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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How sophisticated are our readers?

   
Author Topic: How sophisticated are our readers?
Grumpy old guy
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Within this forum there are some who have been published, and others who have self-published. There are people who dream of being published and others who will self-publish by choice. There are still others who write simply for the joy of it and their own satisfaction. Whichever you are, you are here because forums such as this are places to congregate, share ideas and in the process learn something of the art and craft of writing.

We here, or some of us, keep rabbiting on about structure, milieu, rising action, plot, misdirection, falling action, reveal and reversal scenes, cliché openings, voice, foreshadowing and, well, the list is apparently endless. My question is simple: Do readers actually care about what we agonise over? True, they want to read an enjoyable story that transports them to other worlds, other realities or explores aspects of themselves they were never aware of. But, at the end of the day, when we talk about hooking the reader and avoiding cliché openings, is that what the reader really wants or are we simply assuming that a passage of writing that hooks us is what will get a book sold? After all, we may be readers but here we are writers.

I’ve always maintained that the first thing that catches the reader’s eye is the book cover, then the title. The cover can convey a wealth of information, not least the genre of the work, as can the title. The back-cover blurb comes in as a poor fourth in my opinion, trumped by the style of the writing rather than the actual content. Well, it does for me. Most of the books I’ve purchased were done, ignoring the fact I tend to follow a few chosen writers, on the basis of, first: the cover, second: the title, third: the taste of the writing and finally, the jacket-blurb. Most times it works, sometimes it does, but in unexpected ways. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is a turgid affair as far as the writing goes but I waded through the morass because when I found that nugget of reader’s joy within the narrative I thought it well worth the struggle.

So, are we selling our readers short or expecting far too much from them? The art and craft of predicting best sellers is hit and miss at best, so are we deluding ourselves in our pontificating about what does and doesn’t work?

Phil.

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extrinsic
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A philosophical question with pragmatic answers. Who's the audience? That's the sophistication degree wanted: structure; Milieu, Idea, Character, Event emphasis--Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. quotient principles--syntax and diction and grammar, premises major and minor and inspiration-based, features, motifs, rhetoric, literary devices and methods and principles, ad infinitum.

Of note, the average reader reading pace is roughly as rapid as speaking rate: roughly one hundred fifty words per minute. The average native English reading reader's, of any age past teenage, is equivalent to seventh grade vocabulary and grammar skills: the seventh year of formal education, middle grade. Not too terribly sophisticated. The English speaking world average reading skill, including English second language speakers, is fourth grade. However, among regular and passionate English readers, the average is tenth grade. Not too terribly sophisticated.

The bases for determining a reader's reading skills are founded upon vocabulary, comprehension, and reasoning skills: teaching to, learning, and tests thereof. Fourth graders, for example, have a working speech, reading, and writing vocabulary of around two thousand one- and two-syllable words. Seventh graders use and comprehend around seven thousand words, including a fundamental word set of three- and four-syllable words. Much vocabulary beyond that skill level tries intellects, comprehension, and reasoning.

Grammar instruction and learning generally emphasizes fundamentals and tapers off after fourth grade. Much of grammar learning later is a matter of correction and castigation by peers and superiors, and absorption by trial and error, often at hazard of penalties like lower grades, limited promotions, and perils of social embarrassment, and writers generally resistant toward further learning than the bare essentials needed for life survival. Not enough learning to become a successful writer though. Not too sophisticated in any regard.

I've edited to great annoyance and push back the dissertations of doctorates and post doctorates in many academic disciplines and lifeways, even those of English academics at the top of their fields. Never mind. Not too sophisticated.

A very rare few compositions I've read are flawless, interesting, bright, lively, and persuasive, and that fully meet the first law of writing; that is, appealingly facilitate reading ease and comprehension. They are without exception superficially unsophisticated. The magic of writing is in them. Superfical ease is hard work behind the scenes, makes writing mastery look easy, yet beneath the writing is a degree of sophistication far beyond the mediocre. For readers generally, they are nonconsciously aware of the invisible mastery of masterful writers, and oblivious to the magic, though appreciative of the results.

Plot, at once a simple term and a highly challenging and sophisticated feature of dramatic writing is the single-most crucial aspect of narrative composition. Plot is not an invention of ancient scholars or even recent rhetoricians; plot is a reflection of the human condition since prehistory and back to the dawn of life. Simply, plot reflects a life struggle's natural sequence of events and outcomes, a pattern of trial and error heuristics based on survival needs, be that need subsistence, security and sanctuary, social society, or more abstract needs, say supremacy over others, acceptance and belonging despite being a toxic personality, or a physical burden on a community, or whatever accessible problematic human condition relevant and timely for an audience.

Yet plot escapes many writers' attention. James Joyce couldn't plot his way out of a bathtub (stuck in a bathtub navel contempation syndrome), nor could Samuel Beckett or David Foster Wallace, among others. Instead, they artfully and appealingly mocked plot and are praised for it by likeminded audiences. By perpetrating a lark--the lark backfired, though. Not too sophisticated on the one hand; on the other hand, a different sophisticated rhetoric substituted.

A writer who writes knowing the writer's audience appears less smart, the writing appears less smart, nor should the writing ever be smarter than the audience. Otherwise, the audience feels dumb, insulted, and alienated.

Yet the writer who would succeed with the writer's audience is smart, maybe smarter, at least in writing craft skills and developed audience appeal, voice, and grammar skills and talents, though the writer doesn't laird the writer's smarts over the audience's heads. That's the degree of sophistication a writer ought as a best pratice strive toward. A double bind, smarter than, though appears less smart than the audience.

[ July 25, 2014, 05:55 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Plot, and the disarmingly simple term, unity of action, seem to elude a large number of contemporary writers. And let us not dare to delve into the esoteric nature of premise, for it will confuse the uninitiated and yet it is a most powerful tool in crystalising the focus of narrative. And no, extrinsic, I'm not taking the p*ss, simply being overly ironic.

As writers, we need to understand some fundamental principles that create the framework for good storytelling, but do we take our obsession with form and structure to excess? As I said, a reader wants to read a good story which means we should strive to provide stories that conform to the accepted ideas of good storytelling, with an allowance for experimentalist fools. But, do we dare criticise those of us who resort to formula and cliche if that's what their readers truly want?

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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I try not to underestimate the [hypothetical] readers---I figure if I can understand it, so can they.
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extrinsic
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Writing nomenclature's main function is sharing ideas between writers. Nomenclature is even more functional in online writing discussions because words are all we have to work with. Here at Hatrack, with a responsible citation policy, nomenclature is even more important because examples to illustrate encourage writers to create our own.

Several writing terms are generally and commonly misused by nonwriters: cliché, irony, and literally. Cliché is an artless use of a trite, outworn, hackneyed, commonplace expression, theme, character or setting development, or circumstance, Nonwriters will use the term to identify an awkward or clumsy idiom or metaphor, though the use may be none of the above.

Irony, or ironic, is often misused to label coincidence, synchronicity, dejá vu, especially coincidence. A cell phone worker having, owning, using no cell phone is a coincidence, not ironic. Happening to often be in, say, several automobile accidents on icy roads in quick succession is sequential synchronicity, not ironic. A belief that an event, say, resembles another is not dejá vu, nor ironic.

Literally is also misused, probably more than ironic. He literally pushed the garbage bin off the apartment roof. is an actual event, not a literal one. Prescriptively, the indicated emphasis term should be "actually." The case worker wrote out the client history and examination literally as spoken. Is a prescriptive use of the term. Of or part of a literary sense or manner is the prescribed usage of the term: creative expression. Dictionary definitions notwithstanding, which connotatively contradict the denotative meaning; that is, in a literary manner. The first example above implies the man's action was a literary one, not a physical one. Yet folk will use the term, and cliché and dejá vu, to emphasize expression. Not too sophisticated.

Structure and form and writing terminology overall are benefical for writers who share rhetoric principles, for any given writer to appreciate the craft principles such that they may be learned and used effectively. Any given writer may use a handful or thousands of writing terms and deploy their usefulness in the writer's writing.

How sophisticated the writing craft artisanship, artistry is depends on how the methods are received by readers: consciously, nonconsciously, or overlooked partially or altogether. The terminology matters not at all to readers generally.

A troubling example, the term climax many readers and not a few writers apply to the emotional peak of a denouement crisis scene, the final crisis scene of a narrative, the next to last turn, pivot, or twist--the final turn being the restoration of emotional equilibrium. A five-act structure locates the emotional peak for readers immediately prior to the dramatic complication outcome, at roughly eleven-twelfths of word count. A three-act structure is the same roughly.

However, a climax scene in a literary sense falls midway in word count. Several factors define the climax: the dramatic complication is fully realized, the outcome of the dramatic complication is most in doubt, the dramatic complication's clashing forces are at the greatest opposition, efforts to satisfy the dramatic complication are greatest, and emotional reactions to the dramatic complication are greatest; otherwise, the middle action falters and sags, a common shortcoming.

Structure, or dramatic structure, or plot, has been refused by a large consensus for most of its historical existence, since Sophocles at least. A new wave of Structuralism arose mid nineteenth century along with the scientific method which codified experimental scientific analysis techniques, in part driven by Mendeleev's Periodic Table.

Labeled Formalism, Vladimir Propp determined universal characteristics of plot that had theretofore evaded such analysis. The Structuralist movement raged for a hundred years and its sibling Formalism. Writers and not a few readers revolted all along, demanded narrative structure be less predictable and formulaic, and, of course, less demanding to accomplish. The refusal was as much due to laziness as to a want for new and vigorous horizons. In consequence, plot lost emphasis and, by mid twentieth century, had been superseded by creative expression aesthetics at the expense of structural discipline.

The pendulum swings, of late toward disciplined plot's emphasis again. The times approach a stable structure and creative aesthetic emphasis proportion, not to mention fully realized character, idea, and milieu (setting and its culture) development: reality imitation, Realism's kernel fundament. Will the pendulum swing away again, probably. To each generation comes a breakout notion or two that suits the social and technological influences and needs of the era. Yet all that came before continue forward.

I guess my response to the question "do we take our obsession with form and structure to excess?" is, to each their own and for their audience.

Experimentalist writers have been around since it all began. The only foolish ones are those who strive against reasonable methods for the sole sake of obfuscation such that decorum's appeals are rejected and audiences' appeals left unanswered. Decorum [rhetoric principle]: suiting one's words (actions) to the subject matter, each to each other, and to the occasion and the audience.

"[D]o we dare criticise those of us who resort to formula and cliche if that's what their readers truly want?"

A browse of an airport gift shop's book shelves says no. Or a grocery store or department store or a newsstand, etc., anywhere impulse sales displays offer books suitable to idly while away waiting time. The so-called category romance novel concept developed as a consequence of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, that spawned the Harlequin romance subgenre, demands formulaic and cliché writing. Yet readers devour them.

Pulp fiction mystery in its heyday was likewise formulaic and cliché. Golden Age science fiction, likewise. Westerns as well. Thrillers, horror, fantasy, ad nauseam. Standout masters who started and artfully delivered innovations nothwithstanding. Even literary fiction has touches of formulaic and cliché writing due to a pilaton pack following a standout leader's artful innovations. Postmodernism, for example, questions and challenges structural criteria, replaced Formalism and Structuralism. For me, Postmodernism has become formulaic and cliché, Frankly, I'm weary of Postmodernism, because its innovations lack for satisfactory, unequivocal, irrevocable outcomes and, more importantly, satisfactions for the questions and challenges the movement raises.

What's next, please? No one is coming out at present with answers. So I'll do so. Polymodernism is my answer, part deeper reality imitation, part satisfaction of challenges and questions Postmodernism raises, part excruciating multiculturalist clashes and crises, and part moral crises apropos of the evolving human condition. Suitable for any genre, though its own movement, maybe.

[ July 26, 2014, 04:03 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
I try not to underestimate the [hypothetical] readers---I figure if I can understand it, so can they.

By the way, I've read, closely, the narratives posted at robertnowall dot com. Nothing hypothetical in one case at least.
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mfreivald
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I think there's something to be said for the notion that we should master the elements of writing with the reader's facility in mind, thinking hard and sweating through the learning curves therein. On the other hand, you can go a long way just heeding the advice of Oscar Wilde: Don't be tedious.
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Robert Nowall
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quote:
By the way, I've read, closely, the narratives posted at robertnowall dot com
Well, that's at least one...I might not be underestimating them, but a recent read-through of one of the older stories showed me I am still making mistakes...
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
My question is simple: Do readers actually care about what we agonise over?

No they don't care, in the same sense car buyers don't care about the strength grade of the bolts that fasten the tie rods to the wheels. Car buyers do care about their car careening off road because the steering mechanism failed, and readers do care if a story runs into a metaphorical ditch.

quote:

But, at the end of the day, when we talk about hooking the reader and avoiding cliché openings, is that what the reader really wants or are we simply assuming that a passage of writing that hooks us is what will get a book sold? After all, we may be readers but here we are writers.

"Hooking" is another term I don't like because it's vague; it's one of those terms we treat as a mechanism, when in fact it is an effect. Hooking-as-mechanism usually turns out to be some kind of attention-grabbing gimmick. I'm not saying never use a gimmick, just remember that most slushpiles are a joyless slog through one poorly conceived gimmick after another.

As for cliched openings, the more opening someone has read, the more allergic they'll be to a cliche opening. So a cliche in the opening is pure poison if you intend to submit the manuscript to agents or editors, who read tons of story openings. The same cliche (e.g., a barbarian warrior astride a horse looking down at the smoking ruins of a city) might not be noticed by casual readers, although it will certainly be noticed by some and earn you some bad word of mouth.

quote:
So, are we selling our readers short or expecting far too much from them? The art and craft of predicting best sellers is hit and miss at best, so are we deluding ourselves in our pontificating about what does and doesn’t work?[/QB]
I think the framing here is wrong -- or at least not appropriate to where most of us are. We should be working on writing *good* stories, not because readers will appreciate our technique, but because they'll enjoy the effect. I think that's what most people who give feedback here are talking about, not about writing best sellers.
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extrinsic
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Astute, beautiful, and comprehensive insights, MattLeo.

Writers orchestrate causes' actions of readers' effects' responses. Causality as a high-hanging fruit. Exquisite.

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mfreivald
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quote:
. . . not because readers will appreciate our technique, but because they'll enjoy the effect.
Right on.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
quote:
By the way, I've read, closely, the narratives posted at robertnowall dot com
Well, that's at least one...I might not be underestimating them, but a recent read-through of one of the older stories showed me I am still making mistakes...
Hmm, well, two (I hadn't realised you had a site up). I just now read "The Prisoner"... quite a powerful story in very simple language. Might need a little cleanup here and there (some awkwardness during moving-people-around) but I wouldn't mess with it beyond that, as part of its charm IS that very simple language.

As to the original question... readers are much more tolerant than writers, and I say that both remembering my reading before writing, and from purely-readers I've had as betas. For most non-writing** readers, whether a story goes into a metaphorical ditch is almost entirely a matter of taste.

** My fingers, having not troubled to consult my brain, initially typed "non-rioting". Where'd they get THAT??

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Robert Nowall
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Well...I appreciate the compliment...but I can also say "The Prisoner" took, roughly, twenty years to write. The idea...three or four false starts that were all that opening scene...a twenty-thousand-some version that I cut way down...about a year to write that poem / song that runs through it. Grim work, in a sense.

I've been noticing several of my stories lately seem to come from really old ideas. I was wondering if I was going stale. But then I read the recent Heinlein biography, and Heinlein in the 1980s would work on ideas he had back in the 1940s. So I guess it's all right.

(Make that thirty years. The alien race and background I used was created well before I had the idea.)

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Natej11
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I read Lord of the Rings when I was 8. I remember asking my dad what some words meant, but still understanding the story and appreciating its masterful presentation.

So I tend to assume that just about all my readers are CAPABLE of understanding, as long as the story is interesting enough to motivate them to try.

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Robert Nowall
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There's a point. I started reading SF and / or fantasy in a major way when I was about ten. (Heinlein's Space Cadet.) I read a lot of things, including The Lord of the Rings (at age 15).

There were lots of stories I just didn't get, even though I enjoyed them. At that age I just didn't have the depth and experience and education to understand what I was reading.

As time wore on, I acquired more and more of that...and, sometimes, when I reread something, I did get it, finally.

I remember reading Sturgeon's "Baby is Three," I think in one of the SFWA antholgies of the 1970s, liking it, but not really understanding what was going on in the story. Confusing. But I reread it when it was published in The Collected Theodore Sturgeon volumes, and, to my surprise, the plot, the background details, and the characters's roles in the story were clear as a bell.

Was I that shallow then? Did I grow that much in between readings?

So I figure I have to operate on at least two levels. It's gotta be plain and interesting to that ten year old who may be encountering SF / fantasy for the first time...and it's gotta have something to interest the much older and experienced reader who's might be looking for more than that.

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Natej11
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:

So I figure I have to operate on at least two levels. It's gotta be plain and interesting to that ten year old who may be encountering SF / fantasy for the first time...and it's gotta have something to interest the much older and experienced reader who's might be looking for more than that.

That's the ideal, and I think where a lot of good authors get it right for one or the other but not for both.

And that's why, I think, the YA market is such a surprisingly fulfilling place. You get writers there who constantly have to consider both sides of the coin, since they're basically writing to both audiences. The good ones can manage to draw praise from children but not adults, or more rarely adults but not children, but the truly outstanding ones will be enjoyed by everyone.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
I've been noticing several of my stories lately seem to come from really old ideas.

Ha, I basically have one idea that I've been recycling for 55 years now. If I'm not bored of it, what's the problem? [Smile]

But I think that's more typical than not. If you read a whole bunch of any author's work in one crack, especially if you do so chronologically, you're more likely to see a single story reincarnated 50 times, than to see 50 distinct stories.

It's how we reincarnate 'em that counts.

By happenstance I read all of Samuel Delany's novels (up through the Towers trilogy) in one great spasm, and in chronological order. And that was what twigged me to the above wisdom. They are in fact all the exact same story, but become more detailed as it ages. After the Towers books, he found a new story and began the same repeat-and-develop process again.

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Robert Nowall
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Two levels is something of a gross simplification, though. People age and mature and acquire knowledge in unpredictable ways at unpredictable rates...and, in most cases, the person at the end will be more mature than the person at the beginning.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Reminds me of what Michael Swanwick said about Lord of the Rings. He read it as a boy and loved the great adventure of it, so much that as he grew up, he looked forward to sharing that experience with his son.

Then he read it to his son, and realized that it wasn't a great adventure, but instead "the saddest story in the world" (if I remember his words correctly).

I personally believe that a story experience is actually a collaboration between a writer and a reader. While the words on the page may not change, what the reader brings to it, each time the reader reads them, will create a different story experience for that reader at that time.

And isn't that wonderful?

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johnbrown
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quote:
We should be working on writing *good* stories, not because readers will appreciate our technique, but because they'll enjoy the effect.
I agree wholeheartedly with this!

The question is what defines a "good story"?

One of the biggest mistakes I made and that I see others make is to start to talk about craft outside the context of the effect on the reader. It leads us into all sorts of errors. It leads to rule-itis which seeks to conform a work to a list of rules instead of seeking to form the work in a way that will deliver a certain experience to the readers.

For example, I remember once joining a popular podcast where we discussed this rule which said that Mary Sues were evil. I didn't know what Mary Sues were until that podcast, but to my everlasting shame I blathered on about them.

Then I went on tour with Larry Correia, read Monster Hunter International, saw a big Mary Sue as a main character, and LOVED it. If you don't know Larry, you won't spot it. But after riding around with the man for days, you'd have to be blind.

I realized that the idea that you must expunge Mary Sues from your writing was an idiotic rule, despite my comments to the contrary. The reality of the reader experience had yet again demolished another so-called rule. And the legions of Larry Correia fans only validate this. It reinforced yet again that there are no rules in writing. Just cause and effect.

I wrote this many moons ago. I think it goes right to the heart of the matter: Rules vs Objectives

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by johnbrown:

I wrote this many moons ago. I think it goes right to the heart of the matter: Rules vs Objectives

Yep, I'll agree with that. Rules are components; they're not blueprints.
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Grumpy old guy
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I tend to disagree with a blanket observation that rules are bad. There are rules to writing: grammar, punctuation, general story structure etc. However, they are not hard and fast rules, they can be broken. But only if you know what rule you are breaking and why.

The problem with the "no rules" argument is that, for the inexperienced writer, it will encourage worst practice in writing, not best practice, because rules can be such a pesky nuisance so why bother.

In my writing journey I've gone from, "Rules? What are they?" to, "If I'm going to break the rules to write the story I want I'd better know which ones I'm breaking."

I've found all the responses interesting and informative and notice that the consensus seems to be that in our discussions as writers each of us is convinced we are trying to focus on how to write enjoyable stories and the technical aspects of achieving that goal rather than pontificating on the obscure.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Well, bless my breaches and pass the custard. Effect upon readers seems to be a nearly total if not unanimous consensus. How often does that happen? Not much since I joined Hatrack, if ever, and rare as all get out in the human condition.

Rereading Noah Lukeman's A Dash of Syle, I came upon the idea that a clause is a form of emphasis, sentence, section, chapter, book, novel as well, word and even syllable subtly and profoundly if realized as emphasis. Emphasis is certainly a method for orchestrating reader effect.

I'm still working through emphasis as a writing principle, in part aided by rhetoric study, in part from reviewing other writing texts, in part from grammar study, and in part from reading narratives and noting how emphases' strategies and tactics are used. Subtle, in most cases, to say the least. Punctuation plays an important role. Now I notice, though, when an emphasis is missing and warranted, when an emphasis fails, when emphasis is overwrought and thus loses its influences, when one works, when one is exquisite. Tension develops from artful emphasis, for one. Not only structural considerations but aesthetic ones as well relate to emphasis for its effects on readers.

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mfreivald
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These quotes seem apropos:

(Okay, I just liked the Clancy and Chesterton ones too much not to include.)

There are no rules, but you break them at your peril. — Peter Guber

I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances. — John Steinbeck

Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop. — Red Smith

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. — Anne Lamott

Any fool can take a bad line out of a poem; it takes a real pro to throw out a good line. — Theodore Roethke

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. — Tom Clancy

There is no method but to be very intelligent. — TS Eliot

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. — GK Chesterton

Nothing leads so straight to futility as literary ambitions without systematic knowledge. — HG Wells

However great a man's natural talent may be, the act of writing cannot be learned all at once. — Jean Jacques Rousseau

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johnbrown
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Grumpy old guy,

Here's why I think framing it as rules and breaking rules ultimately causes issues.

Let's say I decide to write the beginning of a story. If I think think about the "rules" of beginnings, I might come up with this list. These are all things I've heard from folks that you should or shouldn't do.

- Don't start with a character waking up.
- Don't start with the weather.
- Avoid starting with dialogue.
- Don't use a prologue.
- Don't start with omnipresent pov.

There are more, but this is a good enough start on the list.

Here's the problem. All of us here can come up with awesome beginnings that ignore each one of those things above. And then we can go on to find any number of great openings from other authors that ignore them as well.

We're tempted to say, well, those authors knew when to break the rules.

But is there anything inherently bad about prologues? Or omniscient narration? Or someone waking up?

If instead of thinking about rules, I say to myself, hey, what's a thrilling way to open this story? What's a moment that will grab the reader? Or how can I create some electricity for the reader in this scene? If I think about the goal, then I automatically begin to think up lots of solutions that might work.

If I want to start with the weather, and my goal is to catch the readers attention, then I could come up with something like this bit from TC Boyle's "We Are Norsemen."

quote:
That year the winter ran at us like a sword, October to May. You know the sort of thing: permafrosting winds, record cold. The hot springs crusted over, birds stiffened on the wing and dropped to the earth like stones, Thorkell the Old froze to the crossbar in the privy.
Maybe I have this awesome voice and image, but there's no action. It's just some contextless narration. A rule focus would have me exclude it. On the other hand, an effect focus would allow me to write something like this, the opening to Connelley's THE BRASS VERDICT.

quote:
Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.

The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for any lie. But for the one you can grab onto and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.

That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.

I love that beginning. I don't know if it works for you, but I couldn't stop reading.

A rule focus would have excluded it.

On the other hand, when the writer is focused on effect, he or she is free to try all sorts of solutions. And whatever works to generate the effect, to reach the goal, works. End of story. The only measurement is if it works. And if it doesn't work, then it needs to be changed. Even if a rule says it should work.

A rule focus doesn't really let you do that. Because it focuses the mind on these shoulds and shouldn'ts, not the reader.

Here's an opening I'm working on. My goal is to present something interesting to the reader. I want to raise a question in their mind, some anticipation. The previous book ends with this half beast half man named Harnock throttling Talen. Talen passes out, and that's the end. All throughout that book, I planted bits about Harnock. He's mad. He uses dark magic. He kills any males that come into his territory. It's possible he eats people. And so I open with this.

quote:
TALEN WOKE ON the dirt floor of a small, dark shed that smelled of blood and hanging meat. His head pounded. His ankles and wrists were lashed together. He brought his tied hands up and felt his head for damage. One side was tender, but there wasn't any blood. Nor was the bone broken underneath. So he still had his brains, the little good they did him.
I think that beginning does its job well. But even if it doesn't, by focusing on the goal and not rules, I can change it until it does.

I can't do that with rules because rules don't give me anything to measure whether I'm succeeding or not.

I'm not saying there isn't cause and effect. If you never use any punctuation, that has a definite effect on the reader. All I'm saying is that I've found it most helpful to focus on the experience I'm trying to give to the reader and only judge the storytelling by that.

Does it work? If it does, it's gold.

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Grumpy old guy
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johnbrown, I think you misunderstood me when I said that there are rules in writing. These aren't rules:

- Don't start with a character waking up.
- Don't start with the weather.
- Avoid starting with dialogue.
- Don't use a prologue.
- Don't start with omnipresent pov.

. . . they're opinions.

In one of my novels I have a 3,500 word, well some people would call it a prologue but I titled it 'Prelude', and the novel ends with a 4,000 word epilogue. Such things are allowed for within the rules of writing.

The problem for me is that too many people take the opinions of self-proclaimed experts as rules when they aren't, they're just opinions. Granted, the majority of 'knowledgeable' people may agree with these opinions, giving them added veritas, but at the end of the day they are simply opinions.

The rules for writing, in my opinion, are those which have stood the test of time and outlasted the current fads. By that I mean opinions that are still valued for their veracity and insight into what makes good story writing despite being decades or even centuries old.

In writing any scene, my first question to myself is, "What does this scene have to do?" and that determines the structure and content of that scene, not someone else's opinion of what should or shouldn't be done with it.

I think we are in fundamental agreement about not being restricted in what we write, or how we write it, by other people's opinions. But we are 'arguing' definitions in a polite manner.

Phil.

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johnbrown
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I think we are indeed in general agreement. Form follows function.

However, I am curious to see examples of some of these time-tested rules. Even the general conventions of grammar and punctuation and spelling bow at times to the effect we're going for, e.g., Ernie's reel dum.

Can you supply some examples?

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Grumpy old guy
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One that immediately springs to mind is the three-act structure: Beginning, Middle and End.

I think it was first enunciated by Aristotle in his Poetics over 3,000 years ago but it obviously predates that. Despite undergoing many subtle changes and additions such as Campbell's The Hero's Journey, the basic foundation remains.

And I agree that grammar and punctuation are malleable for the purposes of narrative however, I think you need to understand those grammatical rules you are breaking so that it is done artfully and not does not appear as if done accidentally.

Phil.

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MattLeo
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Three act structure is almost more of a descriptive rule and a prescriptive rule. Stories generally have a beginning, middle and end. That doesn't mean the model is not useful; mentally labeling each part of the story reminds you to think about how much of each you want. Of course some writers want so much middle that their stories are like foot long hot dogs. The beginning and end are just the short, pinched bits on the ends. This often happens in fantasy novels; David Lindsay's 1920 A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and George R.R. Martin's GAME OF THRONES come to mind.

There are some interesting rules of thumb associated with the three act "structure", such as: the first act should end with the protagonist committed to solving the problem he's confronted with; the second act should end with protagonist at the lowest point, etc. But helpful as these guidelines are, they only apply to certain kinds of stories. The don't mean much in episodic or epic scale stories.

Here's an example of a widely held *prescriptive* rule: no head hopping. Most people these days agree that scenes should be written from from a single character's point of view. Even third person omniscient scenes tend to follow one character. I can think of exceptions of course. Tolkien broke this rule numerous times in LotR, particularly in "elvish" scenes. My romance writer friends tell me head hopping is less frowned upon in "romantic" scenes in category romances, although the themselves don't like it.

But there's no logical reason to frown on head hopping if you've got an omniscient narrator. It's a matter of expectation. It might help if the narrator has a strong and distinctive voice.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:

There were lots of stories I just didn't get, even though I enjoyed them. At that age I just didn't have the depth and experience and education to understand what I was reading.

As time wore on, I acquired more and more of that...and, sometimes, when I reread something, I did get it, finally.

I've had this happen too, and now that I think on it... perhaps not coincidentally, at about the same point where my own writing made its.. second? large incremental improvement.

And I remember which book I was rereading (for the 4th or 5th time!) at the moment that "I get it" realization came to me: Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh. Suddenly I put all the Union/Alliance politics together, and a great deal that I'd glossed over became hard facts of that universe.

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Robert Nowall
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Downbelow Station. Ooh...I'll have to pull that one and reread it, schedule permitting...
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Robert Nowall
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"Waking up" gets used a lot, because, after all, in the natural course of things, it's a beginning.

I gave it up when I realized I'd written three stories in a row that opened with the lead character waking up. I let one stand---it was out there already---drastically revised the second to find a new starting point---and dropped the third one altogether.

Use it sparingily, guys---not for every story.

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extrinsic
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Writing rules, laws, imperatives, dictates, and such generally reflect cultural trends: publishing culture. The admonition against waking up openings comes from its overuse and artless misuse, for example. Turkey City Lexicon cites that opening type as a type of Dischism, where a writer's environment intrudes into a narrative.

The "waking up" the entry into a narrative's moment and place, like entering into a wakened state from the "dream" that an alpha reality can seem, though the opposite, the imagination "dream" that imaginative writing is. The Lexicon names smoking, drinking, birds, dogs, foliage cavorting outside, and similar writer's environment events and actions as common culprits. White Room syndrome is similar, in that the "white room" is a blank page in a writer's face, same with marble statue syndrome.

Not a rule, though a principle: if a waking up scene has agency, or weather or other so-called opening no-no, the scene may work. Otherwise, they are pointless. There's the "agency" principle discussed at length in several recent, robust Hatrack writing discussion threads.

Writing "rules" are guidelines, principles, not inviolate laws, even grammar is principles, albeit with the weight and strength of laws when in grammar schooling of any grade or college class. A grammar is the collected consensus principles of a language, accumulated over the span of the language's use and subject to change for living languages. That is what makes a language alive: subject to change.

English is many languages: regional variants, culture variants, era variants, audience variants, age variants, environment variants, gender variants, discourse community variants, ad infinitum. For example, a female native English professor's lecture language is markedly different from a male English second language physics professor's essay writing language.

Yet one writing law--law--does exist, unchanged since communication composition was first begun in prehistory: facilitate appealing, memorable reading--or listening or viewing--and comprehension ease. If an audience of any size from one to an entire world cannot understand what's being expressed, no communication takes place. Period. If an audience is not interested, no communication takes place. If an audience does not receive, period, no communication has taken place.

If a receiver observes and critically processes a discourse, understanding to a degree takes place, communication has taken place. Take the emergent slang dialect of recent narratives: inconsistent tenses, inconsistent grammatical person voices (first, second, third person), run on sentences, passive voice, faulty conjunction and preposition use, overused idioms, bone-tired metaphors, causation fallacies, obvious cliffhanger breaks--this is a contemporary slang consequent of the Digital Age.

Some understanding of the slang makes it somewhat understandable, though less than memorable. Each and every one of the above grammar faults overlooks the one writing law's most crucial principle of emphasis. Write what you mean, mean what you write. Do so, so no doubts are left.

Take the several television broadcast types that are direct consequences of digital technology: reality TV, political talk gossip "news" shows, audience targeted scheduling that allows for niche focus, like the teenager weekend babysitter channel I will not name here, and later evening TV-MA with nudity and adult sexual situations, adult language, and violence, for examples. Note the language is a source of the slang dialect features enumerated above, especially television shows that rely on improvisational speech, like news gossip and reality TV.

News gossip, isn't that an oxymoron akin to military intelligence? Oxymoron: a condensed paradox with an underlying greater truth. Reality TV is itself an oxymoron.

Anyway, the slang of television has become a universal dialect because of television's pervasive influences. Ray Bradbury's visionary insight of Farenheit Four Fifty-One has come to pass; that is, television destroys culture. Are not we as writers obligated to write a different language voice than our greatest competition, television? I believe we are. If for no more reason than to facilitate appealing reading and comprehension ease. A place to start is grammar, a different writing grammar than the improvised speech grammar of television. Emphasis writing principles contained within a writing grammar handbook are the source for that.

In other words, don't write like everyone speaks, don't use slang dialect except as emphasis, ever mindful that "like" but not the same is different though accessible for appealing reading comprehension and ease, nor overuse emphasis, and note that in order to stand out being different is what standing out is. Peculiarly, fascinatingly, close conformance to the sophisticated principles of Standard Written English grammar, no less accessible for its sophistication though, has become rare enough that it has become standing out.

Not to mention, sophisticated grammar use requires efforts many writers will not invest, in order to stand out, so worth the candle for that reason alone. Sophisticated grammar isn't complex writing. Sophisticated grammar is simple expression such that appealing, memorable reading and comprehension ease is facilitated. Law One.

Laws two and three are, a writer writes, a reader reads; write so that the reader reads, mindful readers' experiences lend themselves to reading, and do not disturb readers' reading. Both these laws are corollary to Law One.

[ August 03, 2014, 06:18 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Anyway, the slang of television has become a universal dialect because of television's pervasive influences. Ray Bradbury's visionary insight of Farenheit Four Fifty-One has come to pass; that is, television destroys culture.

I'm not that worried that TV will destroy culture. It won't, any more than any of the other things that were going to destroy culture did.

But I do think that TV has an uniquely impoverishing effect on the imagination of sci-fi and fantasy writing. I remember reading an urban fantasy and thinking, "This is just re-hashed Charlaine Harris." Then I looked and saw Charlaine Harris imitators all over the place. Then I learned that her vampire mysteries had been adapted for TV by HBO and the penny dropped.

Of course derivative novels are no new thing, but TV is different: it is much easier to copy a TV show's images and motifs because they're all out there, week after week, year after year; and episodic TV is all about delivering a repeatable experience every week. A TV show that is radically different from week to week wouldn't build a loyal following. There are 110 episodes of BABYLON 5 to study, 178 of Star Trek TNG, and 195 episodes of SUPERNATURAL. Anyone with basic fiction writing skills who watched all 76 episodes of TRUE BLOOD could turn out a very similar gothic urban fantasy -- and many apparently have.

It takes a lot more originality to copy the appeal of a book, because you have to construct the scenes and images in your mind. A truly successful reconstruction of a popular book's appeal is a rare feat; how many writers tried to copy Harry Potter and failed miserably? I think Rick Riordan stands out among the "methadone book" (for Harry Potter withdrawal) authors because as a teacher he understood the appeal of the Harry Potter books better than other imitators. If there were more authors who could do this, then the Percy Jackson books wouldn't be a successful rehashing of Harry Potter; they'd be the second series in a new genre of fiction.

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extrinsic
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Television greatly influenced the decline of parlor entertainment performances, in a sense destroyed that culture's customs and traditions to a signficant degree. Not the destruction of culture entirely, substituted the new culture of television for parlor culture.

My point, though, is television's influences on grammar, the destruction of persuasive language culture. I'm reading a niche genre this summer: military science fiction. Recent publications of that genre tend toward a television dialect, smarmy sarcasm meant to signal campy irony yet falls short of social-culture satire for its dearth of social signficance--the argumentation claim on point merely focused on mocking sacred cows--faulty grammar, awkward, clumsy, cluttered, and confused style, and derivative imitation. Craft generally emphasizing events at the expense of setting and character development, and dialogue-heavy prose that "tells" too much of the action. Tel est la vie d'escritur: such is the life of writing.

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johnbrown
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Turkey City Lexicon . . . a great example of an extreme case of rule-itis [Smile]

Beginning, middle, end. I think this is a good one to bring up.

If the rule is that we must always have one of each, I suppose that must not apply to George RR Martin who looks like he'll never generate an end (grin).

Actually, look at all that flash fiction--many of those stories are missing either the beginning or the end. Or the middle.

But let’s look at beginning, middle, and end closer.

Does the idea of beginning, middle, and end actually distinguish a story from anything else? I can write 100 words of gibberish, and it will have a beginning, middle, and end. An email has a beginning, middle, and end. So does a recipe. So does a rock concert and a highway.

Saying a story has a beginning, middle, and end doesn't seem to get a writer anywhere. It’s never gotten me anywhere. It seems to be pretty useless.

A story does have a beginning, middle, and end, but what distinguishes it from the one found in an email or on a highway? What constitutes a story’s beginning? What constitutes its middle or end?

Only when we start asking these questions do we start to get anywhere. But I submit here’s where a lot of folks immediately run themselves into problems. They do that because they begin to define the parts in terms of the form.

It's a character with a situation. It's a character with a goal. No, it’s a narrator with an observation like THE BRASS VERDICT above. It’s a reluctant hero. No, it’s an active hero. No, it’s a hero in a state just before something creates a change. No, it’s a hero with a flaw that needs to be overcome. No, it’s an etc. etc. etc.

The problem with all of those and a hundred other definitions is that they all miss the point.

Writers are providing a service. They are guiding readers through an experience. That’s what people pay for. And so a beginning is something that happens inside the reader. If it doesn’t happen in the reader, you don’t have a beginning. How many times have folks asked when is this story going to start and they're pages and pages into the book?

Aristotle didn’t discover the eternal rules of writing. Nor did Joseph Campbell. All they saw were some patterns or forms that produced a certain effect in readers, and then each created a model of how he thought things worked.

I think Campbell went off into lulu land with his ideas. More on that here: http://www.sfwa.org/2011/04/key-conditions-for-suspense-part-17-structure-is-problem-solving-not-voodoo/ Aristotle at least seemed to be dealing with actual audiences. Many parts of his model are tied to audience effect.

But it’s just a model. For example, here’s a summary from SparksNotes where he suggests “For a tragedy to arouse pity and fear, we must observe a hero who is relatively noble going from happiness to misery as a result of error on the part of the hero. Our pity and fear is aroused most when it is family members who harm one another rather than enemies or strangers.” http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/aristotle/section11.rhtml

I can think of a dozen examples where I feel pity and fear that doesn’t require an error on the part of the hero. Nor does it require family members. I don’t think his model is accurate in a lot of places.

Without making this long post longer, I think that if we really want to understand what we’re doing, then we have to always start with the goal, with the service we’re providing, and then find things that meet the goal. Which means it’s never about rules. It’s about knowing what we're trying to do to the reader and the ways we can accomplish that.

At least, that's always been so much more productive for me.

BTW, an often repeated rule about beginnings, middles, and ends is that their ideal proportion is 25/50/25. But I don't find that in the wild as I post here http://www.sfwa.org/2011/05/key-conditions-for-suspense-part-21-patterns-for-presenting-the-problem-elements-4-5/ and here http://www.sfwa.org/2011/06/key-conditions-for-suspense-part-27-patterns-for-resolution-element-4-6-the-series-wrap-up/

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extrinsic
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A folklorist consensus views John Campbell's monomyth and hero's journey theories as derivative of Vladimir Propp's signal work and without the cultural significance of the theories Propp does explore. Both their theories are more ethnology than poetics: how cultures found, emulate, disseminate, and perpetuate literature as cultural identity. Other folklorists view literature, especially folk tales, legends, rumnors, and gossip, as what people make, say, do, believe, know, to share identity. In any regard, ostension's varieties are a large part of folk literature and lore.

Aristotle's view of tragedy, as cited above, narrowly defines his view of the pinnacle "form" or dramatic arts; that is, classic Aristotlean tragedy, which the dramatic action and outcome is a consequence of the central agonist's "error." The error is the cause of the agonist's dramatic complication.

The writing principle on point, not rule or law, principle, guide, is the centrality and proactivity of the central agonist is the fundamental action driver from beginning, through middle, to end, of the tragedy. One of many forms which Aristotle notes, tragedy is his favorite and his opinion that a tragedy of self-involved errors is the height of drama.

Comedy is another form: mostly comedy is problem satisfaction, conflict resolution. Where tragedy is failure to achieve a desired satisfaction, not conflict resolution. Arguably, tragedy preaches the errors of self-involvement are antisocial. Aristotle also notes, for a tragedy to be complete and satisfying in its effect, the agonist must realize the error of ways and correct the action through a tragic sacrifice. Yet more narrow of a form, again, one which Aristotle believed was the height of drama--not the one true form, one among many. He disparaged comedy offhandly, and disparaged other forms more directly so: makes a blanket condemnation of dramatic forms outside of tragedy or comedy.

The Poetics of Aristotle is neither a complete discourse on drama nor poetics, and it is one writer's opinion and theories. No one poetics text can encompass all of drama nor prose writing principles; and can only touch upon accessible principles which a poetics composer can appreciate.

The notable principle of the Poetics is one of form that develops an audience effect; that is, causality, and nowhere near a complete and incisive discourse on the causation topic. Yet the Poetics was a signal work for its time, as well as today.

Narrative may use other organization forms, different from plot--dramatic structure--though plot is most common in fiction. Nor is causation the sole plot engine: antagonsim and tension are other related plot engines. Gustav Freytag's Technique of the Drama discourses on tension. No one yet has discoursed to similar degrees about antagonism. I've looked far and wide.

Anecdote, vignette, and sketch, for example, may organize their narrative forms without the identities of plot, though they are as a best practice short forms. A sketch, for example, may be organized chronologically or not, only one organization feature is required for a sketch: a portrait of an entertaining or interesting character. A politician's public eruption may be a newsworthy event, an interesting sketch, say, that portrays the character as entirely a snapshot portrait--without any causation or antagonism or tension.

Same with a vignette: a setting portrait, say of a volcanic eruption. No antagonism, causation, or tension required per se. Or an anecdote, likewise a portrait of an entertaining or interesting event, no necessity per se for antagonsim, causation, or tension.

However, drama, in order to evoke an audience effect, ideally emotional, must deploy antagonism, causation, and tension and events, settings, and characters: short or long fiction and other dramatic prose.

The three-act structure is also a drama principle, not per se useful for anecdote, vignette, or sketch: beginning, middle, and end. Frankly, the five-act structure for me is more useful, and I've not yet read even an artful micro fiction drama that didn't conform to a five-act structure. Not to say that some micro fiction isn't artful anecdote, vignette, or sketch without an act structure, but that the longer the form, the more likely the structure is organized into acts.

[ August 06, 2014, 03:21 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Not all Beginnings, Middles or Ends need be explicit, they can be implicit; supplied by the reader themselves, yet instigated through their artful omission by the writer.

What I'm talking about is story as opposed to other forms of communication. Nearly every story I've ever read, regardless of brevity, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether the writer is aware of it or not. A four-year-old may not understand the three act structure, yet if you ask them to tell you a story they will invariably construct their narrative along the lines of: The story starts here, this happens, and then this and it ends. (For me, the five act drama as espoused by Freytag is simply a refinement of the basic three act structure that adds emphasis on the rising and falling actions and the tragic reversal at the end.)

eg: When Robin Hood was riding in the woods the Sheriff of Nottingham found him. They fought. Robin Hood won. A story in three acts. I'll have to think about how I'd write this one in five acts though.

But, at the end of the day we are simple merchants touting our wares to our customers and trying to provide them with what they want. If we do that we're successful. If we don't, we go broke. Our readers are the ones who determine the rules of writing, not the writers themselves.

Phil.

[ August 06, 2014, 08:50 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
What I'm talking about is story as opposed to other forms of communication. Nearly every story I've ever read, regardless of brevity, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether the writer is aware of it or not.

This is what I mean when I say the three act structure is a descriptive rule rather than prescriptive. It's difficult to conceive of a story that doesn't have a beginning middle and end, even if the author doesn't choose to put one them down on the page.

That said, there are certain assumptions about what should happen in the beginning, middle and end phases of a story that are quite possible to violate. The middle of a story doesn't have to consist of complications or rising tension; it can be episodic, like TALE OF GENJI or SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Stuff happens, then more stuff happens. Likewise the end of a story doesn't have to resolve anything, as long as it isn't possible to develop the main action any further. Kazuo Ishiguro likes to end stories on a note of indefinitely prolonged pathos (e.g., REMAINS OF THE DAY).

It's interesting that the "stuff happens, then more stuff happens" middle seems more common in fantasy than in sci-fi. I think it's because a lot of the pleasure of fantasy is to be transported to a world of wonder and enchantment, or in the case of George R.R. Martin of violence and depravity. Readers have to notice that the story isn't developing along dramatic lines, but it either bothers you that a story doesn't end or you wish it never does.

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mfreivald
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quote:
Our readers are the ones who determine the rules of writing, not the writers themselves.
For the most part, sure. But there are different readers and different measuring sticks for success. Many extremely famous and widely read writers went broke. Philip K. Dick, for example, used drugs to help him produce at a very high rate just so he could survive. Many are famous posthumously, so their readers encompassed much more than just the contemporary market. Some writing is intended for a very small audience. All that said, I think your statement still applies; it just has a lot more scope than one might think.
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johnbrown
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Lots of good points above.

Let me pose a question. Is it possible to follow Freytag's five-act structure or the three-act structure Phil used in his story about Robin Hood and utterly fail? Is it possible to use something else and succeed?

MattLeo reports that GRRM's stuff doesn't really follow the details of those structures, yet those stories succeed with millions of readers. Phil told a story about Robin Hood, but I have a strange suspicion he's not going to submit it for publication.

How can this be?

And what does this say about the rules or guidelines?

My answer is that writing stories is not about form. It's about the form in service of a function. Which means you can't know if you have the right form until you know the function.

I'm assuming everyone here is writing with an eye towards delighting readers enough they'd be willing to pay for the opportunity to read, or at least feel the time was well spent.

So the question is what does that for readers who like the kind of story you're telling?

The insights that have helped me the most are those that uncover what causes different effects in the reader.

Instead of approaching story with a rigid form in mind, I've found it more useful to approach it with what kind of experience I want to share with the reader. And THEN look for the "rules", the principles, guidelines, and techniques for doing that.

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mfreivald
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Failure is always possible, but I think you mean could the structural approach *make* something fail. Instead of failure (though it could go that far), I think it might be better to ask if it can diminish a story by using the three or five act structures. I would certainly think so. In adept hands, I would bet that structure helps to flesh out dynamics and manage tension (among other things), but certainly a true craftsman would know when he's found something better that doesn't fit the model. If he forces it in the model, he might lose the better idea.

So, I may not prefer your word choice of "form" and "function," but I would probably agree with the sentiment.

By the way, I think a somewhat established thriller writer would too. Steven James wrote a book on writing titled Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. It's quite good, but what strikes me as interesting is that he immediately delves into what I would consider structure concepts. However, he doesn't force any kind of overarching three-act structure, and the book is quite instructive for more organic writing.

One of his main points--and I think I favor it--is that forcing something into structure often causes an author to make his characters act in ways against their nature to get to the next structure point.

I think my running hypothesis is that structure is a powerful tool that can flesh out great stories, but writing should allow nature to take its course, even if it means busting the structure. I think that's at least similar to what you are saying, johnbrown.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by johnbrown:
Lots of good points above.

Let me pose a question. Is it possible to follow Freytag's five-act structure or the three-act structure Phil used in his story about Robin Hood and utterly fail? Is it possible to use something else and succeed?

MattLeo reports that GRRM's stuff doesn't really follow the details of those structures, yet those stories succeed with millions of readers. Phil told a story about Robin Hood, but I have a strange suspicion he's not going to submit it for publication.

How can this be?

And what does this say about the rules or guidelines?

My answer is that writing stories is not about form. It's about the form in service of a function. Which means you can't know if you have the right form until you know the function.

I'm assuming everyone here is writing with an eye towards delighting readers enough they'd be willing to pay for the opportunity to read, or at least feel the time was well spent.

So the question is what does that for readers who like the kind of story you're telling?

The insights that have helped me the most are those that uncover what causes different effects in the reader.

Instead of approaching story with a rigid form in mind, I've found it more useful to approach it with what kind of experience I want to share with the reader. And THEN look for the "rules", the principles, guidelines, and techniques for doing that.

In answer to all the above, revision is when structure comes into play with greatest importance, unless a writer has the structure's crisis pivots in mind that suits the effect function beforehand during drafting.

A rigid conformance to the exacting dimensions of plot or act divisions makes for a mechanically sound narrative, rings like a well-founded bell; however, if emotional effect is lackluster, yes, utter failure may ensue. On the other hand, plot's fundamental structural function is persuading emotional effects in auditors and receivers--readers, listeners, viewers, critics--not organization solely by and for a purpose of organization function, the ways formal expository composition require and follow.

A long beginning, for example, may start plot erection slow, slow start. An overly long middle likewise may slow action. An unsatisfying ending ends to no meaningful end, maybe because complications are unsatisfied due to wandering away from the structural core. Or overly brief acts may miss important structural, aesthetic, and emotional contexture.

Beginnings are for introducing a main dramatic complication; middles for efforts to satisfy the complication; endings for satisfying the complication. A one-act, two-act, four act, five-act or more-act or no-act structure likewise relates most to a dramatic complication. Dramatic complication is quite simply the human condition at its broadest and finest, most meaningful literary expression. Dramatic complication is the kernel of narrative structure as well as aesthetics and emotional appeals.

[ August 06, 2014, 10:43 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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quote:
Originally posted by johnbrown:
Let me pose a question. Is it possible to follow Freytag's five-act structure or the three-act structure Phil used in his story about Robin Hood and utterly fail? Is it possible to use something else and succeed?

Obviously. Voice, style and sophistication of prose have nothing to do with structure and each of them colours and influences readers perceptions of the work. A writer may create the perfect plot and story and yet be so inept in articulating the story that no one would bother reading past the first sentence. On the other hand, a writer writing ahead of their time may be ridiculed and marginalised in their time but be lauded by later generations. Two cases in point from different disciplines: Philip K Dick and Vincent van Gough, both creators far ahead of their time.

For me, the structure and accepted rules of storytelling do not stop me from crafting scenes and characters that have the primary purpose of engaging the reader, plucking at their heartstrings and generating an emotional response; that's what artful prose and narrative is for. Structure is the framework that holds the edifice of my storytelling up.

Phil.

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