This is topic Are we the children of what we've read? in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
I have three novels languishing on my drafts pile: Daisyworld, Æsir Dawn, and Falcon's Wings. Of all the stories I've written these are my favourites and I want to get their openings just so. I've struggled to find the right voice, the right tone, the right narrative distance and the right way to start. And failed miserably with each one.

Today as I was riding around working it occurred to me that all of the openings for my stories are pretty much of a type: third person, past tense, and intermediate narrative distance. It got me to wondering why, and then it hit me; that's how most of the books I've read and loved have started.

Not counting comics, I started with Astounding, and Amazing Stories, got hooked on EE 'Doc' Smith's Lensman and Skyklark series, and his other 'stand-alones'. Then came Robert Heinlein, Michael Moorcock, and Harry Harrison. I next met Anne McCaffery, whose stories move me for some odd reason, and Piers Anthony, whose stories contain so much promise but leave me with a stale taste in my mouth. And finally, I've retreated into the classics of modern and pre-modern literature.

I guess my question is: Has my creative inspiration been so contaminated by my past reading experiences that third person, past tense, and intermediate narrative distance is my default position for starting a novel? And, to follow up: What's the best way to break that conditioning?


[ June 05, 2015, 03:24 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The narrative point of view and narrative voice of those openings and many, if not most, narratives are of a narrator's viewpoint perspective and voice, a narrator's camera, so to speak. The voice and point of view and viewpoint are legacies of oral narration: oration, how we everyday tell stories across our conversations and how narratives were transmitted -- shared -- from earliest human expression: oration.

Oration is prone to use more summary and explanation mode than scene mode and is from a narrator persona's, if not real or implied writer, perspective. Also, oration tends toward direct addresses to readers, as like a live performance space beside a fireplace. The method challenges writers though, due to oration's readymade vocal intonation and nonverbal expression strengths, which written word transmission requires challenging and artful methods to imply or are usually overlooked.

On the one hand, the oration discourse method is readers' general comfort zone, the one readers are most used to. On the other hand, the aesthetic distance is less appealing than an artfully crafted closer distance of reality imitation methods. A general workaround introduces a narrative point of view, a narrator's viewpoint through a prologue-like exposition act -- Webster's "a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing)", then segues into the main action through one viewpoint persona at a time and later, if multiple, more viewpoint agonists' perspectives. The narrator also re-emerges from time to time while the action unfolds, usually for bridge transitions between scenes and viewpoint personas.

This above to-a-degree self-imposed oration-like model is the convention for a majority of narratives across the literary opus. Other variables of it include an axis of overt to covert narrator, perhaps overt implied or real writer, and degree of narrator expressed attitude -- none (detached) to primary attitude holder expressing strong commentary.

I favor narratives, though, of viewpoint persona perspective and a narrator near invisible. Cut out the mediating, meddling middler. They are uncommon, perhaps uncomfortable for many readers, probably certainly for general readers. They are also most challenging to compose. I developed a self-imposed rule set to defuse some of the challenges.

A main rule is, use congruent or sequential sensory and emotional perceptions and reactions. This "rule" requires agonists be in dramatic motion and in company of co-agonists with which to interact from the outset, foils of each other. Aesthetic features of that rule set up the necessary clashes and isolation sequences suitable for dramatic movement. First, an antagonal, causal, tensional routine that sets up an alienation sequence, then episodes of escalating social isolation and attempts to socially reintegrate. Those are broad subtext actions that a tangible, surface action packages, though a formula for narratives generally, and life, for what that's worth. The tangible surface action matters only as the package though as well engages readers through curiosity about event sequences.

Anyway, the method overall is Realism's reality imitation -- scene mode emphasis -- from viewpoint personas' perspectives internal to a narrative's setting, not a writer's desk or narrator's lectern; very little, if any, writer or narrator emergence. Narrative expression has tended this scene emphasis direction since the mid nineteenth century anyway; I strive for narrative to move deeper that direction than before.

You, though, Grumpy Old Guy, you're more of a traditionalist along the narrative mannerisms of Henry James, closely, I feel. The Turn of the Screw I project is the direction for which you strive. Similar narrative stylings -- overt narrator -- though stronger and more contemporary and more frequent reality imitation scene segments.

The novel is remarkable for retaining several Romanticism conventions and artfully melding them with emerging Realism conventions. Predetermination and poetic justice are obvious, to me, Romanticism conventions James uses. Less so for present day writers and readers, is use of assertions of the truth of the matter during introductions, which James implies artfully rather than bald assertions. James writes the opening as real writer, not really though, yet another fictional writer of the narrative, flows into implied writer, and through into narrator, artfully seamlessly, too. A new reporter persona set takes over after introductions, a fictional real writer-narrator whose first-person manuscript is read by yet another narrator, a "real" though fictional person of the opening, introduced during the earlier introductions. Step by step, James leads readers into deeper and deeper close distance, to the immediate now moment, place, and situation of the main action.

By the way, James' older brother William coined the term "stream of consciousness" to label that method seen much in Realism narratives, one James mastered though was invented earlier.

The novel is also an extended irony. Which interpretation of the action does James intend has consumed James' scholars' analysis since publication. The overt, literal interpretation, or the covert subtext interpretation? Fortunately, Jame's meditations about his writing survive: James intends both interpretations together for yet a third interpretation. Exquisite. Though a somewhat dry read for general readers. Too much of the meaning needs reader interpretation, problematic for readers who prefer an easy and effortless read. Though, again, that is an appeal of the novel for readers like me.

Perhaps a writer is best advised to compose a more widely and easily accessible narrative than James for publication success purposes. J.K. Rowling did, and employs similar narrative methods, only not as many layers of reporting dramatis personae.

I advise, if reconditioning for a different method is wanted, consider Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction. Knight maps by broad strokes an abundant consideration set for numerous choices from which to select. On the other hand, why fix what isn't broken? Readers will appreciate writing that fits their comfort zone. Instead, consider: develop and implement existing traditional conventions to your heart and readers' content and satisfaction.

[ June 05, 2015, 04:11 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by wetwilly (Member # 1818) on :
Seems to me, the best way to break that conditioning would be to read more widely, stylistically. Put more models of different ways to write a story in your head. Read someone like Kazuo Ishiguro, who is a master of the first person narrative (IMO). A lot of YA lit these days is written in present tense; maybe sample some of that (although, for an adult, a lot of it can be pretty tough to enjoy). I don't know, just branch out and get experimental in your reading.

Or don't. Nothing wrong with the tried and true third person past.
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Well, I started with Heinlein, moved on to Asimov and Clarke, then the 1970s Analog, then other writers and other magazines and other SF work---some of which, frankly, I didn't "get" till I was much older---and then I fixed on the idea that I wanted to try my hand at writing. I suppose I was influenced by all of them, all of what I read, but my handling of it in the day was so inept I doubt if even I could tell if I looked at them again.

But influences still came along---I'd been writing for a couple of years before I even read Tolkien or discovered Thomas Burnett Swann or Leigh Brackett or "The Wind in the Willows"...and still more time would pass before further works would influence me...
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Another poetics text to consider for reconditioning purposes is John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. The book has been one of the more regular creative writing textbooks for writing programs, most commonly for Northeastern U.S. universities.

Gardner is a more heavy-handed imperative mood and elitist than most poeticians. Also, the book's subtitle is: Notes On Craft for Young Writers. Gardner, though, comments about unimaginative writing professors as much as he does about "junk" and "trash" writers.

Gardner distinguishes and defines three genre types, noteworthy for the insights and distinctions he makes about realistic, fabulous tale (fable-like), and yarn narratives: their conventions, overlaps, and separations.

Many writers across time have been and are best advised to read their works aloud. Gardner analytically maps a qualitative and objective method that shows what to listen for and how to analyze, more than intuition: deliberative intellect. Outstanding that a process for evaluation from reading aloud offers astute guidance.

I have reservations and objections to several or more of Gardner's assertions: as if anyone could exactly mirror my self-imposed writing criteria or would, originality otherwise suffers. However, rough gems among the rubble. Reading past the objectionable overburden to reach the paystreak mines for composition wealth.

My second reading of Gardner, this time a close study, more informed too, from now having read many other texts by which to compare and contrast each to another and to the prose works I read and the texts analytically processed. Gardner does, remarkably, describe a process of melded intellect and intuition writing, and their synergy, plus planned and free-association writing, and their emergences, and causes thereof. Useful insights.

Also, by the way, to extend the thread topic into other narrative forms: Are We the Children of What We View?


How many narratives are clumsy oral reports, second- or thirdhand of other media, as like we share with our everyday acquaintances at social functions. Did you see the recent episode of . . . Well, So-and-so died. Ad nauseam.

[ June 06, 2015, 12:36 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
In my original post I perhaps gave the impression that I haven't tried more contemporary authors; that isn't true. However I have found the majority of them not to my 'taste', particularly YA fiction. Then again, I ain't no young adult. That's possibly why I never picked up Harry Potter, although an older friend I've mine did. He wasn't completely enamored of the story, but he was amused by the use of names and the play on Latin.

Of the recent authors I have attempted to read I have found they all exhibit the same flaws I find in modern youth. Btw, my use of the word flaws is completely subjective. For the most part, modern narratives are all about getting a 'quick fix'. They rush in to get some action happening, be it physical or emotional. They seem not to realise that the reader does actually need some information before they are plunged into colour and movement; otherwise they are left wondering what the heck is going on. This phenomenon is well illustrated on this site and in the submissions, and subsequent critiques that I have read here.

But, perhaps that's just me. I am slowly coming to the realisation that perhaps my greatest flaw is my chosen opening narrative distance. Instead of being intermediate, maybe I should be using a closer and more intimate, and slightly more immediate distance.

As for other forms as mentioned by extrinsic, I find that I tend to assess their worthiness of my time in the same way I do the written word. Does it set the story up in a timely fashion, does the storyline interest me, and does it avoid affronting my suspension of disbelief?

Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
If these elements of your work resemble the authors you like best, how is that a problem?? If they all share those elements, so what? a lot of writers have made careers of that.

Me, I don't want to "break my conditioning". I want to emulate those authors who produce my preferred reading experience. Obviously I'm not an exact copy (especially since my fave authors are themselves very different), but I've pulled the elements I like from their styles into mine and made them my own.
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
My reading background is very similar to yours, and although I wouldn't want to generalize to all "contemporary" authors I know exactly the dissatisfaction you're talking about. In so many ways writers these days are better than the were in the John Campbell days, yet seldom manage to be so satisfying.

I just finished A.E. van Vogt's infamous The World of Null-A. Damon Knight's ruthless savaging of that novel practically launched the whole field of science fiction criticism. Some say Knight ruined van Vogt's later career. And yet, and yet... While every unkind thing Knight wrote about that novel is true, it still has a kind of greatness to it. It's a novel about the future of the human intellect. Van Vogt's ideas about that may be insipid and derivative; his characters nonsensical and his plotting haywire, but you can't fault him on ambition.

Something so slapdash wouldn't get published today. It's not just a few oddballs writing sci-fi, there are a lot of smart, well-educated people putting serious effort into their manuscripts. Given the choice of a weird and badly plotted manuscript and one that is impeccably thought out and executed, which would you pick? But "impeccable" isn't the same thing as "great" in sci-fi.

I'm reading my second John Scalzi novel right now, and I have a kind of guilty, tepid feeling toward him. He's a smart, attentive writer; he certainly doesn't make the kind of boneheaded errors that van Vogt did. He's like the star pupil from the How to Write a Novel class who works hard to bring you the best novel-reading experience he can. I admire that, but it's not enough.

Science fiction isn't about reading the best possible writing, otherwise a lot of classic science fiction wouldn't be classic. A sci-fi story has to be about more than itself. That's why sci-fi tends to be full of heavy-handed exposition. That's a writing fault, but fixing it by writing stories that require less exposition is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
If by "exposition," summary and explanation tell lecture is meant, a narrator's mediation, or other external persona, orates, so to speak, a narrative or part directly to an audience as if in person . . .

Though, to me, that twentieth century mass popular culture meaning holds little water. A tell is not per se any more artful than a show. The literary opus contains appreciably more "tells" than "shows" and of popular and critical acclaim, and within individual narratives too. Greater and greater "show" emphasis has emerged the past one hundred fifty years. Less tell; that is, less external-to-a-narrative-setting persona mediation.

"Tell" though has lost none of its potential to interest audiences. The method is only poorly executed more in recent times than in past times, for timeless literature that's held up anyway. Readers who enjoyed tell narratives in the past identified more with a narrator, for example, than viewpoint agonists, who are symbols of humans and their archetypal character nature. Narratives of the type introduce and establish personable narrator identity features that appeal to readers: shared beliefs and values, basic nature, personalities, behaviors, and attitudes toward a moral truth: character, in other words.

A tell narrative reader could, should experience the fiction dream as vividly and lively as possible, as closely as necessary to an intended realistic or fabulous portrayal, anymore anyway, with, of course, a measure of exceptions. If that dream experience is a writer's desk or a narrator's lectern, or maybe an anchor correspondent's head shot or an on-location reporter's bust, that's the dream experience location and is internal for it, not a narrative's main action internal setting.

Either case, tell or show, some access between extremes, the function is to create readers' dream experience. A tell, summary or explanation, could be as much or more effective than a show segment for that creation. Or not. The purpose is to imply the fiction dream setting vividly and lively enough so readers participate therein -- Bertolt Brecht's metafictional distance effect notwithstanding. In any case, when to tell, when to show, when to do both, when to emphasize one over the other, needs practice and a solid function from which to evaluate effectiveness.

For example:
Pure tell;
The professor was mean to the children. Yawn.

Less tell, more show;
The professor assigned vacation homework. Yawn.

More show;
For Christmas break, the children took home a three hundred-page reading assignment, a writing response assignment, and a research project assignment.

Less yawn, though still a "tell" in that the emotional texture is implied though vague from no clear tensional emotional reaction to the antagonal and causal context. Like, the children might cheer!? Might be energized by the challenge!?

Deeper show, addendum to the above example.
Pattie cried, little Benjamin whined, all the children moaned and complained, their holiday play and enjoyment spoiled.

These above, though, are by default narrator perspective. Stronger context and texture, closer narrative distance, perhaps closer aesthetic distance, would develop who -- and when and where -- internal to the action and narrative perceives the action. Also, the observer persona's voice and personality -- character in meaningful ways -- could emerge from emotionally charged modifiers of the assignments.

A best practice for inevitable surprise purposes and show would place the assignments in an odd and perhaps delusional texture, say the professor takes delight in how joyously the children will become better readers and writers, the professor's perspective, unaware she or he, the self, is an indifferent sadist.

These are exposition to me: introductions of meaning and emotional texture, of what moral truth a narrative explores and expresses. Like the summary and explanation tell blocks, an exposition may come at any time in a narrative, save for the denouement phase, when the only introduction must be the outcome of the complication.

Likewise, the only appreciable matter for me for tell and show is how -- and who, when, and where, as well why and what -- vividly and lively and timely the fiction dream is created.

A narrator who tells a tale or spins a yearn, maybe the narrator is who closest distance should accompany through the fiction dream. Or not. Or any way of effective variety. And exposition's introductions need be no more or less summary or explanation than are essential to the main action's antagonism, causality, and tension, if, indeed, a narrative intends to be an event sequence, characters and settings -- and exceptions -- notwithstanding.

[ June 08, 2015, 01:07 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
Point of order: I think I might be past the point where anything new can have much influence on me. I'm too old for it. I might be moved by the work, but I don't think I'm going to change my ways over anything.

No guarantees, though...I might be surprised.
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Point of order: I think I might be past the point where anything new can have much influence on me. I'm too old for it. I might be moved by the work, but I don't think I'm going to change my ways over anything.

The poet Bashō was a master of haikai no renga -- a kind of poetic drinking game where two poets duel late into the night, taking turns adding verses to a poem as onlookers score the results. Over the course of his lifetime Bashō attracted a great following with his poetic doctrine of en -- one of those difficult to translate technical terms which denotes a kind of mysterious, otherworldly beauty.

Then one morning late in his life he woke up after a haikai no renga bout and discovered he was thoroughly sick of en. He proceeded to confound his disciples by declaring that poetry must have karumi -- which means "lightness", or an embrace of mundane things.

The moral of this parable is that artistic change doesn't necessarily come from purely theoretical considerations. Sometimes you just get tired of doing the same old thing. It's like the old question of where you get ideas to write about. There's countless answers, but the one that's most often overlooked is that you get ideas through the process of writing itself.
Posted by InarticulateBabbler (Member # 4849) on :
I think there is a certain level of our writing that derives from what we've really enjoyed. I was weened on EGB's Tarzan, and so was never really satisfied with Dr. Seuss or most of the early readers books. From Tarzan to Conan the progression went, so I don't find it strange at all when I started with the Omniscient narrative mode. However, I did expand my reading to take in stories written in 1st person past and present, 3rd Person Limited past and present and some work that mixed 1st and 3rd (which on my first experience, it tore me so out of the story and made me disregard the author's other works). Now I'm more open to read in a wider variety of narrative modes, not to the exclusion of multiple narrative modes, but I only write in basically two: 1st Person past and 3PL past. I don't really try Omniscient anymore.

I am presently reading Hard Magic by Larry Correia, and it feels like a blend of Omniscient and 3PL. I wonder if it is by coincidence, or if it to further invoke the 1920s/1930s ambiance. I'll have to ask him.
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
With regard to "show" vs. "tell", for the moment I am less concerned with how exposition is done than I am with what exposition does.

Phil brought this up:
They seem not to realise that the reader does actually need some information before they are plunged into colour and movement; otherwise they are left wondering what the heck is going on.
On the surface he seems to be suggesting authors tell a little more and show a little less, but I actually think there is a second factor involved beyond writing style: how much background information a story requires the reader obtain by hook or by crook in order to understand the story's point.

So if you have too much tell and not enough show in your stories, there's actually two things you can do about that. You can become devilishly clever about how you convey information to the reader (always a good thing), or you can start writing stories that don't require the reader absorb so much new information. Or to put it more unkindly, it's easier to avoid mistakes when you dumb down your story.

This is my complaint with a lot of the steampunk I've read. Steampunk exploits the reader's familiarity with the genre's pseudo-Victorian milieu, which of course lightens the author's explanatory burden. But steampunk stories often fail to add anything new to that milieu. The same goes for vampire urban fantasies, or space opera. It's all too easy to write a story that avoids stylistic faux pas by restricting yourself to stuff a reader's already familiar with.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Net, overall, self-definition and flexibility of methods and conventions are probably a best advised strategy, though one that prompts wide reading, at least as wide as the definition and convention set of a writer's preferred canon, and as well a discernment able to unravel tangible as well as intangible features. Woe for the writer who emulates the superficial and misses the depths. For management of the latter, respected poetics texts are a solution.

The "show, don't tell" platitude misses entirely that written word is at root pure tell, for example. A straightforward metric for judging when a tell might be suitable, might be problematic, might be exemplary is wanted. On the other hand, pure tell is out of fashion and out of fashion methods experience episodic renewal. A pure tell, for example, could be on its surface an unabashed real writer direct address to readers. If that is done with elegance, perhaps with panache, with discernment, and suits the subject matter, the occasion, and the audience, appeals might recommend the narrative widely. Such a narrative could be a verbal irony and use yarn conventions, for example.

Mark Twain was a yarn writer. How close an emotional distance readers experience to his narratives matters from that Twain was prominent as real or at least implied writer. He told tall tales from a spirited and unique U.S. mannerism, with a wink and a nod, sometimes a nudge that these are tall tales. An example of tall tale yarns are the fish house liar tales of the big one that got away. Ernest Hemingway sets that yarn convention aside and accounts a super-realistic fish story for The Old Man and the Sea.

O'Henry unflinchingly wrote narratives that were fiction though moral truths from his real writer perspective. "The Gift of the Magi" is the best known of the type and a model for the real writer tell method. The appeal is not that the narrative is pure tell from a writer, partly, though, because O'Henry's following craved his wisdoms and insights: because he expressed sublime moral truths of emotional strength.

Tell, show, a meld of both, neither, another rhetoric entirely; deny one rhetoric, another takes its place, the one kernel necessity is an expression of a moral truth, that many struggling writers overlook, deny, cannot appreciate the necessity of, and thus compose dreary and derivatively worn-out narratives.

A food recipe, for example, is a pure tell, a convention set of directions. Does a recipe entail a moral truth? None overtly. Deeply covertly, yes. Recipes share social identity, are part of family and community social rituals that strengthen social bonds. Writing or reading a recipe, perhaps preparing the item, shares in a social bond ritual. Recipes are socially responsible sharing: the covert moral truth of the matter.

Imagine a pure tell that takes the form of a recipe and is ironic, not per se satirical or sarcastic. Consider a moral truth to explore through discovery yet the narrative is overtly, intentionally authoritarian, dictates the exact specifications of a moral behavior, perhaps ironically a contravention of social bonding rites for unity of idea's sake. The irony could be a discovery that the dictated behavior is morally erroneous -- socially irresponsible, morally corrupt. This progression is one many formal composition writers encounter when first they practice to conceive an argumentation. They change their minds about a presupposed notion of propriety, if they've done the research justice.

A writing exercise of the recipe type above explores method and convention definition. For an exercise of reverse psychology, the process exposes shortfalls of and develops discernment of artless tell.

[ June 08, 2015, 01:19 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Originally posted by InarticulateBabbler:
I am presently reading Hard Magic by Larry Correia, and it feels like a blend of Omniscient and 3PL. I wonder if it is by coincidence, or if it to further invoke the 1920s/1930s ambiance. I'll have to ask him.

I like to hold up as an example The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: It's omni, but most of the time it feels and reads like close third (sometimes very close indeed; seldom have I been so breathlessly with a protagonist). You only realise it's omni when the narrator shifts focus, or backs off and observes, which are mainly done as transitions.
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Originally posted by MattLeo:
I'm reading my second John Scalzi novel right now, and I have a kind of guilty, tepid feeling toward him. He's a smart, attentive writer; he certainly doesn't make the kind of boneheaded errors that van Vogt did. He's like the star pupil from the How to Write a Novel class who works hard to bring you the best novel-reading experience he can. I admire that, but it's not enough.

Good example (I put him down for good as of his 3rd that I read). I've started complaining of recent authors that their words are perfect, but don't say anything. They've aced the writing class, but they produce the letter of SF/F without the spirit.
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
I understand that "Show don't tell" is an oversimplification, but I'm trying to make a point about something entirely different: the importance of having an interesting thesis in speculative fiction.

I just finished "The Last Enemy", which I think think is the third installment in H. Beam Piper's "Paratime Police" stories. It's apparent from reading Piper that he loves history and guns, and detests leftist politicians. Even so he gives the devil interesting things to say.

In the story world of "The Last Enemy" reincarnation is a scientifically established fact. The story itself consists of small amount of gunplay, a slightly larger amount of getting ready for gunplay, and page after page of "As You Know, Bob" dialog where the characters explain to each other what they already know about how different theories of reincarnation lead to different attitudes toward egalitarianism.

The story itself is almost inconsequential -- a tiny narrative molehill on a mountain of philosophical speculation. But boy is that mountain interesting. In some ways it anticipates the central argument of John Rawl's 1971 A Theory of Justice, one of the landmark philosophy books of the 20th C. That's astonishing when you recall that H. Beam Piper was a self-educated laborer.

I once wrote a story in a similar style. The thesis is that if "laws of robotics" are ever mandated for AI, they won't look at all like Asimov's version. The story ends with the protagonist explaining to his new employer that she's naive to think that the laws would protect humans from harm. "Harm" is a subjective concept beyond the capacity of one person to judge for another, much less a machine. Property rights, however, can easily be prioritized by a machine by evaluating a web of contractual constraints.

The protagonist giving an explanatory summation is a very old-fashioned story ending; that's why I never submitted this story anywhere. It may have had a chance in 1950, but it has too much exposition for modern tastes -- and not the easy to fix "the professor was mean to the children" kind of exposition. The alternative to the protagonist explaining what just happened is to demand the reader make a rather difficult leap of inductive reasoning.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
I think the balance between show and tell is ever-shifting, and that part of the reason showing is so thoroughly in vogue is due to the plethora of visual media. I could be wrong, but I'm fairly sure I first heard "show, don't tell" from my mother's lips after she'd taken a screenwriting class. In this day and age writers have a lot more competing for their audience's attention than they used to, and some of the stylizations of film (and therefor screenwriting) have made their way into prose as a result.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Overt tell or tell tales by their nature are philosophical in both new and old denotations of the term. Old, scientists, social scientists precisely, as in Plato's Republic for an ironic assertion philosophical scientists are the natural leaders of a community. New, extistential explorations and discoveries of abstract meaning.

In either case, the point of the "philosophical" tell is to authoritively arrange reform of and dictate social behavior. A philosophical-authoritarian narrative tells audiences a moral truth that must be abided, or else at least face social ostracization.

The authoritarian tell writer already knows the "truth" -- as you know, Bob. Whereas, a dramatic narrative in part discovers a moral truth, notwithstanding that that outcome is preplanned to a degree or/and discovered through the composition and revision process. The content and organization structure of the tell form is abstract, not dramatic, is set speeches -- monologue, dialogue, soliloquy, epistle, or apostrophe, oratory speech or thought discourse -- not antangonal, causal, tensional -- dramatic -- event sequences, sensory experiences that are best practice shown.

Personally, I loathe the above tell types, for their preaching that doesn't work for me. Not to say they lack merit altogether, that the moral truth argument is an implied and imposed imperative and is regularly flawed at its conception foundation.

[ June 08, 2015, 05:50 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Originally posted by extrinsic:

In either case, the point of the "philosophical" tell is to authoritively arrange reform of and dictate social behavior. A philosophical-authoritarian narrative tells audiences a moral truth that must be abided, or else at least face social ostracization.

To quote the Raymond Smullyan's Universal Refutation of Philosophy: that's what you say. Specifically you're way overgeneralizing here. It's true that when a character acts as an author surrogate and mouths the author's philosophical opinions, that's cheap argument because the author can contrive his story world to prove any point he wants.

But characters can frame a philosophical issue without being a simple-minded author surrogate. "The Last Enemy" is a perfect example. While the socialist politicians are puffed-up, conceited and arrogant, when you take away the theories of reincarnation behind the disagreements in the story their arguments actually hold up a lot better than that of their aristocratic opponents.

So what are we to make of that? That Piper was unaware his anti-socialist diatribe falls apart without reincarnation? I think that's extremely unlikely given how carefully he worked out the consequences of each position. What I think is that Piper's actual political position is not on display in this story. I believe his point is that the problem with socialism isn't its egalitarian ideals, but that radical leveling only creates a new class of elite rulers that actually resembles their old-school aristocratic opponents.

Keeping his own views off the table is actually a pretty clever way of promoting them.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Social and governance politics aside, conventions of a form-genre are milestones of a structure and aesthetic. For the "philosophical" tell, conventions include a known moral truth, set speeches, allegorical symbols -- oftentimes borrowed from public-life representatives of the moral truth and moral "law" contention, and incidental or extended courtly irony to strong, little, or no artful effect. Piper's inversion of his views and opposition views and assignment of them to contentious individuals and groups to promote his ideals and demote others' is an allegorical and extended courtly irony example.

Courtly irony: condemnation with faint praise emphasis or praise with faint condemnation emphasis, or both congruently or sequentially.

I can't speak to Piper's tells on political subject matter. Others well known, some proportioned drama and tell, some emphasized tell, though, and allegory and courtly irony to variable effect: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine; Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Upton Sinclair, The Jungle; George Orwell, Animal Farm; Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrel -- delightfully allegorical and adept extended courtly irony -- to name a few. Each entails the conventions of a "philosophical" tell. The set speech convention is prominent for each.

[ June 08, 2015, 09:33 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
I'm intrigued by the recipe idea, in that it might make an interesting writing challenge to have people come up with a story that is told mostly by and about someone working through a cooking recipe.

How much of a story could you convey just by focusing on the words of a cake recipe? And by "focusing" I do not mean limiting. Of course there would need to be a few other words as well, but the exercise might be in seeing how few would actually work.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The Harry Potter scene from The Half-Blood Prince, when he earned a vial of Felix Felicis from Professor Slughorn for brewing a successful draught of Living Death, is a recipe scene of the dramatic sort. Too many characters for a short story probably. The scene setup starts from Professor McGonagall correcting Potter and Weasely for loitering and recommending them to the advanced potions class, to Potter and Weasely's squabble over the potions recipe books, one that remains a motif, further amplified and transformatively, up through The Deathly Hallows. The scene is a source model for a recipe drama inspiration.

Or, as befits food's social rituals, an ancestor's recipe for, what? Secret Ingredient Soup? No one presently knows the secret ingredient. That was lost with the ancestor's call to grace. Try as they might, no one can reproduce the soup to the same taste. They talk, debate, squabble, concede, accept as a family the ritual of identify the secret ingredient. The soup they eat is satisfying anyway, more so for the ritual of family bonding that breaking bread together is. [The secret ingredient artfully, accessibly implied!]

Dialogue, events, settings, characters, sensory and emotional stimuli, and intangible moral truth action!

Or a recipe for impossible cold fusion and explosive surprises.

Or a special cake recipe maybe prepared especially to serve just desserts [poetic justice]. Or to celebrate a more congenial occasion that goes askew, not per se awry, somehow off that is inspirational, like The Gift of the Magi or off awry anyway, like a prison-break cake with hacksaw blade included. How could that go wrong?

[ June 11, 2015, 12:24 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Actually, I was thinking more in terms of the recipe being the skeleton of the story with the meaning (and drama or irony or characterization or whatever) coming through as the character proceeds to follow the recipe.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Would that be a conventional recipe format with suggestive terms, innuendos, perhaps allegory? Recipes' implied imperative second person could also be a point for a take-off, invert to second-person reflexive. In that way, the exercise could also develop a writer's appreciation for second person's various subtleties for reading and writing.

Many cake recipe titles are suggestive already.

Devil's food
Angel food
Red velvet
Black Forest
Death by chocolate
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Actually, I was thinking more in terms of the recipe being the skeleton of the story with the meaning (and drama or irony or characterization or whatever) coming through as the character proceeds to follow the recipe.

Well, by analogy it's commonplace to interleave dialog with some kind of rote action.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Having recently purchased Escoffier's Le Guide Culinare (the complete translation with 5,000 recipes, not the abridged version with only 3,000) I can attest that the preparation of food, not individually, but through a designed set of courses which create a culinary experience, does indeed tell a story. Not that I've learnt enough about that art to attempt such a feat.

extrinsic's examples above are allegorical, not narrative, in my opinion. A better example may be a pot-roast, where each of the ingredients, as they are each prepared in their turn, trigger associative memories and experiences for the cook as they relive an episode from their past. I think this is closer to what KDW was alluding to.

However, interesting as that may be, who hijacked my thread, and when?

Just kidding--threads are supposed to initiate discussion, whether on, or off topic.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
All I need to cook something are the recipe, the ingredients, and the equipment.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
I guess my question is: Has my creative inspiration been so contaminated by my past reading experiences that third person, past tense, and intermediate narrative distance is my default position for starting a novel? And, to follow up: What's the best way to break that conditioning?

The majority of writing is done in third person in my experience. Narrative distance varies, but third person grants some distance from the characters and allows the readers to be exposed to more than one viewpoint.

First person is a narrower perspective, and more limiting in what it allows the audience to see, but when done properly it paints the experiences of the viewpoint character much more vividly. One of the authors I've seen who does this best is Chuck Palahniuk, although he so thoroughly disturbed me with one of his books that I'm no longer comfortable reading his work. (There's a book where a bunch of writers get together at a writing retreat and the story basically turns into torture porn. DO NOT RECOMMEND.)

Second person is the most rarely explored of the major viewpoints, and while it would be interesting to see it done well in a full-fledged novel I think the prejudice surrounding it would be difficult to pull away from. ....Which makes me want to try it, but that's not the point.

So! Now that I've rambled about the different perspectives, my thoughts on how to change things up are thus:

If you want to change up your habits, play. Write silly little things that don't matter. Show them for critique, or don't; it's all good, either way. The important thing is to have fun with it.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Up thread I suggested a writer practice of defining the writer's conventions and aesthetics. The possibilities are exponential, near infinite.

In one sense, all expression is allegorical, J.R.R. Tolkien's aversion to allegory notwithstanding. Complications, emotions, events, settings, characters, narrators, and implied writers, perhaps real writers, as portrayed by a narrative represent emblematically -- one immutable meaning, or symbolically -- multiple meanings, thus allegorical.

I recently realized Tolkien's aversion to allegory is not to the form's mechanical substitutions of emblems and symbols so much as his aversion for other customary conventions of the form. To wit, that allegorical narratives assert, tell, preach, lecture a moral law known in advance and is subject to interpretation, that allegorical narratives emblematically represent motifs -- immutable and not subject to transformative causation; in other words, a causal event sequence is secondary to the action flow: profluence; a persuasive argumentation is principal. Conventionally, an allegorical narrative lacks a causal plot's energy, or energia of classic Aristotlean drama, drama generally.

An archetype character, like the rogue with a heart of gold, is emblematic or symbolic, for example. Archetypes fail when they are mere stereotypes, though. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is emblematic; he is an immutable, untransformed character of the franchise. Frodo is more transformed; Potter more transformed; Bella Swan, more transformed; Katniss Everdeen, more transformed; Anakin Skywalker, more transformed, and thus each in their action's are symbolic.

Causal event sequence's transformative symbolism or allegorical emblemism is one of many convention choices a writer could, perhaps should, decide at some point of a narrative's, maybe career's creation.

Maybe we could discuss, as suggested above, customary conventions of our preferred forms, genre's, narrative points of view, etc., that are the attractions and appeals from what we are the children of what we read? As we are what we eat, we are what we read and write. Do we read and write like it's a fast food court in a shopping mall? Not to disparage fast food courts. Needless to say, I worked food and hospitality services for half my long life. I know customary -- obvious and subtle -- conventions of fast food service like I know the layout of my abode.

Anyway, like, for example, what are customary conventions of science fiction and fantasy?

For example, science fiction, at a low-hung fruit height, though overarching as well, is about fantastical science and technology's emblematic or symbolic influences upon the moral human condition. Note, though, "hard" science fiction is fantastical physical sciences and "soft" is fantastical social sciences, a distinguishable division that is not as clear-cut for most any science fiction narrative anymore.

Because science fiction is mostly about fantastical technology and science motifs' influences, ideally, that custom informs who the customary and representational characters are, the settings, the events, the complications of a narrative.

Fantasy anymore may entail conventional fantastical setting features inspired by traditional folklore, like gnomes and goblins and fairies and mages, or inspired by science fictional settings -- rivets and chrome, for example -- or both. One notable, to date, anyway, convention distinction between science fiction fantasy and traditional fantasy is setting features, perhaps place, perhaps situation, more so time. Science fiction fantasy orients future-ward; traditional fantasy orients past-ward, and, of course, "urban" fantasy orients presently, or more precisely is contemporary of time and place, perhaps rural, perhaps suburban, perhaps urban.

Narrative point of view customs are likewise conventions of an allegorical nature: grammatical person, for example, aesthetic (emotional) distance, psychic access (customs of omniscience, ominpresence, and omnipotence), register (standing between a narrator and a reader, peer to peer, maybe subordinate to superior, for examples), and a host of other narrative point of view and other customary convention selections. Or perhaps new, experimental, or newly rearranged customs.

How about it? Name customs and conventions of your preferred narrative types? These are answers to "Are we the children of what we've read?"

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