Three on writing

Cory Doctorow on “Writing in the Age of Distraction.

Joss Whedon‘s “Top 10 Writing Tips.”

And Maureen F. McHugh:

For a competent writer, the way they do these things is intuitive. I don’t tend to think about how much of the narrative is from the narrator and how much from the character. I’m not even aware that I’m making those decisions. Neither is the unpracticed writer. The difference is that after years of practice, I have a set of unconscious skills that tell me what is more likely to be successful. I know when it ‘feels right.’ For me, only after 10,000 hours could I actually start to think about a lot of the decisions I made to solve those problems. Before that, like learning to ride a bicycle, if I thought too much, I fell off. The prose got stiff, overly self-conscious, mannered in a bad way.

How very meta

Over at Fraggmented, John Seavey has an interesting post about what he calls “The Metastory Trap”:

Put simply, the metastory trap comes when a long-running series of separate-but-linked stories gets more interested in its metastory than the individual stories that compose it. Put even more simply, you get caught in a metastory trap when you’re more worried about your arc than you are about your individual installments. Put even more simply, you’re caught in a metastory trap when you write “Countdown to Infinite Crisis”. *rimshot*

It’s worth reading, although I’m not sure I agree with all of it or with all of the examples he cites. (And I think it goes without saying that some of those examples offer up at least mild spoilers.)

I was a little disenchanted with the Anya/Xander relationship at the end of Season 6 of Buffy too, for instance, but I also think its development was organic to the story the writers were trying to tell at the time. It didnt feel like just another ratcheting up of plot twists for its own sake. I thought the further developments in Season 7 (particularly the Anya-centered episode “Selfless”) just further underscored this. You didn’t have to like that story or the way it was told — and heaven knows I had my own problems with most of Season 7 — but I think there’s a big difference between allowing a story to grow naturally beyond its beginnings, and forcing everything to change because that’s all you know how to do. Both are likely to alienate viewers, but I think only the latter deserves to.

In other words, a show doesn’t have to be what it once was in order to be true to those beginnings.

The whole idea of a “Metastory Trap” gets thrown for a loop by shows like Lost or Heroes, which from their very beginnings were all about the overarching metastory, more than any individual episode. I think Lost has figured out how to make this work, precisely because the writers know the shape of their metastory. Unlike those for whom metastory is a trap, they’re not just making stuff up as they go along.* They’re really not telling a series of separate-but-linked stories, but rather one very long, multi-season story. You’d have a tough time starting with Lost from almost anywhere but the beginning, but that seems more by design than by accident.

One of Seavey’s other examples, Babylon 5, is a little more problematic. Its first season may have given the illusion that the show was about stand-alone stories, and that the writers only racheted up the meta in later seasons when fans responded eagerly. But I think B5 was clearly intended as a single 5-year story. I think there are some problems with how J. Michael Straczynski told that story — particularly that the fifth season is something of anticlimax — but it’s hard to see how it “fell into” the metastory trap, when what it really did was dive in headfirst.

As did a show like Twin Peaks, which I think you could argue fell into something like a reverse metastory trap: once its overarching storyline was gone and its original mystery solved, its attempts to tell separate, smaller stories within the same universe failed to generate the same excitement. Personally, I liked the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer — and I’m not sure the show could have sustained the tension of not revealing it much longer — but it’s not tough to see why viewers left when the metastory they signed up for went away.

If any one show did fall into the trap, it’s that other antecedent of Lost, The X-Files. By the show’s end, the metastory had become the elephant in the room, and many fans (myself included) often wished it would just go away. The show threatened to choke under the weight of its own mythos. It’s no wonder Chris Carter decided to go another route with his recent X-Files movie I Want to Believe. Then again, it’s no wonder that movie failed; the mythos had become such a part of the show that die-hard fans were disappointed to find no new evidence of it. And everybody else…well, everybody else had pretty much stopped caring ten years earlier.

Seavey isn’t wrong that “A series that is all about its metastory rapidly develops a complex, tangled mythos that can obscure the simple, powerful idea at its heart…and turn off new readers/viewers.” But I also think there’s much to be said for a series that rewards patient and regular reading or viewing, that uses a growing mythos (tangled as it may sometimes be) not to obscure its central idea but to examine it, to build from it, and to allow that idea to naturally evolve. Metastory need not be a trap. If the twists and changes in a series are organic and logical, if they don’t feel like a cheat or ploy for short-term excitement, then I think metastory can work to enchance a story. Rather than a trap, it becomes an effective tool.

* Around season two, I had my doubts. But now I really do think they know what they’re doing.

One on writing, one on reading

Theordora Goss:

The story should never stop, not in a ballet, not in an opera, not in a story. When the story stops (in a ballet, an opera, whatever), all that’s left are technical exercises.

Christopher Barzak:

The more you consistently read in such great quantities, though, the harder it is to be caught in a story’s spell. You learn the tricks and see the hands moving…this is also one of the signs of a story that gets its spell off and holds its reader: you never see what’s coming, the trick retains its secrecy and mystery, it remains magical despite your best explanations.

Writerly advice

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

[William Faulkner] said, “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”