I See What You Did There

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Finish the Pattern)

West Side Story was never going to end happily. We listen to Tony and Maria plotting to get away from all the rottenness in their world, and we long to see them do exactly that…but we can sense that they never are going to attain their happily ever after.

Why? Well, even if we didn’t know that their story was based on Romeo and Juliet, we would still feel that a happy ending wouldn’t fit after all the scenes of anger, misunderstanding, and escalating violence that make up the rest of the film. Even though Tony and Maria cannot appreciate the wheels of destiny turning against them, we can. We know that violence can only beget violence, choices must result in consequences, and Tony has a reckoning to face for killing Bernardo…just as Bernardo had a reckoning to face for killing Riff…just as Riff had a reckoning to face for oppressing the immigrant Puerto Ricans…just as…well, you get the picture.

There is a principle of logic called inductive reasoning. It states that if we perceive the transformation from one state to the next, then we can extrapolate what the next state after that will be, even before we see it, by simply applying  the same transformation again. In West Side Story we are able to recognize the pattern of each succeeding scene, and can then extend that pattern out in our mind.

What is interesting is that even though the ending of West Side Story is therefore predictable, it still remains a satisfying tale. Having the expectation to feel sad at the end does not prevent our ability to be so when the time comes.

Of course, the ability to predict the end of a story often comes into play even before the opening titles show. There are recognizable patterns over whole bodies of stories, which we call genres, and we still enjoy them. Even though in most romances, westerns, and superhero tales you can predict the ending before you have even seen the beginning, we still consume them in droves.

 

Subversion)

But, of course, where there is culture, soon there will be counter-culture. This is nothing new. Art has established patterns and then defied those patterns over and over through the centuries, and will always continue to do so.

So come the late-eighties/early-nineties, romantic films often followed a pattern of the guy and girl initially disliking each other, being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together even so, until finally their walls were broken down and they found they had a great deal in common. This was Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally.

Then this pattern of initial dislike and eventual love was swapped. Now the couple begins with a meet-cute, the relationship progresses promisingly, but then something comes along to break everything up. Things look pretty dire for a moment, but this is still a romance and needs to have a happy ending, so there is a triumphant moment of the couple coming back together at the end. We see this pattern taking firm hold in the late-nineties/early-2000s with titles like Notting Hill, The Notebook, and The Parent Trap.

But, of course, this pattern could not last forever either. Soon films were dropping the happy ending part entirely, and letting things end in that more dour break-up note. The couple may seem so right for each other at the beginning, but little quirks expand into major chasms, and eventually they can’t stand the person they used to love. They might come back together enough to have a mutual respect for one another, but that is all. And so in the mid-2000s-to-mid-2010s we were given 500 Days of Summer and La La Land.

Of course, patterns cycle. And so while 500 Days of Summer’s break-up finish might have felt revolutionary when it first came out, it was actually repeating another story told decades prior in Annie Hall. And the hate-each-other-then-love-each-other of You’ve Got Mail can be traced back entire centuries to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

 

Tipping Your Hand)

But while the overarching trend of genres is one of subversion and defying the audience’s expectation, each of these films on an individual level still follows the rule of establishing a pattern and adhering to it in a predictable way. Especially upon a second viewing one is able to appreciate how the later plot points were being seeded early on.

For example, La La Land opens with our two would-be-lovers aggravating one another on the road. Significantly, each of them is trying to reach a destination related to their dream-careers, which they are chasing at the expense of courtesy for one another. Now, just from that opening, is it any wonder that their eventual relationship does not last, overridden instead by their pull to their careers? Later, when they have a moment where their dreams are in alignment, they are able to be together, but they were always going to drive apart again in the end.

You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, opens with our two-would-be-lovers exchanging sincere and heartfelt messages, connecting remotely, while growing increasingly more disillusioned with their current partners. Sure, when they meet in person things do not get off to a good start, but already the film has established a tone of these two converging, bit-by-bit overcoming each element of opposition until nothing remains in their way. The ending, once again, is obvious.

And this is key. Yes, it is fine to try and disrupt the genre as a whole, and if you go against the grain you may surprise your reader in a delightful way. But… even if this is your intention, still your story must be true to itself. It should never disrupt itself. Defy genre conventions by all means, but do not make promises and establish expectations at your story’s outset, betray those later, and expect the audience to enjoy that experience. You will not come across as bold and unconventional, only as inexperienced. If a story begins as one thing and ends as another, then it simply appears that the writer was not skilled enough to establish a believable sequence of cause-and-effect to tie their intended beginning to their intended ending.

In the end, we look down on a two-faced story just as much as we look down on a two-faced person. We want our stories to know themselves and be themselves. We want them to have an identity, and to be consistent to it. And while we may want them to surprise us, we want them to do so in a way that feels fitting and authentic with what has already transpired.

 

In my own story I have sown seeds of somberness and doomed fate, and I have then tried to remain consistent to those throughout the whole. I am now fast approaching the end, and it is especially important to me that everything tie off in a way that satisfies every raised expectation. With this Thursday’s post, try and consider what ways I am answering the themes raised at the beginning of the story.

Finding Your Sense of Style

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One of the most valuable things about writing regularly is that you start to learn things about yourself you never knew. Perhaps one of the revelations that comes quickest is what aspects of writing you are bad at. Personally I’m bad at character descriptions. And by bad, I mean I just don’t even do it in most cases! I’m worried about dragging down the pace, so I blitz past giving the reader a mental image of any character. I guess I struggle with knowing how to tackle that in stride with the plot, and it’s something I need to get better at.

A little bit after discovering your weaknesses you will also get to know your strengths, a far more pleasant discovery! Obviously this is subjective, but I think I’m pretty good at incorporating messages into my stories. I’m able to have arcs that are “going somewhere.”

After your strengths and weaknesses further revelations will follow. You’ll learn how hard-working of a writer you are (or aren’t), how consistent, how many typos you’re likely to make for every thousand words written. You’ll start noticing the differences in how you write when you are happy and how you write when you are sad. You’ll learn how some of your scenes will be deeply moving to you when in some moods, only to be laughably corny when in another.

But one thing you may not fully realize until you’ve written for a decent while is what your style is. If I had been asked before this blog what my writing style was I really wouldn’t have known how to answer. The last time I wrote stories consistently was in my mid-teenage years, and those were “high fantasy adventures that are liberally inspired by Lord of the Rings.”

Now I still like high fantasy adventures, but I really don’t think I would say that is my particular style any longer. As I’ve paused to reflect on all of the titles that I’ve written for this blog I’ve been noticing some strong new trends emerging, ones that I had been entirely ignorant of while writing. Just this last series of short stories illustrates a lot of those common themes especially clearly. Let’s take a look at them.

 

Allegory)

First and foremost is allegory. With the Beast and Glimmer are both overflowing with it, and as I look back on all of the short stories I’ve written on this blog almost each has had some from of it at one point or another. I seem to like taking intangible concepts and bringing them to life as a character.

In With the Beast these principles are the various virtues and vices that can live within a man, the regret when the latter destroy the former, and the hope that the former never actually do die. In Glimmer the allegory is based on nothing less than good and evil, themselves! They are manifested in a ball of light, an eternal void, and the various souls that are moved by each. We see how good becomes personified, and how persons become good. We see the difference between active evil and inactive evil, and the dangers of both.

When I reflect on my stories from earlier in life I don’t find any allegories among them. I’ve reflected as to why that might have changed, and one event stands out the most to me as a likely turning point. As I mentioned before, it was my mid-teenage years that I last wrote stories consistently, and that period was brought to a close as I started at college.

While there I didn’t have so much time to write stories, as I began writing essays instead. At first essays were unnatural to me, and it was only after a great deal of practice that I began to really write them properly. With essays I had to learn to see things in terms of a culminating message, a thesis, a point where we say “and thus from all of this we learn…” I was learning to write in allegories and I didn’t even realize it. Now on the other side of college I find myself writing stories again, but ones that have been flavored by the allegorical lessons from college.

 

Supernatural)

I tried to base my story The Heart of Something Wild in a situation that was based on reality…mostly. The specific tribe and location in Africa were works of fiction, of course, but were meant to represent something that could exist. But then, after establishing the familiar I threw something odd into the mix: a large and lethal bat-like creature with rows of finger-like mandibles and a deep sense of empathy. It was utterly bizarre and clearly a work of pure fantasy.

With the Beast also shares a setting and a place that are realistic, even if not contained within any actual history book. Mid-industrial era explorers come to a tropical island to begin a family enterprise. But all the while they are being followed by an invisible phantom, one that has an uncanny knowledge of their future and later in the story will become embodied as a supernatural beast.

Again, when I reflect on my other recent stories I continue to find more mixes of the ordinary with the supernatural. When I consider why that might be I suppose it has to do with being religious. I believe in a reality beyond the physical, and things like God and angels have certainly taken deep roots in my subconscious. By their nature these things are impossible to pin down in full definition. One may come to understand them better, but never perfectly. Thus they churn and gestate in the mind and heart, and the hands naturally express those ponderings through characters and prose. I think for many of us our writing is just a way of thinking-out-loud the things in the soul, and that stream of consciousness is often best expressed through the supernatural.

 

Slow)

Writing in the short story format has been hard for me. It’s taken real effort to keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and even then I end up extending some of my stories out to parts 3, or 4, or 5. I’m looking at you, Glimmer.

That’s not to say that I don’t incorporate action into my stories, I certainly do, but usually in a single punch at the end. That was certainly the case for The Heart of Something Wild. I began the story with a promise of a duel, but then spent the entire story slowly building up to that moment. I wanted to raise the tension and stakes with a long burn, and didn’t want to release any of that pressure with mid-story moments of cathartic action. When at last I came to the promised battle it was fueled with all of that built up plot and drama, and I then stoked it further with a few moments of shock and intrigue.

For Glimmer I have followed the same basic pattern, but with a few variations. In the middle I introduced the enemy and included a brief battle. That scene was crafted to only raise tension, though, and not to resolve it. The hero spent the entirety fleeing, just trying to escape a foe she could not handle. I suppose she did have a triumph in the form of successfully escaping, but also anxiety for the future confrontation that is surely waiting in the wings. Then, with just this last section I finally let loose and it has been a much more drawn-out action sequence than in any of my previous stories. For the ending of this story to work, I really felt it needed to break its tension in a long and exhausting sprint to the finish.

There’s obvious reasons for wanting action in a story, but I’ve paused to consider why I specifically like it in the form of a slow burn that bursts out at the end. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this pattern matches up very well with how I exercise. When I run, for example, I never sprint out a single rush. I don’t speed up and slow down in cycles, but neither do I hold the exact same pace all the way to the finish. What I do is run just slightly beneath my ideal pace, storing a pocket of fuel that I suddenly let loose at the end for a dramatic finish.

 

So when all the above is considered, just what is my particular style? I guess I would categorize it as some sort of “slow fantasy allegory.” I had no idea that this was my default when I first began this blog, but as I reflect on all of the stories here I find that the vast majority of them all fall under this very narrow genre.

There are, of course, some exceptions. A Minute at a Time stands out as a real outlier. In that story there is no action whatsoever, there are no supernatural elements, and there isn’t really anything that could be called an allegory. It’s just a very straightforward, quiet drama. And actually I really like it a lot.

Because, of course, having a particular style in no way means that you don’t like other options. I don’t know that I’ll ever be any good at writing a pure comedy, but I certainly enjoy well-crafted humor. And while almost none of my stories have featured any romance, I still appreciate when a heroic epic weaves love into its tapestry.

Who knows, maybe one day my particular style actually will stray into those categories. Because if there’s any main takeaway here, it’s that when you pause to consider why you write the way that you do, you’ll probably find that it is merely an extension of who you are today. And who you are as a person naturally evolves, and as it does the way you write will follow.

Certainly I want to branch out and challenge myself, exercising new skills can only improve my work as a whole. But while I do that learning and improving, I know I’ll also enjoy the times when I settle back into my cozy and familiar voice.

And you can bet that when I post the last section of Glimmer on Thursday, it’s going to involve a slow burn punctuated by moments of action, a hefty amount of allegory, and a strong presence of the supernatural. Personally, I’m looking forward to it very much.