Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Storyteller’s Art: Say Something!

     [Yes, Gentle Reader, it’s sad but true: another repost is upon you. This one was stimulated by Sarah Hoyt’s PJMedia column on what to do when “your novel dies,” and reinforced by the strange increase in email inquiries about “how you do this” – i.e., how to write fiction. As with all the “Storyteller’s Art” pieces, this one first appeared at Eternity Road and is featured in this free download at SmashWords. -- FWP]

     As we all know, stories come in many lengths. A story may be as short as a few dozen words, or as long as Robert Jordan's multi-million-word The Wheel Of Time series. But many persons, and no few would-be storytellers, never ponder what it is that dictates the length of a particular story.

     The subject is at some remove from fundamental considerations. The major elements of any story are:

  • Theme,
  • Plot,
  • Characterization,
  • Style.

     Length is not among them. Which of these, if any, should dictate the appropriate length at which to tell some particular story?

     Many would nominate plot. After all, a long plot, with lots of separate skeins and events, will necessarily take a lot of prose to relate, won't it? It surely will -- but is the plot the story? If it is, ought it to be?

     If you've never encountered a novel that seemed unbearably long, despite its profusion of related events, you're a fortunate soul. Your Curmudgeon could rattle off two dozen titles without pausing for breath, at the conclusion of each of which he ardently wanted to know whom he could sue for a refund of the time he'd wasted.

     Plot is a major element of all fiction, but it's not as fundamental, and therefore not as determinative, as theme. Indeed, plot's whole point is to express or illuminate the story's theme. If the plot, which one would accurately assess as the "proximate cause" of the story's length, overruns what's required to express the theme, the story will be perceived as too long and possibly heavy handed as well. If the plot is insufficient to express the theme, the story will be perceived as either too short or, worse, themeless.

     Virtually everyone understands plot, characterization, and style, both as mechanical matters and as necessities without which one cannot write fiction. But a depressing number of writers have no grasp of theme. Indeed, themelessness and thematic incoherence are probably the most common failings in the fiction of our time.

     It's often been said, and in university classrooms at that, that what one likes or dislikes about a particular storyteller is his style -- that is, the particular way in which he chooses to string words, sentences, and paragraphs together, with specific attention to his use of literary devices, descriptive images, and wordplay. This sentiment is in keeping with the prevailing trends in American "literary" fiction, which tends to emphasize style so greatly that plot, characterization, and theme are all but effaced from the scene. It's your Curmudgeon's firm opinion -- and no, it's not a humble one; it's actually rather arrogant, but it's quite firm for all of that -- that this is the reason most readers cannot abide "literary" fiction. For a rather remarkable extended exegesis upon this subject, please refer to B. R. Myers's now-famous essay A Reader's Manifesto.

     On the basis of a nearly fifty-year acquaintance with the written word -- in all its forms but, most apposite to this discussion, especially with fiction -- your Curmudgeon has rejected the "style uber alles" gospel with extreme prejudice. Style, divorced from theme, is as pointless as prestidigitation. It's pure packaging, devoid of content. Its proper place is to tell a story that has a worthwhile theme. When fetishized, it deprives the reader of his fundamental reason for reading: to acquire new knowledge about life, or a new perspective on it, by viewing it through the eyes of a perceptive and articulate observer.

     But why, then, does a reader become especially fond of some writer or group of writers? Style is their most obvious distinguishing quality, is it not? If it's not their style that holds his affection, what could it be?

     Your Curmudgeon proposes: sensibility.

     Yes, writers have very different styles. Some are austere and distant, formalists of classical discipline who regard a dangling preposition as something up with which one should never put. Others strive for a Hemingwayesque simplicity, They write short, single-clause sentences. Those sentences contain nothing but nouns and verbs. They leave all else to the reader's imagination. Still others are Faulknerian in the luxuriance of their prose, every sentence a labyrinthine maze of baroque elaboration decorated with as many descriptive and evocative elements as one can digest before running out of breath. But this is packaging for a story and, beneath the story, supporting it with relevance and timeliness, its theme.

     A writer's sensibility is composed of the sorts of themes he likes to explore, and the angle from which he approaches them. It partakes greatly of his moral vision. Indeed, it cannot be separated from his grasp on the moral order of the universe...whether or not he believes there is one.

     Gentle Reader, have you ever encountered a writer whose command of the language is superb and precise, but whose stories proclaim ideas that you simply can't abide? Have you ever encountered a writer whose works, despite serious shortcomings of style, throb so powerfully with truth that you can't imagine ever forgoing them? If so, you're peering down the barrel of auctorial sensibility. You're staring the bullet of theme right in the face. It's the ultimate weapon in the battle for the reader's time, money, and attention.

     Needless to say, a writer's sensibility can only interlock with the affections of readers who share his fundamental moral vision. That's why your Curmudgeon can't abide John Irving, despite his stylistic gifts, and why he owns every mark on parchment Robert B. Parker, no stylist as the term is generally understood, has ever produced. Ardent admirers of John Irving resonate to his moral and political views; they see the world as he sees it, which gives his stories the ring of truth and significance to them. Few of them would have any patience for Parker's quite different vision.

     A writer's sensibility, which compounds his moral views and his sense of human character into themes that can be fictionally explored, is near to unalterable. Probably no writer of note exemplifies this better than the late Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein wrote for more than fifty years. In surveying the sweep of his works, one can see a dramatic evolution in his style, and comparably large changes in his attitude toward plot. But his underlying sensibility -- his penchant for writing stories about men compelled to be competent and independent in the face of severe challenges -- never changed. His fiction was always an expression of his innermost convictions about the nature of Man and the obligations incumbent upon manhood. Much the same could be said about Jack Vance.

     Many a writer discovers his sensibility by trying to violate it. Ayn Rand wrote a dramatization of this titled "The Simplest Thing In The World," whose protagonist, desperate to break into the world of commercial fiction, strains without success to write a story whose theme cross-cuts his own moral code.

     Your Curmudgeon has his own sensibility, of course; it should be quite evident from the stories he’s written. It's a sensibility that's out of step with what's currently commercially favored, but what of that? To try to set this "ill-favoured thing, but mine own" aside in favor of something that would sell would nullify whatever piddling value your Curmudgeon can bring to a story. It would eventuate in themelessness -- the inability to say anything worth reading -- or thematic incoherence -- a hard-driven clash between the actions of the story's characters and the writer's convictions about the nature and motivations of Man. It would be a waste of perfectly good words.

     There are a lot of aspiring writers in the world. No doubt a few are readers of your Curmudgeon’s stuff. There's a lot of advice being offered to aspiring writers, often at high prices and mostly by people who couldn't produce a decent shopping list. Though there are no magic formulae by which to achieve publishability and commercial renown, there are definitely fatal errors by which one can lose one's writerly self-respect, a commodity for the loss of which no degree of extrinsic success will compensate. The biggest and most seductive of the fatal errors is the betrayal of one's sensibility.

     When you write, say something. Always have a conscious theme. Make it something that's critically important: to you, and hopefully to the larger world. That will energize you and call forth your passions in service to your prose. Then make sure your story's characters act in such a fashion that the story's events, and above all its ending, are foreordained, and express your theme with all the clarity and grace you can muster.

     If you already know your sensibility, stay true to it. If you don't -- if this entire discussion has appeared to you like water to a fish -- you can only discover your sensibility, and bring it to its peak of expressive power, by choosing your themes according to your passion for them, and then by writing from the heart. When you've done that for a while, return to this essay. Your Curmudgeon guarantees you an "of course!" experience.


Margaret Ball said...

A brilliant essay, and one that every writer of fiction should see.

Reading it, I realized one of the reasons I'm so much happier writing indie than I was when writing for the traditional publishing houses: that pressure to conceal my own sensibility is gone. My response when publishing through traditional houses was to write stories as fluffy as an ice cream sundae. I'm, well, I guess I'm still doing that... it's possible that deep meaning just isn't in my repertoire... but now I don't worry about the likelihood of taking flak for incorrect views. I look forward to it.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Thank you, Margaret. Such praise from you is high praise indeed.

I think it was my sensibility that prevented me from breaking in conventionally. The number of rejections I received that ran roughly "we love it, but we can't imagine how to market it" strongly suggested that. Indie is better, and not just in that regard.