Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art Versus Science

We've all heard the axioms before:
- Show, don't tell.
- Remove the adjectives and adverbs.
- Get straight into the action.
- Limit extraneous characters.
- Avoid clichés.
- And many, many more...

These are the laws of writing associated with making what you say more efficient and easier for the reader to understand.  They seek to cut through the dense undergrowth so that we can get into a great novel.

The problem is that things aren't always so cut and dried.

The industry has been trying for years to reduce the guesswork in writing and make it to a science, ie - here's a formula that will work for you if you use it.  However, writing is more than a rote series of rules that makes what we do a science.  It isn't exact - it's also an art.

Of course, that doesn't mean to completely ignore the advice above.  Always check what you write for the superfluous.  A runner doesn't quickly sprint, just as a drunkard doesn't stumble awkwardly.  And yes, you should get to the point of your work as soon as possible.  Still, there's something to be said for flouting these rules on occasion.

Sometimes you need to build a character into a person the audience will care about, and that can't be done if you put him or her in an extraordinary situation off the bat.  Sure, it might make for great action, but why would a reader care if George Farrington is fighting an epic sword battle if they don't know who he is?  The character must do interesting things that sometimes advance the character rather than the plot.

Also, telling is sometimes a necessary evil, for background is important.  You needn't show the lineage of the kings of France in order to let everyone know why Napoleon is important, only that such kings once existed and created the conditions that allowed for his rise.  Telling an audience that the Mark I tank was first used at the Battle of the Somme can provide context for your war story without the need to follow it from the assembly line.  In short, telling provides crucial background that allows our imaginations to grow with the story, so long as one doesn't go into a full dissertation.

I've run into folks at both ends of the spectrum.  There are those automatons out there who will tell you that there is a set formula for a successful novel, and any deviation will push away your reader.  These people are known as "idiots."  Yet others will rap episodic about how you should let everything flow in a deluge of creativity.  These people are known as "delusional."

You must learn to strike a balance in your writing, and this only happens with practice.  The very first thing you write is likely to be awful, but you'll only know that by giving it to someone heartless enough to give you honest feedback.  You have to press through that and find which end of the spectrum you live on, and then find a way to creep back to balance.  You've got to be both creative and logical if you're going to write a story that interests people.  So tell those that say it must be one way or the other to stay away from you, for they haven't got it all figured out, no matter how many equations they show you or how much imagery they can vomit on a page.

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