Connessione

Together, you and I have arrived at the end of this seven-part series of posts. We’ve been working our way through the principles in Michael J. Gelb’s wonderful book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. For each principle, we’ve been exploring how it relates to fiction writing.

The last principle is Connessione: a recognition and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena—systems thinking.

ConnessioneLeonardo had a fascination with the connections between things. He’d study how a tossed stone caused expanding circular ripples in water. He wrote, “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.” His notebooks were a disorganized, chaotic stream of consciousness, as if his mind would flit from one thing to a seemingly unrelated thought. In a strange echoing of what we might consider Eastern philosophy, he wrote: Everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything.”

In what ways should a writer of fiction embrace the principle of Connessione? Here are some that occur to me:

  • When you’re thinking of plot ideas for stories to write, look for separate ideas from the world around you and connect them. To pick just three examples of this, consider how Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series combines the ideas of TV reality shows and war; how Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein combines Tarzan, Jesus, and Mars; how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick combines whaling and obsession.
  • Think of the interconnections between characters within your stories. For characters A and B there are (at least) four connections: how A feels about B internally, how A behaves toward B externally, and the same internal feelings and external behavior of B toward A. Now imagine three, four, five, or more major characters and convey, in your story, the rich web of interconnectedness between them all. This alone will be the subject of a future blog post.
  • Your stories have an internal, systemic structure. They are a connection of related parts. The chapters (or sections) are themselves composed of scenes, and build on each other to form the integrated whole of the story.
  • The story element of theme is a connection between concrete things in a story to abstract ideas in real life. Similarly, the techniques of metaphor and simile are connections in the form of comparisons—relating something you’re describing in your story to something familiar or understandable to the reader.

See? If you write fiction, you must embrace the notion of Connessione to some extent. In fact, it helps to practice all seven principles— Curiosità, Dimonstrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione. Perhaps you’ll not become as well remembered or universally admired as da Vinci, but you can think like him, and write fiction as he would have. That’s the aim of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 11, 2015Permalink

Dumped in the Middle of the Road

You’re reading along down the story highway, racing through action scenes, taking the dialogue curves at a good clip, the wind of the story’s world in your hair. All of a sudden, a truck up ahead upends its load and a pile of text pours onto the pavement, right in your path.

You’ve been stalled by an infodump.

Infodump

You come to a stop to decide what to do. You could plow right through it at slow speed, but you hate that. You could drive around, avoiding it entirely, but some of that text might be necessary to understand the story. If you’re in an angry mood, you could forget the whole book and move on.

An Infodump is one of the Turkey City Lexicon terms. It refers to a passage of text used to explain things and give background information to the reader. It can be one paragraph, or go on for several pages. It’s most common in science fiction and fantasy, where the story’s world is unlike our own, and you need to immerse the reader in it.

From a writer’s perspective, it seems so necessary to convey that information. The reader needs to understand certain things so later events in the story make sense. Many of the great writers of the past used infodumps; Herman Melville spent whole chapters that way, and it hasn’t hurt his sales. Oh, perhaps the writer could think of clever ways to work the information into the story, but who has time for that?

Better make time, you Twenty-First Century Writer, because readers these days don’t want to slow down and plow through your dump.

Here are some techniques:

  1. Delete it. What does that info add to your story, anyway? Do readers really need to know it? Are you dumping that load to help reads understand, or to show off your research or add credibility? If you can delete it, do so. If you can delete most of it, do that, and use other techniques to convey the rest.
  1. Work it into dialogue. Readers speed through your characters’ dialogue pretty fast, so inserting some of your infodump into their speech is one way to avoid slowing readers down. Caution: there’s danger here. You must not swerve into the As You Know, Bob lane. Make sure the dialogue is realistic as well as explanatory.
  1. Work it into the action. By ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean fight scenes or car chases, but any passages where characters are doing things, moving about, or actively interacting with their environment or each other. It’s characterized by action verbs. It can be interspersed with dialogue, and often serves as a ‘dialogue tag,’ letting the reader know which character is speaking.
  1. Make it entertaining. If you can turn those smelly tons of interfering text into pure, golden fun, readers will actually enjoy the interruption. By ‘entertaining,’ I don’t necessarily mean funny, but humor is a great way to accomplish this, if you can pull it off. This method calls for considerable creativity and skill.
  1. Make it short. As a last resort, keep the infodump, but reduce its length. Readers may forgive a short, explanatory passage here and there.

I struggle with infodumps in my fiction, but it’s important to eliminate them where possible. Dump trucks are fine in real life, but when they drop their load in the middle of your story’s road, it really ticks off your readers. Not good.

Doing my part to beautify the nation’s literary highways and byways, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Hook ‘em, So You Can Reel ‘em In

How will you begin your next story?  The beginning, called the ‘hook,’ is important.  These days readers don’t have much time.  Other things like TV, video games, and the Internet compete with your story for their attention.  If your first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grab them, they’re on to doing something else.

Here are some examples of great hooks used in novels as chosen by the editors of American Book Review:

  • Call me Ishmael.  Moby-Dick, Herman Melville 
  • Marley was dead, to begin with.  A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  1984, George Orwell
  • You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.  The Trial, Franz Kafka
  • Mother died today.  The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  • He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • It was a pleasure to burn.  Fahrenheit 451,  Ray Bradbury
  • The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.  The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

These beginnings work well for several reasons.  They give us an early idea what the story will be about.  They establish the tone of the story, and something about the attitude of the narrator’s voice.

But most of all they seize our attention and compel us to want to read more.  What gives them this quality?  It’s hard to find a common attribute just by looking at them.  They seem to appeal for different reasons.

Writer Darcy Pattison has grouped the different beginnings into categories.  This is helpful since one category might work better for the start of your story than another.  Knowing the category can give you a starting point for developing your hook.

Many of the beginnings in the list start with a sense of the ordinary, and then give the reader something that clashes or is jarring somehow.  We’re left with a puzzle, an oddity, a question that can only be resolved by reading further.  So read on we must.

Those without that twist added to the ordinary seem to possess a different quality.  They settle us in, set a mood, fluff up our pillow, put on some appropriate music.  We’re now comfortably in the story, transported to the author’s world right from the start, and now that we’re there we might as well read on to see what the place is like.

Each of these beginnings without exception is easy to read.  None have rare or difficult words to stumble over.  All have rhythm, and almost poetic brevity.  Not a word is wasted.

How do you write an opening like these?  Heck if I know; these are some of the best ever written.  Ask one of the world’s greatest authors.

With that task added to your to-do list, perhaps we could set our sights a bit lower for now.  How do you write an effective story beginning?  For one thing, it takes time and many trials.  The beginning is the hardest part to write, usually takes the longest, and usually involves the most revisions.  You might decide to skip the hook and come back to it later as the story evolves.  You might like to write a first version of the hook knowing you’ll revisit it over and over.  In any case, be prepared to spend the time and thought to craft it right.

To learn much more about how to write story hooks, read Hooked by Les Edgerton.  What an invaluable resource!

With regard to beginnings, we’ve reached the end.  Remember to check back at this site next week for further ramblings about writing by–

                                                                 Poseidon’s Scribe