Serving the Story

So here is my first blog where I polled Twitter for what to write about. Serving the Story narrowing overtook World-Building, so I’ll start here and do World-Building next (it kinda works thematically anyway)

I was asked the question “what do you mean by serve the story?” which is a great starting point. (I’m going to use StS for a shorthand at times). StS is a piece of advice often thrown around when people talk about how every piece of a work must “StS” it’s also something I use very very often (without much justification) when talking about how to make decisions about your prose, plot, or other aspects of a story.

So what the check do I mean?

A good way to look at it is having all the material in your work, whether it be short of long-form having a purpose towards the greater whole. Ok that probably sounded like some sort of communist or collectivist manifesto! More specifically its about the words, sentences, scenes in your story working together to make a good story. It we were talking movies it would be about the movie not having any scenes that made you wonder what the point of it was.

One of the reasons that this is useful to talk about especially in novel-length works there is a tendency to meander. This isn’t immediately wrong in itself, after all maybe the story calls for meandering. BUT, it can be a tricky balance between aimless wandering and useful story serving stuff. What I personally find quite confusing is that pretty much any good writing advice source will tell you that filler is a massive no-no, yet so many professional, brilliant published works seem to have a reasonable amount of filler.

Or do they?

The tricky thing with story serving is that material can StS is many different ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes only gently pushing the narrative along. I have seen people interpret the advice ‘to only include relevant information’ to mean that novels must travel at breakneck speed with closely packed plot points Anyone who has read most published novels know this isn’t the case.

To explain I’m going to explain how different elements of a story can serve it, AND some different levels of servitude which I think might help.

It’s probably a timely moment to remind people of a disclaimer, these are just my thoughts on the topic, they are based on a lot of reading both of fiction and fiction writing advice books, interacting with other writers, agents and editors and just generally stewing on these topics within my own head. I’m not spouting gospel, although be assured that I’m not just spewing nonsense!

Let’s start with levels.

Often a story is layered and complex, built from story beats (individual moments or movements of the story) scenes sequences and plots.

When people think that only including relevant material to their plot means fast-paced writing they are only looking at the overarching main plot points and thinking they have to rush those through, when in truth its okay to focus on the smaller units of scenes and beats.

For example most scenes start with some sort of ‘setting-the-scene’ sequence. Again this is far more obvious on movies where any particular scene usually has a few moments of setup, say before the hero smashes through a wall to fight the villain. These parts might not seem like they serve the ‘plot’ but they most definitely serve the individual scenes, which in turn does serve the overall story.

I’m not sure how well I’ve explained that so here goes an attempt clarification, a story is like a house of cards, a cool looking complex setup that relies on individual card placement, structural shapes, as well as a great overall design. You can’t build a house of cards by simply thinking about the final product, you need to place each card precisely, and you need to build them up in the right order to get the final construction.

Your story is no different, to get the overall effect you need to focus on individual moments and scenes and put them together to create the overall story. Sometimes material in a book which seems like filler, is stuff that builds an individual moment or that particular scene, it might not seem ultra relevant to the overall plot, except that overall plot needs that scene in place to ‘work.’

In short there won’t always be a direct line between the immediate material you’re penning and the ‘big’ story.

So let’s talk about a couple of different story elements.

The other way I think people get overwhelmed is trying to link everything to the overt or practical plot of the story which can get confusing at times. My thesis is that there are different ways that elements of story contribute, and this is important to grasp because I believe this is how a novel length work gets fleshed out, without just being filled with ‘filler.’

Character:

We all talk about character development like we know what we’re talking about (well I do and don’t respectively). In my opinion getting characters right is one of the most challenging parts of fiction. Randomly generating traits and motives and whatnot is easy, but working out how to develop said character in a story is devilishly hard. My understanding of how to work character development in to serve a story is to show what about them is related to the story at hand, and how it currently or will challenge them. Lord of the Rings (the book mind you) is often criticized for spending such lengthy pages with Frodo not leaving the Shire, yet this setup creates the suspense of how important the Shire is to Frodo which deepens the tension and sadness of the story’s conclusion. Often novels seem to drag slowly for initial chapters, however a lot of the focus in often on ensuring the reading knows the character(s) and knows thing about them relevant to that story.

For example heroes are often shown doubting themselves, morally challenged MC’s are shown to do wrong and so forth.

Character development serves the story by deepening what the plot means to it’s victims…

Setting:

I’m going to race through a few of these other points because I’m starting to drone on. Setting very much serves the story by grounding the tale. One of my biggest flaws in novel writing at the moment is that I tend to rush the story starting, before there is a strong sense of where everything is happening or more importantly a sense that the story is taking place somewhere ‘real.’

As a final word serving your story is a lot more straightforward if you have a good idea of what the story is. This isn’t to poo-poo pansters or gardeners but just a caution that at some point it really helps if you have a firm idea at least of what sort of tale you’re telling, then you can always reflect on how any individual part works towards that whole.

It’s my first writing blog for a while, and my first polled topic! Hopefully it’s not too rambling and disastrous. Next time I’m having a go at: World-Building!

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I could not find an approps pictures so here’s a “Raven Cycle” pun

Writing: Subjective, Objective or Something Else?

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You don’t have to look far in writing discussions to come across some form of disagreement. Whether about writing ‘rules’ some specific feedback or comparing different plot points. It’s also not unusual to see these discussions eventually peter out to a hand wave of ‘well writing is subjective.’

Granted this may well be a suitable way to politely finish a disagreement, but it does beg the question, if writing is so subjective why then are there all these rules and guidelines? How is one to make sense of the subject?

For me I think fiction sits in a strange place not exactly between the two subjects but in an interactional position, whereby the objective fact of the work interacts with the subjective experience of readers.

I better explain this in less airy fairy gobbledygook!

Because objective is described as something based on ‘fact’ and putting aside the subjective feeling or experience, most art is often assumed to be a subjective thing. However in my opinion there is something hyper-objective about fiction. A book after all is what it is, no matter who reads it, the words are the same. Sure the experience of the reader is vastly different, but the actual work and the words therein are objective.

Ergo some discussions about writing advice could be conceivably considered to be objective.

Now as to the subjective part, this is where my philosophy on this gets a little weirder. Obviously when readers pick up a book there is a subjective response, and the collective subjective response determines largely whether a book is considered ‘good’ or not. So I’m not going to get into all the different ways taste, culture and individual responses shape this, other than to say that the quality of a work of fiction is determined by the interaction between the objective work, and the subjective experience of the audience.

Ignore either aspect at your peril!

To really dig in deep, part of this theory is to explain how books can be judged differently over time. Old classics often have a style that doesn’t fit with today’s readers, whereas some older books become more popular in later generations! The book doesn’t change but the audience does.

 

So team, what do you think of my theory, complete garbage, half garbage, objectively garbage but subjectively something else?

 

Off Topic: Sociopolitical Rants

So I’ve had a bit of a writing hiatus over the last 1.5 months with various flu symptoms and other obligations and one of the things I’ve been doing in my convalescence is spending altogether far too much time online reading and ‘talking’ (arguing) about political issues.

You see it’s problematic because while I care a lot about a lot of things seeing other people’s opinions on issues eventually results in me becoming a seething mass of angst, and unfortunately for you poor soul – I’m now going to use this medium to expunge said angst.

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Harvey Weinstein

Weinstein is the latest of powerful people being discovered to be powerfully perverted. To be fair it seems most people are pretty anti sexual harassment however there are some stances which irk me a lot e.g.

“Have you seen how these women dress?” or “I dress modestly and don’t flirt and I’ve never been harassed”

First of all as an analogy, this is like telling school-age Thom that if he doesn’t want to bullied he should try not looking skinny and nerdy, and perhaps just not leaving the house, maybe just don’t go school at all.

Second of all I hate this argument because it buys into this idea that men are basically uncontrollable animals who see a good looking woman and have to ‘resist’ doing something sexual to them.

Now to be fair I have to say if any individual (like the quoter above) does decide to dress modestly and not flirt to avoid harassment, that is entirely their choice and I’m not denying that it may work – it’s not victim blame to say that dressing sexy is going to garner attention which statistically increases your chance of getting attention from pervos. However this argument seems to draw a line between what ought to be, and what appears to be actually happening. Neither women or men should have to consider appearance in case of harassment, we’re all human beings for goodness sake!

Abrupt topic ‘change’

When it comes to climate change I will very quickly preface why I believe that the climate is changing due to human produced emissions:

  • It’s a lot of scientists to be wrong
  • I don’t believe that the human race can produce so much greenhouse gas into the air with some sort of effect
  • I’m actually getting old enough now to see the effects for myself such as changes in local climate disappearing lakes etc

So here are some denial argument that also make my blood raise in temperature (to boiling point)

It’s all about lefties getting political power

The problem this this argument is climate change stinks politically. It’s a divisive global issue with few gains for individual voters, even your typical leftie is usually more concerned with healthcare etc. I have yet to see any politician sail into power using climate change as a platform. Yet the issue has persisted in the public arena for decades, so if this rebuttal is correct either politicians are awfully slow OR the issue has nothing to do with seizing political power.

These scientists have been wrong before.

Wow, ok I get it. Yes scientists can get these wrong, and its the very nature of scientific process to question theory and always be skeptical. However its one thing to be skeptical, its another thing to essentially insert your own belief that ‘there isn’t a problem’ and continue with potentially destructive behaviour especially at the expense of others.

This kind of denial isn’t like deciding to smoke because you don’t agree with the warnings and ‘its your body’ this is like dumping your rubbish on the street and claiming you ‘disagree’ with the evidence you’re making a mess. Even if for the sake of argument the rubbish isn’t as bad as other people make it out to be, is it really ethical to keep dumping?

‘Racism

Finally (don’t worry the rant is almost over) Race seems to be the issue ‘du jour’ online and I have seen some truly weird opinions about the place.

“It’s not racist if its statistical”

To be fair this is a confusing issue for many people, how to not be ‘racist’ but still acknowledge that disparities exist between different ethnicity some of which are not good (i.e. imprisonment) I think the issue is that ultimately racism is about fundamentally treating people differently due to their race.

For example: treating the behaviour of individuals or smaller groups as representative of that ethnicity. Basically if you see a black dude stealing a car and think ‘geeze these black dudes’ rather than if you saw a white dude and thought ‘geeze that car thief’

I think racists love social justice warriors because they try to use their passion to trip them up on thorny issues, but seem to forget that just because because they manage to flummox an advocate for egalitarianism doesn’t mean they aren’t racist.

“There is no racist legislation therefore there is no systematic racism”

It’s a common stance in rational reasoning that whoever makes the most outlandish claim is obligated to provide the equally compelling evidence. And to be fair evidence of systematic racism (in any country) should be robust, but the idea that as long as legislation is even there won’t be systematic racism blows my mind! If only.

“Racism and anti-racist are just two sides of the same coin”

What, just what. Granted some people engage in deplorable behaviour in the name of progressive ideals, and also granted there are individuals and groups of all kinds who really are just promoting themselves not general equality. But to equate decades and more of lynching, land grabbing, systematic prejudice as being the same as that person who dissed Trump for being White seems purposefully obtuse.

Anywho the rant is getting a little long – back to on task type blogging very soon I promise I just needed a ranty purge. I will resume yelling at clouds again and writing about writing forthwith.

 

Not to open any cans of worms – what are your guys thoughts on these issues, or what issues burn a hole in your head?