So you want to boost the ‘quality of form’ in your story?
You want to progress towards a three-dimensional, more widely appealing and resonant piece of work, and further away from ‘Then this happened…’ linear storytelling?
Conventional writing advice suggests things like 'working on character', or 'adding things in to plot like images or motifs', or 'working on making your settings reflect your emotional content', things like that.
What follows isn’t conventional writing advice.
This is advice based on almost 50 years of studying literature and life, tested with class after class of students, and extrapolated from the core of a best selling book on how fiction works. Its principles will immediately become self-evident to you on picking up any work of fiction, watching and play or movie and even on reading any poem.
First of all, when you write a piece of fiction, what are you trying to say?
What exactly are your themes? There is likely to be more than one.
The difficulty you probably run into here is triply complex:
1. You don’t really know exactly what you’re trying to say — you can only tell what you have to say from the stories that you write. The process that occurs ‘behind’ the act of telling the tale isn’t easily accessible to you.
2. You are so familiar with just writing, rather than thinking about what you’re writing, that the core of your work is most likely opaque to you.
3. The whole culture in which you have been brought up has convinced you that ‘fiction’ is not as important as ‘fact’ - and that 'fiction' can be broken down into 'facts'. This whole subject of ‘storytelling’ is obviously, says this propaganda, something that can’t be taken seriously or which has to be deconstructed in order to be regarded at all. To expect to make a career from it is foolish; to imply that there is anything deeply significant about it is wishful thinking and misplaced. 'What’s more, if you do decide to take a closer look at fiction as a subject, you must break it down into analytical components before anything meaningful can be said about it,' says our culture.
This third point is key. If we can understand what is going on with that cultural perspective, we can open the doors to a truer understanding of what we are trying to do, what it might be possible to achieve, and how to unlock our own work. But to reach that understanding will involve challenging some things which are considered to be such norms in the society in which we live that it may be hard to disassociate ourselves from them long enough to get anywhere.
We’ve already touched on them earlier in this series by talking about the false division between ‘analytical’ and ‘emotional’ aspects, or ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’ and so on. These dichotomies stem from a binary way of thinking upon which our own culture is based.
Back in the 17th century, the movement that would grow into modern science began by splitting things up from each other and categorising them. The ‘scientific method’ evolved as a way of acquiring knowledge that has characterised the development of science and culture ever since. The idea was and is that careful observation, accompanied by rigorous skepticism about what is observed, can enable the observer to formulate hypotheses. Experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses then leads to refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on what is found. Conclusive testing of hypotheses comes from reasoning based on carefully controlled experimental data and if evidence supports a hypotheses, a general theory can be developed.
Erased or removed from this method is anything 'subjective' or 'emotional'. What this means in practise is that any kind of cognitive connections taking place within an observer’s own mind are seen as enemies of a cold, rational and ‘purely observational’ approach.
This method has of course led to huge breakthroughs in our understanding of, and ability to manipulate, the physical universe. As a way of thinking, it lies at the basis of our education system, is taught all over the world, stresses its triumphs, and considers itself beyond reproach or even question. But what it dispenses with at its core is humanity. Human beings are all about cognitive connections; human beings thrive on meaning. So we are left with a vision of an empty universe of atomic and chemical reactions which — so scientists extrapolate — includes the very consciousness which observes them. That’s the background to the modern world and to the culture in which we have been raised.
Parallel to this vision taking root, we have the growth of disaffection, depression, disconnection and despair amongst the denizens of society.
Still existing in this world, though, is a mode of communication between human beings which existed prior to the development of the scientific method and which thrives in every ordinary conversation between people as well as in the billions of interchanges involved in the transmission of stories of various kinds all around the globe. Fiction is a means of conveying content between human beings which does not exclude — indeed, it largely depends upon — the cognitive connections which the scientific method seeks to expunge. Fiction can be seen most clearly in stories, but it also forms the bulk of live human connections, through figurative speech, humour and a common sense understanding of each other. Storytelling is in our blood.
We’ll leave aside the question of whether it is actually possible to totally remove cognitive connections from the act of observation — that’s something that quantum physicists are struggling with even now. Instead, we need to return to the much more homely and confrontable task of transforming a piece of fiction by strengthening within it the cognitive connections which our own education within a ‘scientific’ culture has done its best to blind us to.
So yes, you probably don’t really know exactly what you’re trying to ‘say’ when you write a story. You write the story, most likely, to try to find out if you have anything to say. And you are so familiar with just writing, rather than thinking about what you’re writing, that it’s difficult to separate out one from the other.
‘Separating out’, of course, is part of the scientific method. It has become so integral to our thinking, so instinctive, so much a part of the way we are taught, that NOT to try to split something into pieces in order to understand how it works seems foreign and perhaps even dangerous. Surely breaking things down into components is the only way of grasping something?
It’s perfectly valid to break something into its parts if doing so makes its operations clearer; it’s counter-productive if, in doing the breaking, one loses the essence of connection and interrelation which made the thing work in the first place.
Fiction belongs to that mode of thinking more ancient than science and broader than science’s methods in which there was a unity of what we now call thought and feeling which transcends what modern language can describe.
Perhaps the best way to try to grasp this is to look at the definition of metaphor. A metaphor is ‘a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.' It comes from the French métaphore, via Latin from Greek metaphora, from metapherein ‘to transfer’.
But what if metaphors were real? What if literal and figurative were united?
Aristotle (384–322 BC), began the Western tradition's systematic investigation of metaphor, called it ‘a kind of enigma’ and claimed that it is ‘the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor’ because ‘this alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances’. The ‘eye for resemblances’ is an eye, it could be argued, that sees the world as it actually is — as a pattern of related significances, rather than a collection of rigorously separated categories.
Scientific method, in other words, splits our perception of reality into boxes. Things become ‘literal’ (scientific) or ‘subjective’ (artistic). The literal things — science, mathematics and the various technologies derived from them — are ‘obviously’ (to the scientifically minded) more ‘important’ and ‘real’ than the subjective things — fiction, music, art and so on. The latter are all ‘in our heads’ whereas it is plain to see that the former are tangible and visibly objective. Metaphor strives to link the two, but it is a fancy - they say.
If you can grasp that this ‘splitting’ is itself a problem, and that 'metaphoric vision' might actually be a thing, then you are in the way to understanding the heart of your own work — and therefore to making it far more appealing to readers and publishers.