The Quest for Ultimate Form (& Why it Doesn't Work)
(Apologies in advance for the weird paragraph spacing throughout this whole piece. Wix's blog formatting is a complete mystery, and even deleting and re-typing whole paragraphs doesn't fix it.)
There's a lot of writing advices everywhere right now. It's on YouTube. Twitter. TikTok. Tumblr. FaceBook (and right here, oops). It's on writing courses - both informal and academic. And why not? Creativity is one of the greatest consolations of life, as well as one of its important vocations. A peeve of mine so massive that it's gone beyond 'pet' and may now qualify as 'petting zoo' is the way that our focus on testing and metrics and outcomes in schools routinely divorces kids from creativity as soon as they are old enough to write their names.
How many times as a kid did you hear: Pay attention. Stop daydreaming. Stop telling silly stories. Stop singing and be quiet. Stop doodling on the edges of the workbooks. Your story was funny/clever/imaginative, but your handwring was bad/you didn't use a 'fronted adverbial'/you talked about your dog instead of your family holiday so you fail.
It's no wonder that so many people hear you're a writer and tell you, sheepishly, 'Oh wow - I'm hopeless at anything like that' when, in every single case, as a kid they drew and I made up poems and songs and dances as easily as breathing.
I personally believe that creative writing, in particular, can be an incredibly accessible and joyful practice that not only acts as a kind of 'gateway drug' for other creative pursuits, but really supports good mental health.
Fantastic! Let's all get writing.
But! Let's not allow anyone else to tell us how or why we should write. What our writing should be. What form our creativity should take. That's what bothers me about so much writing advice that I see online: how narrow it is, the things that it often takes for granted about the 'point' of writing. How it creates a kind of assumed, Platonic Ideal of a finished work and urges you blindly to aim for that. Because, as I said in this post, there isn't a Platonic Ideal. A Universal Cheat Code. There isn't an Ultimate Form that anyone's work should be aiming to evolve into (and this insistence that there should be just reminds me, once again, of teachers who are forced to mark down the most interesting homework in the class because it doesn't deploy fronted adverbials).
Let me warn in advance: this isn't really a coherent argument on my part. It's more me venting random reactions to some of the generally accepted writing advice that I've seen bandied about and embraced online, and my reasons for believing that a lot of it can result in writing which is not so good. And please know that when I say 'good writing' I only mean 'writing which expresses the thing you wanted to express in the way you wanted to express it'. Nothing more - and nothing less - than that.
Most of the advice that causes me to give the internet a side-eye comes from this belief that the Ultimate Form, the best and most desirable form for a novel, is to be fast-paced, sparsely written, and 'immediate'. The Ultimate Novel should waste no time on 'boring' exposition, world-building, or the creation of character or atmosphere, but put a reader 'right in the action'. Which obviously can be a great thing for certain kinds of stories in certain genres - and certain kinds of scenes in any book. But I don't think that this fast-paced, action-packed, Hemingway-esque novel is, or should be, the go-to choice in how to tell all stories.
I also think that the ways people go about pursuing this Ultimate Form - or urging others to - can be detrimental not only to the development of a joyful creative practice, but also to the development of stories themselves, not to mention a unique and individual writing style. All the things we surely want to see in new writing? I know I do.
I see quite a lot of well-respected sources - agents, editors, writers - blogging or tweeting about cutting as a kind of panacea for books that aren't 'immediate' and 'fast paced' enough. There's this sense that cutting words is always a good thing, whether it's cutting out adverbs and adjectives, cutting something people call 'filter words' (a term, by the way, that I despise because I feel it presents a profound misunderstanding of how storytelling works) cutting out 'unnecessary' words, cutting out 'unncessary' authorial intrusion. A sense that any and all books can be improved by lessening their extent.
Which makes writers who resist suggested cuts to their work babies at best or unprofessional prima donnas at worst. Which means your editor or agent or critque partner is always right if they think you should cut, and not applying the scalpel forthwith is simply weakness, and failing to rise to the challenge.
But cutting isn't always the answer. Cutting lots of words from a scene (even if some or all of them are adjectives and adverbs and these 'filter' words) will no more necessarily result in something fast paced and immediate than cutting off your legs would reduce your dress size, even if it did reduce your weight. Especially if the scene was not intended to be - or required to be - fast paced and immediate in the first place. Instead, this insistence on treating certain kinds of words or descriptions as 'unneccessary' by default often results in writing that just feels bland, workmanlike, and lacking in any kind of unique voice or personality, as if it might have been written by the Ultimate Form computer rather than a person. Even worse, sometimes you end up with a scene from which the sense has inexorably disappeared until it's not only a struggle to understand what is actually being felt or expressed by the characters, but empty of any emotional resonance for the reader.
I wonder how 'fast paced and immediate' came to be the Ultimate Form? Surely, the idea behind creating immediacy and putting the reader 'right into the action' is to create a strong connection, a sense of empathy, between reader and characters or narrative. But there are actually many, many ways to do that. I worry that a lot of these slightly more subtle, interesting, skillful ways to create empathy and identification between the reader and the characters/story are being stamped out in the rush to create books which conform to Ultimate Form.
All writers have - or should have - different styles. The methods that I employ to create strong empathy between characters/narratives and readers are varied. I try to immerse the reader an emotional atmosphere - to show the unique way my point of view characters' feel about and interact with their world and the other people within it. I try to build a sense of curiosity within the reader, hinting at the characters' formative experiences and vulnerabilities by showing them making interesting choices or underdoing intriguing interactions, until the reader becomes really invested in finding out their secrets, desires, flaws. I rely on intense sensory impressions in my writing, hoping that my readers will experience a ghost of what the character feels, smells, tastes and touches. And I glory in using language to its fullest extent, searching for imagery and descriptions and similes and metaphors which will create an 'eyeball kick' - that is, a phrase so beautifully expressed that for a moment the reader literally sees what I want them to see.
I don't think, in general, that my work is fast paced at all. I hope that it has immediacy where that is necessary for a scene or sequence to resonate, but it's not my primary goal in anything I write. That's not who I am as a writer, and those are not the stories I want to write. And although in the past, editors and my agent have certainly asked me to make cuts as part of the editing process, usually in order to comply with editorial suggestions I end up adding more scenes and increasing the word count of my books. Not because I 'write short' as some authors do, and turn in very spare first drafts. Just because cutting is not the only way to improve a book and good editing, as a process, acknowledges that.
I'm not saying anyone should look at my description of the way I write and try to imitate it. My way is not only way to write, or the right way to write. My methods are, in fact, the merest tiny selection of a vast myriad of methods. That's the point. I'm still learning, and still making mistakes, still figuring out which of the myriad of methods work for me and my stories. When I try something ambitious and different and fail - and oho, yes, fail I do - that teaches me a lesson and improves my skills. Next time I either know better than to try this method again, or know much better how to go about it. Writing is an art and a craft, and that means it should always be an ongoing process.
Each of us has our own unique ways of expressing our ideas, and each of us has a unique take on the ideas that it would be interesting or worthwhile to express, and figuring that out is also part of the process.
But It's very hard to develop such an ongoing process if you're wholly devoted to honing your work to the pinnacle of Ultimate Form instead of honing it to the pinnacle of Ultimate YOU.
Sometimes when I read books or stories or even blogposts or poetry, I'll frown over stuff that strikes me as just kind of... weird. And as I look at it, all puzzled, I'll realise: this is a case of someone trying so desperately to get to Ultimate Form that they have butchered their own writing to get there.
"Never!" John gritted.
He gritted what? His garden path?
That piece of dialogue has no connection to the speech tag. 'John gritted', if taken at face value, would conjure up an image of John, as he is speaking, scattering salt/grit crystals. Of course, what the writer actually means is that the character is speaking through gritted teeth. They may even have originally written 'John said through gritted teeth'. Which is a plain, unobtrusive sort of speech tag that at least conveys something relevant about what John is doing as he speaks in a grammatically correct fashion. It may or may not have been necessary - it would depend on the context of the scene, and whether or not John has, for instance, been speaking very calmly, or perhaps shouting at the top of his lungs up to this point, and the tooth-gritting is a signal of a shift due to escalating temper, or pain of some kind, or something else. Maybe it's important for us to know that John's now gritting his teeth. Maybe not. But before the writer could consider any of that, the search for Ultimate Form interfered. The tag was cut down - probably at first to 'John gritted out' (which isn't great) and finally to 'John gritted' (which is even worse).
I know most readers can work out what the writer intends to say here. But then again, most people can understand my meaning if I type:
tihs snetecne is bdlay msipeleld.
Yes, you can figure it out. But as a writer, should I really be asking you to? And why?
Similarly, when reading novels with romantic scenes, I've been struck by how many characters do an odd thing:
John fisted Mary-Beth's hair...
I deeply regret to tell you, but some of my friends make very rude jokes when they see this sort of thing on a page. What's sad, for me, is that I can see the faint ghost of what this used to be. What it should be, actually - a lovely image, a strong, sensory description, something along the lines of:
John's hands curled into fists in the heavy waves of Mary-Beth's hair...
When you read the second, you can imagine, if you have longish hair, the little tug as those fingers curl up against your scalp, and the way it would tilt your face up, just a little. If you're someone who likes playing with long hair, you can imagine the silky strands winding around your fingers and the way the person you touched would maybe shiver just a little.
But you don't get that from the first description, do you? It's been robbed of its poetry and its sensory strength. It's been robbed of its effectiveness. It becomes, frankly, a bit laughable.
Then theres's the apparently unassailable Ultimate Form wisdom of Show, Don't Tell.
Because, you see, 'telling' is boring. It's bad. It's distant and 'filters' the reader's connection with the character. But 'showing' is thrilling. It's good. It is, once again, 'immediate' and 'puts the reader in the action' and those must always be our higest goals.
Only... does it really work that way? The plain answer is 'no, absolutely not'. Yes, it's fair to say that some things must be shown. Some things are so thrilling or vital or moving or important that to merely recount them is a tragedy for the story. But not everything! Sometimes, for instance, there's a need to convey the passing the time between scenes for pacing reasons - rather than simply cutting from one scene to another - but we only need to be 'told' a general idea of what's gone on, rather than being 'shown' the main character getting home, kicking off her shoes, making dinner, bathing and brushing her teeth and finally going to bed and sleeping... and then getting up the next day, brushing her teeth again etc. etc. right up until the moment she spots that intriguing but frightening stranger hanging around outside her workplace again.
That is a case where 'showing' would be anything but 'immediate'. That is a case where 'telling' is the opposite of 'boring' because it literally reduces the chances of the reader getting bored with tonnes of unnecessary detail. Sometimes telling - whether in plain language or with evocative lyricism, is the best and only thing to do. And tying yourself into a pretzel to avoid it results in choices like those of Stephenie Meyer, who movingly illustrated her main character's suicidal depression with... blank pages with the name of the month on them.
She certainly 'showed' us something, there. But did that showing, at a technical level, create any kind of empathy or connection with her character? Show us the day to day realities of living with suicidal depression? Show us any hint of insight into Bella's world during those months? No, it did not.
Rather than trying to show the emptiness Bella felt with literal empty pages, couldn't she just have told us that for four months Bella barely lived? Barely noticed the passing of time, hardly remembered to eat, couldn't bear to sleep - but only just found the strength to force herself out of bed each day? That she wandered through the hours, weeks, months, with little awareness of anything but longing for her pain to end, and the vague wish that maybe, the next day, she wouldn't wake up at all?
I mean, that took a lot less pages, if nothing else.
While twenty blank pages in your already pretty long book is an extreme example, following the Show Don't Tell rule in a quest for Ultimate Form leads many writers to equally ineffective ways of reflecting their character's emotions to the reader. Instead of briefly telling us about a character's mood, like this:
A void seemed to yawn open in Mary-Beth's chest. John's words injured her so deeply; she felt, for moment, that she would have been better of if he'd just reached out and pushed her off the edge of the balcony.
And then, having effectively established their emotional state, moving onto the crux of the scene, the writer gets stuck showing us everything in excruciating detail and it becomes both overwrought and less moving. Because the thing is? There's no real way to show this emotional reaction.
You doubt me. You say: what if Mary-Beth gasps, goes pale, staggers back?
Yes, she could. However, don't those reactions feel a little threadbare and cliched? Afterall, they're the classic way that everyone 'shows' shock and upset. They don't really tell us much about Mary-Beth as an individual - what this means to her as an individual. And because of that sense of generic over-use, you, as the writer, end up worrying that you've failed to convey the depth of her despair. So in order to 'show' how significant this moment is, you have to amp up Mary-Beth's reaction, make it something that can be expressed physically. Thus, you get something like:
Tears dripped down Mary-Beth's face as she rubbed compulsively at her aching, empty chest. Tiny whimpers fell from her lips. She rocked backward and forward, seeking comfort in the repetitive movement.
Immediately transforming Mary-Beth into someone who, regardless of her shock and grief, probably needs psychological help. Which is OK, if that's what you were going for. But if not, and if your narrative accepts this behaviour as 'normal', your writing will begin to resemble melodrama without your having intended it to.
And yet! This piece of writing still isn't Ultimate Form enough for some, because it's transgressed against the rules of sparse-ness and immediacy in deploying adverbs and adjectives, and authorial intrusion too (that's me interpreting Mary-Beth's actions as comfort-seeking, there at the end). In order to achieve Ultimate Form we have to revise again - replacing ad/verb/jectives with 'stronger' verbs and nouns to make up for it, and allowing only showing with no hints from me, the author:
Tears drizzled down Mary-Beth's face as she scrubbed at her chest. Whimpers fell from her lips. She rocked in place.
The impression that Mary-Beth is deeply disturbed rather than just experiencing an emotion is even greater - and we have literally no idea what she's feeling anymore, or why she's reacting this way to her grief at John's rejection. The fact is, this isn't a piece of good writing for a novel.
It's more like an instruction from a screenplay.
In fact, a lot of the tenants of Ultimate Form seem to come from the school of good screenwriting. Fast paced? Check. Immediate? Check. No authorial intrusion/voice-overs? Check. Only show the character's external reactions? Check.
But fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction and short stories, are not screenplays. And although all forms of writing can improve when they borrow the best techniques from other forms, this inexorable drift toward writing which has been robbed of some of the most effective potential storytelling techniques, which has as little fun or experimental language as possible, and from which the unique personality and voice of the author has been scrubbed, is resulting in not only narratives but also writers that are less, much less, than they could be. The thing is? Narrative fiction and non-fiction - storytelling - has the ability to do something screenplays meant for films and TV simply can't. Something that every actor and director and screenwriter and music director and make-up and costume and set designer is straining every nerve they have to try to replicate on the screen, but which they can never quite manage. Narratives can tell you what's going on inside someone's heart. Their mind. Their soul. That's why they call us story-tellers.
This, by the way, is not a diss aimed at screen or playwriters. You guys go wild. It's a request that we question the prevailing Ultimate Forms which are pushed at us instead of assuming that other people's Ideal is The Ideal. Editors may be looking for books or stories which give them a certain feeling. Agents may find a certain kind of work easy to sell. Marketing and publicity people might think a certain kind of work is hot right now. Authors may be offering advice based on what they've published lately. But these trends and fashions, the zeitgeist itself, changes with the wind. No one ever knows what the next big thing will be before it arrives. It could be you, but not if you're trying your hardest to be someone else.
Sacrificing the unique and fun qualities of language and narrative - sacrificing the hard but wonderful process of working out what kind of thing you love to write and are good at writing - for the supposed Ultimate Form, regardless of what this may be, is the last thing any of us should do.
It's letting the teacher's grade on your funny, imaginative story put you off writing anything funny or imaginative ever again. It's letting someone else control one of the most fundamental aspects of your self - your creativity. Don't allow it. There is no fail or passing grade, there is no Ultimate Form. There is only you. And you, and the unique stories you love to create and share, are enough.