Too much talking and too many rules

On Twitter, someone linked to this post (I want to say it was Kelly Link, but it was sometime last week, and I’m pretty sure Twitter doesn’t exist more than 24 hours into the past) and when I finally read it, it felt like sinking into a chair I forgot I owned, and thinking, “When did I put this in storage? Why isn’t this in my living room?”

Anyway, the post is Reality Affects by Matthew Cheney, talking about another essay (What Should Fiction Do by Bonnie Nadzam).

When you hang out with a lot of readers and writers, it’s really easy to get caught up in what others think fiction ought to be. If there’s a formula, if there’s a map, if there is a right and a wrong when it comes to shaping a story, that makes things easier. If there’s a way to do it right, wouldn’t you want to do that? If someone says they know how to write a story that will get an agent’s attention, that will be a bestseller, well, heck, maybe they do know! Maybe if you do what they say, you’ll sell your next book, and everything will be okay.

Writing from inside these conversations, while surrounded by movies, while seeing each book-of-the-moment pass by, at some point you might accidentally absorb all these rules about stories. You have to have an inciting incident. Your character has to go on a journey. They must refuse the call and have a thousand faces. Your protagonist must try and fail and try again, try bigger, fail harder. There must be scenes and sequels, action and cliffhangers, emotional processing, a familiar shape like a mountain, like a bell curve…

But is that all? Of course not.

I don’t think I even noticed that I’d absorbed and built up these rules around me, until they started to chafe. I wanted to follow patterns, to obey plot structure, and by God, I wanted to do things right. If I’m going to do a thing, I better do it right. I will listen, I will take notes, I will show up and do it exactly as you’re supposed to. I will analyze and figure out what the heck a chapter is, where and how often to drop foreshadowing, how much to worldbuild, when exactly to have the protagonist hit their dark night, their nadir, and when I finally slog through writing this book, I’ll have done it up right.

Oh, Lord, is it tiring and deadening to think like that. Do it right? What’s that even mean? everything is made up. Like, all of art is a construct of one sort or another. The rules come from the last group of people who were making it up as they went along. They looked at what had been done, and did something a little different. And a little different again. Or a lot different! Transgressing the established formula speaks to the thing you’re transgressing as well as asking a reader to be more conscious of what they’re reading. And I find that very interesting. Not the idea of breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking things, but not being beholden to them.

Literature deserves more than formulas, more than cinema. The written word can do interesting and complex things, different from the mapped out swoop of a story, something other than fake cinema. Written stories can do so much more than what’s popular and salable right at this moment. Beyond all that writing advice that’s in digestible bullets and charts. And I’m very interested in all that lately, freshly, again.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that literature isn’t doing any of this. Only that’s it’s very easy to find myself suddenly wearing blinders I didn’t know I’d picked up, and get trapped into thinking X the only way to do writing right. Cheney’s essay was like a cold splash of water to wake me up and remind me of the things that excite me most. I read it at a good time, when I was feeling weary and sort of confused about this one project, and realized I was weighted down by the idea of doing all these things right.

It’s nice to be reminded that “right” is debatable, and so is the idea of what fiction should do.


On documentary format in novels

This is honestly more description than the interviews in this book received. (photo via)

I am puzzled.

Recently I’ve received a couple books that are in a documentary format, primarily interviews, with a few faux news reports or audio diary transcripts. Specifically audio diaries. It’s weird. There’s something in the air.

Is this an attempt to ape a format from another medium? People talk about the growth of ‘cinematic’ writing (which is yet another meaningless phrase that only confuses people as they disagree on the definition, but WHATEVER) so is this just another layer of extrapolation after that? Trying to translate documentaries into novels?

Friends, we’ve already discovered that format for writing. It’s called non-fiction. There aren’t that many non-fiction books in this specific interview/transcript format for a reason.

This isn’t to say that trying new formats is terrible and no one should ever do it. But trying to imitate documentaries in book format this way feels a bit like using translation software to get text from English to Japanese to Spanish and seeing what you get. You can do it. But without some extra work, it’s not going to be any good to anyone.

Authors that are successful massage the format to make use of novelistic techniques — techniques that make books unique, make them different from movies. They still bring in techniques inspired by movies, but they don’t drop everything that’s powerful about the written word. And when they do bring in movie techniques, ones that rely heavily on visual or aural cues, they figure out a way to translate those cues.

Because here’s the problem: Interviews. Transcripts. With nothing else. No support.

You get two people talking in a white room, no sense of how these people look, act, or sound (unless there are clumsy comments made by either of the people). Interviews happen after action, so we as readers don’t even get to see what happens — we hear about it afterward! No one likes that! I don’t care about how a character feels about things exploding two days after the fact. I don’t care about two characters slowly falling for each other (maybe??? It’s hard to tell!) if they are never on the page together because of the interview format.

If an entire novel is done in dialogue/monologue like this, that author had better be a master stylist who can really nail down character voices. Losing the power of description and narration means dialogue has to carry that weight, and man. Not a lot of people can write dialogue that good.

No actor is going to come in and give the words life through body language, tone, a single minute gesture. That’s what the rest of the novel is there for. That’s why we don’t read movie scripts. We watch movies.

Wait, or is it an attempt to imitate the format of archive files? Like, transcripts from recordings surrounding an “incident”? Reaching for a sort of verisimilitude found in a bunch of musty manila folders in a locked file cabinet deep in the archives of the X-Files? Because, let me tell you, documents in a manila folder do not make engaging reading.

Anyway, hooray, I gave up on this particular book and my life is the better for it. If you have an example of this format done well, PLEASE SHARE and I’ll be your new best friend.

Let’s talk about horror.

To repeat myself: I’ve been developing my understanding of horror as a genre for a while now, and while I don’t feel like I’m much closer to unlocking the key to horror, I do have Thoughts. Thoughts about what breaks a horror story, and what strengthens it. Please, let’s talk about scary things!

Illustration of a girl in a white dress holding a lamp, surrounded by shadows
From Through the Woods

Verisimilitude is scary. Straight reading of a story like an audiobook often fails for me, maybe because it’s too removed from the content. What has worked, however, is Limetown (which is set up like Serial/This American Life), Dionaea House (website/blog, capturing emails and texts, updated “as it happened” in 2004-2006), House of Leaves (scrapbooked and collected notes, except Johnny Truant. Go away, Johnny Truant.), The Innocence of a Place. There’s a reason so much horror has a framing device, or is as close to first person as a given medium can get. On some level, not being entirely sure it’s fiction is thrilling. Plus it tries to strip away a layer of narrative that separates the reader from the story. Distance throttles fear.

Gore is not scary. It’s gross and uncomfortable, which isn’t the same thing. Being incredibly grossed out by something happening to a character’s eye isn’t scary! But for another definition of horrific it can fit. Especially if it’s executed right — not just a slasher story. I’m thinking more of a particular Emily Carroll story, in which you see something disturbing to do with a characters face. (I don’t want to say more because the turn of it is so great.) But even in that story, there’s more going for it — suspense and not-knowing and an unnamed threat. Body horror is not the same as gore is what I’m winding toward, I think.

Innocuous turned sideways is scary. Small children! A dim hallway! A stranger’s smile! A man in a gray suit! The 66 bus! An itch under your skin! In the right hands all of these are terrifying. The familiar made unfamiliar. Your own reflection in the mirror, but something’s off.

Stupid characters are not scary. I can’t emphasize this enough. This goes for every genre. Don’t let your characters be stupid, writers. Please. You get like one colossally stupid decision for a character, and even then only if the character is established as having a weakness or habit that would lead them to that. You know what? Just to be safe? Don’t. Make your characters smart. It’s so much more terrifying if a smart character can’t avoid or defeat the terrible things.

So: Inevitability, but not predictability, is scary. If I’m rolling my eyes because that’s always the way this story goes, that’s not scary. But if I can’t blink because the characters have done everything right and the terrible thing is still coming? Ooh. Or they’ve done what seemed innocuous, but set them on a road with no exits that leads straight to Horrortown, which they oh-so-slowly realize? Nice.

Incomplete stories are not scary. There’s a difference between leaving things open or unsaid and not finishing the story. Explaining everything kills fear (see a later note) but there has to be some sense of completion. Finish a character arc, give an emotional resolution, do everything but. Everything but showing the monster, everything but naming the demon, everything but explaining the origin. The thing that is scary can be unfinished, inexplicable, unseen, but the story still needs an ending. Cutting off before the resolution is a way of preventing yourself from over-explaining the story, but it can ruin what you’re working toward. Like undercooking brownies.

No, scratch that. Undercooked brownies are delicious. Undercooked chicken. That’s what it’s like. Slightly undercooked, so it’ll be gross and make you ill if you eat it. Don’t undercook your stories.

Related: Lead-up and aftermath are scarier than the thing itself. I.e., shadows, not monsters; imagined threat, not reality. Be wary of showing me the guy in the monster suit. My imagination is more personal, and therefore more scary.

In the end, the biggest thing is that horror, like love, is personal. So no matter what anyone does, there may be some deep-seated part of my personality and my past that makes it fail for me, even as it works for a hundred others.