Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Novels are a strange medium

Regular readers may have noticed that I stopped posting monthly updates about the novel I am trying to write.  I'm still writing the novel, at such a crawl that I may never finish.  That's fine with me.  However, I decided I didn't want to do further regular updates.  The updates make me feel like I'm fulfilling an obligation.

I'd still like to talk about fiction, without focusing on my writing in particular.  Specifically, I've become more aware of how strange novels are, and stories more generally.
I used to think that writing a story was like wandering an open street.  You could go in any direction you please, and see whatever you want.  Instead, writing a story is more like wandering an open galaxy.  You can go in many directions, but you have to build a space ship first, and the vehicle proceeds to limit your perspective.

I'm talking about some really basic constraints:

-You can't have too many well-developed characters.  And if you do have lots of characters, you can't introduce them all at once.

-Stories need a conflict and resolution.  You can have a conflict without a resolution, but it feels much weirder than it does in real life.  If you don't have a conflict, it's not a story, it's an essay.

-Pacing is counterintuitive.  We want to tell the details of the story which are interesting, and skip the details which are uninteresting.  For most stories, this requires zooming in and out a lot, but if you zoom in and out too much it feels jerky.

-Many novels have the conceit of a narrator character.  But why would a sensible person talk like a novel, or even write about their experiences like a novel?

-Vivid descriptions are a strange concept.  Why do we like them?  Do we all in fact like them?  Do descriptions need have anything to do with the rest of the story?

-A story has a beginning, which is disorienting.  I find it telling that in video games, which are often in second person, so many stories begin with the protagonist waking up or having amnesia.

-Readers don't automatically care about characters.  If you have characters do something important before readers care about them, then the readers might miss its importance entirely.

-A story has an ending.  The sheer weirdness of having an ending is most obvious when we see sequels to stories where a sequel wasn't originally planned.  It especially screws with character development, because how do you have a character achieve enlightenment repeatedly?

-Fiction can have a message, but is severely limited in its ability to argue the message.  You can't really say "X is wrong because people in my story did X and it led to bad things."  Actually, lots of fiction makes that kind of argument anyway, but I'd personally rather not.

Can you think of any other constraints in the novel or story medium?


miller said...

I often feel like I'm in the wrong audience for everything, because I have a taste for postmodern stuff but don't really understand the theory, and I also want things that are fun.

I still joke with my boyfriend, years after the fact, about weird things the narrator would do in Shadow of the Torturer. Like introducing new characters who seemed like they'd stick around, and then promptly leaving them. Or promising to explain something later, but never mentioning it again. Somehow betraying my narrative expectations that way seems profound, and it doesn't have anything to do with the story being more "realistic".

miller said...

It's telling that you go from "wandering an open street" to "wandering an open galaxy" to seeking feedback on the constraints of the medium.

I've always had the hardest time writing an open-ended assignment. The more limitations I'm given, the more creatively I work. Make yourself a list of rules: well-reasoned or arbitrary, doesn't matter, it just helps to have constraints.

miller said...

Hey, the book I'm writing is realistic fiction so there are plenty of constraints to work with.

miller said...

Lol, well, that's a start, I suppose.