The Genre of Inscrutability

I recently watched a show called Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space with my kids. The show has had an interesting life, starting as a web short, kickstarting a full series, and then getting a sort of semi-sequel series on Netflix that encapsulates the earlier versions in the first couple episodes. For what it’s worth, I only watched the Netflix series.

The show is a silly and deeply weird cartoon about a lazy girl named Bee and an interdimensional space puppy/cat/thing. Bee is fired from her job for the aforementioned laziness, and Puppycat helpfully takes her to the interdimensional temp agency to do strange odd jobs across the universe every time the pair needs a little cash.

At first glance, Bee and Puppycat is just a goofy cartoon, but it is so strange that I found myself thinking about it quite a bit once we had finished the series. Like a curious kid, I wanted to take this show apart and try to understand how it works.

The Legacy of Adventure Time

Adventure Time was a cartoon that exploded into pop culture. It combined absurdism, surrealism, and what I now think of as millennial-style non-sequitur humor with storylines that took unexpectedly emotional turns and occasionally addressed serious topics from silly angles. While it started as ostensibly a kids’ show, it grew a fanbase that was largely young adults.

Adventure Time changed in tone over the course of its ten seasons, perhaps due to a change in show-runners, influence from its fan-base, or its creative staff getting older. The earlier seasons are whimsical and light, often silliness for silliness sake, while the later seasons seem more burdened by the serious undertones, a little more self-conscious, but also trying to be more than just a series of goofy bits.

Clearly, a lot of cartoon television talent was cultivated around the show, because people involved in Adventure Time have gone on to work on many other well-crafted shows. Among that diaspora, the influence of Adventure Time and its aesthetics are clear. Stephen Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and Bee and Puppycat all share some of that Adventure Time DNA.

The Genre of Inscrutability

The world of Bee and Puppycat is strange and mysterious, and we’re dropped right in the middle of it. Initially, it has some of the trappings of the mundane world. A girl losing her job at the café and needing to do odd jobs to make ends meet is a fairly ordinary premise. But this quickly spirals into stranger and stranger territory. What kind of creature is Puppycat, and where is he from? Is Bee actually a robot? Why is her landlord a small child, and why does his comatose mother cry magical tears that transform everything they touch? Why is pretty much everything and everyone on her island home so bizarre, and yet nobody seems to care?

Mysterious settings aren’t uncommon. In fact, they’re a great way to pull the audience into a story. Pretty much all speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy and some horror) create a secondary world that the audience has to figure out. And while older examples of these genres might have front-loaded exposition and lengthy prologues, time and experience have shown that the most effective way to get into this kind of story is to throw the audience right into the middle of it, and help them to figure it out as they go along.

The implicit promise in most of these stories is that the setting is a puzzle that the audience will be able to solve, piece by piece. At the beginning of the Lord of The Rings, all we know about are hobbits and the Shire and a weird old guy named Gandalf. It’s only later that we learn about elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and more elves and the Numenorians and the Maiar, etc., etc. The extreme fans will read and re-read and glean all the little hidden details, and spend hours debating what the heck Tom Bombadil is. But even the average reader will know quite a lot about Middle Earth by the time they get to the end of the third book. Tolkein lays it all out on the page.

What’s interesting about Bee and Puppycat is that it takes place in a mysterious world full of interesting details, but it doesn’t do much to explain how they all fit together. It doesn’t lay everything out. The setting is a puzzle, but the pieces are all mixed up, and a few of them might be missing altogether.

I’ve started to think of this kind of story as the Genre of Inscrutability.

A Very Bad Idea That Seems to Work Anyway

To be in the Genre of Inscrutability, a story has to have a few key things:

  1. A fantastical setting – it may be similar to the real world, or wildly different, but it’s clear that the setting has some unreal rules at play.
  2. The fantastical elements aren’t explicitly addressed.
  3. There’s some mechanism to make that okay

    Now, thing number one is straightforward enough, but thing number two immediately gets us into trouble. Good storytellers know that you don’t show the gun on the mantle unless it’s going to go off, and you don’t set up a mystery that you don’t intend to resolve. The resolution of the mystery and the catharsis that comes out of it are necessary to make a mystery story feel complete. Thing number two seems like a Very Bad Idea from a storytelling standpoint, which is what makes it interesting.

    The big question, then, is how do we do thing number three? How do we make it okay? To answer that, I think it’s helpful to look at more examples.

    Examples

    The Bee and Puppycat series hints at Puppycat’s past without actually explaining very much. We’re shown what Bee is, but it’s never explained why she was created, or where her “father” is. I still have no idea what’s up with Cardamon or his mom. However, Bee and Puppycat isn’t really about these things at a structural level. The episodes tend to focus on relationships and interactions between Bee and the other characters, or occasionally just between the other characters.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories also contain unexplained mysteries. The city is founded on the ruins of a much older (perhaps much more advanced) city inhabited by the mushroom dwellers. The mushroom dwellers go into hiding beneath the city, and collect the refuse the city-dwellers leave behind. While individual mushroom dwellers are superficially weak, it is implied that they are collectively powerful—enough to completely empty the city of inhabitants during The Silence, and perhaps to retake the city permanently in some indistinct future. Who or what they are is never really explained. However, the city and its history are just backdrops to these stories. The mushroom dwellers make it clear that the city itself is a transitory state. There was a before, and there will be an after. They are a natural, elemental force set in opposition to the crass, industrial humanity of Ambergris.

    Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about a book about a film that tells the story of Will Navidson and his family moving into an old house, which slowly reveals itself to be a supernaturally shifting non-Euclidian space. The book relies on the multiply nested frame stories and footnotes to construct a sense of verisimilitude as well as mystery. Though all of it is fictional, receiving the story through a game of telephone with multiple unreliable narrators only adds to the intrigue. It feels like stumbling into a particularly vivid and heavily documented conspiracy theory.

    Did the Navidson Record ever actually exist, or is it just the crazed ramblings of Zampano? Did the house itself ever exist? And if it did, how did it come to be? How long has it been there? We are never given answers to any of these questions. Instead, we are expected to wonder.

    How to Make It Okay

    The Genre of Inscrutability builds a setting full of mysteries that it doesn’t intend to resolve. This is not to be confused with something like LOST, a very unfortunate show that intended to resolve its mysteries and catastrophically failed to do so. Here, we are talking about purposeful inscrutability.

    As we see in Bee and Puppycat, one way to make this okay is to keep that mystery separate from the tension and catharsis. If the story is about whether the main character will follow his dreams and leave his small town to go to culinary school, his mysterious island home is just interesting set-dressing. When he overcomes his fears and decides to go, the tension is resolved in a satisfying way. The mysterious setting is still present, but it’s not blocking the satisfying resolution of the story.

    Ambergris shows another possibility: a setting so grandiose in scope that it is not fully knowable. I cannot know every nook and cranny of my home city. I certainly cannot know all of its long history. Likewise, Ambergris is a setting with fuzzy edges. We might know some of its history, its inhabitants, its streets and buildings, but we cannot know all of it. There is vague malice lurking beyond the torn edges of the map, monsters that might just come up out of the ground one night and whisk everyone away. Such a setting makes the characters feel small and weak in a very big and dangerous world.

    House of Leaves fully leans into the mystery. The mystery is entirely central to the book. The book itself is a puzzle box, a literary game. It doesn’t give away all the clues, because that would be too easy. You have to want the answers and work for them. You can theorize and guess, but at the end of the day, the book just winks, shrugs, and walks away. It’s up to you to convince yourself you’re right, based on the evidence at hand. House of Leaves forces the reader into the position of the conspiracy theorist, just like its numerous narrators.

    In Medias Res

    When I was a young whippersnapper, I once accidentally read the sixth book in a seven-book series. I didn’t know it was part of a series. I didn’t find out until I got to the end and found the whole series listed out. It was a very disconcerting experience. It is the ultimate form of in medias res.

    This is exactly the experience that the Genre of Inscrutability cultivates, but it’s a dangerous game. Some readers won’t put up with it. I have no doubt that all of the stories I talked about above have left readers and viewers behind. Not everyone wants to work to enjoy a story, and no matter how the inscrutable story tries to make it okay, it is requiring extra effort from the audience.

    On the other hand, the inscrutable story offers a real depth of experience to a dedicated fan. One need only look at the wikis, forums and social media conversations to see that fans of this kind of content derive a huge amount of satisfaction from combing through every detail of the work, and then discussing it with other fans. But woe unto the author who accidentally inserts some small error that the fans latch on to as a meaningful clue. Even if you don’t intend to reveal all the answers, internal consistency is still important.

    If you know of any other stories that you think fall into the Genre of Inscrutability, let me know in the comments. I’d love to find other examples.

Get Uncomfortable

I live in the suburbs, but we are within spitting distance of the city proper. Thanks to an intersection of nearby highways, most of the streets in our neighborhood don’t go through, so it’s nice and quiet, but also close to busier areas. Now, my kids range from early grade school to middle school, and this summer they’ve been eager to go out and play with their friends around the neighborhood. They want to go places and do things unsupervised.

The impression I get about children growing up in the 70s and earlier is that parenting mostly consisted of making sure that your children had a reasonable number of meals per day and did chores to build character. Other than that, children just went where they pleased. However, today’s parents have been drowned in stories of kidnappers, serial murderers and razor blades in Halloween candy all of their lives. “Helicopter parenting” is a phrase spoken with derision, and yet there is an awful lot of media focused on all of the terrible things that can happen to a child, if only you take your eyes off them for a moment.

My children want to run around the neighborhood with various other children. They are not particularly good at telling me where they’re going or keeping track of time. But I’ve forced myself to give them a little more space than I’m comfortable with. This is one of the things that I’ve had to come to grips with as a parent. Parenting is a compromise: the kids probably get less freedom than they want, and I get less control and less reassurance. As the kids get older (and they keep on getting older!) the boundaries will keep shifting.

Comfort is Stagnation

My own complete comfort as a parent is not necessarily what is best for my kids to grow and become self-sufficient and responsible. And my own comfort as a writer is not necessarily what is best for my stories to grow and improve. That’s right, you just walked into a metaphor!

Discomfort is the natural human reaction to shifting boundaries and new ideas. To challenge your limitations and grow, you have to work on something you’re not entirely sure you can do. Sometimes these experiments lead to success, and sometimes they fail. But whenever I try some new and difficult writing project, I end up taking away valuable new ideas, experience and skills.

Being a good parent also requires admitting that you don’t always know what you’re doing, and you don’t know how exactly you’ll end up affecting your children. After all, the world is full of well-meaning parents whose parenting styles have contributed to their children’s hang-up and neuroses. We are all, to some extent, the products of our upbringing.

Stories, like children, are a product of their parents. My thoughts, my dreams, my ideas all come out in my writing, either directly or in subtext. My unspoken assumptions may be on the page even when I don’t realize it. However, it’s easy to self-censor.

We all have secrets and darker thoughts. Things we’re not proud of. Shame or embarrassment, enviousness, and worry. We don’t talk about these things with our co-workers. We don’t bring them up at parties. We may not even dare whisper them to our husbands and wives, our trusted relatives or closest friends.

Letting those things creep into our writing is hard. It’s like opening up your soul and letting strangers look inside. We fear being judged. Now, perhaps more than ever before, judging strangers is a popular pastime. But this kind of vulnerability is powerful.

Embrace Vulnerability

Mike Birbiglia has a show called The New One, about becoming a father, and the changes that it wrought on his life. It’s comedy, but it has serious elements too. In one of the darkest parts, he admits that he “understood why some dads leave.” He didn’t leave, but he understands it. That’s vulnerability. It’s the sort of statement that could ruin relationships. But it’s honest, and it’s one of the most powerful parts of the show.

Mike has stated that many people judge him for those statements. He gets messages about it on social media. But he also gets messages from people who connected with it, and his process of working through and accepting parenthood made them feel understood and helped them work through similar feelings.

That kind of brutal honesty, that acceptance of the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable or upsetting, is a hallmark of good writing. Those are the things that audiences connect to, because your secret shame or fear or sadness or loathing feels like less of a burden when you discover that you’re not alone.

Plumb the Depths

Achieving this kind of honesty is difficult. The first hurdle is being honest with yourself. People don’t typically like to evaluate themselves with complete honesty. Luckily, we’re all complex individuals, and we don’t have to dig up all the skeletons at once.

One of the easiest ways to get started is to simply think about negative emotions. What are your fears? Are you jealous of others? What feelings do you have that you wouldn’t want to tell to others? You don’t have to write a biography of all of your problems, but sometimes, thinking through these darker aspects of the self will shed light on a topic that could be a powerful inclusion in a story.

Sometimes, taking an honest look at the unpleasant parts of ourselves can be cathartic. It’s a common-enough trope that the writer who writes about their deepest issues can use fiction as a mode of healing. Hiding from problems rarely helps fix them.

On the other hand, I’m definitely not a mental health professional. If going down these roads makes things worse, it’s possible that you need more than fiction to get to a better place. Don’t embrace the old “romantic” notions of writers who actively hurt their health for their work.

It’s also worth noting that some of the difficult truths in our lives may involve relationships with friends or family. If you’re going to put your loved ones into your fiction in a way where they will recognize themselves (or others will recognize them), talk to those people first. Don’t destroy relationships for a story.

Writer, Know Thyself

It’s difficult to infuse a story with the hard truths from our own lives, but this uncomfortable honesty can take fiction to new levels and really help us connect with readers. If your stories never make you feel exposed, consider whether you’re skirting around these areas of discomfort. It may sometimes be painful, but it’s one of the most effective ways to grow as a writer.

Storytelling Class — Style/Substance

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was style and substance.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

Freya is getting close to finishing the first Wheel of Time book. I asked her if she was excited to continue with a series that has fourteen books. She said she thought she might be 70 before she finishes. She also just started the “Janitors” series, though she hasn’t gotten far enough to form an opinion yet.

I have been working my way through my beautiful new Ambergris hardcover. City of Saints and Madmen was a formative book for me, and I’m excited to now have it in a single massive tome alongside Jeff Vandermeer’s other Ambergris stories. I was however, a little disappointed to find that they actually removed some of the appendices that appeared in the original, so now I have to keep my copy of City of Saints and Madmen as well.

In non-fiction, I started Ways of Being at the recommendation of Cory Doctorow, although I’m only a few pages in.

What Did We Write?

Freya has kept busy writing for school work, and hasn’t worked on any fiction recently. After my Covid break, I’ve been working on getting back into Razor Mountain.

Style and Substance

Each story consists of two parts—two sides of the same coin—style and substance. You can think of “substance” as “what the story is about” and style as “how the story is told.” Substance is the meaning. Style is the actual words. By some definitions, substance is good, while style is just the shallow surface layer. However, when it comes to fiction, each story is really a melding of the two.

Schools of Thought

At the risk of being a little controversial, I’m going to define two schools of thought, and I’m going to call them “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I put them in quotes because each story is a special snowflake, and I’m about to speak in broad generalizations, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The “genre fiction” school of thought is that substance takes precedence. Genre fiction sometimes even devalues style. Common genre fiction advice suggests that, when reading a great book, the reader should forget they’re reading and get lost in the story—that is, in the plot and the characters. The descriptive text should become transparent. Authors should endeavor to become invisible, and never call attention to themselves.

The “literary fiction” school of thought holds that style is quality. Literary fiction tends to put a higher value on authorial voice. The advice here is that a great book should be overflowing with the author’s unique voice, and the reader should be transported into the mind-space of the author. Mechanics like plot and character are nice, but they need to be described through transcendent prose. Anyone can tell a story. A true author tells it in a way that only they can.

False Dichotomies

Like most dichotomies, this one is artificial. Style and substance aren’t strictly opposing forces (although they can sometimes fight each other). Some authors make the mistake of crafting page after page of beautiful prose that doesn’t really  tell a story, while others create intricate plots by placing row upon row of flat words like bricks in a wall.

Readers, like authors, are unique, and there are audiences for both of these styles. Science fiction has a big audience that revels in clever plots and is fine with a lack of ornamentation. Likewise, there are plenty of literary fiction readers who care more about delicious sentences than characters who actually go somewhere and do something.

As an author, you can make your own choices about what you value. You may choose to focus on substance, or style, or try to find a happy medium. However, it’s important to understand that there are trade-offs. The more stylized your prose is, the more your reader will have to work to understand what’s going on. Some readers will appreciate the extra layers of complexity, but others simply won’t be interested, and may just put the story down. Focus on style inherently takes some focus away from the substance.

Examples

We looked at a few of my personal favorites when it comes to literary style.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a relatively mild example, where most of the stylistic flourishes could be described as “literary comedy,” twisting language for fun and amusement.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book with literally complex text that stretches sentences across pages, forms shapes and pictures, and wraps around upon itself. But it is also a narratively complex work, presented by a character named Johnny, who details the work of his acquaintance, Zompano, who himself took detailed notes based on videos shot by a third character, Navidson, whose descriptions of his ever-shifting, labyrinthine, and spatially inconsistent house form the heart of the story.

Finally, there’s Vandermeer’s more recent work, Dead Astronauts, a book that is so dense and challenging to decipher that it almost feels encoded.

These are wildly different examples of a strong authorial voice put to use for different purposes. While Adams is extremely readable, House of Leaves ranges from straightforward prose to deep complexity. Dead Astronauts is lyrical and dreamlike, but so obfuscated in parts that I found it off-putting. And there are many other examples of other authors doing entirely different but equally interesting things with language.

Choosing a Style

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may find that you default more toward one end of the spectrum than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many authors are influenced by their own favorite writers and stories, and you may like to write the same kind of stories that you like to read.

I find that memorable quotes and phrases tend to come from style-heavy writers. Substance-heavy writers tend to make unforgettable stories where you don’t necessarily remember any of the words in particular. I loved The Martian when I read it a year ago. I remember some of the structure (maybe because I blogged about it) but I don’t remember a single line from it.

Sometimes particular stories will speak to you in a certain way. Just because you normally write very straightforward sci-fi space operas doesn’t mean you can’t do a bunch of clever stylistic embellishment in a complicated, self-referential time-travel story.

As with most things in life, it can be good to experiment. You might discover that you can find joy in more kinds of stories than you previously realized. Or you may find that a particular story calls for a particular style.

Short Story Advice Roundup

The Short Story Series

This is the end of my short story series, at least for now. If you’re a writer who only writes long-form fiction, I’d like to try one more time to encourage you to at least give short story writing a try. I’m a firm believer that the more techniques and styles you have in your arsenal, the more they all inform each other and add depth to all your writing. Besides, short stories are fun to write and fun to read!

I wanted to wrap things up by pointing you to more short story writing resources. If you want to dig deeper, there are tons of articles. Here are a handful of the ones I’ve found useful.

For an introduction to some of the possibilities of short stories:

What is a Short Story?Reedsy

For important elements of a short story:

How to Build a Short Story from the Ground Up — Chris the Story Reading Ape

For some advice on keeping your short story short:

How to Keep Your Short Story Short — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

To avoid some common mistakes:

Common Mistakes in Short Story Writing — Chris the Story Reading Ape

To keep the reader interested:

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

For writing to a specific length and theme:

Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For an annotated description of the process that goes into a short story:

Writing the Short Story, Part 1: Experimenting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For advice on which markets to send your stories:

Submit or Surrender? A Tale of Three Publishers — Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Storytelling Class — Scenes

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was scenes.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

I’ve recently been reading the Maus graphic novels, the Timeshift anthology of time-related sci-fi, and Mort (a Terry Pratchet Discrworld novel) at bedtime with the kids.

Freya has been reading the first Wheel of Time book. She said it was a little slow at first, but she’s enjoying it now that she’s halfway through.

What Did We Write?

I’ve only been writing Razor Mountain recently, and trying to get ahead on blog posts. Freya hasn’t written any more of her book recently, but she has been writing poetry, including one about all the many fragrances of bath bombs.

What’s In a Scene?

Today’s topic was the structure of scenes. A scene is the smallest “unit” that we typically break stories into. A short story might have only a couple scenes, while a novel can have dozens or hundreds.

The beginning and end of a scene are often delineated physically on the page with a line break, chapter break, or asterisks and similar markers. However, it takes more than that to make a scene feel cohesive. There are a few different tools that can help a scene feel like a single unit of story: setting, characters, and theme.

Setting

A scene is typically a section of the story that occurs entirely in one setting. In this case, I use “setting” fairly broadly. It can refer to a specific location or a specific time period. Most of the time, a scene will take place in one location and cover a specific, contiguous period of time. For example, two people meet in a coffee shop, have a conversation, and then leave.

In some cases, some characters may enter or exit in the middle of the scene, or the scene may start in the middle of the action, with the characters already in their places. In these cases, it’s usually the static setting that holds the scene together. All the action happens in the same place, over a specific span of time.

You can think of this in terms of a stage play. The scenery for the scene is ready and the lights come up. Are the characters already on the stage? Do they enter or exit during the scene? Eventually the scene ends and the lights go down so the props can be replaced and a new scene can start.

Characters

It’s also possible for a scene to move across multiple locations (in time or space) or take place in multiple locations simultaneously.

For example, in visual media like TV, film and comics, it’s common to have a “split screen” scene where a narrator in one location (in space or time) narrates action set in a different location. This lets the writer play with juxtapositions or relationships between the narration and the action. Imagine a scene where a person talks about falling in love while a montage of scenes with the happy couple flash by. Then imagine how the mood changes if the character is instead talking about slowly falling out of love.

In a plot like a heist, there might be a single scene that jumps between several bank robbers in different areas of a bank, each one carrying out their part of the bigger plan. Everything is happening at the same time, or in sequence, but in many different locations.

Fuzzy Edges

While most scenes have an obvious beginning and end, not every scene is so clearly delineated. One scene may blend into another. Often, this takes the form of “zooming in” or “zooming out,” and may involve a change of perspective.

For example, the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a description of our galaxy, the evolution of the human race, and the problems that beset us. Then it “zooms in” to one woman in particular, who has an important revelation. Then, because it’s Douglas Adams, we are told that the story isn’t about this woman at all. It’s about a terrible, stupid catastrophe and the book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then, at the start of the next chapter, it does the same thing, zooming in on the protagonist’s house, and eventually the protagonist himself.

This example shows nicely that this sort of zooming out can happen in location (zooming from outside the galaxy to a particular café in Rickmansworth) but also in time (across the entire evolution of humanity to the modern day).

“Zooming” can also encapsulate a change in the level of specificity, where the author glosses over less important details until reaching a place and moment in time where the details are important. This is often done for the sake of continuity. A character might spend one scene talking with a friend, then have to drive across town to speak to another friend. The drive isn’t very interesting. So the author describes the first conversation in detail over several pages. A short paragraph describes the uneventful drive, and then there are several more pages of detail for the second conversation.

Theme

These aspects of location and character are the logistics of a scene. The level of zoom or specificity are stylistic choices. But there is one other thing that can affect whether a scene feels satisfying and complete: the theme or arc of the scene.

Each scene needs to have some purpose in the larger story, and oftentimes scenes fulfill several purposes at once. They could provide new information to the characters or the reader. They could show some change in the character, perhaps resolving a goal or revealing a new goal. They could create or resolve a mystery. They need to drive the story forward in some way.

One of the more common challenges in fiction is when the logistics of the story require things to happen, but those things don’t actually feel like they’re furthering the story. They are like the character driving across town between important conversations.

It’s easy to make a whole scene out of these kinds of unsatisfying story beats, and the scene will inevitably be a dull one. Sometimes these scenes can be cut completely. Other times they can be replaced with a little bit of connective tissue, like the zoom-in or a quick, summarizing description of the necessary action. Sometimes, by looking at the larger picture, you’ll find that the story can be tweaked so the boring part isn’t needed at all.

Class Dismissed

That’s all for this class. We’ve been doing fewer of these little “classes” over summer, since…well, we’re outside and enjoying the warm weather while we can. I do have at least one more planned though, before school is back in session and our schedules get busy.

Five Ways to Fight Through the Middle

I recently finished Act I of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. That means I’m officially done with the beginning of the book, and I’m starting on the middle. Admittedly, these ideas of three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end are all just scaffolding designed to help us talk about the structure of stories, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors run into similar roadblocks in specific parts of the process. One of the most common problems is a certain…malaise when getting into the middle of a novel.

There’s a lot to be excited about at the beginning of a book: introducing the main characters and setting, and all the big ideas that the book is about. Likewise, the ending has to pull all those desperate ideas and characters into a big exciting finale. But the middle, the middle has to find a way to connect the beginning plot to the end plot in a way that makes sense. It can take many different shapes.

So, as I embark on the middle of my book, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of ways to fight through a difficult middle.

1. New Characters

Usually the main cast of characters is introduced in the beginning (although not always). They’ve had some time to form their relationships and perhaps develop some interpersonal conflicts to spice things up.

The middle is the perfect time to introduce some new characters into the mix. These don’t have to be part of the main cast. In fact, characters may only come in for a scene or a few chapters, as they’re needed. While main characters can often feel like a lot of work, these characters that only briefly touch the story can be an opportunity to try something new. You might hate a quirky or obnoxious character if you have to keep them around for the entire story, but those same traits may make a short-lived character more memorable.

2. New Information

Coming out of the beginning of the story, the main characters probably have some open conflicts to deal with and some goals they’re trying to achieve. However, it may not be clear to them (or to you) how exactly they’re going to do that.

Going into the middle of the book is a perfect time to start laying down breadcrumbs that lead them in certain directions. They might learn something about the villain that can be useful when they face off again. They could find out about people, items, or other macguffins that can help them in their quests.

This mid-book info doesn’t always have to set up future plot points. They can also find out why things have happened. A whirlwind beginning can leave a protagonist lost and confused, in a situation they never wanted to be in. Understanding what happened and why can help them come to grips with all of that.

3. New Obstacles

For some authors, dishing out pain to their characters comes naturally. Others tend to fall in love with their characters and have to fight the urge to give them what they want.

If you come into the middle of the book and things seem to be going a little too well for your characters, it’s time to introduce new challenges and roadblocks. Life is full of ups and downs, and stories are no different. As an added bonus, as soon as a new conflict is introduced, it provides some instant direction to the plot. Characters faced with a problem are going to want to find a way to overcome that problem.

4. New Disasters

Sometimes, a mere obstacle isn’t enough. A disaster can change the whole landscape of the story. And often, the best time for a disaster is just when the characters think everything is going their way.

This might take the form of a villain-behind-the-villain reveal. Friends could turn out to be enemies in a cruel twist. Maybe the characters’ original goals no longer apply, and they’re cast adrift, trying to figure out what to do next.

Disasters can serve as a sort of “reset” button to take the story in a whole new direction.

5. A Victory

A story where the characters just get beaten down continuously can feel exhausting. If the characters never succeed, then it feels like the story isn’t theirs—they have no agency.

If the beginning has left the story feeling bleak and the characters really need a win, give it to them. It doesn’t have to be something big. It may be as simple as earning a breather in the midst of larger battles. The characters have likely been through some things at this point. Now is a great opportunity to let them get to know each other a little better, and deepen relationships.

Don’t Fear the Middle

Getting into the middle of a book can feel daunting. For many of us it’s the hardest part to write. If you’re an exploratory writer, you might wonder if you will even be able to find a way through to a satisfying ending.

It’s not all bad though! Middles are opportunities to really dig into the parts of your beginning that really excited you. Get to know your characters. Find the interesting nooks and crannies of your setting. Remind yourself what made you want to write the book in the first place, and double-down on that in every way you can think of.

Storytelling Class — Mysteries

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was mysteries.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side collections, and started on the first book of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading collections of short stories, including some of the anthologies that I got from the Martian Kickstarter. I also checked out the first three volumes of Locke and Key from the library, and I’m working through those.

What Did We Write?

Freya continues to work on her chapter book, Amber and Floria. She recently felt the downsides of exploratory writing as she had to rewrite her first two chapters to match the way the later parts evolved.

I’ve been working on Razor Mountain, and spending a little time here and there working on short stories.

Mysteries

Our topic for this class was crafting satisfying mysteries.

The first thing to note is that there are “big mysteries” that drive the whole plot of a story, as in murder mysteries and police procedurals. There are also “little mysteries” that can serve a few different purposes in a story, but all boil down to reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Little mysteries don’t have to be long and drawn out like big mysteries. They can be posed and resolved in the same chapter, or even a single conversation.

Many mysteries are just questions the reader asks the story, like:

  • What happened?
  • What happens next?
  • Why is this thing like that?
  • Who is this person and why did they do that?

Mysteries can also be just for a character, while the reader can see all the answers. Then the question for the reader becomes “how will the character find the answer I already know?” A lot of tension can be added to a story by letting the reader get information that a character doesn’t have. The character, using the limited information at their disposal, may make reasonable choices that the reader knows are bad. Few things are more harrowing for a reader than watching a character make bad choices that they think are good choices.

Driving a Story With Mysteries

Mysteries are a great way to define a section of a story, or an arc. Each mystery naturally has a beginning (when the mystery is first posed), a middle (when the characters work through the clues and overcome obstacles) and an ending (when the answer to the mystery is revealed).

To drive a story with mysteries though, you’ll need multiple mysteries being created and resolved over the course of the plot. This can be done in two basic ways, which I’ll call overlapping mysteries and feeding mysteries.

Overlapping mysteries are not necessarily directly related to each other. A character might have a personal mystery that affects themselves, and a larger mystery they’re working on that ties into the big plot. For example, a police detective who is trying to solve a murder, but spends his off-hours trying to find his long-lost child, hidden from him by his late ex-wife.

Feeding mysteries are arranged so that the solution to one mystery provides clues or ties into another mystery. A common type of plot twist is when two mysteries that appear to just be overlapping may turn out to actually be feeding into one another. In our example, maybe the detective discovers that he did have a child, and the picture he found looks suspiciously similar to the killer he’s tracking.

Feeding a personal mystery into the bigger plot mystery is a great way to set up personal stakes for a character, and then make those stakes affect the outcome of the story.

Making a Mystery

I won’t claim there is a single formula for creating mysteries, but I’ll provide a few steps you can run through to get started.

  1. Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
  2. Answer the question. This is the payoff.
  3. Add an obscuring complication.
  4. Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
  5. Repeat and nest as necessary.

When you’re first coming up with your question and answer, don’t worry if the answer seems obvious. The key is to start by having something to ask and knowing the answer.

Once you have a question and answer, you can add an obscuring complication. This can be anything that makes it harder for the characters to discover the answer. This is how you can adjust the difficulty of the mystery.

Will the mystery be more difficult for the characters if some piece of critical information is missing? They could solve it easily if only the murder weapon wasn’t missing! Perhaps a character flaw would make it harder for them to solve. Too bad the character is an antisocial lone wolf, because the person they never get along with would be able to see exactly what’s going on. You can add multiple obstacles if you want the character to go through several steps to solve the mystery.

Then, for each obstacle, you must determine the way that the character(s) will ultimately overcome it and move the plot forward.

Once you have a complete arc—question, obstacle, overcoming, and solution—you can begin to overlap or feed one mystery into another.

A Mystery Is Only as Good as Its Payoff

A final warning: one of the most dangerous things you can do as a writer is to create lots of mysteries without knowing the answers or how to resolve them.

Episodic TV shows fall into this trap all the time, because creating big mysteries gets viewers excited. However, as the show carries on, they either fail to provide solutions to the mysteries or create such tangled, nonsensical plot webs to justify their solutions that the whole thing falls apart.

Nobody will remember or appreciate how well you built up that tantalizing mystery if the payoff turns out to be garbage.

The Thrill of Chasing Dragons

A sinus and ear-infection germ has been working its way through my household, and last week it was my turn to get it. So I’ve been sick, hacking and coughing, and sleeping poorly. One of the side-effects of being sick is that I tend to remember my dreams. The combination of sleeping lightly and waking up often just happens to put me in that liminal space between conscious and unconscious thought.

I’m telling you this because I dreamed up a story. I’m sure some of you are groaning as you read that, and justifiably so. I’ve had a few dreams in my life that felt like stories to me, right up until I tried to turn that vivid-but-vague dream imagery into an actual outline on the page, and was forced to admit that it didn’t really work. Dreams are often interesting to the dreamer, but that doesn’t mean they organize themselves neatly into the shape of a narrative, or that the feeling of the dream can make it onto the page.

The Irrational Excitement Phase

The truth is that I dreamed up some elements of a story, and as I wrote them down, I found myself naturally filling in the bits and pieces. I dreamed of dragons that were actually extra-dimensional, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities, and an ancient king who had managed to trap the Dragon Queen deep in the earth. I dreamed about the deep caverns where the dragon’s psychic echoes reverberate and create all sorts of monstrosities, and a vaguely witchy woman who was hell-bent on getting down there and releasing the dragons once again.

As I wrote that down, I came up with protagonists, a pair of siblings descended from that ancient king, who had lost touch with their roots, but still had stories passed down in their family. All of it is wrapped in Arthurian legend—the ancient king as Arthur, the witch as Morgana, the Grail as the macguffin with the power to unseal the dragon. Then I started thinking about the back-stories of these siblings…

This is one of my favorite feelings when it comes to writing. I start with the core of a story, and it spreads out like a web in front of me, as fast as I can write it all down. This is the feeling that many writers get, that the story is being transmitted directly to their brain from somewhere else, that the block of stone knows the statue inside of it, if only the sculptor will listen and strike the right places.

I like to call this the “Irrational Excitement” phase of story creation. At this point, the story is small and vague, and every new idea feels like an epiphany. There are tons of things that are undefined, so it’s easy to grab onto those threads and come up with exciting new ideas.

This phase is “exciting” because new pieces of the story feel easy to create. There are no broken parts. There are no difficult problems to untangle. There’s just the most fun parts of the story, and not enough detail to cause problems.

This phase is “irrational” because it feels like those problems will never come.

The Intractable Problems Phase

Of course, they do. Stories, especially novel-length stories, always run into challenges and roadblocks.

As I fill in more and more of the pieces, the characters and settings and back-story and motivations, certain things come into conflict with each other, other things remain unclear. I can’t come up with a satisfying idea to fill in a particular blank. Bits are too tropey or boring.

This is the nuts-and-bolts, getting-stuff-done part of writing. It’s the part that consists mostly of solving one problem after another, and it can get exhausting. It seems like this is the place, mid-book, when the finish line still feels impossibly far away, where many writers hate writing the most.

It can be really hard to push through this phase, but once you do, you approach the end and get that extra burst of motivation that comes with actually finishing the thing.

That’s why new ideas are so dangerous at this phase.

The Danger of Jumping Ship

When I’m deep in the Intractable Problems phase of Story A, the brand-new idea for Story B is incredibly appealing. I’m elbows-deep in all the problems of Story A, while Story B is this lovely little vague sprite with no problems whatsoever. I can just pull the threads and come up with new embellishments, one after another. It’s easy. Surely Story B must be a better story altogether.

Of course, that’s just an illusion, a trick of perspective. It’s important to remember that Story B is too young to have sussed out all of the difficult bits yet. With time and care, it will grow into an adult story, with its very own special problems to be figured out.

This is why there’s so much advice out there for authors that begs them to just finish their stories. Successful authors understand this cycle, and how appealing Story B feels. They’ve felt that draw before, and probably succumbed to it once or twice. But they’ve also pushed through the Intractable Problems phase and gotten to the finish line, and they understand that as bad as it sometimes feels, all those problems are actually completely tractable.

Some people get in a vicious cycle of following those shiny new ideas while leaving the old stories behind right when they’re at their most frustrating stage of development.

Harness That Energy

Over the course of years, I’ve developed the belief that the energy of the Irrational Excitement phase can be channeled for good. Jumping into a new story you love is one of the best feelings you can have as a writer, and you should absolutely enjoy it! When that new idea is delivered into your brain (or arrives in a dream), immediately jump on it.

When I had that dream, I hurried to write it down. Then I spent an hour or two turning it over in my mind and expanding it. I came up with a few characters, some back-story, and a couple of proto-scenes. I outlined some of the things that I thought should happen later in the story, not worrying too much about how to connect those dots. By the end of that time I knew I had enough material to actually make a story out of, and it would probably have to be a novel. I had expanded the ideas enough that I could just start to see the hints of some problems that would have to be figured out.

Then I set it aside, and I worked on blog posts and Razor Mountain. It was a fun burst of creativity, and it was extremely productive. I got to enjoy that “new story feeling,” and I wrote down enough that I can pick it up later. But I have other projects that I’m committed to, and that means I can’t write a new novel right now.

That creative energy is a fantastic thing to harness, but it’s important to control it rather than letting it control you. For me, it helps to remind myself that every single story I’ve ever written felt like that at first, and pretty much every one of them had some point where I had to struggle to figure out how to finish it.

Not only that, but I can use a new story as a carrot to dangle in front of myself when the going gets tough. “Just keep writing Razor Mountain,” I’ll tell myself. “Pretty soon you’ll be done, and then you can work on that dragon story you were so excited about. Or one of the other fifty things in your brainstorms folder.”

Indulge, But Limit

In short, indulge in those new stories, but only for a little bit. Savor that burst of creative energy, and harness it at its peak. Don’t let it distract you from what you’re already working on. If you get those story seeds down on paper, they can be surprisingly patient, and you can pick them back up when it’s time for the next project.

Storytelling Class — Conflict and Tension

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was conflict and tension.

(Well, okay, that’s not quite true. This one was actually a few weeks ago. I wrote it up and promptly lost it in a drafts folder. Here it is now, better late than never.)

We always start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write?

What Did We Read?

Well, it’s been a few weeks, but back then I was finishing off a re-read of Scott Pilgrim on my own time, finishing Dune with my oldest child at bedtime, and I was dabbling in the comic Preacher on Kindle Prime.

Meanwhile, Freya was reading a Long Walk to Water, reading the second book in the Wildwood series with my wife at bedtime, and wrapping up the final book of Harry Potter.

What Did We Write?

I worked on Razor Mountain and worked on some short story ideas—one about time-travel performance art and one about the confusion of being unexpectedly reincarnated.

Freya continued to work on Amber and Floria.

Conflict and Tension

The main topic for the week was conflict and tension.

A lot of writing advice and literary analysis focuses on conflict as the engine that makes all stories work. I think people like Lincoln Michel have made pretty good arguments against that being true.

For one thing, a lot of literary analysis ascribes the label of conflict very broadly. Man vs. man, man vs. nature/god, man vs. self, and so on. Many of these can be better described as “tension.” There may be a conflict between two or more people with antithetical goals, or there may be tension between a person with a goal and a particular force or situation that makes that goal difficult to achieve, like societal norms or physical constraints.

Even though conflict and tension don’t drive all stories, we’re going to talk about them today because they do drive a lot of stories.

Heroes and Villains

Stories about heroes fighting against villains might just be story conflict in its most distilled form. This is mythology. It’s classic fantasy. It’s superheroes. It gives us two great focal points in the hero and the villain, and secondary characters can be placed clearly on one side, or live in the ambiguous space between.

People Who Just Don’t Get Along

Conflict doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as good vs. evil. It can be much more nuanced. Most of us run into interpersonal conflicts in our daily lives, and just as we (usually) wouldn’t ascribe hero status to ourselves, we don’t treat those who disagree with us as “villains” either. These conflicts aren’t about right and wrong. They’re just people disagreeing.

All it takes for conflict to happen is two or more people who have goals that are at odds with each other. They may even have the best of intentions, they may hold no malice for the other, but only one of the two can achieve their goals.

Person vs. Other

Conflict gets less conflicty when it’s no longer about people who are at odds with one another.

Person vs. Nature is a story like “The Martian.” It has only one or two minor cases of interpersonal conflict. Most of the story, everyone is working together. The tension comes from Mark Watney being trapped, alone, on Mars, and everyone trying to get him back home and safe.

Person vs. Self is about a character’s dissatisfaction with themselves, trying to become something different (or fighting an inevitable change all the way). My favorite discworld novel, Going Postal, has a surface-level conflict between the protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, and his business rivals and the city’s autocrat. But the deeper conflict of the book is Moist, an inveterate con man, slowly becoming a responsible, honorable, and even kind of nice human being.

No Versus at All?

Other things can drive a story that don’t involve conflict. Kishotenketsu, for example, suggests an entirely different framework for evaluating stories. Form and language can drive more literary-minded stories. However, I’d consider those kinds of structures to be extra challenging modes of the craft.

Conflict and tension are great story engines, easy for readers to enjoy, with infinite variations available to the author. Conflict is the reasonable default for most stories.

That’s it for this week’s topic. We took a short break from these “classes”, but summer is almost here, and summer vacation along with it. With less school work, we’ll be trying to take more opportunities for reading and writing just for fun.

Reblog: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? — Susan DeFreitas

Today’s reblog comes curtesy of Susan DeFreitas, guest posting on Jane Friedman’s blog. She asks us, what makes a story feel like a story? It’s not just the causality of events — one thing leading to another leading to another, although that’s important for a coherent narrative.

Instead, she argues that it’s the protagonist’s internal problem that makes a good story feel like more than a series of related events.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

She goes on to describe a few ways we can highlight that internal trouble, to give our stories the feeling that they have meaning, and are going somewhere.

Check out the rest of the post at Jane Friedman’s blog…