Reverse engineering, trial by combat, and listening

After a couple of weeks where I’ve spared you, gentle read­er, the shady goings-on of the cre­at­ive pro­cesses in my head, I thought I’d write briefly about one of the most chal­len­ging aspects of writ­ing. This aspect is not restric­ted to writ­ing; it applies to every form of art, I would guess, and craft too.

So, beware: navel-gaz­ing alert. What fol­lows is a post about the pro­cess of writ­ing, and might only be of interest to oth­er writers.

Now then. Let’s say you’re a writer. Or, at least, you like to write. You can string words togeth­er. You are sens­it­ive to noun-verb agree­ment and you write act­ive sen­tences. You know that adverbs are not your friends. One day, you think, you want to be as good as Hemmingway, or Faulkner, or Wodehouse or Adams. (Let’s leave aside the fact that you are unlikely to achieve these artist­ic heights. That kind of pess­im­ism is too pess­im­ist­ic.) How do you get from where you are to where they are? Or, if you prefer, how do you improve your product, and keep improv­ing it, until you have entered the league of Big Players?

The pro­cess of writ­ing has one curi­ous aspect. It looks easy. Why? Because your instru­ment is your mouth or your fin­gers, and words are your notes. Everybody is an expert with this instru­ment. It’s not like play­ing a piano, where the phys­ic­al inter­face between human and music will take years to learn com­pet­ently. Writing, then, looks easy, because verbal com­mu­nic­a­tion is a task that you are genet­ic­ally pro­grammed to do, and have spent almost all of your life learn­ing to mas­ter. I’d argue that this makes it dif­fi­cult to learn to write well — in rela­tion to those far-away tar­gets, Hemmingway, Wodehouse et al. — because it is not imme­di­ately obvi­ous what the routes of devel­op­ment are. A pian­ist can emu­late increas­ingly com­plex music, can learn scales, music the­ory, and get online feed­back from a hov­er­ing music teach­er. A writer…but here the ana­logy breaks down. A bet­ter ana­logy for a writer is the music­al com­poser. The com­poser might have the prin­ciples of open­ing bars, middle eights, verses and chor­uses. What are the prin­ciples of com­pos­i­tion for a story? It is the dif­fer­ence in applic­a­tion of these com­pos­i­tion­al prin­ciples that char­ac­ter­izes the gap between the appren­tice writer, such as myself, and the mas­ters. I think that point is uncon­tro­ver­sial. I’d like to talk about how the writer goes about acquir­ing these prin­ciples.

Improvement by form­al instruc­tion

When I star­ted out writ­ing fic­tion ser­i­ous-like, I did what came nat­ur­ally as a con­scien­tious stu­dent. I looked it up in a book. Several books, in fact. But at the back of my mind, I had already dis­missed the intel­lec­tu­al route as a way of pick­ing up these prin­ciples. When I read McKee’s Story, for example, I reacted strongly against the pre­cise rhythms and almost for­mu­laic descrip­tions of drama. For every example he came up with, I could pro­duce a counter example. Surely, I thought, I’m an expert in story already. I’ve seen count­less films, read count­less books, and even sat through plays. These prin­ciples are for people without the touch. Me, I’ve got a finely-tuned storyteller brain already.

Wrong.

Improving by doing

I wrote a bloody awful nov­el. I keep it my fil­ing cab­in­et to remind me how bad it is. It suf­fers from a fail­ure to apply basic prin­ciples of com­pos­i­tion. Scenes should be points of con­flict that move the story for­ward. These scenes should build towards a lar­ger con­flict, a turn­ing point or rev­el­a­tion, and this marks the end of an act. Not all stor­ies do this, of course. Compositional prin­ciples aren’t some­thing you can plug in. Some stor­ies react against these prin­ciples — but, gen­er­ally speak­ing, these aren’t the kind of stor­ies I’m inter­ested in writ­ing.

Anyway, in the course of writ­ing my first nov­el, I learned that my immer­sion in Western cul­ture was not enough to make me a writer. I would not burst into lit­er­at­ure pre­co­cially like Mailor or Ellis. My storytelling ‘expert­ise’ was only suf­fi­cient for me to recog­nise the prob­lems with my book. The answers — prac­tic­al craft-based meth­ods of solv­ing these prob­lems — could only be found in the prin­ciples of com­pos­i­tion. Once you use them, they click into place. A com­pet­ent writer can pro­duce a nov­el. A bet­ter writer can recog­nise what’s wrong with it. A good writer knows how to fix it. A great writer is cap­able of fix­ing it. ‘All first drafts are shit’ — Hemmingway.

Improving by reverse engin­eer­ing oth­er stor­ies

The oth­er meth­od of improv­ing my craft is to dog­gedly ana­lyze every piece of fic­tion I’m exposed to (the cor­rol­lary is that I dog­gedly cata­logue every piece of non­fic­tion too, includ­ing my life exper­i­ence, so that where­as anoth­er per­son might say, “Ooh, that’s interesting/sad”, I think “Right, I’ll nick that forth­with”). Why, for example, did I think that ‘Serenity’ was such a great film? Good char­ac­ters, believ­able motiv­a­tions, high jeop­ardy, sat­is­fy­ing rela­tion­ships, and an under­cur­rent of human­ity. How did the writer/director Joss Whedon man­age that? How did the 10% of the movie ice­berg sug­gest the 90% of a whole world beneath, of val­ues, and how did it manip­u­late my emo­tions? There are always con­crete answers to these ques­tions. It might be pos­sible to trace a character’s motiv­a­tion to a single, start­ling exchange of dia­logue, or an object he picks up and muses over; a tiny manip­u­la­tion leads to a great effect. I think a writer can pull les­sons of craft from both good and bad films. But to do so, it is immeas­ur­ably help­ful to have a short­hand way of char­ac­ter­iz­ing the story: con­flicts, incit­ing incid­ents, acts one, two, three, four, whatever. This draws upon form­al instruc­tion in com­pos­i­tion and per­son­al suc­cesses and fail­ures an apply­ing the prin­ciples.

Getting your shit togeth­er

Somewhat pre­dict­ably, my con­clu­sion is that there needs to be an inter­ac­tion between reverse engin­eer­ing clas­sic stor­ies, read­ing about form­al com­pos­i­tion and learn­ing by doing. You already knew that, didn’t you? But there is a chance you are stuck in one of those three right now in your writ­ing career. You might be lean­ing heav­ily on McKee or Vogler or Campbell, and for­mu­liz­ing your story. You might be mak­ing mis­takes by crash­ing on, undis­cip­lined, into a nov­el. You might be agon­iz­ing over the clear bril­liance of Hemmingway or Tolstoy or Basho against the dire crap­ness of your own nov­el or book. I’ve recently over­turned my dis­dain for the struc­tured approached to com­pos­i­tion (or, at least, approached these prin­ciples with an open mind) and I think that my cur­rent nov­el has bene­fit­ted hugely. If you’re writer too, you might con­sider that, to become a mas­ter of fic­tion­al com­pos­i­tion, you should become a jack of all the routes to it.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Reverse engineering, trial by combat, and listening”

  1. Thanks for the navel-gaz­ing. Very help­ful. (I’m at the crash­ing-through-undis­cip­lined stage, by the way.)

  2. Okay, I no longer read with enjoy­ment. I cri­ti­cize everything I see, watch, hear. Often I can pre­dict what’s going to hap­pen. I read and think, “that’s exactly what I DON’T want to do.”
    Does try­ing to be a bet­ter writer mean los­ing enjoy­ment in read­ing or watch­ing movies? I sup­pose when I do enjoy some­thing I should try and learn from it. Bring on the clas­sics!

  3. I’m with you Ian. Same boat. The struggle seems to con­stantly shift between the dif­fer­ent mod­us operandi.

    As I’m doing National Novel Writing Month right now, I’ve thrown all cau­tion to the wind. I’m learn­ing a lot, but really see­ing how my one month pre­par­a­tion has helped a lot. I didn’t fin­ish my pre­par­a­tion before the con­test began, and now I’m start­ing to run into trouble. I didn’t know everything that hap­pens in my story before I star­ted writ­ing, which is not neces­sar­ily a bad thing but I’m some of the com­pos­i­tion may suf­fer for it.

    I’ve also noticed that the inspir­a­tion comes and goes, and some­times I just have to force myself to keep writ­ing til I “get to a good part” where I start blaz­ing again. I’m almost 100% cer­tain those unin­spired points will have to be rewrit­ten. For sure.

    It sounds like you’re mak­ing some good head­way towards improv­ing at the craft.

    P.S. Does your blog have an XML feed? I didn’t see a link so I can nev­er be sure when you update.

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