Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Yin and Yang
Photo by Alex on Unsplash

This is an article I wrote for Medium.com.

I recently attended a screenwriting workshop in which I was told not to listen to screenwriting gurus. The key to writing a good story is not in placing an inciting incident on page 23. Rather, it is in understanding the inherent rule behind storytelling itself, the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites.

This is a principle present at every level of storytelling, from the three-act structure to individual scenes, beats, or, in prose fiction, even individual sentences.

The screenwriting charlatans will tell you: put the inciting incident on page 23. But they never ask, “Why?” This is the problem addressed by John Yorke in his excellent book Into the Woods, which discusses the dialectical basis of narrative. My screenwriting workshop instructor recommend it to me, since it offers a much better perspective on storytelling than most screenwriting gurus provide.

Yorke argues that the three-act structure is based on the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites and that the dialectical structure permeates every aspect of art and storytelling.

But what does he mean by dialectical?

In philosophy, dialectics is the process of arriving at the truth through counter argument. The stronger the counter argument, the stronger the argument becomes. It follows the following structure: a thesis is stated (“All swans are white”), an antithesis is presented (“But there are black swans”), and a synthesis resolves the two (“Swans may be both white and black”). At the end of this process, the philosopher arrives closer to the truth.

Yorke’s observation that narrative is fundamentally about observing the world, processing it, and arriving at a conclusion came as a revelation for me. I’d encountered Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the three-act structure before, but I’d never had it explained to me like this. Few books on the writer’s craft explain the “Why?” behind narrative structure so compellingly.

Which is why I’ve decided to take Yorke one step further. In his book, he focuses on the three-act and five-act plot. However, if you look at prose fiction under a microscope, paragraph by paragraph, the dialectic juxtaposition of opposites reiterates itself fractally, even at the sentence level. This plays a crucial role in keeping readers engaged page by page.

You can write compelling prose by harnessing the power of dialectical opposites. Before I explain how, however, let me first go over how dialectics apply to the three-act structure, since the same principle will apply at the sentence level.

pigeons
Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash

Dialectics in the Three-Act Story Structure

Many stories, from The Godfather to Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth–and even Pixar movies–follow a dialectical three-act structure. Like a dialectical argument, the stories break down into acts consisting of a “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis.”

A typical three-act story begins with a first act that presents the status quo. The second act challenges the status quo, precipitating a crisis, and the third act reconciles the two states, resolving the conflict. In this way, the structure of a dialectical argument maps onto narrative; an overarching theme is argued, counter argued, and synthesized.

For example, in the first act of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a war veteran who wants nothing to do with the mafia. In the second act, he makes the irrevocable decision to participate in the mafia. By the third act, he’s stepped into his father’s shoes as the head of his crime family and has become the devil; his innocence is forever lost.

In the thematic struggle between innocence and power, the dialectical synthesis results in Michael’s spiritual death—a tragedy.

Although some writers use the three-act structure to mark changes in interpersonal conflict or even setting, treating it as a dialectical structure that charts character change can be more useful. After all, taking The Godfather for an example, Michael’s inner journey is one between opposites: from innocence to violence. And the way these opposites resolve is through a dialectical structure.

Pixar movies work in opposites as well: a trash-cleaning robot who finds himself on a cruise ship in space (Wall-E) and a fish from the big ocean who finds himself in a dentist’s fish tank (Finding Nemo). The audience is compelled by these opposites to see how the stories eventually resolve.

It’s a principle that also works on the micro-level of a sentence.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Dialectics on the Sentence Level

Moving from screenwriting to prose fiction, I’ve observed that sentences may also exhibit a dialectical structure. In compelling prose, opposites are often presented within a sentence to create tension between two ideas or images.

Names of emotions might contrast, such as fear and curiosity, or a set of images, such as a rainstorm in the desert. In the reader’s brain, a synthesis occurs, suturing the gap between the disparate images in order to create meaning and flesh out an image that is only presented in fragments. The reader is engaged, because the prose inhabits a contradiction.

It’s relatively easy to learn this technique and apply it to your own prose. As an example, I’ve provided an excerpt from one of my personal favourite novels: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s prose style is laced with inherent tension, a simultaneous sense of forward momentum and dread.

In this scene, two characters, the surveyor and the biologist (the first-person narrator), are exploring an underground stairway for traces of a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial organism.

“Should we go back?” the surveyor would say, or I would say.

And the other would say, “Just around the next corner. Just a little farther, and then we will go back.” It was a test of a fragile trust. It was a test of our curiosity and fascination, which walked side by side with our fear. A test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe. The feel of our boots as we advanced step by careful step through that viscous discharge, the way in which the stickiness seemed to mire us even as we managed to keep moving, would eventually end in inertia, we knew. If we pushed it too far.

(Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, 39)

Starting from the top, the reader is immediately confronted with the question of why both the surveyor and the biologist could have spoken the dialogue. Why not specify who said what? The reader, even if only on an unconscious level, attempts to resolve this contradiction through synthesis.

As a reader, I formed the opinion that it must reveal more about their situation to know that it doesn’t matter who is talking at any single moment. They’re both reluctantly pushing the other deeper into the thrall of curiosity.

Next, inner emotional conflict is demonstrated by the contrast between fear and curiosity. These contrasting emotions are not precise opposites, but they’re far from identical in a conventional sense. Before the reader vicariously experiences these emotions, they must confront the intellectual problem of how the emotions “fear” and “curiosity” may be related.

Can fear and curiosity be the same emotion? VanderMeer doesn’t simply give the reader the answer. What he does is say that these emotions walk “side by side” (a personification recalling the biologist and the surveyor, who also walk side by side). This way, the reader’s imagination is engaged in imagining what this “fearful curiosity” must feel like.

Andrew Stanton and Bob Peterson, the writers of Finding Nemo, once said: “Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two … Never give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer” (qtd. in Yorke 113). To give his readers a taste of the complex emotion he wanted them to experience, VanderMeer gave them fear and curiosity and let them imagine the rest.

The power of VanderMeer’s prose comes, at least in part, from his ability to suggestively juxtapose disparate words and images. The reader must synthesize these in order to create meaning. Providing the reader with the emotions “curiosity” and “fear,” VanderMeer allows the reader to decide for themselves what feelings the biologist is experiencing.

Now, at one level, synthesis is part of the fundamental process of reading and experiencing the world. Readers do it all the time, no matter the quality of the prose. However, when the text presents irreconcilable contradictions, the dialectics of the text become more powerful and the reader engages even more.

Just as the philosopher gets closer to the truth when faced with a stronger counter argument, so do readers become more engaged when words and images are more starkly contrasted.

To return to Annihilation, the ideas of knowledge and danger are juxtaposed again later: “The test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe.” Here, the word choice is more complex, since the phrasing emphasizes the opposites of the conventional values of knowledge and safety. The biologist may prefer ignorance, which is ironic given her profession as a scientist. It also suggests that, perhaps, the biologist also wishes to be put in danger.

The reader synthesizes these contradictions, which compels them to read on.

staircase
Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash

Lastly, there’s the image of how the viscous slime sticks to the soles of the biologist’s boots, resisting her desire to step deeper down the stairs to discover the organism. On a linguistic level, “moving” and “inertia” are both opposites. Their appearance within a single sentence creates contradiction, probably in a more powerful way than if they’d been placed in separate sentences.

Opposites charge sentences with dialectical tension. The biologist is both descending the staircase and being resisted. But will her movement or inertia win out in the end?

This tension compels the reader to read on. Oppositions of this sort carry the reader right on through the story.

You could imagine that the sustaining tension emerges from the inner and outer conflicts of the characters. But on a stylistic level, contrasting word choices and structuring sentences as contradictions are crucial ingredients. I would even venture to say dialectical language can sustain reader interest irrespective of the idea of “character and “conflict.”

In conclusion, juxtaposing opposites can imbue inherent tensions into the reading experience, making your pose irresistible to readers. By harnessing the power of dialectics, your story structure will be stronger at a fractal level: both in terms of plot, and in terms of style.

In the words of the great philosopher and literary critic, Gyorgy Lukács, “The essence of art is form; it is to defeat opposition, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force” (qtd. in Yorke 231). Embed that centrifugal force in your sentences and plot, and you can infuse your prose with the storytelling power of Jeff VanderMeer in Annihilation.

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Today’s post is another YouTube video, in which you will get to listen to my own reading of a piece of short fiction I wrote for the Mythgard Institute “Almost an Inkling” creative writing contest. The contest is still going on, but now that the current week’s voting is over, I was really enthusiastic to share this piece with the public.

The story is a brief historical fantasy that I originally conceived as a cross between Lord Dunsany’s wonder tales and T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Check it out.

Lawrence

You can check out my short story on YouTube.

All photos are my own photos of photos in the Penguin edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Joseph Boyden on his Identity and Origins

Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden

Monday at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall Building on Concordia University campus, Joseph Boyden talked about his identity and origins–both as a writer and a man of mixed Irish-Ojibwe blood. He was accompanied by renowned conversationalist Kate Sterns and Globe and Mail book reviewer Jared Bland,

“Who are you?” opened Sterns, a direct question to start off the evening.

Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition. It was up against such worthy contenders as Cockroach by Rawi Hage and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. His novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize. The Orenda also made the longlists for the Giller and Governor General’s Literary Awards. In addition to this recognition, Boyden is an activist for indigenous rights, in recent times taking a particular focus on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

He wrote poetry before fiction. He confided to me that his unpublished poems were imagistic, reflecting the highly visual scenes that are so powerful in his novels. Much of his older poetry was also song lyrics. In fact, he used to tour with the punk rock band Bazooka Joe as a roadie, in rebellion against the social conformity of suburban Ontario.

“I didn’t want to be a writer,” said Boyden. “As a teen, I wanted to be a singer, but I was so bad even punk bands wouldn’t take me.”

Boyden began to write short stories and longer forms after entering an MFA program. He expressed having a certain anxiety leaving poetry behind. “I was scared of novels; I was scared of fiction,” he said.

One day, he hopped on a motorcycle on an epic road trip from Toronto down to the University of New Orleans, which a professor had told him had an excellent MFA program in Creative Writing. He would have gone to Concordia, he said, ” But my motorcycle didn’t have snow tires.”

He showed up to the program with what he thought would become the greatest novel since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, without having written any short fiction yet. He was in his mid-20s. His original title for this motorcycle road-trip novel was The Tree of the Lost. Then he came up with an even better title: Motorcycle Boy.

Sterns and Bland spent some time rubbing in the fact that this embarrassing first novel of Boyden’s was now public knowledge. There is something about young male writers, Sterns said, who want to write quest or adventure novels about the glory of there being nothing but the open road. I would personally have to agree.

My first unpublished novel, Battles of Rofp, also had a quest narrative and an embarrassing title (that no one could pronounce without curling their tongue and spitting into their upper lip). There is something quintessentially adolescent about such novels–about reading them and writing them. There is such glory and naivety about first novels, especially when a writer skips writing short fiction and goes right for the full-length epic. I smiled knowingly and nostalgically at Boyden’s honesty. Wow, if the author of Motorcycle Boy could come to win the Giller, maybe the author of Battles of Rofp can too, in  time, I thought.

Boyden described how his novel was received by his workshop group in New Orleans. His peers sounded like they were politely tiptoeing around more brutal criticisms, as workshopers tend to do. “[They told me,] ‘You paragraph really well and I’m glad you used 12 point font,'” he said.

His harshest critic “in a Lutheran German kind of way” but also his most constructive one, was none other than his future wife, Amanda. “She clarified for me what it meant to be serious,” said Boyden. He cut his long hair, and she encouraged him to write short stories. One of his first successful ones required him to look back into his childhood in Geogrian Bay.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” came from this mining of life experience, a story about childhood and growing up on a reserve. Since he was passionate about his subject matter–even more passionate than he was about motorcycles–and because he knew all about it, his workshop responded with positive affirmations. “They loved it,” he said.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” was later published. In fact, it was the first story I ever read of Boyden’s, since it’s featured in Robert Lecker’s anthology Open Country, which I bought for a survey class on Canadian literature during my first semester at McGill.

Writing opened new paths for Boyden and his family and friends to recognize the legitimacy of their Ojibwe cultural heritage. “It was also so exciting because I was exploring something my friends didn’t talk about,” he said. “It was a part of me I thought others wouldn’t give a care about.”

A cultural rejuvenation swept over his family as a result of his short stories and novels. One of the most touching stories is that of his mother. “She did her first Pow-wow at the age of 80,” Boyden said.

Recently, Boyden edited a limited edition chapbook that is also available as an ebook–it is called Kwe, meaning ‘woman’ in Ojibwe. He was contacted for the job and had a week to solicit authors for unpublished material that pertained to the social problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, (although the topic wasn’t mandatory). Boyden did not expect big things, but within a week he had received submissions from authors across Canada including the inestimable Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Proceeds from Kwe go to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.

When discussing The Orenda, Boyden wondered whether people would care about what happened in the mid 1600s, what with Samuel de Champlain’s settling of Quebec, the Jesuit martyrs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) wars. But, as it turns out, it was a period in Canada that is highly relevant to the political, social, and environmental issues of the twenty-first century. “This speaks to everything we’re going through right now, whether it’s war, whether it’s immigration,” he said. “I trust my gut when it tells me to go back to the 1600s.”

What’s next for Boyden? Out of all things, who could expect a ballet? That’s right. No; he does not have to dance. Or sing in that punk rock style of his. The production is being staged in relation to the other initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is trying to acquire documentation and testimonies of those who suffered in Residential Schools. Tina Keeper, a Cree activist, has asked him to write a story for the ballet.

It goes to show that Boyden’s philosophy is never to turn down an unfamiliar challenge. Advising any young writers in the audience, he said, “Figure out screenwriting, figure out playwrighting.” Writers who seek to earn a living are more and more turning towards other forms of storytelling, including television.

The biggest of Boyden’s challenges is also one of Canada’s biggest challenges: to change the way we think about and discuss First Nations issues in Canada. Even if The Orenda cannot change social problems directly, it can expose its audience to a healthier perspective on First Nations identity, instead of letting Canadians succumb to the poisonous us/them divisions that characterize the political rhetoric of the present government.

Joseph Boyden: Ojibwe activist, Canadian novelist and short story writer, ex-punk roadie, ballet writer. He has been many things and will be many more. Waiting in line to have my book signed, I hear him explain the eagle feather tattoos on his forearm to another fan. The feathers are cut at the nib to suggest a writer’s plume. On his right arm, there is a tattoo of a band that displays his Native heritage, on his left, a Celtic design of an animal that might have been dog, bear, or dragon. His Irish side.

I walk up and shake his hand.

My signed copy of The Orenda.
My signed copy of The Orenda.

Elegant Eliminations

An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.

Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.

Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.

See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.

An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.

Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:

WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break  the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.
.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried[s] a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at
every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Notice that I occasionally fix the tense of some verbs and make adjustments to minor words like ‘in.’ This is all I’ve allowed myself. Aside from a few added commas, every word and punctuation mark is in the same order as Frazer wrote it:
 .
.
Golden Bough Elimination: King of the Wood”
.

Know the scene. The golden imagination

steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.

Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic

terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt

this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake

under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,

at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,

a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,

a priest and a murderer

hold office till slain.

.

I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.

A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.

I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.

Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.

J.M.W. Turner's depiction of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid
J.M.W. Turner’s depiction of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid

Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_bough.jpg