Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vivisecting Fiction

I have been accused at times of being overly analytical in my approach to writing- and all art, really- to the point that some people I know have trouble understanding how I haven't ground the entire process down to a joyless, exacting formula. For my own part, I don't really understand how they can possibly roll up their sleeves and set out into that far creative country without any idea where they're going or how they're going to get there. For me, an awful lot of the joy is in my apprehension of the process: figuring out how things work with each other and feeling giddy about the cleverness of the artist, and my own cleverness if I'm the one assembling a piece of art. If I like a movie on DVD, I'll often watch it straight through a second time with Director's Commentary on. I'll put my nose right up to an impressionist painting to look at the brush strokes and if it's a moment where I don't have a tight reign on my own enthusiasm, I'll say things like "do you see this? Do you see what this guy did? See this thick smear of red down here in the water, under the trees? I would not have thought of that, that's brilliant!" For me, it's the same in prose. I'll go back over a sentence and savor metaphor and word choice like they were made out of climax-flavored chocolate. I get the sense some of my more artsy (non-process oriented) friends have this feeling only in terms of gestalt- that they look at the whole and marvel at how it's more than the sum of its parts.

I have a project I'm beginning to work on where there's a specific effect I want to achieve, so I've spent the last couple of hours picking apart a work I thought did it well- making a scene by scene outline, noting out all the macguffin-juggling, paying attention to the careful way things were built up. I think I learned a lot from the exercise (in part I learned it's not precisely how I wanted to do things, but it sparked a few new ideas).

I've heard people say that after they start writing, they can't enjoy other people's books because they're too aware of what the author is doing. I've never had that experience, but then again, I enjoy learning new tricks, so for me the story and the process sort of run side by side as two discreet forms of entertainment. It certainly doesn't hurt me to be able to say "that character is going to die in this next scene because the hero has rejected the call to action and we've already seen foreshadowing with them hopping down into a grave" or whatnot. As a reader/viewer, you're SUPPOSED to notice those things, you're just generally not supposed to notice that you noticed. I don't mind having it at the conscious level.

When I write, I often start with a very fly be the seat of my pants approach when I'm setting up my initial scene, but things like try-fail cycles and chekov's gun are always there, just below the surface of my consciousness. You can see the ripples in the mental water as they roll beneath. (In talking to my friend about process, I once called it Chekov's Gun Rack- if you put in enough details and you can remember and reincorporate them later, it doesn't matter which one ends up being your plot detail and which ones are your setting or motiffs, as long as you make sure you pull one from the rack and fire it.) For quick stories, I know the forms well enough that it doesn't have to be conscious, but for anything ambitious, more and more I find myself outlining and thinking about form.

Far be it from me to say you have to do it one way or another, if you're naturally inclined to be less analytical. But I do think, if you're not sure, it's worth trying to sit down and think about WHY things work. I know for my own part, it ends up saving me a lot of trouble and frustration later.

1 comment:

  1. I still remember the first time I came across the try-fail cycle theory (which had never been addressed in any creative writing class I took) and realized that a lot of what had seemed less-than-satisfactory in the stories I'd been writing was that I wasn't letting my protagonists try and fail in that way. I was putting in wrinkles and twists and surprises, and strange and wildly imagined scenes, but adding in some of those cycles made them much stronger. Which isn't to say every story needs it...but now if I leave it out, it's because I'm choosing to, not out of ignorance.

    So yeah, I love learning about the underlying structures that can shape a story. And I've never had a problem enjoying other people's writing just because I understand what the author's trying to do. That said...I haven't really had success with the close-studying of what other writers have done. I feel like I should benefit from that, but... Well, that's not quite true. I've learned a lot from close reading, but I always feel like I should read even more closely, should dig even deeper into the story, line-by-line, and then never get around to that.

    Can't say I've ever been much from watching directors' commentaries on movies, though...