Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

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4 thoughts on “Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

    • You’re completely right. I spent all weekend thinking about this, because while the contest submissions might break the rules, most published books (especially the ones we like, which come to mind most readily) follow them.

      I’ll keep thinking on it, but in the meantime I added a section to help clarify things. Is it helpful?

      • I didn’t mean that I wanted to see examples specifically from the Athanatos manuscripts you are editing. Obviously that would be awkward and wrong on several levels. I just meant “Don’t do what [Author] did in the following excerpt from [Book] or even [Fanfic]:” or, “An excellent example of what to do can be found in this excerpt from [Classic Short Story] by [Author].”

  1. Well said! I am catching up on my blog-reading, but this is an encouraging post, to be honest. Though I am sure my ineptitude when it comes to comma-use would make you a little crazy. ,

    When I inevitably unfold my evil plan for world domination, I will have to remember that alligator-parachute trick. 😉

    “You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.” This is the first time I’ve seen this expressed well in metaphors. I used to struggle with telling too much. Now I worry that I tell too little. Time (and editing, and beta-reading) will tell.

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