Writing Right with Dmitri: Complicating the Picture (is a Good Thing)
Writing Tip of the Week: Punctuation for a sentence in quotation marks belongs inside the quotation marks, not outside.
Example: She said, 'I'm going to have cold cuts for supper.' (Not 'I'm going to have cold cuts for supper'.)
Consider the toaster. What is it? Essentially an electrical circuit. Electrical circuits, in and of themselves, do nothing but pass electrons around. But pass the electrons over a resistant material that heats up, and you can make toast. You have to interrupt the flow in order to get some work out of them.
The same thing is true of stories.
Once upon a time, there was a woman. She got into her car and went to the shops. She bought milk, bread, eggs, and vegetables. She said hello to the grocer. Then she went home.
That's a circuit. That's not much of a story. If along the way, she met a mysterious stranger, or saw a UFO, or purchased a home chemistry kit with the intent of inventing a world-changing substance….then you have a story.
Do you get weary of the conversations you have, whether in person or on social media? When you start to talk about a complex subject, and suddenly realise that your interlocutor is going to take the shortest route to a cliched response? All nuances are lost as we shortcut our way through the discourse.
When we tell a story, we need to complicate the narrative. By this, I don't mean 'multiply plot complications'. That just gets tedious and boring. I mean this:
- Don't take the shortest route to a solution.
- Don't force solutions on characters who obviously aren't ready for them. 'You're a dedicated neonazi. Have you considered the joys of Flower Power?' 'Oh, gee, I never did. I guess that solves my rage issues.' Not.
- Don't….and this is a hard one….don't make all your arguments one-sided. This is really difficult to do if you have strong opinions of your own. Balance the tension between characters. Can't do that easily? Stop and consider whether the character you've given the opposite opinion to isn't, well, a bit overdrawn. Did you make the spokesperson for the view you don't like an unredeemable lowlife? How about rethinking that and giving him some respectable credentials?
- Don't….and here's another really hard one….don't go for pat answers. Settle for more ambiguous solutions. Virtue doesn't always triumph, not completely. All your characters' problems don't go away because somebody held an intervention. Make haste slowly, as the Italians say.
- Hardest one of all: take time to show the nuances. Issues are rarely clear-cut, and answers shouldn't be cut-and-dried. One way to prepare for this: try to look at the situation 'without praise or blame'. Don't take sides. This is hard, I know. But your brain will thank you. So will your readers. You might see things you never believed you could.
Example from Almost-Life
'Thank God you're alive,' Danceman said, seeing him; his big, fleshy face with its moon's surface of pock marks flattened with relief. 'I've been calling all…'
'I just don't have a right hand,' Poole said.
'But you'll be okay. I mean, they can graft another one on.'
'How long have I been here?' Poole said. He wondered where the nurses and doctors had gone to; why weren't they clucking and fussing about him making a call?
…'Come get me out of here,' Poole said.
'I can't get you out until the new hand –'
…'Is Sarah Benton there with you?' Danceman asked.
'No."' Of course; his personal secretary – if only for job considerations – would be hovering close by, mothering him in her jejune, infantile way. All heavy-set women like to mother people, he thought. And they're dangerous; if they fall on you they can kill you. 'Maybe that's what happened to me,' he said aloud. 'Maybe Sarah fell on my squib.'
'No, no; a tie rod in the steering fin of your squib split apart during the heavy rush-hour traffic and you…'
Philip K Dick, 'The Electric Ant'
This character of Philip K Dick's irritates the heck out of us. We don't like him. Why not? For one thing, he's arrogant and opinionated. 'All heavy-set women', indeed. Leave him in the hospital. Also, he uses pretentious language. 'jejune, infantile', my aunt Fanny. He acts like he's been trying to inhale the dictionary in order to impress people. We don't even care if he gets a new hand ….hey, wait a minute, what kind of world is this, anyway? The penny drops, and we're in.
It turns out the guy is not only not what he seems, he's not even what he thinks he is. And maybe nobody is, and what's reality when it's at home? It's a complex tale. You can read 'The Electric Ant' at your leisure, consider donating any spare cash you have lying around to the Internet Archive, and ponder the virtues of complicating your story.