Tag Archives: writing style

Forcing the Narrative

So you’ve decided to write a story.  Before you begin, you put together a pretty coherent outline.  You have your protagonists and antagonists all clearly panned out.  You might not know exactly how long it will be, or all the minor details that will pull the whole plot together, but if there’s one thing you do know it’s exactly how the major parts of this story will progress from beginning, to climax, to finish.  There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem–your characters aren’t behaving like they should.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, really.  The dialogue is crisp and clean; without too many overly excessive and cumbersome adjectives repetitively cluttering up the prose.  All the different personalities are well laid out, and totally not cliche or one-dimensional.  There’s a deep subtext noticeable throughout the work, though not of the rambling variant [yeah, suck on that, David Foster Wallace].  But there’s something that just is not working, and it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out why your narrative is not behaving as it should–as you have so clearly planned it out from beginning, to middle, to end.

What the hell is going on?!

Well, you’re in luck, because I may just have the solution to your problem.  The problem probably isn’t that the story you’ve set out to write is unmanageable, or that the characters you’re eager to create aren’t as capable of being the greatest heroes and villains in fiction as you’ve imagined them to be.  More than likely, the problem is you.  By which I mean, the problem is that rather than letting your story unfold, and your characters respond and adapt to their surroundings, you have allowed yourself to get stuck in one of the easiest pitfalls for an author to find her or himself in: you have forced the narrative.

Forcing the narrative can happen in many different ways, but the most common occurs when authors stubbornly refuse to follow the natural progression of the story they have set out to create, for no other reason than that doing so may deviate from the original blueprint they have arbitrarily committed themselves to in their minds.  And, of course, stagnant character progression is often the first victim to suffer as a result of this stubbornness.

Say, for example, that you’re writing a story that has two characters that you know you intent to have fall in love halfway through the plot.  You introduce them separately to the reader, so each can have distinct personalities that your potential audience will relate to.  They spent all these pages developing identities that are unique and self-sustaining (as they very well should be), but the moment you finally have them interact with each other–the moment the entirety of your whole plot hitherto was supposed to be leading up to–and…there’s nothing.

Where you thought the dialogue would flow smoothly between these two people you crafted to be perfect for one another, all their exchanges instead sound too contrived to be authentic.  You can force them to say all the things you think are necessary to convey the message that they are love-bound soulmates, but every time you do just that everything that comes out of their mouths starts to read like a rejected script for a corny made-for-TV movie of the week.

So what gives?  Are you such a lousy writer you can’t even get a genuine romance plot right?  Maybe…or maybe you’re working to hard to wedge a square peg trope into a heart-shaped prose.  By which I mean, maybe the characters that seemed perfect for each other before you put pen to paper…err…I mean, fingertip to keyboard?… whatever, the point I’m making is that a plot idea can seem perfect before you set out to write it, but once you get going it can become downright impossible to stay true to said idea without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative you have created up to that point.

As already mentioned, this dilemma can show itself in the most basic of details.  Including the very issue of whose story it’s going to be.  You might have a main character in mind from the start, but the more time you spend with him the more you start feeling like writing intriguing dialogue for him is a strenuous task taking up way too much of your creative concentration than it should.  Perhaps you even find yourself preferring to spend time with secondary characters that have taken on more interesting lives compared to your once-great-now-bland protagonist.

“Well, what’s to be done in this case?”  Good question, hypothetical reader!  When you are in the thick of this frustrating bit of a writer’s conundrum, it’s easy to miss the simplest of solutions staring back right in your sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes.  That is to say:  Screw your preliminary outline.  Tear up your rough draft notes (it’s called a rough draft for a reason, after all).  Go with what your instincts tell you as a reader first, and ignore the self-righteous indignation of your inner-writer unwilling to deviate from an unworkable premise.

Are two characters not hitting it off as well as you thought they would?  Fine, try having them hate each other instead.  Or even try pairing them up with side characters that showed more prospect in the plot, and see where that goes.  Is your main character too wooden to lead the story the way you hoped?  Then why not sideline him, and shift the perspective onto a different character whose personality and dialogue carries your narrative forward with so much more ease than you ever thought possible?

All these options are readily available to you, because, no matter what, it is your world–it can only exist as you wish it to.  But you need to trust your instincts, not just as a writer, but also as a reader on what makes for compelling storytelling.  And you are allowed to change your mind about the details of the happenings in your fictional world, if these changes help bring about the greater narrative you set out to breathe life into.  Treat the initial bits of ideas that inspired you to start on your journey as just that–a cursory launching point to something better.  Nothing you write down–be it at the beginning, the middle, or the end–is sacred scripture.  It is not absolute, or inadaptable to subsequent burst of creativity that may strike you once you have already begun to feverishly churn out the bulk of your prose.

It’s important to be aware that if something doesn’t feel right about your story to you as you are barely writing it, it will definitely not seem right to your readers as they are reading it.  Even if they might not know how to articulate what’s so off-putting about it when they notice a belabored prose, the audience can definitely sense when something isn’t working as well as it could be.  And forcing a narrative, in an otherwise great story, is a perfect way to ensure that it won’t be working for anyone; neither you, nor your characters–but, above all else, not the reading public.

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The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.