

But Is It Funny?

You all know how bad writing is often unintentionally funny.

It is a hallmark of the really inept writer that when he/she tries really hard to be dramatic... or profound... or (God help us) "steamy"... the reader breaks out in loud guffaws.

On the other hand, being deliberately funny is not easy.

What makes fiction comical? What is funny?

1. Laughing at unpleasant things. Every culture and era has its taboos and anxieties.
The most basic form of humor centers around aggression and injury: the pratfall.

2. Making fun of human weaknesses. (Pick one...)

Humor has its own peculiar form of logic. It's great when a joke starts with a setup, goes through a series of elaborate steps, and then climaxes in a payoff or punchline. Start with a simple joke, and the more you can build on it, the funnier it gets.

I also think that a sense of humor is important even if you're not a comic writer, or even if you're not trying to write funny.

Why? Simple. Because a writer with a lacking (or non-existent) sense of humor won't notice when he's writing "unintentionally funny" - and is thus more likely to make a fool of himself.

I could quote many examples of writers of that kind... but they would only get mad at me. (That's another drawback of not having a sense of humor: high blood pressure...)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Our Summer of First Draft Is Replaced By the Winter of Rewrite

Last night I finished my next novel TERRA HEXA 2 ... and celebrated on the town with wine, women and song...

That's the fantasy version. Now the REAL version of events:

Last night I completed the writing of the first draft of my next novel TERRA HEXA 2 ... and took a rest before starting the lengthy process of proofreading, revising and rewriting.

Writing and finishing the first draft gives you a buzz. You think: "Yes! This is good! Best thing I ever wrote!" But you're not finished - the buzz is a side-effect of the writing process.

The work that remains AFTER the first draft makes all the difference.

After you finish the first draft, let it lie for a few days (or weeks, if you have time). Then re-read it, from beginning to end, fix the small errors, and take notes about what could be changed or omitted.

Often you will find that some character details are missing and should be fleshed out, or that there is too much exposition in some part, or some internal inconsistency.


-You forgot to give the villain a motivation for his behavior.
Did he have a unhappy childhood? Is he stupid? What's in it for him? Don't automatically assume that anyone who disagrees with the hero is "bad". Follow the money. If anything else fails, greed - smart greed - is a perfectly good motivation.

-You got lazy.
Your protagonist is hanging from the edge of a cliff, and a horde of bad guys are charging in from all sides. What does he do?
From out of nowhere, a cave opening suddenly shows up in the cliff wall. Your hero climbs into the cave, which leads to safety. Is this great plotting or what?
Or what.
The escape route would have made more sense if it had been presented or at least hinted at earlier - like, three chapters earlier. This is called "foreshadowing".

When important plot points are suggested/hinted in advance, the reader is more likely to accept them. Or it looks like you're just making stuff up as you go along (which you are, but you're not supposed to tell the reader).

-You wrote the characters of the opposite sex with much less personality (than those of your own gender).
Now, don't panic! Everyone does this, and I mean everyone. It's just how human beings behave. But it can be fixed, or at least patched up.
Go back to the characters of the opposite sex, and ask yourself the basic questions:
-Where did they come from?
-Who were their parents?
-How did they grow up?

-Have they got family? (Very common mistake: to write characters who have no past, no friends, no social role, no job except to assist the "hero" character.)
-What do they want out of life, and how do they expect to get it?

-You didn't do your research.
Poul Anderson, in his essay "On Thud And Blunder", points out that horses are not automobiles: you can't drive them at full gallop for miles without a pause. And yet, many writers treat horses like sports cars - wrooom! off you go, to the next plot stop.

Whenever a realistic detail is important to the plot, read up on it and make sure you've got it right. This is called research, and it pays to do it also after the first draft.

-You made spelling and grammar errors.
I shouldn't have to mention this... but every first draft is packed with misspellings and bad grammar. How many times will you have to re-read your manuscript to fix them all?
Five times.

Are you starting to regret that you wanted to write a book? Good. if you can get past that regret, you're on your way to becoming a real writer.