Thursday, August 29, 2013

What You Know

"Write what you know" is one of those things writers like to say ad infinitum and like most things writers say ad infinitum it becomes more of a pointless chant than an actual lesson. How does one write what they know? Can you only write well what you know? What does this mean for writing about fighting dragons or stabbing prostitutes? Does this mean we have to go out and do something before we can write it well? As it always is with this kind of one-line writing advice, there's truth but you need to go into detail. Delve. It's never as simple as it sounds.

Right now I'm working on a story that involves a car chase through an American city. It's set in the early 1930s. Now as a 20-something, Australian suburbanite I have not been to America, I have not been in a car chase and I did not live through the 1930s. So how can I possibly write it well if I don't know it?

Well first of all I like to think that I can rest easy knowing that the majority of my audience for this story will also not have been in a car chase or lived through the 1930s. It's also a fictional city so there's no risk of them having been there. But this doesn't mean I can make up any shit and sell it to them and they'll accept it because they don't know better.

So here's where I start to think about what I do know.

I live in a city, I've seen lots of other different kinds of cities both in my own country and around the world. So I think I know enough to write about a city. Thanks to the library and Google I can pretty easily find pictures and information about the 1930s. Populations, fashion, architecture etc are all things I can study and learn. So in fact, not having experienced this fictional 1930s city is no problem because learning what I need to know is cake. But wait, this is also an American city. How do I know what America is like? Well, let's say I set my story in the Autumn (the best season). My fictional American city occupies a similar place, geographically, to Seattle. So again I go to my various founts of wisdom and read about Seattle. Wikipedia tells me that Seattle is temperate and that in October the average temperatures are 15, high and 8, low in October and that Autumn is typically a rainy season for Seattle. Well damn, I've been in 8 - 15 degree weather heaps and I know what rain is like. So even though I've never been to my fictional city - or even Seattle - I can learn about them and find the common ground between the things I do not know and the things I do know. I need to write about a 10 degree autumn night? Bitch, I got this.

But sure, that's the easy stuff. What about the car chases? What do I know about car chases? Well I know my protagonists will be in a convertible with the top down. I know they'll be going fast. I know they'll be taking corners hard, the air will be cold, shit will be getting in their way so they'll be swerving and dodging. Now I go through the same formula. I look at what I do know and find common ground. Going fast with the top down? I've been on roller coasters. That's going fast in an open car. I've been in traffic where people drive poorly and the car I'm in has had to stop suddenly or swerve. I've been on high speed freeways where the world starts to lose clarity because I can't look at anything for long enough to make out the detail.

From my earlier years as a motorcycle and Go-Kart hobbyist I know what it's like to be in control of an engine going faster than any man sensibly should drive. I know what it's like to struggle against a steering wheel, to lose control, to weave around other drivers and take corners hard. I know what it's like to have my vehicle fish tail, spin out completely or crash side on into a wall. This is all on a small scale, full of safety equipment but hey, nothing is perfect.

Now I can reflect on all these relatively safe and domestic experiences of mine and I can mix in big spoon fulls of imagination, scale things up and BAM, there's my scene. I'm writing and I'm writing everything based on what I know.

"Write what you know" is an invitation to cheat. It rests on the idea that there is in fact a finite ways we as people can perceive, process and thus experience the world around us. We all have the same emotions, we all have the same senses. When we're told to write what we know, we're not being told to limit ourselves. We're being told to be conscious of the human condition and apply the experiences we have in life to the experiences of our characters have in the story.

And now you know.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Golden Rule

Alright, kids, put your seat-belts on. I'm about to blow you and all your preconceived notions right out of the water.

What's the number one rule of writing? Show of hands.

I'm betting a good portion of you out there in Internets land are saying "Show, don't tell."

Well I mean duh, right? That's first grade. Nobody wants to read a book and get told. Paint a picture with words. Show what's happening, let the reader see it and understand. Readers are smart people, right?


Wait, no. Readers are smart people. You're right about that.

I'm talking about the other thing you said. "Show don't tell." is NOT the golden rule. Don't get me wrong, it's important. It's vital. But this is the silver rule. Rule number 2 on the list of rules. It's the first rule you can and should break. When the revolution comes, that rule will be up against the wall.

You get it?

So what is Rule #1? I believe it was Hitchcock who put it so elegantly as: "Drama is life with the dull parts taken out." I like to take this a step further and say "Fiction is life with the boring parts taken out." Because people tend to get stuck on the word drama for all the wrong reasons and also because I like to speak broadly on the process of creating fiction. Oh and if this isn't direct enough, the other way I like to put it is: "Cut the crap."

Cut it right out. Find all those bits that are boring and you scrap them.

Sadly it's not easy. Quite often the boring bits hold the excitement together. Sometimes you just have to let the world know that your character went and took a nap. It's not interesting but sadly it is important and if you took out the part where he/she takes a nap then you end up with a broken narrative.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you tell. Nobody wants to be shown all the little details about how your character took a nap. Just tell us he went and took a nap. If you show us all the steps and all the details involved then we're going to get bored. I'm already getting bored just thinking about this hypothetical nap focused prose.

So tell. Tell the shit out of it. That should take you a couple of sentences and then we can get back to something interesting. You can start showing again, now. Much better. Aren't you glad that-

"But Carl, how do I know if it's interesting or not?"

Huh? Oh, okay. Sure, let's touch on that for a while. I've got some time to kill.

This is no secret but it's still nice to have things spelt out for us. The interesting part of your story is the conflict. This is more or less what Hitchcock was talking about when he mentioned drama. The essence of drama is conflict. At the heart of every interesting story is a conflict.

Here's a simple conflict: Your protagonist wants to do X. An antagonist doesn't want them to do X. Your protagonist and antagonist come into conflict. Usually the protagonist does Y to the antagonist so he can then do X.

But more importantly, the heart of most scenes should also focus on a conflict. When there is a conflict going on, there is something interesting to read about. This is when you should show. So in effect what we have is a central conflict that defines your plot. This is established in the first act of your fiction. In a very straight forward story like Indiana Jones and The Raiders of The Lost Ark the conflict that defines the plot is Indie wants to get the Ark of The Covenant and the NAZIs want to get the Ark of The Covenant. Indie and the NAZIs both can't have the Ark so they are in conflict. This is the Central Conflict. One scene requires Indie to get a jeweled talisman off an old flame: Marion. However Marion wants to keep the talisman to herself because she's still mad at Indie over past events. To make matters worse, the NAZIs send an agent to get the Talisman first. Now we have a three way conflict that must be overcome to move the plot forward and bring the characters closer to the resolution of the Central Conflict.

In very broad and easily usable terms there are two kinds of conflicts. External Conflicts and Internal Conflicts. The first involve multiple characters and include fights, arguments, races and the like. The latter involves only one character and includes struggles against addiction, making hard decisions and over coming powerful emotions or motivations. External and Internal conflicts can and often do occur together or side-by-side.

Alright, so let's take a second to recap.
- It is often important to Tell instead of Show
- The interesting scenes are the scenes you Show.
- Interesting scenes are the ones that involve Conflict.

But while you can write fiction that is just conflict after conflict this can be tiring for the writer and the audience. The majority of scenes should be conflict but between the conflict you can still have interesting scenes. These are still scenes that you show and, most importantly, there is still movement. The plot progresses, characters change, stuff is happening.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about these Rest scenes right now but I will touch on them. The scenes between conflict should primarily be used to develop characters, set-up or foreshadow later scenes and include exposition. Returning to Raiders of The Lost Ark one such rest scene involves Indie explaining to two military intelligence agents what he thinks the NAZIs are up to and what the Ark of The Covenant is. This scene and the classroom scene that precede it are conflict free but the show us a lot about the character of Indie, they give our protagonist a new goal and point him towards more conflict and they reveal much of the world our characters live in and what the story is about. All of this makes it interesting.

Okay, that's enough on that for now. I'll talk more about Rest scenes another time (Foreshadowing). This should be enough for you to chew for now. Happy writing, kids!