Friday, October 25

How to Succeed: The Importance of Clarity





It doesn’t matter how well a story is structured, or how clever the writing is, if it isn’t clear to readers what the text is meant to express.

Ask yourself, What is writing? Here’s my experience: I sit at my writing desk and have a thought. I write down that thought. When someone reads that sentence I want them to grasp the same thought I had when I wrote the sentence. If that happens, my prose is perfectly clear. Goal accomplished! But thoughts can be garbled in various ways.

In this article I write about how to communicate thoughts and emotions clearly as well as how this can go wrong.

Cause & Effect: Order Matters


In Jack M. Bickham’s excellent book Scene & Structure, he gives several examples of a garbled thought and how to fix it.

Example 1


Take the sentence:
“Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.”
Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but the stimulus and response are backward. It should be:

Hearing the shot, Joe turned.

That’s the psychologically correct order of events. As a result, not only is the sentence clearer and easier to read but it is more emotionally engaging.

Example 2


Here’s another example Bickham gives:
“Having been angry for days, Joe punched Sam.”
When I first read this sentence I thought, “Well, that’s okay!” But it isn’t. You likely saw it right away. Joe has been angry with Sam for days, so why punch him now? What happened? There is no motivating stimulus, no trigger.

Years ago I had long hair that fell past my waist. After a particularly rough breakup, I told my hairdresser to cut it all off. She had wanted me to let her cut my hair for years, so I expected her to be happy. She wasn’t. She frowned and asked, “Why? What has happened?” That was insightful. Why should I cut my hair NOW? Something in my life must have changed.

Bickham doesn’t give this example but -- even though it’s far from perfect -- even this construction would work better:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s better! At least we have a trigger. Sure, there are still questions. For instance, why is Joe angry with Sam? However, maybe you want your readers to be curious, to ask themselves, What did Sam do to Joe?

If we wanted to make things clearer we could add an internalisation between the stimulus and the response:
Having been angry for days, Joe said, “You have some nerve!” to Sam.
Sam wondered if Joe had found out he’d slept with his wife.
Joe punched Sam.
That’s not great literature, but you get the idea. We now understand Joe’s motives and the progression of action and reaction makes sense.

Example 3


Here’s another one of Bickham’s examples. And, again, when I first read this I didn’t see anything wrong:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised.”
It’s boring, but it seems like an okay sentence, right? If I walk up to someone and they hit me, I’d be surprised! But, more than that, we seem to have a stimulus (Rick hit Bill) and a response (Bill was surprised).

To show you what’s wrong, let’s change the sentence a bit:
“Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised. Bill hit Rick.”
Again, I am NOT saying this is great literature, but on some deep level the second sentence is more satisfying than the first. Why? Because it is complete. Here the response is VISIBLE. Rick hit Bill and Bill was surprised, the surprise is internal, invisible.

How do we know Bill was surprised? Did he stagger back, put his hand over his cheek and yell at Rick, “Why’d you do that!?” That would have been okay.

To sum up: Clarity depends on the correct presentation of cause and effect. The punch (a physical thing) is thrown, there is a moment of confusion, or perhaps of expectation (internalization), and then the punch lands (physical) and then there is an internal response to this and then another physical action, and so on.

That’s the pattern: ACTION - INTERNALIZATION - RESPONSE. Both the action and response need to be EXTERNAL. Visible. The internalization is optional. But for every action there MUST BE a response, and for every response there must have been an action.

Two Plain Facts about Feelings


You’re a writer. You’ve grasped the basics of grammar, word choice, sentence structure, and working with five hours of sleep. You can craft a sentence that communicates a clear thought. However, none of this has anything to do with how to craft an entertaining story, and that’s your goal.

There are two things here. Actually, it's the same thing on two different levels.

a. Create a world full of meaning: Give the hero a goal


You want to create a world filled with meaning. But how? Easy. Give the protagonist a goal, set her upon a quest. Then order everything else in the story according to this final goal. (This is one reason why knowing your ending in advance helps.)

This is an aside, but I want to say something about the usefulness of free indirect discourse. You want your reader to identify with your hero, you want your reader to see through your hero’s eyes. When you use free indirect discourse, your reader sees the character’s thoughts laid bare and this helps the reader sink into his perspective. The reader feels as though (temporarily and only in this imaginary world) she shares the same goal.

(If you want to read more about free indirect discourse, I've written an article, "Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul," where I include examples.)

That’s one level, that’s a 20,000 foot view of Story and why we love them so much. But there is another level, one lower down. This one has to do with the mechanics of creating meaning.

b. It’s all about the reader’s feelings


Our tools are words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. How does one thing -- a reader hanging off your every word -- come about from reading words arranged one after the other?

Dwight V. Swain in Chapter 3 of his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that (I’m paraphrasing) the manipulation of your reader’s feelings is the foundation stone on which your story will succeed or fail.
Question: WHAT should you try to communicate to your readers?
Answer: Feelings.
Question: How does one go about communicating feelings to your readers?
Answer: Through motivation and reaction. 
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s actually quite complex. I can’t cover all of Dwight V. Swain’s ideas about this here, but I want to touch on how he views motivation and reaction.


Motivation and Reaction


How and Why


I’ve read stories where the writer has mastered the basics of storytelling, their dialogue was great, the bones of the general story and how it hooked into the setting was good, but the way the character was introduced confused me. And there is NOTHING more important than introducing your protagonist, at least in terms of keeping your reader turning the pages.

I think this is one of the many places where Dwight V. Swain shines.

By the way, New York Times Best Selling author Jim Butcher studied under Deborah Chester and she, in turn, studied under Jack M. Bickham who in turn studied under Dwight V. Swain. They have all made their living writing stories. This works.

Here’s the logic.

1. decide what is good and what is bad


Easy, right? But a lot of writers don’t do this! Let’s say I’m writing a fantasy story and I give the protagonist the power of generating electricity from her fingertips. Well, so what? What difference does that make in the context of the story?

In order for a reader to know how to feel about our wonderful protagonist developing this new power we need context. How would her family feel about her developing this power? How about her friends? How about her society?

For example, if her family thought her gift was a gift from god then they would feel proud. On the other hand, if they thought it was a curse -- if they believed she had done something dispicable to bring this on herself -- then they might be hostile toward her, they might disown the protagonist or even try to harm her physically.

1a. How society sees things


I've touched on this, above, but let's go into it in more depth.

Having developed her new power, would the average person, or even the state, think the protagonist was a demon and attempt to burn her at the stake?

Would the average person greet the protagonist as a potential hero, as someone who could defend them from a potential threats? That matters! That is going to shape not only how the protagonist feels and reacts toward her new power, but how the other characters react to her.

1b. Relative to a goal


Continuing with the example, another thing for a writer to ask her/himself is whether this new power will help the protagonist achieve her goal. (Let’s say the hero’s goal is to save the world from an asteroid set to crash into it in 31 days.)

Let’s say the hero becomes a vampire and needs to drink human blood to survive. This is time consuming, she’s not crazy about the whole blood drinking thing, there are ethical considerations about procurement of blood, and so on.

On the other hand, our hero is super strong, has preternaturally good hearing, sight, and so on. Is this good or bad?

It depends on whether it helps her or hurts her in attaining her overall goal. Perhaps it turns out that there really is no asteroid set to crash into the earth and Nemoth the Numbnut had made it appear so because he wanted to create a panic. He wanted to rob a few banks and decided that in all the confusion caused by everyone believing the world was going to end would be useful.

1c. Be specific.


I think this is what is behind the admonition to avoid sentences like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’ve used the example of Stephen King’s first line from IT several times. Like all of Stephen King’s first lines it grabs the reader and shows them something specific about a character pursuing a goal.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” (Stephen King, It)
How great is that! There’s something about King’s writing that sucks me in from the very first sentence. And I really do believe it has to do with specificity. The general is vague, the specific is clear.

1d. Introduce a yardstick.


I’ve touched on this a bit, above, but let’s go into it in greater depth. A writer needs to introduce something which tells the reader that, within the story world, one thing is better than another. A hierarchy of values (think of a pyramid) needs to be implemented. The highest value is at the top, and everything in the story world is sorted according to that.

As far as what exactly this ultimate good is, that is going to vary from story to story, from hero to hero. The occupation the hero has (engineer vs doctor vs psychologist vs politician) can also influence what that character's highest good is. For example, Indiana Jones’ ultimate good was recovering and preserving the artifacts of ancient (or alien) civilizations. He believed they had intrinsic worth.

In each Indiana Jones movie, in each story, it was a different specific artifact, a different goal, but the general goal never changed.

Events


As in real life, the important thing is never the event itself. Graduation is important because you’ve accomplished a goal and are now heading out into the world to start life.

In fiction, there are two ways a thing can matter. First, it matters if it relates to your main character and whether it helps or hinders him accomplish his goal. Second, a thing also matters if it affects the other characters achieve their goals.

In the beginning, the hero is faced with a specific instance of tragedy. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were murdered by Stormtroopers operating under the orders of an evil Emperor. Luke came home from his visit with Obi-Wan Kenobi and saw their skeletal, smoking, corpses. That’s traumatic!

Luke’s aunt and uncle had raised him since he was first born, he loved them and was grateful for what they had done for him, although it was time for him to go off on his own.

Swain writes that (I‘m paraphrasing) something is meaningful to the reader only if it is meaningful to one of your characters. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve gone through many of my old stories and, in the beginning, I sometimes narrated events that should have been enacted. I needed to show how events changed my character’s lives.

Give your character a moral compass


While this is related to the previous point, I thought it deserved a section of its own. A character’s moral compass is usually expressed through a character. For example, in Pinocchio Jiminy Cricket was the wooden puppet’s conscience. Introducing a moral compass also has the advantage of introducing conflict.

When your main character is going to do something morally dubious and likely self-destructive the moral compass (often a best friend or sidekick, for example, Donkey in Shrek) warns the hero against it. An argument, which introduces conflict (and that’s good!) usually begins.

Swain writes that, “All reactions, all feelings, boil down to ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’ You like chocolate or you don’t. You like your job or you don’t. And as I’ve said, whether you like these things changes from time to time based on associated factors like whether you’re hungry, whether you’re tired, whether your boss has yelled at you for no reason, and so on.”

I have a mild disagreement with Swain. He believes that a fact, a story, an event, cannot provoke an emotion in a READER if a character does not react to it. I see his point and I think that's mostly true. And I don't want to throw any shade on Swain, he was a master storyteller.

But honestly, I’m not sure I believe that everything of significance needs to be shown, filtered through, a character. I think that some descriptive writing builds a picture and can be moving.

To sum up this point: You need to know where your hero stands in relation to everything else in the story because everything is set in relation to him or her. The hero’s greatest goal, greatest desire, becomes the greatest good and stands at the top of the hierarchy of values.

The Focal Character


This phrase isn’t used often: The focal character. Think of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson was the narrator but everything, the whole story was about Sherlock Holmes. If the reader could have seen inside Sherlock Holmes’ mind there would have been no suspense. They were mystery stories, after all!

Many of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories were like this as well. We saw the world through Watson’s eyes, he was the viewpoint character, but clearly the entire story was about the powers of deduction of Hercule Poirot and so he was the focal character.

So, to put this in my own way, the focal character is the one who orders the story world and gives it meaning or significance.

The focal character needs to constantly be put in situations -- both large and small -- where he stands to win or lose. This will illicit feeling within the reader.

So it’s VERY IMPORTANT that, at all points of a story, at every moment in every scene, you strive to orient the reader in relation to your hero as he acts in a specific situation.

But this is more difficult to do than it may seem. It is easy to confuse the reader. I’ve been guilty of this time and time again, especially when I was a kid. I would write about THINGS, about a beautiful sunset, about a meandering stream, about a mysterious glade I happened upon. I would sit (literally!) on the steps of the art gallery and write vignettes about how the crowd swirled around me.

But none of that made for a good story.

Stories are about a CHARACTER’S reactions to a series of specific situations. Yes, there are Things in these scenes but a thing is only included if it relevant to a character achieving their goal.

I’m paraphrasing Dwight V. Swain here: The story is about the hero’s reactions to what happens. It is about the hero’s feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, drives and inner conflicts.

Again, things are only important inasmuch as it helps depict the hero’s reactions.

2. Create a story world.


Remember that your reader has never been in the world of your story. Make it memorable, make it easy to grasp. It can be alien and complex, but make it easy for your reader to fall into. Make sure to use all the focal character’s senses when describing it.

Show the reader, your reader, the hero’s mind, his thoughts, his feelings. Remember, your hero is becoming something. He is going from cowardice to courage, from incompetence to mastery. He changes, and he changes by DOING things.

How does a writer accomplish this? Shape external developments. The outcome of each scene must have a significant effect on the rest of the story. It must be linked to the hero eventually getting or losing his final goal, whatever that is. The final goal could be to keep his license to practise law, to kill the dragon, to rejuvenate his community, or whatever.

3. Each cause must have an effect and every effect must have a cause.


Dwight V. Swain writes, “People like the idea that there’s a reason behind everything that happens … a cause for every effect …” And that’s true! Readers -- people -- do like that idea. It’s likely not true, but we want it to be. So, in our story world, every event needs to have a cause and every cause needs to have an effect.

Please note that when I talk about cause and effect I mean more than that there has been a change. We aren’t just saying that something has happened. We are saying that something has happened because of something else, and that if that something else hadn’t happened, then the current event wouldn’t have either.

4. Motivation and Reaction


For each motivating stimulus there is a character reaction. Someone spritzes your character in the face with perfume (motivating stimulus) and the focal character sneezes (character reaction). This is a one-to-one relation.

First there is a change in a physical, visible, state of affairs. Then (this is optional) there is a change in a character's state of mind. Finally the character physically responds to the change in affairs that just occurred.

A story -- or at least a scene -- is a chain of these motivation -- response units.

5. Motivation and Reaction Units Shape Emotion


I’ve belonged to various critique groups. In all of these, writers had different levels of skill. Some were professionals while others were just starting out and so shared their first stories.

Sometimes a beginning writer would create a captivating story, but it was difficult for me, as a reader, to get into the story. Why? Because what the protagonist wanted, what her goal was, was either unclear or it didn’t make sense.

I expand on this, below.

The Order of Events Should be Clear


In order for readers to become attached to the protagonist. The focal character must be presented with a problem. In Swain’s example (I've used the same example in a previous post) when a man gets home from work he finds a note from his wife on the hall table. He reads it. She has left him for someone else.

So that’s the problem, that’s the break in the status-quo, the change in his state of affairs.

Now the reader needs to know how the character responds to that change.

The man doesn’t believe it. He’s numb. His state of mind has changed. Then shock washes through him, shock and horror and rage and, finally, grief.

Note the order here.

a. Something happened. An event. The man found and read the goodbye letter.
b. The man had an internal reaction to that event.
c. The man does something, he physically reacts. He slumps, boneless, shaking, into a nearby chair.
d. The chair is broken -- his wife kept nagging him to fix it -- and it crumbles beneath him.

Event causes event that causes event that … You get the idea.
Let’s break this down chronologically

Here’s the structure Swain gives:

Motivation Reaction Units (M-R Units)


First: Motivating stimulus.
Second: Character reaction. He divides this into three parts:
a. Feeling
b. Action
c. Speech

First we have the motivating stimulus. Next we have the character’s reaction. The character’s reaction has three parts and each of these parts has to occur in a particular order: feeling, action and speech. Note, though, that not all of these must be used in each motivation reponse pair, you can skip one or two depending on the situation. For instance, in dialogue, we often only have speech.

That said, motivation ALWAYS precedes reaction. Recall that the goal of all of this is to help writers create clear prose and in so doing create stories that are eminently readable. If you can do that and ignore one or more of these steps, awesome! But if readers have trouble imaginatively entering into your story world, if they have trouble understanding your characters, then this is something you could try.

Exercise


Go through a scene in your work in progress and rewrite it so that the motivating stimulus and the character reaction are explicit. Do this for the viewpoint character. Make sure the character reaction includes feeling, action and speech, in that order.

Done? Now read both scenes, is the re-written one easier to read? Please tell me what you think in the comments, I’m really very interested in whether this worked for you.

In a future post I’ll go over the motivating stimulus in more depth. If you’ve gotten something out of this article and would like to support my writing, here is a link to my patreon account.


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