Friday, 13 April 2012

Linear Writing Leads To Flat Narrative

By linear I don’t mean the way time is structured in your story. You don’t have to write scenes all out of order Christopher Nolan style to make it interesting.

This is what I’m talking about: A man is hungry. He goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich. He eats the sandwich. He is no longer hungry.

The journey from hungry man to sated man is very straight. It’s easy. It’s obvious. It’s dull.

When someone wants something you have the beginning of a story. When they get it you have the end of the story. But the bit in between is the interesting part, and making it too linear won’t generate much enthusiasm in the reader.


So that’s pretty obvious, right? You know you have to have problems along the way. Obstructions, detours, distractions and the like. Your story will be a battle for your protagonist. You know all that.

So here’s an example of what I run across a lot when reading WIPs.

1. Woman is attracted to man at work.
2. They make a date to go out.
3. It’s going well. He’s handsome, she's wearing her best bra.
4. He reveals he’s incredibly racist.
5. She’s appalled, but also very shallow, and he is incredibly handsome. What to do...

Now, obviously whatever happens at the restaurant that screws things up (probably wouldn’t be the neo-nazi thing, but I’m working to deadline here, people) will throw a spanner in the works and make for a riotous comedy, or possibly sleazy erotica.

However, the problem is in order to get to the stuff in step 5, you first have to get through steps 1 to 4. And although the writer knows things are about to get crazy, the reader does not know that.

You can’t depend on the great things that are going to happen in a story to justify the boring stuff occurring right now.

If you forget the later scenes, the first part of this story is: woman sees man she fancies and would like to go out with. And so she does.

That is a flat narrative. She wants the sandwich, she gets the sandwich. You need to find a way to make that initial bit, the bit you don’t really care about, that isn’t important to the story and is just a way of getting people to where you need them to be, you need that part to be interesting too.

Let’s take a scene where a man is about to be fired by his boss.

If the boss tells him he’s fired, and he says why, and the boss says because of so and so, and then our hero leaves, that’s a flat narrative. The scene follows a predictable and linear route with no deviation.

The boss called him in to tell him, and when he came in he told him.

You can add all the small details you want, the room layout, the nervousness, the good luck in the future speech, but that’s just describing how it happens. What you’re describing is still linear.

In order to add a bump in the road, things have to go in an unexpected direction. You can still end up with the same result, but how you get there should create a sense of it not being simple and direct.

This is harder than it sounds because even though in theory what I’m saying seems fairly obvious, in practice what happens is something like this:

Dave is going to be fired through no fault of his own. But he is a timid soul and finds it hard to stand up for himself. Later in the story he will deal with this issue, in fact that’s what the story is about, but right now he needs to get fired and he needs to not make a fuss about it. That’s the whole point of the scene!

So, if I have a story like that, how can I possibly make the firing scene anything other than linear. Dave isn’t going to cause a commotion. The boss will just give him the brush off and send him on his way.

This is the kind of problem writers face. I know I should make it more interesting, but the character won’t allow it. It just doesn’t feel right.

And the answer is: You’re god of this universe, you can make it work. 

You’re primary responsibility isn’t to be true to your characters, it’s to not write a scene that sucks (while still being true to your characters). And all you need to do that is think about it until you come up with a solution. It isn’t impossible, it’s just difficult.

For example: Dave’s boss offers him a parting drink. But Dave is also a germaphobe, and he can see the glass isn’t clean. He’s too embarrassed to mention it but can’t bring himself to put his lips to the glass. The boss thinks his refusal to drink with him is an insult, and gets angry...

The point is, I didn’t have to go against his character to make things happen, but I did have to be open to building on what I know about him until I find something that serves my purpose, that purpose being not to have a sucky scene.

There’s always a way to make a linear story less linear. It isn’t always obvious, but it’s always possible.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Comments are always appreciated, even abusive ones (you know who you are). Cheers.

29 comments:

Gail said...

Brilliant! Alex sent me.

Zara M. said...

Its so easy to end up with linear narratives, like you say, and yet all it takes is a little thought and attention to the details and you can change it all around! Great post - enjoyed reading - I followed the link from twitter!

Zara M.
@jipzy

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think I am over-thinking this now...

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I saw the shout out that Alex did to you on his blog. I agree with everything he said. You are quite knowledgeable and this post proves it.

Sarah Anne said...

I love how you mentioned working with the character's traits to make the scene work. I have such a hard time manipulating my characters into doing what needs to be done for the scene.

Jason Runnels said...

This does sound really challenging to do, but I certainly understand the point you are making. Yet, I can't help but to think of those Final Destination movies. You absolutely know that so-and-so is going to die in this scene. But you would quit watching if it was simply linear. Although I can see problems taking this idea too far trying to make a scene interesting. For example, in these movies, every character seems to be at the mercy of a Rube Goldberg Death Machine. Which, of course, is absurd.

Striking a balance to make the point of your scene in a natural way is the real trick. I love your dirty glass example. I can't wait to edit my piece to watch out for linear writing. Thanks for the post!

Daisy Carter said...

I'd never thought about avoiding the linear on a scene level. Great post, thanks! Now I have lots of work to do. :)

Nicole Pyles said...

Good point...and so in lies the importance of having well-developed characters. So, woman is lonely. Having trouble meeting men in general because of a highly stressful job. Tries internet. Meets a few potential stalkers. Finally meets a man good looking enough to meet in person that won't repulse her. Man turns out to be racist. Man is good looking. Potential project to fix man reveals childhood issues that need to be uncovered. Breaks up with man after dealing with them. Woman is alone again. Back to square one - so how will woman find Mr. Right this time?

When you develop a character, ideally anyways, you should get yourself out of that linear stuff.

Thanks for posting this, it will help me when I go through my own book. :)

Lisa Campbell said...

Dang. My story suddenly needs even more work than I thought. Thanks for the advice though. You're absolutely right.

kmckendry said...

Great post. It's refreshing when things are shaken up a bit.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Brilliant! You have explained it so well and with so many examples. I will try to incorporate this in my current WIP ASAP.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Very good topic. I find my first drafts are usually very linear, the adding comes later.
Wagging Tales

mooderino said...

@Gail-nice to have you here.

@Zara-I knew twitter would be good for something.

@Alex-thanks again for the shoutout, been mad-crazy since then.

@Michael-thanks, that means a lot.

@Sarah Anne-it's not always obvious how to do it, but very rewarding once you get the hang of it.

@Jason-the FD movies make a point out of being as ridiculous as possible whichis part of their appeal. They're like the opposite extreme to linear.

@Daisy-I find daydreaming helps (it's a kind of work).

@Nicole-glad to help.

@Lisa-there's always more work to do...

@kathy-yes, if I'd just said that I could have made this post a lot shorter.

@Rachna-cool.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-first drafts shouldn't be held to any standards, i don' think. Just get it done, is my approach.

Mina Burrows said...

I've fallen victim to this before. Not this vanilla but still enough so I've had to smack my inner muse to wake up.
Have a great weekend.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

"You can’t depend on the great things that are going to happen in a story to justify the boring stuff occurring right now."

I'm absolutely keeping this in mind as I write/revise my WIP. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Mina-is smacking your muse legal?

@madeline-Bumper stickers will be available in the Mooderino Gift Shop.

Guilie said...

So simple--how do we forget about that so often? Great post (and congrats on the request for a full--read a comment from you on another blog)!

mooderino said...

@Guilie-thanks and thanks.

Debra Dunbar said...

I've caught myself doing this a few times, but I just let it go in the first draft and take my machete of death to it in revision.

Honestly, I think I do it to provide myself with a timeline in the novel, which means I probably need a better outline!

mooderino said...

@Debra-I don' think you necessarily need to chop it out, just work it in better.

Spacerguy said...

Awesome post. Linear huh? I must remember that word. Its helps to be able to show sensations, feelings, fear, sound, smells, touch, etc that characters encounter during their adventures. To master the skill of producing a really exciting read one has to practise his craft for hours.

mooderino said...

@spacerguy-the problem with description is first you need to have something worth describing. A linear scene vividly brought to life is still pretty dull. Once you have a decent idea for a scene, the sensory details can really help.

Merritt | LiveSimplyLove said...

Well said! I don't write a lot of fiction, probably because of the very thing you're talking about here. The story is so linear in my head and it's just boring. But this is inspiring me a bit to think outside the box. Glad I found you through the AtoZ Challenge!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey Moody! Just got back from seeing The Cabin in the Woods. I can now say with certainty the trailer does not give away the twist at all!

mooderino said...

@Merritt-Glad you found me too!

@Alex-Ah, good to know. Will have to check it out.

Sarah Pearson said...

I like the idea of maybe really digging into the character's traits until you find the one that will make the scene work.

mooderino said...

@sarah-it's a lot of hard work, but pays off.

Nate Wilson said...

I've found that although I think I think linearly, that's not the case. Thus, my writing (I hope) comes out like my thinking: skewed, crooked, and full of odd twists and turns.

Great post, Moody (though it's a shame about Dave, losing his job in this time of economic uncertainty...)

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