What’s the Price for That Nice Plot Device?

You’ve heard of plot devices, but do you know what they are? Are they good or bad? Can you name any? For answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right blog post.

No, wrong kind of ‘device.’
From www.snappygoat.com.

Before we can define the term ‘plot device,’ let’s review what a plot is, and how a writer develops one. A plot is a sequence of events in a story, events connected by cause and effect. The writer aims to construct this sequence such that it accomplishes at least the following goals:

  1. illustrates the human condition,
  2. introduces a conflict and depicts the protagonist striving to resolve it,
  3. grabs and sustains the reader’s attention,
  4. leaves the reader with a powerful emotion at the end, and
  5. reflects believable cause-and-effect connections.

If you’re a writer crafting your story, it can be difficult to achieve all these purposes successfully. Often a complication develops. Unlike the reader, you know the story’s end and you’re aiming for that point. You might hit a snag where the next logical event in a cause-effect chain will not result in your desired story ending. To put it another way, to get to the end you want, something illogical has to happen. Your options at this point include:

  • re-writing earlier sections to make the strange cause-effect chain believable
  • re-thinking the ending of the story
  • introducing a plot device to get past the difficulty

Often the first two options are undesirable, so that drives writers to the third—the plot device.

The ‘device’ in the term ‘plot device’ refers to its original definition of a plan, scheme, or technique, not its modern connotation of a mechanical or electronic gadget.

Here are some examples of plot devices:

  • Bogus alternatives. This one comes from the Turkey City Lexicon. Sometimes, to make the plot work, the author needs a character to take an uncharacteristic action. An inexperienced author will walk the reader through the character’s mental list of options, rationalizing why the character chooses one action and not the others. This interrupts the story’s pace, pulls the reader out of the story, and is unnecessary.
  • Deus ex machina. A surprise entity comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from a plot problem. Let’s see, Jules Verne thinks, I’ve got the title, The Mysterious Island, and I’ve got my heroic castaways who survive mostly by their wits, except sometimes they need outside help. I know! I’ll let them be aided by an unknown benefactor, later revealed to be Captain Nemo!”
  • Idiot plot. This is another one from the Turkey City Lexicon. If the writers plot problem is serious, one solution would be to set the story in the land of idiots, which would explain any unusual action taken by any character. They can all act to further the author’s plot, no matter how irrational any character’s actions seem.
  • MacGuffin. The protagonist pursues an object, believing it to be important, though (to the reader) another object could work as well. “Listen, Dashiell, I like novel, but can we change this Sicilian Vulture statuette to something else…say, a Maltese Falcon?” “Okay, sure.”
  • Plot voucher. Someone gives the protagonist an object that turns out to be the one thing needed later to get the hero out of a bad situation. “Holy plot device, Batman, why are you loading bear repellent in your utility belt?” “Better safe than sorry, Robin.” <later> “Holy Ursa Major, Batman! We’re surrounded by hungry grizzlies!” “Yes, lucky thing I happened to bring…”
  • Red herring. Anything used by the author to distract the reader’s attention away toward the unimportant and away from the important. Most frequently used in mysteries to lead the reader toward an incorrect conclusion. The term dates from the use of strong-smelling fish to divert hounds from chasing the hare. I haven’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but I understand it contains a character with an Italian name that translates as “red herring.”
  • Shoulder angel. A plot device used in visual media such as comic books, animated cartoons, or screenplays to illustrate a protagonist debating with her conscience, sometimes accompanied by a devil (temptation) on the other shoulder.

 From the tone of my post, you’re probably concluding that plot devices are bad, and it’s best not to use them. I’m not going to take that stance. Most writers try not to need them, but end up using them from time to time. The trick is to write well enough that readers get so swept up by your story that they don’t notice you’ve used a plot device.

To sum up, what is the price of that nice plot device, as I so poetically asked in the post’s title? The answer is, it’s free to use, but if you don’t use it well, readers won’t enjoy your story. Take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Map of All Story Plots

When you’re stuck for a story idea, it may seem like other authors have already written all the good tales. Every time you think of a plot, for example, your head swims with titles that have covered that plot, worn it thin.

Are there only so many plots, you wonder, peopled with different characters, set in different places and times, portraying different themes, and written in different tones and styles?

Others have wondered that before you, and developed their own lists of all plot types. Prepare to be confused, and then (perhaps) unconfused.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker declared there are seven plot types: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, The Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Comedy, and Tragedy.

One year earlier, Ronald B. Tobias came out with his book, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. His list included plots such as Revenge, Transformation, and Wretched Excess.

Much earlier, in 1916, the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti introduced thirty-six plot categories, including Obtaining, Rivalry of Superior and Inferior, and Loss of Loved Ones.

Great, you’re thinking, but how many are there—seven, twenty, or thirty-six? That depends on the way you like to categorize things. You could cut a pizza into seven, twenty, or thirty-six pieces, and they’d still add up to the same pie.

That’s what I wanted to explore today. How do those categorization schemes compare to each other? Can you take Booker’s seven plots and see where Tobias’ twenty fit into them? Do Polti’s thirty-six plots fit somehow with Tobias’ and Booker’s taxonomies?

I couldn’t find any example of someone doing this, so I did it. I designated each of Booker’s categories with a B-number: B1, B2, etc. I did similarly with Tobias’ 20 (T1, T2, etc.) and Polti’s 36 (P1, P2, etc.)

Then the trouble started. Many didn’t fit well at all. In such cases, I read the descriptions the authors gave for their categories and chose the one in the other’s categories that seemed most like the one I was considering. You may disagree with the way I’ve mapped them, and I’d love to know your reasoning.

For your careful study, wry amusement, and utter disgust, here is my mapping of the three plot schema against each other:

By now, some questions have occurred to you. One might be, “Can’t a single story be a mixture of two or more of those plot types?” Answer: Yes, there’s no law against that.

Others of you are asking, “Why are the love stories listed as comedies?” Answer: Booker defined his comedy category as including more than humorous stories, and in particular included love stories in that group.

Lastly, there are those asking, “Of what use is this map? Come to think of it, of what use are the three taxonomies?” Answer: for those who asked that, I have no answer that will satisfy you. Go ahead and just write any old story whether it fits a pre-discovered plot category or not.

For those who didn’t ask that last question, you’re probably comfortable with the fact that some people like to take a mass of data and try to organize it somehow, to create filing categories like a Dewey decimal system or biological taxonomies.

Whether you think there are seven, twenty, or thirty-six plot types, or if you don’t see the point in dividing that pizza at all, there are plenty of stories remaining for you to write. Let’s see if the next one you create will be better than any authored by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Shunning the Shaggy Dog Story

Someday you might get a comment back from your critique group or an editor declaring your submitted manuscript to be a “shaggy dog story.” What is that, and is it good or bad?

Wikipedia defines a shaggy dog story as a very long tale, with drawn-out explanations of irrelevant events, culminating in a pointless ending. If you’ve written what others consider a shaggy dog story, that’s not a good thing.

Shaggy Dog Story
No Shaggy Dog Stories

The shaggy dog works slightly better, if at all, in joke form. There’s a rhythm to long, story-type jokes, and listeners are willing to settle in and follow along. After the long build-up, when the punchline is a non-humorous anticlimax, that twist on the typical joke format is supposed to be the funny. It usually doesn’t work.

As an example, when I was a boy I enjoyed telling the Bavarian Cream Pie joke. There are variations of this joke on-line, here, here, and here. In my version, a man seeks the best Bavarian Cream Pie (BCP) in the world. He travels very far, meeting people who tell him where to get the best BCP. Finally, he’s told he must climb the tallest mountain in Bavaria, which he scales. He finds a small restaurant on top, goes in and orders Bavarian Cream Pie. The waiter says they’re all out. The man says, “That’s okay, make it an apple pie.”

I’ll pause here to let you finish laughing. Oh, you’re done already? As you can see, the shaggy dog story emulates a story in many respects (character, setting, style, theme), but there is a silly or stupid resolution of the plot. The story says nothing about the human condition, unless the message is that human existence is pointless. Even existentialist literature doesn’t go that far.

You would think it would be easy to avoid writing a shaggy dog story. Here are some ways you might well fall into the trap:

  • As you’re writing, you think of new and interesting events to include, events unrelated to your plot.
  • Somewhere along the way, you forget something about your main character—an internal conflict she or he must overcome, or even what the character’s goal is.
  • You can’t think of a suitable ending that effectively wraps up the story, so your tale just peters out.

Those pitfalls suggest methods to keep from veering toward shagginess:

  • Kill your darlings. Cut out events and even entire scenes that do not advance your plot.
  • As you write, maintain the idea that your story must have a point. There are conflicts, both external and internal, your protagonist must resolve.
  • There are two ways to avoid the pointless ending problem. First, you could write (or at least outline) the ending first, and then back up and write the story that aims toward that ending. Alternatively, if you don’t want to know the ending before you write the rest, check to see if the ending you finally write does, in fact, resolve the conflicts. If it doesn’t, rewrite it.

Remember, no shaggy dog stories. Shaggy dogs themselves, however, are fine. I certify that no dog, shaggy or otherwise, was harmed, nor was its character impugned, in the writing of this post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X

 

Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Conflict, the Necessary Evil

Ever notice how fiction seems full of conflict? Characters hate each other, fight each other, struggle with problems, strive to survive, etc. Why can’t they just get along together and have nice, trouble-free lives? After all, that’s what we real people want for ourselves, right?

Necessity

You may go ahead and write stories where nothing bad happens, where characters are always kind and thrive in a stress-free environment.

Just one little problem with that notion…no one is going to read those stories. They’d be boring! There is no reason to care about such characters. Their outcome is not in doubt.

ConflictConflict is, therefore, an essential aspect of all fiction. Conflict drives the plot and creates interest in the characters. Since all fiction is about the human condition, and since conflict is inherent in the human condition, your stories had better include some type of conflict.

You might be objecting as you think about great stories you’ve read that didn’t involve any guns, bombs, swords, spears, knifes, or fistfights. Ah, but think deeper about those stories. Did characters disagree verbally? Did a character struggle to survive against Nature’s fury? Was a character conflicted internally?

Conflict comes in various kinds and need not involve violence at all. At its essence, conflict is two forces in opposition to each other. That’s it.

Types

What are the types or categories of conflict? Here’s my classification schema:

  • External
    • Character vs. Character
    • Character vs. Nature
    • Character vs. Society
  • Internal
    • Character vs. Self

Some people add other external conflict types such as Character vs. Technology, Supernatural forces, Fate, or others. To me, those are all included in the basic four types.

How many types of conflict should you include within a single story? Unless it’s flash fiction, I recommend at least two, with one of them being an internal conflict. We live in a psychological age, and readers want to see characters with some depth, some internal struggles, some flaws. Readers don’t even want antagonists to be pure evil; there needs to be some explanation how they turned so bad.

Resolution

I’ve blogged before about the need to ramp up the level of conflict in your story, but what about the resolution of the conflict at the end?

Although I personally enjoy stories where protagonists overcome their adversity through wit, cunning, and intelligence, it need not be that way. Not all conflicts need to be completely resolved at the end. Or the resolution of one major conflict may spark the start of another. Really, the struggle during the bulk of the story is more important than the resolution.

In fact, the protagonist may lose the struggle, as in Jack London’s famous short story, “To Build a Fire.”  That story illustrates that fiction really is about characters contending with difficulties, not necessarily overcoming them in the end. It truly is about the journey, not the destination.

Resources and Summary

There really are some nice blog posts about conflict out there, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Those are my opinions about conflict. You might disagree, and that disagreement itself would represent a type of conflict between you and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 21, 2014Permalink

A Tight Plot

“Tight plotting” is the term I use where everything is necessary to the plot and the story moves along without tangents or superfluous references. I didn’t invent the term, but it’s not yet in widespread use.

First let’s examine the opposite—loose plotting—and we’ll be able to make the contrast. Loose plotting is more common in novels than in short stories, and somewhat common in movies. Why? In a novel there’s an expectation of length, and a tendency for the writer to get a related idea and decide to stick it in the manuscript, even if it has to be force-fit. The creation process for movies is more collaborative than that of books, and with many cooks there’s a tendency to lose focus and spoil the broth.

Airplane!To illustrate, consider two movies, both rather silly comedies. To me, the movie Airplane! (1980) is an example of loose plotting. It’s filled with funny little gags that bear little relation to the main plot and don’t advance the story. The movie may be funny, and it was a financial success, but it is not an example of tight plotting.

By contrast, the movie Galaxy Quest (1999) has a far tighter plot. There are humorous gags and lines, and some subplots, but nearly all the action and dialogue moves the plot along.

Galaxy_Quest_posterOne can argue which movie is funnier, and audiences might be more forgiving with comedies if the jokes are comical enough. But it seems to me that Galaxy Quest has the more focused, the more integral, of the two movies’ plots.

In written fiction such as short stories, novellas, or novels, I believe it’s important to keep the plot tight. Resist the temptation to “work in” what seems to be a great, though tangentially related, idea. Keep asking yourself if each scene, each character, each paragraph and sentence, advance your plot in some important way to keep the story moving. It’s okay to have subplots, but make them related to and supportive of your main plot, and don’t linger too long on any one subplot.

The editing process is where you’ll have the best chance to tighten your plot. You have to be brutal in cutting out unnecessary parts and words. As we say in the biz, you have to “kill your darlings.” Loose plotting is indicative of lazy editing.

Don’t think your readers can’t recognize loose plotting. Once they start your story and latch on to the main plot, they want to follow it to see what happens. They’ll detect any deviation from that plot. At first they’ll wonder how this new path is connected to the main plot. They may forgive an occasional tangent if it’s short. But with each digression you run the risk of boring the reader. A bored reader probably won’t finish your story, and definitely will not read your other stories.

For more information on tight plotting, and overall tight writing, see this great blog post by Margot Finke.

If there’s one writer who really strives to keep his plots tight, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 14, 2014Permalink

Fiction Elements by Genre

In earlier posts I’ve blogged about the various elements of fiction (Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, and Style). I’ve also blogged a bit about the various genres of fiction. Here I thought I’d explore how the various genres emphasize certain elements and de-emphasize others.

For the chart, I used the genres listed in the Wikipedia “List of Genres” entry. As the entry itself points out, people will never agree on this list. Even more contentious will be my rankings in the chart for how much each genre makes use of each fiction element.

Fiction elements vs GenreFor each genre, I assigned my own rough score for each fiction element. I’ve placed the genres in approximate order from the ones emphasizing character and plot more, to the ones emphasizing style and theme more.

Go ahead and quibble about the numbers I assigned. That’s fine. There’s considerable variation within a genre. Also, the percentages of the elements vary over time. If we took one hundred experts in literature and had them each do the rankings, then averaged them, the resulting chart would have more validity than what I’m presenting, which is based on my scoring alone.

But the larger point is that the different genres do focus on different elements of fiction. In my view, character is probably the primary element for all but a few genres. Theme is probably the least important, except for a limited number of genres.

Of what use is such a chart? First, please don’t draw an unintended conclusion. If you happen to know which elements of fiction are your fortes, and which you’re least skilled in, I wouldn’t advise you to choose a genre based on that.

Instead, look at the chart the opposite way. Find the genre in which you’d like to write, and work to strengthen your use of its primary fiction elements in your own work. You might even glance at the genres on either side of your favorite one and consider writing in those genres too.

I can’t seem to find online where anybody else has constructed a chart like mine. Perhaps the only one you’ll see is this one made by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 28, 2014Permalink

Life is But a Theme

Long-time readers of this blog have noted that I’ve explored four of the five components of fiction—character, plot, setting, and style. There’s been quite a clamoring for me to complete the set, and today I’ll do so by discussing theme.

You can think of the theme of a story as the central topic, the universal idea or message, the overall lesson or moral. I’ve said before that all stories are about the human condition and that’s because we choose human themes. Until we deal with other sentient entities, that’s all we really have.

ThemeHere’s another way to think about theme. It’s easy to identify the characters, plot, and setting of a story. Think of those as the ‘real life’ parts of the story, the parts you can visualize with ease. Now imagine key parts of that ‘real life’ getting mapped to a different plane, a place of Platonic ideals. Imagine lines connecting specifics in the story to generalizations in the other plane, concrete items linked to a realm of abstract concepts.

For example, an old woman in a story is linked to the idea of Age itself. A young man going through his first experience of adulthood is linked to the idea of Coming of Age. The growing love between two characters maps to the idea of Falling in Love. You get the idea.

There needn’t be only one theme in a story, and often you can identify more than one. Also, it isn’t necessary for the writer to spell out what the story’s themes are; in fact it’s much better to allow readers to infer them.

Let’s identify some themes in famous literature. Take 1984 by George Orwell. It includes themes such as ever-increasing government control, the loss of individual freedom, and the dangers of advanced technology.

Consider Love Story by Erich Segal. Some of its themes include the idea of opposites being attracted to each other, the sacrifices made for love, the rebellion of a child against his parents, and the notion of love conquering all adversities.

One of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, also contains themes. These include the dangers of advanced technology, aiding the oppressed against oppressors, and the notion that revenge can drive you insane.

Is it possible to write a story without a theme? I’m not sure. Even if the writer has no particular theme in mind, readers and critics can likely discover themes the author didn’t intend, but are nevertheless present.

For a beginning writer who’s overwhelmed by the amount of writing stuff to remember, I suggest concentrating on character, plot, and setting (in that order of importance) without focusing on theme or style as much. Chances are a well-written story will have one or more themes, even if the writer doesn’t consciously strive toward one.

As always, post a comment if you agree, disagree, remain confused, or are just thankful that all five components of fiction have finally been addressed by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Readers on My Mind

Just a few thoughts today about the relationship between writers like you and the readers you aim to delight.  Much of this will sound simplistic, but if you hang with me, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

writer-reader 2Years ago I took a classroom course in communication.  In essence, all communication is an attempt to convey one or more ideas from one mind to another, the trouble being that there are all sorts of filters in between so communication is never perfect.  In the class they asked, “Given that there’s a person transmitting and a person receiving, who is responsible for the quality of the communication?”

It’s not necessarily the transmitter, nor the receiver.  The Zen-like answer they were looking for is you.  Whether you are the transmitter or receiver, you need to strive toward a clear conveyance of the idea from one mind to another.

When we consider writing, it’s different from other forms of communication.  Some forms, like talking, dramatic plays, stand-up comedy, or musical concerts have an advantage in that the receiver is present in the room with the transmitter.  The transmitter gets instant visual feedback about the quality of the communication, allowing her to alter her approach in real-time to improve it.

Obviously that’s not the case with writing.  The writer and reader are almost never present in the same room.  In fact, thanks to the permanence of the medium, the writer need not even be alive when the communication takes place.  The writer gets no immediate feedback from the reader, and certainly cannot adjust the communication on the fly.

So the measure of your success as a fiction writer is how well you transfer emotionally appealing ideas from your mind to the reader’s with minimal loss of clarity.  Using written words alone, you must convey the following things I’ve discussed in earlier blog posts:

It should be apparent, then, that you must keep the reader ever in your mind as you write.  Form a mental picture of someone reading your story.  That clever turn of phrase you’re so proud of—would a reader stumble over it?  That little plot detour you stuck in to show off your knowledge of some arcane fact—will it bore the reader?  You must be willing to sacrifice them all for the reader.

In the end, only readers can determine the quality of your story.  Editors can’t; reviewers can’t.  Certainly you can’t.  Readers are your customers, and the customer is always right.

I mentioned that fiction writers don’t get immediate reader feedback, and that’s true.  However, you will get valuable delayed feedback that is useful for altering your approach in later stories.  This feedback comes in several possible ways:

  • Virtual feedback from the reader you’re imagining as you write, the one looking over your shoulder
  • Feedback from members of your critique group
  • Feedback from an editor
  • Feedback from reviewers
  • Sales figures from your earlier stories

All of these can be useful for improving your writing, making that mind-to-mind communication as clear and enjoyable as possible.  Speaking of feedback, I’d welcome some concerning this blog post, so feel free to comment.  With my mind full of imagined readers, I’m—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

September 8, 2013Permalink