Thursday, May 12, 2011

Another breakthrough

This recent epiphany of mine is, I feel, a good point at which to summarize and reflect upon my journey thus far as a writer.

When last we left the reader, I had finished my first story. It was about a woman named Ashe and her struggle to hold her tribe together against the threats of war and starvation. It was a simple story, and the mechanics were... well, they were just okay. At the time, after I finished it, I thought I had done an exceptional job. Just another example of the beginner's failure to grasp his own incompetence. But I did have an inkling at the time that that's all it was. I don't let things like that stop me.

Since then, I've written four more stories. At this point, I felt like it was a good time to pause for a week or two, take stock of what I had accomplished thus far, and continue only after I felt like I really understood my shortcomings. Off the top of my head, here's what I did wrong in the first story:

- Lack of character development. Even the three main characters were little more than poorly thought-out archetypes. Nothing about them was particularly unique or distinctive. When they talked to each other, it was difficult to suss out who was speaking without constant attribution, which is a symptom of weak character voice. More on that later. A lot of the weak character development, especially in the case of the hero, was a failure to simply think about what each character wanted, what stood in their way, and what they were doing about it. This also ties into the problems I had with basic story structure. Which brings me to:

- Bad story structure. At the time, I pretty much just decided the story instinctually, and it does make sense, looking back at it. But one of the things I later discovered to be a major flaw in the story is that it just isn't very compelling. I didn't quite know how to fix this - after all, making a story "more compelling" seems like a pretty vague task. However, having read a book or two on the "Mythic Structure" of stories, I know that several steps on the character's journey were either abbreviated, missing, or not executed very well.

- Bad dialogue. I know a lot more now about how to write good dialogue, but at the time, I just treated it as a thinly-veiled expository device. Of course, good dialogue is really supposed to do many things, not the least of which is to give the character a distinct voice. Word choice, sentence length, dialect, all of these things are used to paint a more vivid picture of every character. Honestly, I pretty much ignored all of that. But what's more, good dialogue is even trickier than I suspected. In fiction, "good dialogue" walks a fine line between overly-flowery Shakespearian-esque speeches and downright transcription of real speech. It's supposed to sound somewhat formal and elegant, but not so much that it breaks the illusion of real people talking to one another. This really does take a bit of work, unless you're naturally gifted in that area, which I clearly am not.

- Unclear theme. This one, I'm willing to give myself a bit of a pass on. I think I have some intuitive sense for what a story "means". For example, the first story's theme was self-sacrifice, and how far a leader will go to save her people. However, this could've been a little bit more clear.

- Repetition. I'm not quite as bad about this as I had feared, but in the action scenes especially, there's quite a bit of repetition - of sentence structure, mostly, but also of certain words. Not only that, I often failed to make use of multiple kinds of sentences throughout paragraphs, and it's pretty conspicuous. It mostly manifests itself as a vague sense of tedium here and there. One technique I'm going to try out in revision is the technique of taking a few sentences in each paragraph and twist them so that they say the same thing, but start with different parts of speech.

- Scene execution. This is the area in which I feel I need the least amount of improvement. I think my scenes strike a pretty good balance between describing so little of the physical environment such that it's impossible to visualize setting and describing so much that nothing is left to the imagination. There are a few things I definitely need to improve on, however. One of them does pertain to physical description. The best kinds of physical description can last only a sentence or two, but utilize such powerful metaphor that they spark the reader's imagination. From there, the reader fills in the rest of the details easily. The thing I really didn't understand about metaphor and simile was that they're not necessarily used only as devices to paint a more vivid picture - say, making a comparison to roses to clarify exactly what shade of red a character's lipstick is. At their best, they inspire. And once the reader is inspired, their imagination will fill in a great deal of the setting.

- Narrative intimacy. I saved this one for last, but this is the one area in which I have had the biggest awakening regarding my own shortcomings. By way of explanation, I'll back up a bit. There are, roughly speaking, four different voices one can use in storytelling. There's first-person, the most intimate, in which the narrator is also the main character, and is talking directly to the reader. There's second-person, which is a bit less intimate than first-person, and instead of using "I", "me", and "my", the story uses "you". This is kind of a gimmicky voice that I don't ever really see myself using. The third kind is "third-person limited", and is used in most fiction stories these days. It refers to the character whose point-of-view is used by third-person pronounces (he, she, they, etc). It does, however, tend to stick to just one character. The last kind is third-person omniscient. Omniscient doesn't receive much use these days, especially in commercial fiction, but in old-school literary fiction it saw a lot of use. The example that most readily comes to mind is the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... Also, in omniscient, the author is free to fly in and out of different points of view, even within the same scene.

All this having been said, voice is often divided even further, until some people actually classify as many as twenty-two different kinds of voice. The reason for this is that you can vary how intimately you delve into the character's head. You can strike a more distant tone ("Hank drove home and parked his car, carefully dodging the accumulated snow drifts") or a more intimate tone ("Hank pulled his car into the driveway. Had to play slalom at his own house. Damn kids couldn't even finish one simple chore. No wonder the way his wife babied them like they were royalty in old France. Now he knew why guillotines caught on.") It's kind of a sketchy description, but hopefully it makes the point. In my stories, I almost always use a very, very distant narrative voice. There were some inklings of a more intimate tone in the third story, but as one of the books I read claimed, the more intimate, the better. You can afford to step back a bit for fast-moving scenes, though. I think that's ultimately why my action scenes ended up being a lot better than the others.

So, whew, with that out of the way, all I need to do is figure out how to bend the various steps of the traditional "Hero's Journey" to my will, and I'll be ready to start revising all those old stories.