Connective Tissue

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.
-Stephen King, The Gunslinger

This sentence is really two – the one about the Man in Black, and the one about the Gunslinger. Combining them with the word and merely smooths out the delivery. Generally, one sentence conveys one idea.

When writing a story, there is a tendency to add variety to the prose. Rather than simply writing out a list of sentences, we try to organize them in a meaningful way, to smooth out the transitions between them, and sometimes we make the mistake of including too much connective tissue.

King’s sentence clearly shows some connection between the two ideas, so perhaps we would be tempted to include the word because in place of and.

Because the Man in Black fled across the desert, the Gunslinger followed.

Worse, right?

The word and is not one we need to avoid overusing. It’s like said. The reader doesn’t even know he or she read it. On the other hand, replacing and changes the meaning and focus of a sentence. Here’s another Stephen King sentences:

Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do.
-On Writing

The word because shows up here again. Notice that there are three ideas being conveyed in the second sentence:

1 – Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank.
2 – Alcoholics are wired up to drink.
3 – The second is the cause of the first.

The word because changes the meaning of the sentence. It’s not about either idea separately. It’s about the relationship between them. Which means, if either of the first two ideas are new to the reader, the sentence is overworked. Three ideas are too many for one sentence – or even two – to convey.

As it happens, the example sentence is taken out of a context where Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank and Alcoholics are wired up to drink are previously established.

In short, use because because the relationship between A and B is what is important. Do not use because just to tell us A and B. It’s too wordy. The word and is free. The reader never sees it. The word because is far more visible.

Let’s look at three ways this problem can sneak into your prose.

Timing

The word while sneaks in between sentences.

Mike hacked into the computer while Jill disarmed the bomb.

The sentence tells us three things: What Mike did, what Jill did, and that they happened simultaneously. In all likelihood, that third piece of information is unnecessary.

In other cases, the order things happen might be important, but obvious without any connective tissue.

He drew his gun and I drew mine and fired and missed.

We naturally assume that the actions described happened in the order they were written. Spelling it out with ordinates – such as first, then, next, last, or finally – is unnecessary. If you include them, you’re insulting your reader by assuming he or she won’t understand without your help.

Only spell out the timing of things when the timing is the point. Remember this line horribly misquoted from the movie Scarface:

In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.

The actual line is different, but the misquoted version is pretty catchy. Notice, though, how much it loses if we take out all the ordinates.

In this country, you get the money, the power, and the women.

None of these three events individually are the point. The point is the sequence. The words first, then, and then clarify, drawing attention from the individual events to the relationship between them.

Cause and Effect

Our initial examples from The Gunslinger were of this type. Look out for words like becauseso, if and then, and therefore.

These words are rarely necessary. When we read something that needs support, we tend to assume that support will follow immediately. Consider this line from the movie Monster’s Ball:

I’ve always believed that a portrait captures a person far better than a photograph. It takes a human being to truly see another human being.

The logic flows naturally. The word because would be superfluous. When we expect things to be a certain place, and they are, we don’t need a sign to point the way.

This problem can sneak into even simple sentences.

He went outside to smoke.

If the point is to convey two ideas – he went outside, and he smoked – just say that. The to seems to qualify the sentence, as though the speaker is specifically trying to avoid saying whether he was successful.

Where’s Mike?
Don’t know, boss. He went outside to smoke.

Fine for characters to hedge their bets this way, but for a narrator it is strangely non-committal.

She applied pressure to his shoulder to stop the bleeding.

Yeah okay. Was she successful? The sentence doesn’t actually address that point.

As before, the word because (and its cousins) should only be used when at least one of the connected ideas is already known. Consider this:

I write because life never works except in retrospect.

Does that sentence feel a little rushed? It’s overworked, just like the quote about Hemingway and Fitzgerald above. It tells us two things – that the writer writes, and why he writes.

The quotation (slightly paraphrased) is from Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. Here it is again:

I write because life never works except in retrospect.

It’s the exact same sentence, but it works better now because some of the information is not new to us. We know Palahniuk writes. The sentence only has to tell us why. One sentence, one idea.

Expectation

What is wrong with this sentence?

He was shot but didn’t die.

It’s the same thing that is wrong with this sentence:

She was exposed to radiation but didn’t get any super powers.

The word but is sneaky. It often suggests the reader knows what the writer is thinking. The first sentence says three things:

1 – He was shot.
2 – You probably think he died.
3 – You are wrong.

The second says:

1 – She was exposed to radiation.
2 – You probably think she got super powers.
3 – Not so much.

There are two problems: It’s usually not wise to assume what your reader’s opinions are. You could be wrong, and if you’re wrong you will look foolish.

The second problem should be obvious by now. Overworked sentences. The word but works only when there is some obvious connection between the two ideas. He was shot but didn’t die feels like a safe bet, except that the mortality rate of gunshot wounds is something like 25%. The problem is minor in this example, because it isn’t a stretch to assume a gunshot wound is intended to kill someone – but still. Maybe one of your readers is a trauma surgeon, who reads it and rolls his eyes. Best to avoid when possible.

The word but – along with his friends althoughstill, and however – becomes a serious problem when used merely for variety.

Russell ran into the bank, but Alex stayed behind to guard the door.

There isn’t any expectation here. I have no reason (at least without context) to assume these two people – about whom I know nothing – would go into a bank together.

At a glance, it looks appropriate, because the characters are doing opposite things. One is going inside, the other is staying outside. But that isn’t enough reason. There are two characters doing two different things. It should be written as two sentences. Using but to emphasize some connection between them is just confusing.

Russell ran into the bank. Alex stayed behind to guard the door.

The phrase stayed behind is plenty to explain the connection between these two actions. Not all sentences need to be strung together. If there’s a clear relation, you shouldn’t need to spell it out. If there isn’t one, forcing it can be artificial and confusing. For example, you would never consider writing a sentence like this:

The Man in Black fled across the desert, but the Gunslinger followed.

 

What to Write

We can talk endlessly about craft, and if you stick with me, we will. But, knowing how to write won’t matter unless we have some idea what to write.

Some people refer to a story’s concept. As in, every story starts with a strong concept. Or, they might refer to a story that isn’t working as conceptually flawed. All this means is don’t write something lame.

You can flawlessly execute a story, but if that story is kind of stupid, what’s the point?

How do we avoid this pitfall?  Well, we have to take a couple steps back to figure out what makes stories worth telling, or more to the point, what is our interest in stories.

Biology comes into play. Psychology. Evolution. We are the way we are because being this way has enabled us to survive, to propagate as a species. Among our advantages, we are problem solvers. We are predictors. We have the ability to simulate the world and understand the likely outcome of our decisions.

That’s where our interest in fiction comes from. We daydream, we imagine, we fantasize, we watch movies, and we read novels because those activities exercise our skill at simulating. We like stories because it to our advantage to be a species who likes stories.

That’s why conflict is so crucial to storytelling, why stakes matter. We’re most interested in rehearsing the types of scenarios that are hardest to predict and that have the greatest consequences.

We’re touching on the subject of theme. A story has to have a point. When we read the Three Billy Goats Gruff, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the point is to learn some lesson. As we mature and our fiction grows more sophisticated, the lessons become more abstract. Stories are more about vicarious experience, which is interesting to us for the same reason as regular experience is.

But wait. Does every story have to have a moral? Aren’t some just pure entertainment? Of course they are. For most stories, entertainment is the primary goal. But, what could possibly entertain you, except by engaging your intellect and emotions? And, what could possibly engage your intellect and emotions and not cause you to learn or grow in some way?

Reverse engineer this argument. How do we know what to write? Write something that causes the reader to learn or grow. Think of yourself as a teacher. Find a teachable moment in your own experience and write about that. Or, if necessary, make one up.

You could start by picking a theme that is important to you, and figuring out some way to make a story about it, perhaps by analogy. The Terminator movies were written as an allegory about nuclear weapons. (The tools we build to protect ourselves end up wiping out humanity.)

But, unless you are very skilled, this approach tends to produce works that are preachy. Heinlein – who was certainly very skilled – wrote Starship Troopers partially as an essay about his political views. Several chapters include conversations where the characters directly discuss politics in ways that sound suspiciously like Heinlein talking.

Perhaps a better approach is not to worry so much about theme right away. Start brainstorming, start writing, start planning, however you begin a project. But before you go to far, dig into what you have for themes.

Odds are, themes are already present in whatever you chose to write. It was interesting to you, wasn’t it? Figure out why, and you’ve found some theme. Let’s say you’re writing about robots, and you find that your story – intentionally or not – is about human ingenuity being more important than robotic efficiency.

Do you like that theme? Do you have a lot to say about that theme – perhaps an angle no one else has taken on it? If so, you’ve got yourself a story. There’s plenty of work still to do, but you can proceed down that path and know that at the end of it is a good story.

Do you hate the theme you found? It could be you thought of a cool scene and it grew into a cool idea, and when you dig into it, you find yourself arguing against your own beliefs about the world. It isn’t impossible to write a story this way, but it is advanced.

Poe wrote several stories from the point of view of characters who were insane or even possibly evil. It is easy to write about things you actually believe. Just be honest. When you write against the grain, there is a lot more to keep track of. You have to decide exactly what it is you are pretending to believe, and you have to meticulously prune out places where your true mind would show through.

Worse still, do you dig into a project you’ve just started and find nothing – No theme, no lesson, no point? It’s possible your idea isn’t a story at all. And that’s okay. Not all ideas are stories.

If your idea is to write about time travel, that’s not a story unless you have some point to make about time travel, or some point to make using time travel as a metaphor. Or something.

If your idea is to write a story like Moby Dick, but in space, and instead of a whale there’s a giant elusive space monster, that isn’t a story either. Not unless you know exactly in what way it will be like Moby Dick, and what you will bring to the thematic arena that Melville did not.

It’s possible you have an idea that is underdeveloped. It could become a story, but you haven’t thought it out enough yet. You want to write about AI. You have a lot of scattered ideas and opinions about AI. But you haven’t found your angle yet. That’s probably okay. Still some work to do, but if you feel like you’re close to something, maybe you’ll clarify the story in your own mind in a sloppy first draft. Or maybe you just need to sit and think it over, or do some reading, before it comes together and you’re ready to begin.

Far more often, though, you’ll have an idea that just isn’t a story at all. It’s an image, a line of dialog, a sweet motorcycle stunt, a bizarre setting, a mutant power, piece of sci-fi technology, a stunning title, a great character, or even a complex plot. None of those things are stories. They’re pieces you can use to tell a story. But without a story to tell, they’re not going to do anything.

Keep these pieces handy because you might need them. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking once you have enough pieces you will have a story. If I have half a cow, and you have half a cow, we don’t necessarily have what we need to make a whole cow.

What’s missing is a purpose. Find a reason to use the ideas you accumulate. Figure out some true thing that you believe I need to be convinced of – Nuclear weapons will kill us all. Nature is too complex for humans to control. Overuse of electronics is undermining society. The tardigrade has more claim to this planet than we do.

Whatever your thing is. Find that, and you’ve found a story.

Product over Process

When you study writing, you run into this thing a lot – Plotting vs. Pantsing.

They say these are the two ways two ways to write. Plotters outline their whole story – beginning, end, and all the milestones in between – before they start writing any actual story. Pantsers just dive in, and let the story develop as they go.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice, neither does much writing at all. They mostly sit around on the internet and argue about which process is better.

Plotters argue their stories are more structured. Since they know exactly where the story is headed before they begin, everything they write is pertinent to the story. Pantsers don’t know where the stories will go, so they end up including a lot of extraneous junk and threads that never go anywhere.

Meanwhile, pantsers argue that their characters are more natural. There is no predetermined course for them to follow, and so they are able to pursue their dreams and desires and whatnot. Plotters write characters that are stilted and artificial, who are loyal to the plot structure above their own needs.

It’s all bullshit, okay?

The problem is, neither process actually helps you figure out what to write or how to write it. When you’re facing down the blank page, what difference does it make if the top of that page says Outline or Chapter 1?

You still have to decide what to put into the outline or first draft. You still have to think it all up. Now, if you write down what you thought up, maybe organize it a little, you’re plotting. If you instead commit what you thought up to memory, you’re pantsing. The whole question boils down to whether you want to keep notes or not.

Deciding if you are a plotter or a pantser is like taking a quiz in Cosmo to find out what kind of kisser you are. How do you intend to ever use that information? You’re still just going to do whatever you do, and either you’ll be good at it, or you won’t.

Still, eventually you’ll get around to writing your first draft and it is going to be “shit,” according to Hemingway. But now that you have identified yourself as a plotter or pantser, you might be able to predict in what way it is shit. If you’re a plotter, it’s probably inconsistent characters and plots driven by timely coincidences. If you’re a pantser, maybe your plot fails to arrive at any real point, or maybe your tone changes going into the last third of the book.

Whatever the problems are, you have to fix them. You can’t use Plotters for life, yo! as an excuse for your shitty characters. Plotters will eventually have to make their characters act naturally, and pantsers will have to cut the extraneous bits of story that never went anywhere.

When it comes time to make these changes, both writers will have to grapple with a much more difficult task: reconciling these unrelated pieces. Your characters have to act consistent with their nature, and at the same time, move the story forward. The plot must be logical and concise, always moving forward, and at the same time, emerge naturally from the characters doing their own thing.

We can discuss the pieces of writing one at a time. We can study them one at a time. But when we write, we have to do them all at once. A story is a dozen things working together – characters, plot, theme, tone, pacing, setting, tension, and like five other things. That’s the end game. That’s the final product: a story where all these elements come together and work in unison to create a single work of art. You can’t just ignore any of them. Choosing to plot or to pants is just choosing which parts of your story to put off for a later day.

That’s a bad approach. If you choose to neglect some element of a story – for example, if you decide theme is something you can throw in there later – you’re setting yourself up for a lot of extra work. You’re giving yourself a lot of darlings to murder. Because if you don’t think about theme (or whatever story element you don’t care about), you’ll make a lot of decisions that turn out to contradict one another in terms of theme (or whatever).

If you don’t think about plot structure, you’ll write a lot of clever and beautiful scenes, and then when you try to impose some plot on the next draft, you’ll realize those scenes don’t belong. If you don’t think about consistency in your characters right up front, when you go back you’ll find them doing a lot of things contrary to their nature. And if you really need your characters to do those things to advance the plot, fixing it is going to take major surgery.

You can deconstruct writing into separate topics, but that doesn’t mean you should. Whatever you learn, keep the end game in mind while you learn it. Focus on how each topic relates to the finished product. Break yourself early of the habit of writing for character, and then going back and fixing the plot, and then going back and fixing the tone, and then going back and fixing the pacing. Eventually, you will need to keep all those things in mind at once.  It’ll be hard, but the sooner you start trying, the sooner you’ll be able.

Don’t focus so much on your process. That will emerge and evolve on its own. Instead, focus on consistent and distinct characters, fluid and concise plots. Learn about tone, pacing, dialog, rhetoric. Brush up on the basics like description, word choice, showing vs. telling, grammar.  All these things (and others) must come together to make one complete picture, and if you don’t know what that picture is, no process will get you there.