Plotting Vs Pantsing – Differences in Style #9

 

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“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” – Stephen King

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett

“If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block.” – R L Stein

Well, if the title plotting vs pantsing hasn’t stoked a few fires, those quotes surely will have. For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, plotting is planning your books before you write them and pantsing is “flying by the seat of your pants” aka winging it. However, whether you’ve been in the writing community long or only had a casual glance at authortube, the first thing you’ll notice whenever this discussion comes up is the (unnecessary) divisiveness of the debate. Many writers often feel attacked by the other side and can get super defensive… which is why I’d like to have a chill discussion about what the differences are and why both processes are equally cool. Now, I usually talk about outcomes rather than the actual process- which is why this is such a unique topic for me. Because I don’t think you can tell the difference just from observation. Let’s have a look at some famous examples of both and you’ll see why…

(NB I had a great deal of fun researching this, but a lot of these came from various sources/interviews/quotes, so forgive me if I’ve got any wrong- I’ve tried to include as many of these as possible at the bottom of the page so you can check for yourself)

Famous plotters:

J K Rowling

John Grisham

Sylvia Plath

Arthur Miller

Leigh Bardugo

R L Stein

Rainbow Rowell (semi-plotter)

Hilary Mantel (likes to storyboard)

Kazuo Ishiguro (hardcore plotter)

Ken Follett

Virginia Woolf

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Vladimir Nabokov

Joseph Heller

William Faulkner (go figure- you can’t achieve that level of obscurity without planning)

Marcel Proust

Famous pantsers:

George R R Martin (though famously coined the term gardener)

Laini Taylor

Stephen King

Tim Bowler

Margaret Atwood

Ray Bradbury

Pierce Brown

Neil Gaiman (prefers the gardener term)

Maas (natural pantser, but has had to plot)

James Joyce

Mark Twain

Ernest Hemmingway

If you can tell the difference at a glance, you must be a savant. Personally, I found a few surprises (some plot-light authors are on the planning side and there are most certainly complexly plotted stories on the pantser side).

Really though, the thing that came up a lot of the time during my research was “eh I kinda plan” or “eh I sorta wing it”. Schwab, for instance, referred to herself as a “connect-the-dots-er”. George R R Martin, one of the world’s leading “gardeners” famously gave the notes for his ending to showrunners. Joyce was a self-proclaimed pantser and yet he too did extensive research. And I read a fantastic post about all the ways plotting and pantsing overlap. This makes the most sense to me. I for one consider myself a hardcore plotter… and yet this is only true up to a point. Beat sheets are a joy-killer for me, I’ve pantsed a novella and I usually leave subplots/romances unplanned (which helps keep some parts a bit more dynamic). That’s why I think drawing a clear-cut line between the two is a little rigid. Especially as there are pros and cons to both…

Plotting upsides

One of the best things for me about knowing an ending is that it gives a clear goal for you to write towards. Personally, I find it keeps characters consistent, whilst also allowing for growth. If you know where a character has to end up and how it’s different from where they came from, you can chart a clear course. This also may allow for a smoother plot and maybe even a cleaner drafter (maybe). The genres I’d say this is ideal for is thrillers, mysteries and epics- because a pre-planned plot can help you weave interesting setups and even red herrings organically into the narrative. Though foreshadowing in tragedy doesn’t go amiss 😉 I’d also say, as Stein pointed out, it’s a great way to prevent writer’s block and can sooth any nervous starters. 

One of the misconceptions of plotting is that it doesn’t allow for deviation- therefore sucking all the creativity out of the project. Now, this obviously isn’t true in the sense that creativity and imagination has to happen at some stage in order for the story to work- it may just happen in the planning stage. However, I’d say for me (and many other plotters) I tend to think about it more as adding complexity- you haven’t taken anything away by putting a plan in place- you’ve just laid the foundations for you to build on (we’re back to that awesome architect metaphor!) Also, frankly, I’m pretty sure even the most diehard plotters deviate at some point. I don’t think anyone can get away without some aspect of discovery writing.

Plotting downsides

Unfortunately, though, there is the danger of pre-plotted stories becoming predictable. There is also the argument that it doesn’t leave room for inspiration (which I’d disagree with as a plotter- having a roadmap doesn’t ruin my enjoyment, especially since the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and you never really know where you’ll end up. Plus, creating plans can be a lot of fun in its own right). The most serious argument I have heard is that planned endings give you the danger of veering into propaganda- since you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it (though, looking at the authors above, I think it’s fairly safe to say the danger is no stronger whichever path you choose). I’d say the biggest cause for concern is that sticking to a planned ending may not always be in the story’s best interest, as a narrative might shift organically over time (the best example of this being HIMYM’s forced ending).

Pantsing upsides

I do definitely see the upsides of pantsing (even if it fills me with utter dread). Because countless pantsers will tell you how thrilling this method is, how much fun they have and how it helps them keep their ideas fresh. It’s known for being open to the imagination and giving the writer as much of a wild ride as the reader. And the results are telling- there are some stellar authors who swear by pantsing. For some people, this invigorating process is certainly the way to go, which can give raw and powerful results.

Pantsing downsides

Not knowing what’s going to happen can certainly have its issues though. The fear would be that after a stellar opening, the story can fizzle out (I know I’ve read a few of those). I also think there is the potential for plots to come out of nowhere or feel random (the upside of this being that the universe is pretty random- so that gives it something of an edge in terms of realism over a heavily constructed story). There is a potential to come unstuck as well (although many plotters will tell you they have the same issue- *raises hand*- and there is always the option to plot/feel/stab your way out of any writing corner you’ve backed yourself into). I think the same final issue of forced endings comes into play- because this seems to be a pitfall for pantsers as well.

Ultimately, it’s not so important which method you choose, because the process doesn’t mark out the end result for greatness. These discussions always allow for the basic truth: all creatives have a different process. No two writers work the same. And, even more importantly, we must take stock of this simple fact:

all men must edit.png

Sources:

https://themillions.com/2016/07/planners-pantsers-write-novel.html

http://www.amreading.com/2016/09/18/what-are-plotters-and-pantsers-hint-j-k-rowling-is-one-and-stephen-king-is-the-other/

https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/549-plotters-vs-pantsers-can-you-guess-which-side-stephen-king-and-j-k-ro

https://thethousandlives.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/fierce-reads-san-diego-stop-leigh-bardugo-ava-dellaira-emmy-laybourne-and-jennifer-mathieu/

http://bookandlatte.com/2012/11/sarah-j-maas-how-i-write.html

http://www.lainitaylor.com/2013/07/

https://yawednesdays.com/2015/11/16/10-things-we-learned-about-rainbow-rowell-and-david-levithan/

Other posts in the series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

The Art of Fragmentation – Difference in Style #7

Subverting Expectations vs Wish Fulfilment – Differences in Style #8

What do you think? Do you think there are any upsides/downsides that I’ve missed? If you’re a writer, do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? Let me know in the comments!

Subverting Expectations vs Wish Fulfilment – Differences in Style #8

 

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Normally, I do these posts because I’ve read a cool book recently or been writing something related or seen a craft video- not this day! For a change, I was inspired (and challenged) to do this because of my recent TV watching habits. Thanks to the shocker of an ending for Game of Thrones and the contrastingly amazing finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’ve been thinking a lot about how story may (or may not) stick the landing.

So what do I mean by wish fulfilment? Well, in the case of a comedy, this is when characters get exactly what they want/deserve. The baddies are punished, the goodies are rewarded. In a tragedy, the heroes suffer too, but we’re okay with that cos readers are masochists it’s *cathartic*. Basically, if a book does what it says on the tin, chances are it fits into this.

The only rare cases when this fails is in satire or if there’s been an implied twist on the tropes. A good example of this for me was in Shadow and Bone, which I felt held promise as being a fresh take on the fantasy genre, but ended up being conformist. That said, a lot of people loved that very traditional ending, so you can see how that gets subjective pretty fast 😉 There is also the issue of predictability- which I find a lot of readers are forgiving of- even in the thriller genre. What I will say is when this veers off into really dodgy territory is when a choice is made for “fanservice”- where the creator makes a decision purely to please fans- which ultimately backfires spectacularly. I often imagine misguided producers shrieking: “I was doing this to please you! I thought it was what you wanted! LOVE ME!” Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.

Moving on, I think we’ve heard a lot about subverting expectations lately because of Game of Thrones royally screwing up its ending. However, it might surprise non-fans to hear that Game of Thrones actually used to be the *BOMB* at this (back when the show was following GRRM’s books, that is). Spoilers if you plan to watch/read it, the Red Wedding in particular is my favourite example: yes, there was misdirection upto this point, but when you looked back you could see exactly how this was set up and how it was secretly the logical outcome for Robb’s story arc. Sure, it was a shock, because the characters involved didn’t see it coming, but a clever reader could’ve seen the writing on the wall. And yes, plotlines were abandoned because of it, but it not only made logical sense, it left you with an even greater sense of longing for what might have been AND managed to create dramatic consequences for the other players in the story. Essentially, subverting expectations enhanced the story in every way!

Sadly, subverting expectations won’t always work and the final season of Game of Thrones proved this unequivocally. There was very little setup in order for there to be payoff, often plotlines came out of nowhere, and there appeared to be times when the writers pivoted direction mid-story.

D and D we hope to avoid the expected.png

But of course, as George R R Martin says:

george r r martin plan.png

One of the biggest components for this failure is that the building blocks of character and story have to be in place in order for this to work. Sometimes you can get away with this in terms of tone, as with Carry On, indicating through jokes that this is a parody of Harry Potter; sometimes you have write hundreds of thousands of words before you can twist the story on its head. Point is, readers/viewers will be unhappy if a plot thread comes out of nowhere. Plus, there has to be a reason for doing this: humour is a good reason, challenging convention is another, entertaining the viewer also works… to an extent. Because if the audience suspects this is purely for shock value, they’ll ultimately be dissatisfied. Again, it all comes down to delivering that longed for catharsis.

Most of the time, things fall in the messy middle though. Endings that are bittersweet- like the emotionally charged victory of Lord of the Rings– can be equally as satisfying. Even things we think of as classic tragedies, like Romeo and Juliet, play into comedic tropes in order to subvert them (and ultimately ends up conforming to tragic conventions). Narrative arcs will generally allow for characters to rise and fall (in tragedy allowing for a moment of bliss and in comedy giving a time for despair). Very few books “flatline” (a distinct example being City of Dreadful Night– where the narrative remains bleak throughout). For instance, this is a useful source showing the rise and falls in six basic plots. And here’s my (entirely subjective and unscientific) graph of where a story might fall in terms of subverting or fulfilling expectations:

(where tragedies end in death and comedies end in marriage)

subvert expectations graph.png

Whether you entirely agree or disagree with where I’ve placed certain stories, hopefully you can see the difference in endings. And even after we’ve considered all of this, sometimes an ending can deliver for some fans and not others (as is the case with Harry Potter). Chances are there will be dissatisfied parties and I will say that there’s no pleasing everyone- and that’s not a bad thing! Really, there is no one way to stick the landing and we always have to consider that taste plays a part. And I haven’t even covered the difference plotting vs pantsing makes when it comes to endings… that’s a discussion for another time.

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

The Art of Fragmentation – Difference in Style #7

So what are your thoughts on the differences? Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!

The Art of Fragmentation – Differences in Style #7

 

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Wow it really has been forever since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? To be precise, it’s been 6 months. I feel like this is becoming a biannual thing at this point- but ho hum, this was only ever supposed to be a casual sort of series, talking about how all different writing styles are valid, so I don’t suppose there needs to be a time limit on that. And since the idea of this series has always been to talk about how writing styles are rarely “good” or “bad”, I reckon it’s appropriate that I’m returning today with one of the most divisive topics of all: the art of fragmentation.

Because technically speaking using fragments in writing is not grammatically correct. Quickly defined, a fragment is a verbless sentence. But I also like to think of it as when a sentence is literally fragmented on a page, in a sort of image poem style, the words dissolving into nothing. Such as…

“Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,

then from my eyes,

my ears, 

my mouth.” 

We Were Liars, e lockhart

If you use a fragment, chances are your Word Doc (or whatever you’re using) will put a glaring red line under it telling you CHANGE IT NOW OR WE’LL LEAVE A DEMONIC CROSS ON YOUR SPELLCHECK. See, there’s a reason your English teacher told you not to use them, they were only trying to help you 😉

But *controversial opinion time*- this argument doesn’t wash with me. Now, I am hardly telling you to throw out the grammar rule book (quelle horreur!); what I am saying is that there may be reasons you can bend them a little. Observe:

van gogh cafe

Here, Van Gogh does something very interesting with perspective. He takes the overhang and moves the line where it falls so that the viewer feels like they are inside the painting. Of course, this is a completely inaccurate and impossible angle, and by rights shouldn’t work at all AND YET it is part of this artistry that makes the painting so compelling. Even better, there is evidence that Van Gogh knew EXACTLY what he was doing here- in his letters to his brother, he drew many of the subjects of his paintings (including the café) often with the correct perspective.

van gogh letter
Not my favourite example (cos I can’t get all the images I want from an exhibition I saw a decade ago) but it does show that Van Gogh did in fact know how to draw houses correctly – *surprise surprise*

Point is, Van Gogh understood precisely how perspective was supposed to work… altering it to suit the effect he was trying to achieve. Thus, this is a prime example of knowing the rule in order to break it.

My point is not just that rules are made to be broken- it’s that without pushing the boundaries art wouldn’t be the same. I’m not saying we’re all Van Goghs, but that if we always shout down innovation there won’t be any Van Goghs (ooh look at me being all self-referential to my old Difference in Style post about innovation 😉 )

So, I hear you ask, what makes fragmentation an interesting artistic choice? Well, quite simply because it can create a compelling voice, mood or tone. It’s particularly useful in first person povs and writing dialogue. Here’s some of the reasons why (and when) it works well:

–          Fragmentation can break up standard speech and make it seem more natural. I’ve heard some people saying dialogue should be written as if there’s an eavesdropper- but here’s the thing, even if you’ve seen the most adept speaker interviewed, chances are at some point they’ve given short, snippy answers. Simply put, we don’t speak grammatically all the time.

–          It can be used to denote trauma or characterise someone as unstable. This is often a huge element in YA and writing authentic teen voices (cos if you’ve ever met/seen/been a teen, you’ll know they don’t speak perfectly). Also, fragmentation frequently appears if you choose to mix things up with an unreliable narrator. Not to get into my whole *unreliable narrators are awesome* view again, the reason fragmentation is a good choice here is that it literally reflects the incoherent or untrustworthy voice of the narrator. To put it simply, if you see lots of fragmentation, you know something’s up with the narrator. It can be the first clue that the mc has unresolved issues.

For me personally, I’ve found many wonderful books that use extensive fragmentation in an artistic and original way. My take is this can feel like narrative poetry. I have found a few beautiful pieces of work that employ this technique, some of my favourite examples being:

While that’s my view, there is plenty of arguments out there to use it sparingly, and that’s more than fair enough. Obviously, there’s a lot like that, so here’s just a handful that spring to mind:

Of course, it’s perfectly okay to not like it at all- you’re on the right side of grammar history 😉 Frankly, the point of this series has always been that it’s a-okay to have different tastes and embrace whatever style suits you best. For more posts like this, feel free to check out the other articles in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

So where do you fall on the fragmentation debate: sparingly, lots-of-it-please or not at all? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

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It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts (literally 4 months guys!) so some of you might have forgotten what they’re about or maybe they’re completely new to you. Basically, I love to chat about different writing styles and encourage people to view alternative styles as something that may appeal to different tastes (instead of seeing them as inherently “good” or “bad”). If you’d like to see more of my posts in this series, feel free to check these out:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

All that said, today’s post is going to be a little different. Because, given how prominent this technique is in certain genres, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to get in some good recs for Halloween. So for a change, this post is going to (mostly) focus on creepy characters and unsettling reads. Tis the season for some spookiness, after all 😉

Unreliable Narrators Defined

the-odysseyUnreliable narrators are those that can’t (or won’t) tell story objectively. The term is a relatively new one, as it was coined by Booth in 1961, however the use of such a character actually extends back to the dawn of Western literature. The lord of lies himself, Odysseus, is a great example of a character whose overinflated ego causes him to exaggerate and expand upon his exploits. Little character flaws can be used to manipulate the narrative and distance the reader from the truth of the tale.

gone-girl-PBSince the evolution of the term, much work has been done in the literary criticism world to explore this technique. This is why unreliable narration works so well. Types of unreliable narrators have been classified by the likes of William Riggan ie in his work: Pícaros, madmen, naïfs, and clowns (Picaros = boasters, naifs = immature narratures). One way I like to divide it up is into the fault of the narrator and the narrator merely being a victim of circumstance. If we look at a book like Gone Girl, we have two unreliable narrators creating a toxic environment for themselves and consequently causing the drama in their lives (which becomes the plot). On the other end of the spectrum, there are narrators like Pi in The Life of Pi, who, through no fault of their own, experience a severely traumatic event and slant the narrative through that perspective.

stolenNow, for the most part, this centres on first person narration- though there are rare occasions when it could be used for second or third person. The best example of a second person narration where the story is told through an unreliable lens is Stolen, where the narrator addresses her kidnapper and it’s increasingly clear has some form of Stockholm syndrome. Otherwise, unreliable narrators can incorporate some second person to break the fourth wall, such as in Notes from the Underground. Unreliable third person narration is a little trickier to pull off- because the author really has to pull a fast one on their readership. a_monster_callsThis would be something like a twist akin to a Sixth Sense where spoiler alert Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost all along. I rarely see this sort of thing in books, but one example I’ve seen lately was in Safe Haven where, again spoiler alert, her friend was a ghost all along. This part of the book didn’t actually work so well for me, because frankly it felt like too much of a curveball. Yet arguably books like A Monster Calls, though more ambiguous in whether they’re unreliable or not, could be a more positive example of how third person unreliable narration in action.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of research into this area, so there’s more I could say on this definitions-wise, yet I think some of those subject fit more into the…

Pros:

(and what you’re here for- the examples! No spoilers except to say that there are unreliable narrators present)

EnglebyMost obviously, unreliable narration is perfect for creating bold plot twists. There’s a reason why it’s very popular in thrillers, for example. A favourite of mine will always be Engleby (a book that’s seriously underrated nowadays) where the clever characterisation of the main character drives the story forward.

 

name of the windOf course, one of the best things about unreliable narration is its power to create amazing characters. And not just the psychos of storyville, like Humbert Humbert. As previously mentioned, boasters also make up a huge number of unreliable narrators. Perfect for this time of year, I’d suggest the very atmospheric Name of the Wind. Kvothe, in my opinion, seems to warp some of the narrative to appear larger than life. Strong characterisation, in turn, is a powerful way to create voice.

woman in the windowIt can also be used to create another dimension to the story. This is exemplified in Woman in the Window, where it’s evident from the start that the main character has secrets and is slowly revealed through her backstory. We then come to see how parts of the narration were unreliable.

 

rebeccaStructurally, this also creates other sides to the story. Books with unreliable narration can often incorporate flashbacks for instance. Or unreliable clues might be given through suspicious characters in the story- such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. This can create a fantastic Russian Doll effect of hiding clues within the story. Which leads me onto my main pro…

confessionsIt turns the reader into a detective. It can be brilliant fun trying to figure out where the truth lies and piecing together that oh, hang on a minute, this narrator has been taking me for a ride. Dodgy actions (it dawning on the reader that a character that commits murder isn’t to be trusted), unclear accounts (what’s not included can be a massive hint that something’s up) and the reactions of other characters can all help us figure this out (critic Nunning also explores the signs of unreliable narration in more depth). We can also find ourselves to be victims of a savagely dishonest narrator- which lends to a scary feel- such as in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or even Yellow Wallpaper. Yet, what’s great about both of those, is that we can’t be sure that in either of those everything we’ve been told was untrue. Which brings me to the fact that…

turn of the screw 2Unreliable narrators can create a sense of ambiguity. A lot of the time, we may be left wondering if they were reliable at all, and if they were, how unreliable were they? This can lead to a great deal of uncertainty- which lends to an uncanny feel and can be an excellent way to create mood. The Turn of the Screw is one of the best examples of this technique in action- we never get an answer to whether the book is supernatural or not. Being on uneven ground can be one of the most potent devices for scary stories. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to this.

Cons:

Atonement_(novel)On the flipside, placing the reader on unsure footing can put some readers off. Some people might want clear answers and be dissatisfied if the story is left open-ended. And while it can make some standout characters, it can also make for some truly detestable mcs, like Briony in Atonement. Naturally, unreliable narrators don’t belong in every story or genre- readers might dislike being taken advantage of by a peculiar twist. In fact, if it does feel out of place, it can feel cheap.

Accounting for Different Tastes

As you might be able to tell, I struggled with the cons section. Obviously, this technique isn’t great if misused and I know some people aren’t keen on some specific books that use this technique- but I find it hard to see why anyone would be wholly against it. Personally, I see it as a way of showing how complex people are. It doesn’t help that I’m often overly suspicious and *always* suspect first person narrators of something- after all, didn’t House teach us:

everybody lies house

That’s why I can be dissatisfied with books where I expect there to be an unreliable narrator and they aren’t (which may or may not be a teaser for my next review 😉 ). So while I understand that people don’t necessarily like reading from the perspective of shitty people or might be scared off the genres they’re in, I’m curious to hear why some people might not like this at all and would love to hear some reasons why people hate it.

So I’ll pass the question off to you- do you like or dislike unreliable narrators? And if you’re a fan, who are some of your favourite unreliable narrators? Let me know in the comments!

Telling VS Showing – Differences in Style #5

“Show don’t tell” is squawked from pretty much every writerly parapet. I’ve even seen it used as a criticism in descriptive paragraphs or simply when a character thinks “I don’t like pickles” for example- which seems like an odd criticism, cos, believe it or not there are times when stating a fact is a-okay and long-winded ways of saying “I don’t like pickles” are not. Now fortunately there are some people finally waking up and realising that sometimes you need to tell and sometimes you need to show (hello Jenna Moreci). Yet since it’s such a hot topic, I thought it would be fun to address for my style series!

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Showing vs Telling Defined

Well, I thought about all the ways I could explain it and realised I could demonstrate both techniques in just two sentences from one of my favourite authors, Laini Taylor:

“Zuzana arched an eyebrow. She was a master of the eyebrow arch, and Karou envied her for it.”

The first sentence is showing, the latter is telling. What’s magnificent about this is you have a visual image to latch onto and at the same time get an emotional response. It also demonstrates a fantastic use of contrast from one sentence to the next. But if you want an even better example of showing, you’ll have to read on…

Showing Pros and Cons

Pros: showing can create some beautiful, descriptive language. It’s a fantastic method to transport the reader, allows for some emotional insight for the reader and creates tangible relationships within the story. Without any showing, the story quickly becomes very flat. With it, writing comes alive. I mean, again, look at Taylor’s description of Prague:

daughter of smoke and bone“Fairy-tale city. From the air, red rooftops hug a kink in a dark river, and by night the forested hills appear as spans of black nothing against the dazzle of the lit castle, the spiking Gothic towers, the domes great and small. The river captures all the lights and teases them out, long and wavering, and the side-slashing rain blurs it all to a dream”

Cons: still, it can be unnecessary. I’m pretty sure we’ve all read those melodramatic passages that were wayyy OTT! One piece of advice when it comes to any art form is know when to stop. I know how tempting it can be to add that one last brushstroke but step away from the canvass a moment, leave it to dry, and maybe consider you might be done.

Telling Pros and Cons

Pros: It can be used to create a very strong narrative voice and can be an interesting technique for authorial intrusion- but since this is such a contentious issue, I’ve decided to show you some classic examples:

northanger abbeyAusten: “The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”- this is used for humour at the end of Northanger Abbey  and shows self-awareness of the novel’s construct, poking fun at the fact that you can expect a happy ending and actually breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader this.

jane eyreCharlotte Bronte: “Reader I married him”- I mean, do I even have to tell you why this is good? It’s a statement as romantic and striking as “I love you”- there’s no need to leave it up to ambiguity, especially after all the torment that has gone before.

 

eastofedenSteinbeck: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”- Steinbeck, in my opinion, is one of the masters of authorial intrusion. This moment is the introduction of his villain Cathy in East of Eden and provides a brilliantly stark moment of characterisation and ruminates over what it means. The author’s own struggle to find common ground with this character and actually by confessing this confusion shows the reader just how bad she is.

And there are many more reasons to use telling, such as dropping a *bombshell* and even introducing a moral. To my mind, the absolutism of the rule “show don’t tell” is pretty ludicrous when you think how well this technique can be employed. That said, there are obvious reasons to curb this impulse at times.

Cons: Obviously this can get dull if overused. And if you’re using it for shock value, *newsflash*, this will lose its power very quickly. There’s a reason it should be used sparingly.

Accounting for Differences in Taste

As always I want to draw attention to the fact there are lots of styles and techniques. Like I said earlier, the most important thing is to know when to stop, because, there are times when any technique can be too much. But the reason why I was eager to do this post is that, frankly, whenever I see one of these blanket rules, it grates on me a little. Especially if there’s plenty of evidence that this can work.

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence

My only preference for this is “everything in moderation”- but I wonder, what do you think? Are you a stickler for the “show don’t tell” rule? Or do you prefer telling? Let me know in the comments!

Coherence vs incoherence – Differences in Style #4

So I will admit, I wanted to skip last week’s discussion on viewpoints and go straight to this. Because even though it makes sense to cover viewpoints before going deeper into modes of narration (although ooh err you’ll probably notice I’m not covering every mode eg time, place etc 😉 ) this is by far a more interesting topic to me. Now I’m gonna be honest straight off the bat, I have a passionate dislike for stream of consciousness books, but I can’t deny that it’s an interesting phenomenon, which is why I’m excited to discuss it!

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Stream of consciousness defined

There are lots of ways to tell a story and the how can be one of the most interesting ways to enhance the voice (including unreliable narration). Stream of consciousness is a technique developed in the 20th century to show the flow of thoughts going on in a character’s mind. The term was coined by William James and is also known as “interior monologue”. It’s kinda the opposite of a dramatic monologue/soliloquy where the speaker addresses an audience (think Shakespeare). Ways you can identify stream of consciousness are by leaps in thought or lack of punctuation. Some of the most famous examples are Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez.

 

 

Stream of consciousness philosophy

The aim of stream of consciousness is largely to show the flow of thoughts and feelings, reflecting the actual impression of being inside someone’s mind. Unlike where an author simply tells the reader what a character is thinking, stream of consciousness reflects the inner workings of a character’s thoughts in a way that authentically represents the fragmentary reality of thinking eg by jumping from one event to another and not necessarily following on in a logical manner.

Pros and Cons of Stream of Consciousness

Pros: Well, this certainly creates interesting and realistic psychological portraits of a character. And if you can get into it, it’s an intense experience. Especially as it can be used to really demonstrate individuality by making subtle changes from one character to another and showing the idiosyncrasies of one person’s thoughts close up.

Cons: However, it’s easy to get lost in a stream of consciousness narrative and, in my experience, is very hard to follow. As most people’s minds are a complete mess, you can imagine that being in someone’s head for an extended period of time can be quite the headache. It can also lack coherence and affect the structure, which, yeesh, like I said, not a fan.

Exposition defined

Now as per usual, I like to set these pieces up in a dichotomous relationship, showing two opposing styles. I did have to give this one some thought, as I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. But since I decided to talk about coherence and incoherence in this piece, I thought I might go with another mode of storytelling: exposition (the other four being: dialogue, thoughts, action and description). Edit: the basic definition is that it’s the author giving information to the reader (and can include authorial intrusion, info-dumping or just be integrated into the text).

Exposition philosophy

As a form of contrast, exposition above all offers clarity. And while there isn’t a philosophy per se, exposition has been used since the dawn of time, or literature, to present information. I personally notice it in more Victorian novels and in ancient epics, where the reader is simply given information. Sometimes this can also be used as a flashback or flash-forward.

Exposition Pros and Cons

Pros: not only does this offer clarity, but it can also be a powerful and directive voice in a narrative. It can be used to show a great deal of control or to foreshadow later events.

Cons: oh boy, I don’t want to get into the show vs tell debate too much at this stage, but that’s certainly a factor to consider (not to spoil potential future posts too much, but I think there’s a time for both 😉 ) And one of the main issues here is that it stops readers from drawing their own conclusions.

Accounting for different tastes

What’s important to note is that neither of these techniques have to be employed for a whole book. It’s possible, for instance, to include some stream of consciousness without going the whole nine yards. And while I begrudgingly admit there’s a plus side to stream of consciousness novels, no matter how much I personally dislike them, I am happy to say that I like both of these styles in moderation. But if you’d like a whole book of either technique (though exposition tends to be paired with other styles) then whatever floats your boat is fine!

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

So do you like/dislike either of these styles? Or do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

Hello! I’m back with my second post on differences in style– hopefully highlighting different techniques in writing.

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To create a clear picture, I want to set up a dichotomy. Imagine on one side something like like The Road (which does plenty of unusual things, like dropping quotation marks and blending an extreme version of the pared down style with archaic vocabulary) and on the other something Death Comes to Pemberley (which, while different in subject matter, painstakingly recreates Austen’s voice). Now the latter is a pretty extreme example of intertextuality, or in this case straight up borrowing a style, but it’s an interesting opposition to draw.

Those are some pretty extreme examples of how books can veer from intertextuality to innovation. HOWEVER, I want to state for the record that the difference between innovation and intertextuality can be by degrees- so a book can easily employ both. There’s plenty of room in between. Actually one thing that makes this the perfect topic is it’s an excuse for me to talk about how these things are on a spectrum. Now I understand that I may have given the impression last time I did one of these posts that there is a binary choice involved (ah well, it’s a learning experience for me too 😉 ) but I want to make it clear, especially in this case, books can use multiple and even opposing styles. In fact, a book can innovatively borrow, like the Waste Land. So yeah, if you take away nothing else, styles do not have to be one extreme or the other and you can like both. Maybe it’ll be more obvious this time, since I don’t have a preference 😉

Innovation vs Intertextuality

Art is far from linear in quality, and yet the cycle of intertextuality vs innovation has played out over and over in history. I’m going to explain this in the way I think about it and the best example for me is the differentiated really nicely in three phases of Greek art:

Archaic vs Classical vs Hellenistic

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(for the sake of clarity I’m ignoring earlier forms and massively oversimplifying this)

In brief: archaic borrowed heavily from Egyptian styles, Classical was the height of realistic forms and finally Hellenistic became a time of innovation. The idea of doing something “new” was very popular with Hellenistic poets for instance- and incidentally shows us that “being original” was cool back in the day too and there is nothing new under the sun 😉 (but I’ve talked about that a little before).

Naturally, we are always in the midst of these cyclical issues. Intertextuality is a technique best associated with the medieval writing. Authorship was seen as strengthened by its interdependence with other texts (partly to avoid criticism from the Church for writing fiction and to give an author more weight in its claims of “truth” telling). More recently, the focus on telling stories differently would indicate (to me at least) that we are very much in the Hellenistic phase in terms of valuing originality and the use of intertextual allusions is less common. Still, this is by no means a cut and dry issue, as is apparent from the recent popularity of retellings.

Ways a book can use innovation

Innovation in writing is such a broad idea, because it can really be anything from trend setters, to the first in a genre, or individual experimentation. There are infinite ways a book can feel new or different and a lot of the time it can cover content as well (though I’m resisting the urge to stray too far off topic 😉 ). Honestly the sky is the limit here!

A few examples I’d give of an innovative style is stream of consciousness, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, or spare and poetic, like We Were Liars. There’s also the use of Brechtian techniques/breaking the forth wall and speaking out to the audience. I’ve even seen modern books, like Stolen, be entirely written in second person. Obviously, the benefits of such a practice are that it can make a book stand out from the crowd, though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s pretty darn difficult to come up with something even somewhat unique.

Ways a book can use intertextuality

Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”- which heavily implies taking the art and making it your own. As such, Picasso didn’t merely copy African art- he opened a vein in his own work and imbued it with the lifeblood of a different culture (and hence intertextuality led to innovation…). Now I have mentioned before that the lines are incredibly blurry when it comes to plagiarism, yet making nods to other art is a form of enriching writing. I want to be clear: hinting/quoting/referencing other literature *is not* plagiarism. It is by design, has value and is a tradition going back millennia. Perhaps it is the medievalist in me, but I think there is a value in literary allusions. While I am trying to avoid using subject matter as examples, it is interesting to note the clear line of progression from Norse mythology to Germanic stories to Tolkien to modern fantasy in terms of borrowed ideas and creatures. That is an inheritance that is passed down from book to book.

One of the best examples of intertextuality, to my mind, is T S Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land is a patchwork of references, particularly to classics. In fact, knowing the Medieval preponderance for referencing other authors, it’s incredibly appropriate that the first line of the Eliot’s poem, “April is the cruellest month”, recalls and inverts the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur”

In this way, the poem creates a puzzle for the reader to solve and gives the work boundless scope and depth.

There are of course retellings that deliberately reference other work and, insofar as it is a retelling (it’s a bit more complicated than that), Hazel Wood did make a fair amount of references which I appreciated.

And naturally, there is the use of epigraphs (quotes at the start of chapters) which come in innumerable books from Middlemarch, to Infernal Devices, to my good friend Daley’s use of song lyrics in the opening of her chapters- it’s a great literary tradition to set a mood or create a sense of epicness.

Difference in taste

I don’t know that people have a specific preference for either one- so it’ll be interesting to see what people say in the comments. I have seen some people making an argument that it’s “not something that’s done anymore”- again this is an issue with fashion, so I don’t hold much stock in it. I have also heard people making the argument that “we are not classic authors” or some such poppycock. Now of course, not everyone is going to be the author of a classic, but I can already see books with promise that might one day be considered as such, and I don’t see any reason to discourage people who want to try writing something *great*. I mean, if they succeed, we all get to read it. So if people that want to give their ideas a go, I say DREAM BIG- I’ll be cheering you on from the side lines 😉

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

So I did this post a little differently to last time, hope you liked it! Do you think there is a tremendous difference in taste here? Let me know in the comments!