Storytelling: Using Pieces in Combination

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer, about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, where a street hustler watches Josh playing briefly and exults to Josh’s mother (as she’s dragging him away) that “Your boy used pieces in combination to attack”.

It’s a nice little nugget on sophistication and craft in any creative form. Anyone can throw themselves at a winning attempt in sports or art or whatever, but on a different plane there’s building something (in this case, a coordinated offense) to fulfill a creative end.

In writing, for example, there’s a huge difference between simply writing about your subject with one single-minded thread (attacking directly) and using many of the different elements available to you to realize your subject (using pieces in combination).

Example: a direct attack, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

There’s one line of thought and description in this passage: the Earth is a barren place. Everything here is simply a restatement of that barrenness — pilgrims falling over and dying, the “shrouded” earth, tracklessness, namelessness, “the ancient dark beyond”. “Variations on a theme” would be too generous. McCarthy’s just re-emphasizing the same notion with homogenous bits of portent. If you’ve read it, you know that the whole of The Road uses one line of description. It’s a crude attack.

Here’s a multi-pronged attack, from John Updike’s short story “A&P” (which I’ve quoted on this blog before):

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

I see two threads here: 1) the crudeness of the narrator’s ogling (“chunky kid”, “good tan”, “soft-looking can”) and 2) the little bit of delicacy that shows his eyes aren’t going to the typical places, when his eye notes the paleness at the top of her thighs, “where the sun never seems to hit”. When Updike invokes the shadow of the sun, it’s a great playful accent.

These two threads interplay — the narrator’s ogling is of a piece with his observing, and this combination, this balance, perfectly establishes the particular kind of richness in the narrative voice and the point of view, or state of mind, of the piece.

Counting the threads in a bit of a description is, in my experience, a nice little rule of thumb for knowing whether a story’s got any tricks up its sleeve and is worth reading past the beginning. It almost literally makes the difference between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional writing.

Tell, Don’t Show

July 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here are three passages of shameless telling (not showing) in great stories:

From Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than she had up to now. For surely no one except Grete would ever trust themselves to enter a room in which Gregor ruled the empty walls all by himself.

This is telling, since it’s a direct explanation of Grete’s reasoning and feelings. Or maybe it’s showing, because it conveys (without spelling out) how self-concern moves the world and characters around Gregor.

From Chekhov’s The Lady With the Little Dog:

Not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love. And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.

This is telling because it spells out not just the protagonist’s feelings, but the central emotional development of the whole story — that he is truly in love for the first time. Or maybe it’s showing, because it demonstrates how significant developments can happen internally, as mere matter-of-fact thoughts. And plain unadorned shifts of mood and matter are the implicit substance of Chekhov’s storytelling.

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

This is telling, since it’s a direct emotional explanation. Even worse, it’s Flaubert chiming in with his own sentiment instead of letting his characters speak for themselves. Or perhaps it’s showing, because this line of thought buttresses the central theme of the book: the disparity between feeling and real-life expression of it.

So “Show Don’t Tell” doesn’t pan out in real life. Rather, it doesn’t pan out in real writing.

Actually, “Show Don’t Tell” itself isn’t my point. My point is that every creative rule falls to tatters in the face of a real, truly great piece of writing. “Show Don’t Tell” and the like may be useful for amateurs looking to winnow down the form’s open-endedness. But they’re irrelevant to real reading or writing, whose rules are no more or less than the dictates and implications of the writer’s particular style and sensibility.

The Written Word vs. Writing

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Because the written word is such a versatile and convenient medium, lots of different activities manifest as writing. Politics is writing. Journalism is writing. Poetry is writing. Hate speech is writing. Erotica is writing, etc.

Among other things, the written word also manifests, from time to time, as an art form, and that’s the kind of writing this blog is about. But I think in discussions about writing — fiction writing, even, books — the vast and omnipresent variety of forms that writing takes bleed into one another, and I’ve seen rhetoric or style bleeding into political assessment (I’m looking at you, Obama swooners in the media), or political considerations bleeding into conversations about novels, or general rules about writing (“Keep it simple and use short sentences”) that are supposed to apply to all forms.

By contrast, look at something like music. Because music isn’t used to convey a political message, or a headline, or anything utilitarian, no one makes the mistake of holding it to a standard of easy consumption or class consciousness. Music is music, thankfully, and you can like what music you like, and people recognize there are different forms of music and profoundly different sensibilities in its creation. If music ever became useful for anything, it would probably signal the death of the art form.

Or what if all physicality were treated the same, and different forms of physicality were held to a concordance with others? Can you imagine someone telling a soccer player, “Your footwork is frivolous — it lacks the lumbering squat of a construction worker.”

And yet that’s exactly the nature of the advice given to writers of made-up stories with made-up people in made-up worlds with made-up laws of physics. Writing’s prominence in the social sphere, largely as a tool for pandering, means that now even the most frivolous and imaginative writers are expected to “know their audience” and “start with a bang” and “make it relatable”. That may be good advice for a stump speech or a front-page article or a potboiler, but think very carefully before you recommend to someone with the courage of their own imagination that they make their storytelling adhere more to utilitarian forms.

Here are a few example absurdities of when people forget about the great divide — the great chasm, the great difference, the great separate planes — between utilitarian and imaginative writing:

  • Poems are read at US presidential inaugurations. (This makes kitsch out of both poetry and the US presidency.)
  • The King’s Speech and Crash win Oscars for Best Picture.
  • In general, the discourse on books and fiction writing becomes mush-headed, vague, all-inclusive, and really insufferably smug, because it starts to presume a made-up story can be all things to all people. Here’s a sample from a recent NYT book review (boy, I harp on them a lot):

    That universal drive toward storytelling is one of the only ways we can attempt to contain our existence, to make narrative sense of our actions and beliefs. It also helps to have someone you’re telling your story to, whether it’s God or a dead parent or the girl you love.

Please don’t tell me how I make sense of my life, or who or what I go to with my most uncertain emotions, in a book review of all things. Let books be books. You don’t really understand literature unless you understand what’s not literature, now do you?

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