... even when a storyteller gets past conceptualizing their novels as strings of plot, trying for something more is still a dicey proposition. I think the "complex yet incoherent" problem would manifest itself in the form of filling in the blank with a complex string of ideas, e.g., "My story is about love and life and art and the natural world and how people can drift apart and then back together, ..." and so on.
Confession: I laughed when I read that last line, loud enough to scare off the cats. Not out of contempt, but recognition, because a) god knows I've run down just such a routine myself when trying to describe a work of mine to myself or someone else, and b) it's also a routine I've heard plenty of times myself from others. And almost always in a way that tells me they don't realize just how misty and imprecise those kinds of formulations are!Read more
Meaningless yet complex stories are ones where there’s no simplicity, everything is about and is presented as some giant mess that becomes unrelatable, often as there’s no hook or way to get into it. If you can’t sum up a part of a tale simply it may really be just a pile of stuff, only complex as you’re playing conceptual Jenga.
Simple and shallow stories where there are hooks, but little depth. There’s little connection or meaning, so there’s not a lot of “there” there. In extreme cases its just a pile of tropes.
I don't think anyone ever sits down and says, "I will tell a hopelessly complex story," or "I will tell a shallow little story." Those things are by-products.Read more
I dropped a hint earlier that I was going to be unveiling a revamped version of the Genji Press site. Some more notes on that, then.Read more
Steve, expanding on my previous post:
What I realized in my writing is that complexity and convolution are not the same thing, and separating them in your mind is valuable for a writer for several reasons.
First, to separate them is to ask what you’re wanting to write. Do you want to challenge the audience with double-backs and twists or do you want them to experience richness? Or both? To separate complexity and convolution is to help you set goals.
Secondly, to separate them is to ask when is one or the other appropriate within a story. One part may need complexity, one part may need convolution. It is possible what seems to be appropriate may, at later examination, not be – a complicated murder plot may be more interesting from the viewpoint of a character who has it figured out, so you can explore their character.
Good analysis, one I should enrich further with some other things I've mulled since.
Setting goals for a story means a number of things, but more than anything else they seem to revolve around what kind of story you want to tell. Most people just want to entertain, and there's nothing wrong with that, but if you are aiming past that then you need to encompass things that allow you to shoot for such a goal. A story that is actually about something is hard to pull off if the only ways you're thinking about it are how to mess with the audience's head in a superficial way.
The second bit, about separation of concern by application, seems even more crucial. I've long felt that the best stories stood out not because they had the cleverest plots, but because they made the most compelling and thoughtful use of their material — that if they had a tangled storyline, they found the right lens through which to look at all of it. In fact, it doesn't even have to be about anything particularly complicated. Natsuo Kirino's Out had a fairly straightforward plot (wife kills no-good husband, enlists disgruntled female coworkers in cover-up), but the effects that story had on its characters was not so predictable, and so the book (which I cannot recommend highly enough) wisely focused on that aspect of its story rather than trying to invent complications that didn't need to be there.
Most authors, even many who don't think of themselves as but entertainers, want on some level to have their work thought of as profound. The bad news is that it's hard to engineer profundity into something, in the same way it's next to impossible to engineer cult status for something. It's a by-product, and it comes as a result of the way you handle other things, like complexity or simplicity.
It's weird. I went looking for books in my personal library that are about the craft of writing, and realized I could barely find any. Strunk & White's The Elements Of Style, and Lawrence Block's book on storytelling, and that's about it. I know I still have my copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers lurking around somewhere, but I can't find it. (Maybe it fell down behind something else. This happens constantly when you have books stacked two and three deep in a shelf.)
A lot of advice-type books on writing exist mostly to be outgrown, like training wheels. You pick them up, you learn what you can from them, and then by degrees you ditch them and go do your own thing. You learn the rules so you can in time learn how to break the rules.
Most of the basic advice for writing isn't something you need tons and tons of literature to sort out anyway. Sure, some of it is stuff that isn't terribly obvious. I love Block's meditation on the word get as an example of how we can unconsciously allow our language to become lazy and inexpressive, something every writer has to fight in their work. But the sooner such advice is assimilated and transcended, the better.Read more
Chuck Klosterman once made a point that I think has a lot more importance than it might seem at first. His thought was that any given piece of creative work only has a limited number of people who will really, really care about it in a personal way. Everyone else is just ... there for the beer, I guess you could say.Read more
You've probably read the Neil Gaiman essay about making good art. If not, go read it, or go check out this great cartoon adaptation of it.
I'm reminded of something Jonas Mekas once said, which I paraphrase here. He was disgusted by the cult of ugliness in art, the need to show ugly things as a way to confront them or to neutralize them. This he did not believe in. The best way to confront or neutralize ugliness in the world was to create beauty; that way you had one more beautiful thing in the world, the better to put the ugliness in its corner and crowd it out and outnumber it.Read more