Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Writing With Depth

I always feel silly writing about my own progress because I assume the lessons I'm learning are already common sense to everyone else. Nevertheless, I recently gained some insight into storytelling that I didn't fully understand before, so I want to celebrate it here.

Up until about a month ago, I saw a story as a progression of elements that moved from Point A to Point B. A character overcomes an obstacle. A character makes a journey. I had actions, emotions and ideas, and they all changed along the way in a linear fashion.

Take, for example, a short story I wrote called "The Wild Grass". In this piece, a woman named Kimchaa loses her husband and has to live out the rest of her life alone. The action of the story includes her aging and growing more stubborn. The emotions include her increased sadness and acceptance. The ideas include her reflections on life and what it means to grow old. I like this story of mine. I think it works. But, all of the elements move in a linear fashion, the way most of my stories do.

I'm now writing my current WIP tentatively called "Cyberlama". Without spoiling too much, this piece is also about a woman who grows old and loses the people she loves. It's slightly more extreme in that the woman here is much older than the woman in "The Wild Grass," and I think it was that extreme quality that gave me some insight.

See, it wasn't enough for me just to have my protagonist, Jacqueline, grow old and sad. She is a very curious character and is constantly trying to learn. She befriends the Dalai Lama who teaches her some things about Buddhism and the idea of reincarnation. While Kimchaa was content to wait peacefully for her death, Jacqueline is working harder, putting new ideas together. Instead of a linear progression in her thinking, there is a compounding effect, something synergistic. Her ideas--and thus the ideas in the book--add up to something greater. They go deeper.

Jacqueline reflects on aging, but thoughts of time progression get complicated by the idea of reincarnation and violence and existence and some other topics that are floating around. And, along with all of this, her emotions are getting more complex. She's not just waiting, she's having conflicts because of contradictory ideas that she's learning about. She's calculating and planning and making mistakes. While the actions are still going from Point A to Point B, the ideas and emotions go from Point A to a deeper version of Point B, which I have uncreatively called Point B'.

The key to what I'm trying to explain is that I have figured out that a writer can make a linear progression in a story, or a writer can make a more compounding progression. In other words, the steps along the way are not constantly being discarded as a new step comes along. Instead, all of the steps are adding together, becoming something messier and deeper.

Does this make any sense at all? I've been wanting to write about it, but I feel like I don't quite have the words to express myself yet. Scott told me to write about it, so blame him if this has done nothing but muddy the waters. It all reminds me of the best English teacher I ever had who would start on a topic that was very interesting and then just trail off, leaving the rest of the thought to be finished by anyone who cared enough to do so.

P.S. Buy Notes From Underground! I just got my final copies today, and they really are beautiful. Even just flipping through the pages, you can see the big variety in story structures that people employed. It's a great mix!

(Scott, was the shadow effect underneath the A and B too much?)


  1. This is sort of interesting to me from a general perspective, as I literally don't understand truly linear sequencing and can't quite get my mind around a non-compounding path of development.

    You actually have me intrigued about the way you used to think of it, which has a certain cleanliness to it, it seems.

  2. I think it's what we all try and strive for, the underside, if you will, of our characters.

    Whether we're writing genre fiction or great literary masterpieces, the 'depth' or the underside, although it might not hit you in the head upon first reading, is there. And after you finish reading, you find something greater to gnaw on, something that will last, with you, as reader.

    Nice post.

  3. Nevets, I like the cleanliness of linearity too. My plots used to be more complicated, but I've recently been telling much more straightforward stories, partly because I wasn't very good at telling the complicated ones yet. I think what I needed to learn was that a linear plot could still gain in depth.

    Anne, thank you. Somehow the depth, before I came to this understanding, always felt random. Sometimes my stories would have it, and sometimes they wouldn't. I can better distinguish why some of them worked and some of them didn't now.

  4. The shadows are great!

    I like the way you've put this. I think that often writers will be aware that their stories are sort of flat, or maybe it's more narrow, and they try to make the plot more exciting instead of making the ideas of the story more complex and deep. I like the waters to get muddier and muddier as I go along, the way to become less clear and more overgrown, and then I like to be left in the thicket in mud up to my knees. That's a good ending, if you ask me. I don't care much for stories that point to a single idea at the end. So I'm looking forward to reading "Cyberlama."

    Also, last night the postman brought my own copy of Notes From Underground and it's gorgeous. So go buy a copy, whyncha?

  5. Yeah, Scott, it's hard for me to describe because my realization is more of a feeling than a thought, but it's like I am building up instead of building out or something. It's 3-dimensional.

    Six words for a hat.

  6. Hey, Scott's blog is the first thing I get when I google six words for a hat. How about that?

  7. "Does this make any sense at all?"

    Absolutely. I swear, if I hear the phrase "story arc" one more time, I'm going to run amok. The unique thing about an arc is that it can be defined by listing any three points along its length. No matter what the arc, it can be defined as three X,Y,Z coordinates because for any such trio of points, there is one and only one arc that contains them.

    Why would I write an arc? Why would that be any better than writing a straight line? We are complex creatures, we live complex lives, and we write complex stories.

  8. Oh that's an interesting way of looking at it: character development as B prime and plot development as B.

  9. It all goes to depth of character, I think. All stories have a point a and must move to the point b, but the stories I find most memorable have ups and downs in the character development, not just the plot.

    But I'm a character driven writer (and reader) and while the story needs a plot, that point B' is what Im really looking for. Reasonings, motivations, changes in consciousness.

    I'm sure you have been putting these aspects of your character's into the story; you've just come to a new way of thinking about your own writing process. I've had several of those personal insights over the last couple years - those "is that what I'm doing" moments - and they help me understand my own writing - strengths and weaknesses - and help me see it in other author's works too.

    When I see a style/technique clearly in someone else's stories, it help me learn to be a better writer.

    Thanks for the diagrams. That was helpful in seeing your process.


  10. Hmm, this confused me. I think I need more specific examples or something. I do love the idea, though, and it's encouraging to me to see you talk about your writing like this. It makes me want to examine my own writing more closely and then write about it.

    One of the things I've been trying to do more in my work lately is keep the plot more simple and build on the naturally occurring themes so they go deeper. In a way, that might be what you're doing here, but I'm not sure.


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