Superman Taught Me to Kill


There are only two ways writers can fail to communicate: They either fail to make the reader understand the story, or they fail to understand it themselves. One way to guard against either sounds like “show, don’t tell”, but it’s a little different: Depict key information physically, whether shown or summarized, but not just in dialogue or by making claims about abstract concepts.

Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman’s book Nurture Shock describes an experiment to determine whether violent television shows made kindergartners act more violent. Psychologists observed the playtime behavior of children who had watched different types of television shows. They counted the number of times each child showed antisocial behavior, physical or verbal.

They found that children who watched violent TV shows acted a little more aggressive. But kids who watched educational TV shows acted a lot more aggressive.

They concluded that the kids didn’t put the events together as a story with causal connections. If they watched an episode of a cartoon where the main character acts aggressively through most of the show and then learns to act better at the very end―a common plot in educational TV―then the kids spent most of their time acting like that character acted most of the time. When kids see the character bully the other characters, the bully is having more fun than the rest of the kids, so the children imitate the bully, not the other characters. On seeing the bully apologize at the end, the kids don’t go back and retroactively change how they interpreted her earlier behavior. Kids weren’t learning what the writers wanted them to learn, because they didn’t understand the story the writers wanted to tell.

The psychologists didn’t say, but I suspect it may be partly because the writers told the crucial parts in dialogue, without showing change. Sure, the bully may say she’s sorry. But all you see is the bully being mean, then doing something spectacularly mean, then not being mean anymore. Can a 4-year-old be blamed for not realizing anything important happened there? Or your 20-something-year-old reader, for that matter?

Readers don’t get the message the writer wants to convey when the writer tells one story, but accidentally shows another. For instance, the writers of Superman, Batman, and the other superhero shows and comics of my youth probably didn’t realize that they were teaching me to kill.

Violent solutions have an appealing simplicity and effectiveness. If I’d been president in 1962, I doubt we would’ve gotten through the Cuban missile crisis so successfully. If I’d been a black man in Mississippi in the 1960s, it’s hard to imagine how I could’ve gotten through the decade without getting a rifle and starting to shoot white people.

The allure of violence is widespread. Most political discourse in America doesn’t make sense if you imagine it’s intended to convince people of one view or another. It makes more sense if you assume that the only solution anyone on either side really believes in is to kill everybody on the other side.

Yet all through my youth I was carefully sheltered from violence—more so than my parent’s generation was, who read EC comics and watched war movie after war movie, and were often encouraged by their parents to solve their differences with each other with their fists; and more than the present generation, which has probably seen more gore and violence on TV and in video games by the age of ten than I had when I graduated high school. Instead of John Wayne or Team Fortress 2, we had Batman, Spiderman, He-Man, and other do-gooders who fought bloodless battles with the same villains over and over again. Didn’t this teach us that killing isn’t the answer?

What I remember, when I think about it, is being more and more disgusted with Batman for not just dropping the Joker out a window. They showed, over and over, that the merciful, bloodless code of Superman and Batman was a failure. They always sent the villains back to jail; they always escaped again; more innocent people always died again.

(It wasn’t just comics. It was the American formula for all entertainment for boys. It was like fluoride: in the water, unavoidable).

The writers thought that they were teaching kids to be merciful, as Superman was merciful. They also thought they were teaching compassion towards the villains by showing that they weren’t just interested in money, power, or thrills, but had tragic back-stories that made them hate the hero obsessively. But what they were really teaching kids was this:

1. Problems are made by evil, corrupted people who can never be reformed.
2. Evil people oppose you because they hate you and want to destroy everything you stand for.
3. Good always beats evil in a fair fight.
4. Superman should have dropped Lex Luthor from 30,000 feet in Action Comics #2.

Today’s online first-person-shooters might make kids enjoy violence. I don’t know. But at least these kids learn that violence has risks, and that it’s easier to start a fight than to end it. Video games don’t show kids over and over that the good guys are super-powerful and could easily solve everybody’s problems without anybody innocent getting hurt if they just stopped being wimps and killed all the bad guys. Counterstrike might have lead to school shootings, but Superman led to the invasion of Iraq.

It’s not hard to accidentally show the opposite of what you say. When I read the tidbit from a story a small time author I admire wrote he stated that,a key idea of one specific story was that immortality was a great prize, so giving it up voluntarily was an act of (literal) self-sacrifice. Character A said she wanted to live forever. But what most people saw was that Character A was thousands of years old, still unable to solve her own problems, and desperately unhappy; therefore, immortality is a curse, and giving it to someone else was an act of selfishness, changing the meaning of the story. The story he told didn’t quite match the story he showed.

(And sometimes you embarrass yourself by actually telling the story you subconsciously wanted to tell, instead of the story you thought you wanted to tell. Fred Clark’s ongoing reviews of Left Behind claim that the whole series is a continual exposure of the twisted psyches of its authors that would humiliate them if they weren’t too stupid to recognize it. I realized after writing one of my short stories I did a little while ago that it was a suspiciously-good allegory for something in my own life).

Every time you warp your story world’s reality one way for story purposes—villains are never reformed, or a super-intelligent, godlike entity thousands of years old obsessed with motherhood can’t just adopt—everything connected to that change warps a little bit too, changing the story’s meaning. It’s like laying a warped sheet of linoleum. You can press on the bump in the center and flatten it out, but littler bumps will spread out in all directions.

The bumps will happen in places you didn’t nail down by showing. Showing something makes it true in the story world. Having a character say something doesn’t. If Batman just says that killing the Joker would be wrong, the kid reading doesn’t know if it is or isn’t, even within the story world. Maybe Batman is wrong.

Telling your readers something important is dangerous. It means you didn’t show it, which means it might not be true even within your story.

That may be the main advantage of showing over telling. It isn’t that body language is good and narrative is bad. It’s that things shown are true within that world; things told could be lies.


Thematic Cheating


Can a book be well-written, but bad?

Hell, yes. In many ways.

A book has to be well written on many different levels to be a good book. Here are some of the levels at which a book must be well written:

– Mechanics: It must have good spelling and grammar.
– Craftsmanship: The characters, plot, pacing, setting, etc., should be competently constructed.
– Theme: It must say something good rather than something bad or just wrong. Sometimes people will call such a book “well-written, but bad.” They might say that of Atlas Shrugged.

But there’s one more level that hardly gets any attention, that even “great” books bungle frequently:

– Honesty: It must make its argument without cheating.

What’s that about an argument? Well, one useful aspect of Dramatica theory is the idea that every dramatic novel is an argument. There are all sorts of exceptions, especially for short stories, comedy, and action novels. But there’s a large class of dramatic novels that have themes that argue that one thing is wrong and another thing is right. (The argument isn’t always obvious. I recently blogged about how “Raiders of the Lost Ark” makes an argument about the value of faith, and of relationships over things.)

Atlas Shrugged

The argument in Atlas Shrugged was obvious: Libertarianism and free markets are morally superior to two-party democracy and socialism. You can disagree with the theme, but the novel didn’t cheat. It showed socialism having a bad outcome, and libertarianism having a good outcome. That good outcome might not be believable, but it was all out in the open. There was no sleight-of-hand used to make one thing give a good outcome and then attribute that outcome to something else.

Lord of the Rings

There’s a episode of thematic cheating in Lord of the Rings where Middle Earth is spared because Frodo saved Gollum. This is supposed to be an argument. Yet these circumstances surrounding the way in which Gollum accidentally saved Middle Earth are so unlikely that we can safely say they will never happen again. The only way in which it is an honest argument is a few interpreted as saying that the universe is built in such a way as to reward “virtuous” behavior. (For a counter-argument, see: Earth.)

Star Wars

“Star Wars” makes an argument about trusting your feelings rather than, say, a rifle scope, a targeting computer, or any other authority based on science and logic. So Lucas made the stormtroopers, who use rifle scopes instead of the force, the worst shots in the known universe. The final conclusive argument is that (spoiler!) Luke uses the Force instead of his ship’s computer to target the vent on the Death Star, and it works.

You could say that Star Wars is making an argument about how the world should be, rather than about how it is. But I think that’s too stupid for more words. Making an moral argument about what kind of physics the world should have is stupid. No; people take the Force seriously, as symbolic of the oneness of all being, or the Aleph, or the Buddha nature, or Qi, or human nature, or something.

But if you’re making a symbol, you’ve got to have a reasonably-simple map between the real world and your symbol. The situations where trusting your feelings in your fantasy world works must in some way resemble those where trusting your feelings in reality works.

Now, maybe there are situations in life where you should trust your feelings rather than logic. Choosing a profession. Getting married. Eating the five-scoop double-death-by-chocolate sundae at Friendly’s. But if there is one time in the world when this is wrong, one time in your life to trust a computer instead of your feelings, it when you have one chance to fire a projectile at a target 2 meters wide while flying past it at several times the speed of sound.

(That final battle scene in Star Wars is copied, from start to finish, from a World War II movie, The Dam Busters. It’s a true story in which the dam (Death Star) was destroyed by astonishing bravery combined with science and trust in logic. It’s a great movie that disappeared from sight because somebody had the brilliant idea to name the British air force unit’s black dog “Nigger”.)

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess wrote later, I think in Playboy, that the argument in A Clockwork Orange is that it’s morally better for people to be evil of their own free will than to be socialized by the government. The government tried to use behaviorist psychology to condition Alex not to enjoy raping and killing people. In the end, the government failed, but then Alex grew out of this behavior, because it was just a case of boys being boys. (This final “growing out of it” chapter was deleted from the American edition.) The lesson is that attempts to socialize people using science (a) don’t work, and (b) aren’t necessary, because people are basically good, except when they’re teenagers.

There’s already some cheating here, because Burgess declared by authorial fiat that conditioning couldn’t work. But that wasn’t enough for him. He had to make the attempt to use conditioning morally repulsive.

So first, he made the government a repressive dictatorship. Repressive dictatorships are bad; therefore, using science to reduce crime is bad.

(This is only half-cheating. You could argue that the problem with using science to encourage certain behaviors is that it’s the sort of thing that appeals to repressive dictatorships. But in that case, the story should have been about using science to discourage people from social unrest, as in Brave New World, not to discourage them from raping and killing.)

But that still wasn’t enough for him. So he gave Alex one sympathetic trait: Alex loves the music of Beethoven. Then he made the behaviorist psychologists do their conditioning while playing the music of Beethoven in the background. That didn’t even make sense; pairing the images of violence that they were trying to condition him against with the music of Beethoven would make him enjoy violence more, rather than less, according to their theories. But when they succeeded in temporarily making Alex dislike both raping and Beethoven, Burgess then shouted, “You see! They made him hate Beethoven (and raping)! They’re BAD!”

Philip Roth, The Human Stain

As I wrote in a previous blog, this story’s argument is that we are helpless against morally-rationalized mob persecution. A small town college administrator must hide the facts about his life because American society is too prejudiced to be trusted with the truth. He falsified his life story, which would ordinarily be considered immoral; but he was justified, because he would have been persecuted unjustly for the truth. Near the end of his life, though, he is instead persecuted unjustly on a charge that would have been dismissed people have known the truth about him.

But, the consequences of this persecution, even in the scenario that the writer invented to show how bad it was, just aren’t that bad. The guy resigns from his job, and is looked down on by a bunch of people whom he’s better off without anyway.

So Roth added a subplot: The 75-year-old administrator is dating a 35-year-old woman. He has to hide this from the town, too, because people under 75 don’t approve of 75-year-olds having sex.

But this wasn’t bad enough either. So Roth added a crazy Vietnam vet ex-husband of the woman, who kills the main character. So now we see that the tragic outcome of all this prejudice and intolerance was the innocent main character’s death. OR WAS IT?

No. It wasn’t. The main character’s death was caused by a stereotyped psychotic Vietnam vet, which was sneakily bundled together with all of the lesser persecutions by the townsfolk. The incident which had the greatest dramatic effect, which is supposed to be a part of the theme of persecution, is not an incidence of persecution at all. It subtly, dishonestly says that small-minded persecution will kill you.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The plot of Gatsby is: Gatsby falls in love with Daisy, but isn’t rich enough to marry her. He goes off to seek his fortune, becomes fabulously wealthy, and returns, but Daisy is married. So every night he stares at the light of her house from across the bay. Then he dies, having everything, and nothing.

The argument is something about our inability to get what we want, or maybe that money can’t buy you happiness. The cheating here — and it’s minor — is that Gatsby is done in not through any failure of his long-term plan, but due to a freak case of mistaken identity.

Voltaire, Candide

Candide is a counter argument against the Enlightenment theological/philosophical claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The plot of Candide is as follows: Bad things happen to good people. The good people look to the Lord for help. Worse things happen to the good people. Repeat.

This would ordinarily be seen as cheating. Voltaire wanted to argue that God does not, in fact, protect good people from bad things, and that one can easily imagine worlds in which things turned out better than in this one. So one could argue that he just made those bad things happen, and that they wouldn’t have in real life.

But they did. Voltaire, being a rather clever fellow, realized his argument would be invalid unless he described bad things that had actually happened to (presumably) good, or at least not particularly bad, people. So he based some of the incidents in Candide on true stories of the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. He tried not to cheat, at least not as much as he could have.

Though Voltaire at least semi-cheats in that he has the bad things happen over and over again to the same three characters.  What’s more, many of these bad things permanently scar them, to the point where they can’t even enjoy the semi-happy ending they’ve earned by the end of the book all that much.

Real life would probably kill any people who suffered as much as Candide, Pangloss and Cunegonde.  The noveltortures them — they suffer rapes, hangings, eviscerations, piracy, and all sorts of abuse again and again, each time almost being killed, and usually with sadistic Hope Spots.  Admittedly, this is meant as a deliberate Deconstruction of the more common sort of picaresque romance in which they would have narrowly escapedthese horrible events in order to have their virtues rewarded at the end.

Philip Roth, & The Ethics of Writing


Now & again the question of what is okay to write about comes up. When it does, I always conclude that it was okay for whomever to write about whatever they did.

So do I think it’s cool for anybody to write about anything?

I found an example of something I don’t think is okay: Philip Roth writing about a Vietnam vet in The Human Stain. The problem is that his Vietnam vet is pure stereotype: In Vietnam, he went in friendly and innocent, but pretty soon was killing civilians for no reason and saving their body parts as souvenirs, just like everyone else (according to him). After coming home, he remains tripped out all day, every day, for 30 years, on PTSD; angry, violent, murderous, resentful, paranoid; constantly thinking about killing; hallucinating and unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. He has no character beyond that. And he isn’t a background character; he’s central to the action and themes of the novel.

It’s a very famous novel, but no one seems to have given him shit for this.

This is one thing that crosses my redline: Writing a main character as an over-the-top negative stereotype of something you haven’t experienced. Philip Roth was in the Army, at least–in 1955 and 1956, after Korea but before Vietnam.

Scene + Sequel structure


Dwight Swain wrote a book about 50 years ago called “Techniques of the Selling Writer” which says your book must be comprised of units with the “Scene-Sequel” structure. This is the same scheme you’ll find in Jack Bickham’sScene & Structure. The Scene-Sequel structure looks like this:


–1. Scene
—–A. The main character in the scene has a Goal. This is, more generally, the SCENE’s Question (typically, Will she or won’t she achieve her Goal?)
—–B. The main character has a Conflict which threatens that goal. The conflict may be with herself, other characters, or forces of nature.
—–C. The main character suffers a Setback. (Swain calls it a “Disaster”, which gives the false impression that it needs to be a major setback. Using only major setbacks is a formula for writing bad action/adventure stories like those Bickham wrote.) More generally, it is the Question’s Answer, which can be “No” (failure), “Yes, but…” (success, but introducing an even worse Setback), or “No, and furthermore…” (failure, and introducing an even worse Setback).

—2. Sequel
—–A. the emotional Reaction of the POV character to the setback
—–B. The main character thinks about this Problem. (Swain calls it a “Dilemma”, which I don’t like because “dilemma” means “two options”.)
—–C. The main makes a Decision on how to react to the setback.
—–D. The main character Acts on that decision, beginning the next SCENE.

Watch out! We now have three kinds of “scenes”:

scene: What most writers mean by a “scene”: A sequence of events without a sudden jump in time, location, or point-of-view (POV). This has nothing to do with the other two!
Scene: A Goal-Conflict-Setback unit.
SCENE: A Scene and a Sequel.

The Scene-Sequel structure seems like a good default structure. I don’t think about it consciously when I write, except sometimes when I run into specific trouble areas and don’t know why the story isn’t working. Buy the books, or google scene and sequel, if you want to read about its merits. I’m here to talk about its problems.

The standard presentation of Scene and Sequel, like many things emanating from Writer’s Digest, has been oversimplified to the point where it probably does advanced writers more harm than good. Bickham says you should present the components in order, clearly spelled out to the reader, and then on finishing the Sequel, jump immediately into another Scene. Iterate until the protagonist achieves his/her novel Goal, and the book is finished. Eliminate everything from the book that is not a Scene+Sequel.

Doing this makes it more likely you will write forgettable pot-boilers like Jack Bickham did. Have any of the people quoting him read his books? They lack theme, insight into human nature, or, well, anything other than one damn thing after another. Also, Bickham didn’t limit himself to scene+sequel structure. Twister contained many omniscient-viewpoint scenes describing weather and storms which had no characters at all.

Here are the big problems I see with scene-sequel theory:

1. Typical explanations of scene-sequel theory give examples of SCENE which are also scenes. This rarely happens in the wild. Rather, a complete goal-conflict-etc. SCENE is spread across multiple scenes. Each scene may contain numerous small, usually incomplete goal-conflict-etc. SCENEs. These match the SCENE template so poorly, however, that it might be more fair to Swain to consider them to be “motivation-reaction units” (another part of his theory).

2. The scene-sequel structure isn’t used serially. It’s used hierarchically, from top to bottom: The entire novel is a hero with a goal, a conflict, a disaster, and a reaction; each chapter is a lesser goal / conflict / setback / reaction / reflection / decision; and each chapter is likewise composed of smaller SCENEs. More or less. A Scene-Sequel structure may split across chapters, particularly with cliffhangers.

3. The formula is written for a single-protagonist story. Great books often don’t fit that pattern. Even a straightforward single-protagonist action-adventure like The Hobbit can’t be easily stuffed into single-protagonist scene+sequel format, because the protagonist shares the problems and goals of the entire party.

4. Each character in the story has their own scene+sequel structures, and these overlap with each other. The “antagonist” will be having their own scene+sequel, and its Disaster may play a different part in the “protagonist”‘s scene+sequel. Various compromises and POV problems prevent each of these scene+sequels from having all their parts visible.

5. The scene+sequel components often aren’t presented to the reader in chronological order.

6. Goal, Setback, and Decision are often either absent or hidden. POV restrictions often prevent the Goal from being stated. The Scene may have a stacked structure, such as Goal-Conflict-Goal-Conflict-Setback or Goal-Conflict-Setback-Conflict-Setback.

7. Other things happen to affect the goal stack, such as fortuitous assistance or discoveries, or goal changes.

Scene-Sequel is most appropriate in action/thriller/genre novels. But even there, it doesn’t take the simple form Bickham prescribes. I just spent a couple of hours trying to find it in the wild, and the pure SCENE is a rare beastie.

Right now I’m reading Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (MOTW), and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Reading about a dozen pages from each, and recollecting what I still can of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I found no instances of a Scene-Sequel structure meeting Bickham’s requirements.

Literary fiction often has main characters who don’t know what they want, or don’t know how to get what they want. It has more protagonists and fewer antagonists, and so it may have several main characters in one SCENE. It has fewer decisions, in part because the setback may pass unnoticed by the main character, and because more characters drift from scene to scene without direction, or carried along by forces beyond their control. It has more dialogue and less action. And each character in the story has enough psychological depth to need their own goals, reactions, etc. This structure, when used, should probably apply to every character present.

Bickham says all the elements must be explicit and occur in that order; it appears that literary fiction requires this notto be the case. If a narrative section resembles Scene-Sequel structure, some part of it must be implicit or hidden until later. The elements occur in chronological order within the story world, but may be presented in a different order. A Passage to India might have some Scene-Sequel structures in it; but if so, they’re well-hidden. People rarely explicitly state their goals, and the multiple main characters and POV limitations means there’s no way for the narrator to tell us their goals.

The entire first chapter of MOTW’s three chapters is Frankie, the main character, trying to figure out what she wants, and to understand her reaction to the main “disaster” (her brother’s wedding). Hence the protagonist has no conscious Goal and so there are few places within that chapter with all the parts of this Scene-Sequel structure. Where it fits, it’s some secondary character who has a goal, not the main character.

The first chapter presents a Setback: Frankie’s brother is getting married. Frankie strongly feels this as a setback, but doesn’t know why. The bulk of the chapter is Reaction and Problem, showing how Frankie feels, and how she struggles to grasp her situation. Only at the very end of this rumination does Frankie realize that her Goal is to find some group of people she belongs with, “the ‘we’ for her ‘me’”, and Decide on an action. So the first chapter fits the Scene-Sequel structure, but doesn’t present its elements chronologically. And the Disaster of the chapter is not really a Disaster in Swain’s sense. It’s not a plot complication, but an incident that highlights the Goal Frankie had at the start but didn’t know she had.

I try The Last Unicorn. There are goals and conflicts and disasters, but they are distributed among the characters. Who is the protagonist? Schmendrick? Molly? Lir? The unicorn? I can’t apply the formula when there are four protagonists.

Now I’m reading through The Hobbit, an adventure story about a single protagonist facing Disasters and Deciding how to respond to them, so it should be chock full of Scene-and-Sequel.

The story opens with a long description of a hobbit-hole. This shows Bilbo’s Goal: Continue living a quiet, respectable, adventure-free life in his hobbit hole. Gandalf scratches a sign on his door, and dwarves begin arriving. Bilbo has a Conflict (be respectably polite, yet don’t run out of food or miss his own dinner or allow his plates to be damaged), which is a manifestation of the larger Conflict (adventure vs. respectability) of which he is not yet aware.

What’s the Setback? There is none; there is an Opportunity, a re-evaluation, a Discovery that Bilbo has some Took longing for adventure within him. Rather than trying to defend his Goal of quiet respectability, he decides to set it aside for a while. So instead of Setback, let’s say the third element of a scene is a “goal challenge”, and the protagonist’s Decision may be to abandon his Goal.

Continuing through the book, I come at random to Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”, in which the dwarves are taken captive by the wood elves. We switch to Thorin’s POV, and he is thrown into a dungeon. The only way to fit this into Scene-Sequel is to consider the whole span of events, starting from their being captured, to their escape, as a single SCENE from Bilbo’s point of view. That means that when we see Thorin being thrown into a dungeon, we should think of it as being a problem for Bilbo, who doesn’t even know yet what has happened.

Within that big SCENE, we have smaller units that resemble Scene-Sequel, but they result in Discoveries, Goals, and Decisions, but no Setbacks. The companions are already in a dire situation, and there’s no need for further Setbacks. Bilbo makes a series of Discoveries (where Thorin is held, the river leading out of the caves; the King’s wine cellars), and pieces them together into a plan. The chapter’s story arc, from capture to escape, has a Scene-Sequel structure; but not one of the scenes within the chapter has a Scene-Sequel structure.

Looking at my own writings I think that If I’d written the story with Scene-Sequel structure in mind, it would have been much simpler. On the other hand, the first few chapters would have been more exciting. On the other other hand, the first few chapters are about two specific characters not conflict, because the story is about those two characters. Diving right into a conflict in chapter 1 might have kept more readers reading, but I think the way I did it makes it a better story for those who stayed with it.


My overall impression is that Scene-Sequel, like the Hero’s Journey, or character archetypes, is a template that you can hold up against your story to identify possible problem areas, but that is more likely to be used by lazy or bad writers to churn out formulaic fiction. It is certainly not, as its advocates claim, a formula that you need only iterate enough times in order to produce a good book.

The true pattern of SCENEs is more general than Swain or Bickham say it is. Instead of a Setback, you may have an Opportunity which leads to abandoning a Goal. Within an overarching Scene+Sequel, you may find the smaller structures have Discoveries or other Advances instead of Setbacks, which move the main character further forward toward their Goal. And the Goals may not be true Goals at all; a significant part of the novel may be the characters trying to understand what their Goals really are.

All in all, the Scene-Sequel structure is IMHO not as useful as just asking yourself 2 questions at all times:

1. What motivates each of my characters to do what they’re doing?
2. What motivates my reader to keep reading?

Unfortunately, like most bad writing advice, Scene-Sequel theory is infiltrating the writing community and will inevitably change our expectations and conventions so that scene-sequel stories seem better to us, just as sentences without speech tags now seem natural when they were initially merely bad prescriptivist grammar. I watched the movie Gravity last night, and I thought it was very good; but it was a perfect Bickhamesque scene-sequel scene-sequel scene-sequel, from start to finish. Would it have been written this way before Bickham, or would the writers have given us something with a little more structure?

Waves of Style (Excerpt: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, part 2, chapter 4)


The vein in Jake’s forehead throbbed wildly. His mouth worked convulsively. Singer sat up, alarmed. Jake tried to speak again and the words choked in his mouth. A shudder passed through his body. He sat down in the chair and pressed his trembling lips with his fingers. Then he said huskily:

“It’s this way, Singer. Being mad is no good. Nothing we can do is any good. That’s the way it seems to me. All we can do is go around telling the truth. And as soon as enough of the don’t-knows have learned the truth then there won’t be any use for fighting. The only thing for us to do is let them know. All that’s needed. But how? Huh?”

The fire shadows lapped against the walls. The dark, shadowy waves rose higher and the room took on motion. The room rose and fell and all balance was gone. Alone Jake felt himself sink downward, slowly in wavelike motions downward into a shadowed ocean. In helplessness and terror he strained his eyes, but he could see nothing except the dark and scarlet waves that roared hungrily over him. Then at last he made out the thing which he sought. The mute’s face was faint and very far away. Jake closed his eyes.

The next morning he awoke very late. Singer had been gone for hours. There was bread, cheese, and orange, and a pot of coffee on the table. When he had finished his breakfast it was time for work. He walked somberly, his head bent, across the town toward his room. When he reached the neighborhood where he lived he passed through a certain narrow street that was flanked on one side by a smoke-blackened brick warehouse. On the wall of this building there was something that vaguely distracted him. He started to walk on, and then his attention was suddenly held. On the wall in message was written in bright red chalk, the letters drawn thickly and curiously formed:

Ye shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.

He read the message twice and looked anxiously up and down the street. No one was in sight. After a few minutes of puzzled deliberation he took from his pocket a thick red pencil and wrote carefully beneath the inscription:

Whoever wrote the above meet me here tomorrow at noon, Wednesday, November 29. Or the next day.

At 12 o’clock the next day he waited before the wall. Now and then he walked impatiently to the corner to look up and down the streets. No one came. After an hour he had to leave for the show.

The next day he waited, also.

Then on Friday there was a long, slow winter rain. The wall was sodden and the messages streaked so that no word could be read. The rain continued, gray and bitter and cold.

The third paragraph is what caught my eye, but it requires the entire passage to make its meaning clear. I think there’s a lesson here: Style, like drama, can have structure. The third paragraph is the stylistic climax of the passage. On its own, it would seem overblown, but the paragraphs around it support and expand on it. Stylistic consistency here would be bad. Stylistic intensity, like dramatic intensity, should rise and fall according to some plan. This passage has a stylistic shape like a dramatic structure: Intense at the start, at one point in the middle, and at the end.

I also want to point out that this passage shows how Jake feels four ways, one after the other:

1. It shows what he looks like.
2. He tries to explain himself in dialogue.
3. It shows how Jake’s thoughts alter his perceptions.
4. It shows an event of the type that cause Jake to feel this way.

Bjarke Ingels on Style


Most writers worry at some point about developing their own style. I don’t want to have my own style. I think each story calls for a different style. Writers with distinctive styles, like Hemingway, tend to write stories that are as similar to each other as their style is.

In an interview, architect Bjarke Ingels said something similar about not having a style. Of other architects, he said, “Their style is the sum of their inhibitions.” I can relate this to writing: Hemingway, afraid to look closely at thoughts and feelings, instead describes the wetness of a man’s shirt and the texture and weight of the mud on his shoes. Borges, afraid of taking himself too seriously, skims over his stories, skimping more on detail the more serious the story is. Bradbury, afraid to admit that not all feelings are universal, won’t develop characters distinct beyond “boy”, “man”, and “woman”.

And me? I’m afraid of lingering and boring the reader, even though lingering over details is often the way to interest the reader. I learned that while writing my first novel, and again during my time workshoping, when I tried to rewrite someone else’s story. Probably I still need to learn it several more times. Both of the stories I tried to rewrite came out one-third the length of the original that I copied from. JK Rowlings has the courage to keep on writing past the minimum needed to describe the scene and the action, a faith that her readers love her characters and want all the details.

I’m afraid of sentimentality and shallowness, so I write dark and sad stories. What are you afraid of?

Culture and Sentence Length


Prismatic Prospects recently blogged about sentence length and I want to take it a step further. I talked with my renter, who translates between English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, about it and he claimed that English speakers like short sentences, while continentals prefer long sentences.

Here’s a sentence from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time / Remembrances of Things Past, chosen almost at random:

It was one of those old townhouses, a few of which for all I know may still be found, in which the main courtyard was flanked — alluvial deposits washed there by the rising tide of democracy, perhaps, or a legacy from a more primitive time when the different trades were clustered around the overlord – by little shops and workrooms, a shoemaker’s, for instance, or a tailor’s, such as we see nestling between the buttresses of those cathedrals which the aesthetic zeal of the restorer has not swept clear of such accretions, and a porter who also did cobbling, kept hens, grew flowers – and, at the far end, in the main house, a “Countess” who, when she drove out in her old carriage and pair, flaunting on her hat a few nasturtiums which seemed to have escaped from the plot by the lodge (with, by the coachman’s side on the box, a footman who got down to leave cards at every aristocratic mansion in the neighborhood), dispensed smiles and little waves of the hand impartially to the porter’s children and to any portion of tenants who might happen to be passing and whom, in her disdainful affability and her egalitarian arrogance, she found indistinguishable from one another.

There are many such sentences in this book, which many people claim is the greatest novel ever written.

This sentence frustrated me because it didn’t let me slow down to think about anything in it. Perhaps the continental preference for long sentences results from a preference for style over content. Perhaps the reason for writing long sentences is to prevent the reader from thinking. The writer may wish the reader to bathe in the sounds and connotations of the words, as if they were poetry, rather than to be distracted by the details of what is said. I daresay you could throw out 9/10th of the words in this novel without losing any of the story or even the characters; what would be lost would be its scent and flavor.

Poetry, however, is extremely short rather than extremely long. I don’t respect Proust for being able to spend ten pages describing the feelings aroused in him by the name of an old estate. I respect the writer who can describe those feelings in one paragraph.

When translating Proust from French into English, should one chop the long sentences up into short ones in order to translate them into English cultural expectations, if doing so would be more likely to evoke feelings in English people similar to those that Proust wished to evoke in French people?

I have the strong impression that continentals don’t write muscular prose (highly-correlated with short sentences, though not always). Americans own muscular prose: Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler, Ian McEwan, Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy. Old English and Norse poetry have that oomph too, as do some of Borges’ stories about the Argentinian gauchos, and some African books. I’d think German could, but I haven’t read any like that. Asian literature, as far as I know, completely lacks it outside of Dragon Ball Z. But I probably wouldn’t know if it had it.

One theory of mine is that Continental literature was shaped so strongly by world wars one and two. The English-speaking world fought those wars on other people’s soil, and were not as traumatized by them. Continental literature, as a result, must accommodate a readership that is more bruised, more in need of comfort, less enamored of force and physicality.

Raiders of the Lost Ark


The Scriptnotes podcast did an entire episode analyzing Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Click on this link to download the MP3 or the transcript.

John and Craig said that Raiders isn’t, as I’d thought it was, the story of a hero retrieving the Lost Ark from the Nazis.  No, Raiders is the story of a man who lacks faith and who is obsessed with things instead of people, gaining faith and learning to value people over things.  Indy starts as the only person in the movie who doesn’t believe the stories about the Lost Ark.  He just wants the thing.

Belloc, one of Indy’s main antagonists, is Indy’s shadow.  He is Indy, with the same strengths and flaws, but just a little farther along the trajectory of that character flaw.  He shows what Indy will become if he doesn’t change.  Belloc wants the same things Indy wants, he’s just more ruthless getting them.

I like that interpretation a lot, because I like stories with ideas and character arcs.  I believe that Larry Kasdan (the writer) had that arc in mind.  But did it matter?  I bet less than 5% of the audience thought that Raiders was a story about Indy learning not to be so attached to things.  They enjoyed it anyway.

Did having that character arc make them enjoy the movie more, even if they didn’t know it was there?

Me personally, I think that most people miss it, but without it the story is less compelling. It’s the hidden depths that draw us in even if we don’t seem to register those depths.

We see the forest not the trees, yet without the trees there is no forest.

Writing is Philosophy by Existence Proof


I’m moving out of my house. Packing forces me to look at everything in my house, and it’s a museum of my life. All the stacks of papers and books to read for unfinished projects, unanswered letters, or completed projects that I’d once been proud of but had since forgotten. Have you ever gone through a relative’s house after they died, looking for something that had captured and held something of their maker? Letters to the editor, birdhouses, notes in the margins of obscure books, collections of pen knives, and shelves full of electronic gizmos all used exactly once. All of which seem sullenly dull and uninteresting, unworthy of the passion and attention bestowed on them.

This is like that, only it’s me. It feels like reading my own obituary. Why did I do these things instead of something else? Should I have tried to accomplish more, travelled more, or partied more? I’ve often felt guilty about writing fiction, because it doesn’t “accomplish” anything. Yet, looking back years later on the things I did “accomplish”, they don’t seem any more worthwhile.

What is worth doing? This is the question of philosophy, and of writing.

On one level, writing is the kind of philosophy we’re used to. Every time you write something, you ask: What is worth writing? Do I need to have something important to say, or just a really good fart joke? Every time you put something out there for others to read, you’re saying what you think is important in life, what you think other people should do or know or think about or feel. Sometimes you write something to be an experience: a comedy whose only purpose is to make people laugh, because you think laughter is worthwhile. While sometimes you write something to talk about experiences, to point to what a character is doing and say “This is or is not worthwhile.”

In his Paris Review interview, Aldous Huxley said,

I think one can say much more about general abstract ideas in terms of concrete characters and situations, whether fictional or real, than one can in abstract terms. … I think that probably all philosophy ought to be written in this form…. It’s awfully easy to write abstractly, without attaching much meaning to the big words. But the moment you have to express ideas in the light of a particular context, in a particular set of circumstances, although it’s a limitation in some ways, it’s also an invitation to go much further and much deeper. I think that fiction and, as I say, history and biography are immensely important, not only for their own sake, because they provide a picture of life now and of life in the past, but also as vehicles for the expression of general philosophic ideas, religious ideas, social ideas. My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on–like Coleridge–why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular.

But there’s another way that writing fiction is philosophy. It’s an attempt to do something worthwhile. Something that won’t make me wince when I look back years later and ask how I spent my life. Something that will preserve more of the feeling that went into it than a birdhouse or a stamp collection, that won’t look, to the people going over my things, like another stupid dull object to throw out. It’s philosophy by existence proof. It’s answering the question “What is worthwhile?” with a kiss instead of a dissertation.

Regular old “philosophy” is philosophy by theorem: building a series of general logical arguments that arrive at an algorithm for classifying things as worthy or unworthy. Philosophy by existence proof is the attempt to prove, by example, that there exist things worth doing.

I guess I could also say all hobbies and arts are philosophy, love is philosophy, and everything we do that we don’t have to do to live is philosophy.

War and Peace, Truth and Fiction


I’m trying to figure out how truthful fiction should be.  I’m half-way through War and Peace on audio.  In every poll of famous Western writers, War and Peace comes in first place as the best novel of all time.  But it’s not like other novels!  It’s much more realistic.  All of the characters are such a mix of virtues and failings that it’s hard to admire or dislike any of them.  There are no protagonists and no antagonists (other than Napoleon, who is both a genius and a fool).  There’s no plot—there’s an over-arching story about the war with Napoleon, but it isn’t a plot, because Tolstoy doesn’t try to make you care about the war.  Instead, every character uses the war to pursue their own petty concerns.  At no point do you wonder (or care) what’s going to happen next to any of them.  Partly this is because they’re slave-holding nobility, each obsessing over their own first-world problems while living lives of luxury supported by the endless forced labor of dozens or hundreds of serfs.  Mostly it’s because their problems are usually trivial ones they stupidly created for themselves.

Stupidity is the prime mover for both good and evil.  In every battle scene, men are wounded or killed because someone made a stupid decision, or led men on a useless and dangerous mission in order to win glory.  No one gets upset because they also endorse stupid values that excuse it—or when they do get upset, it’s because they’re overcome by some competing but equally-stupid meme.  Morals are spread by hypocrites and fools, and now and then take root in someone who is foolish enough to listen to them, yet smart enough to do real good.  If the book has a theme, it appears to be the futility of reason and the beauty of stupidity.

But I’m not convinced the book has themes.  It shows what people are like, and why they do what they do.  Possibly as a result, it is boring.  It’s fascinating when you step back and look at the big picture.  But, paragraph by paragraph, it’s boring.  It took me three tries to get through the first two chapters.

Is this a good book?  Writers say it is, but they never try to write anything like it themselves.

Do I want to write or read stories that are that truthful?  I don’t know.

Chapter 7 of Bickham’s The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes, “Don’t Use Real People in Your Story”, has this to say.  (I’ve reworded it to make it shorter, so don’t quote this.)

One of my new writing students, a gent we shall call Wally, came by my office with the first pages of a new story. I read the pages and then handed them back.


“Wally, these characters are dull. They are flat and insipid. They are pasteboard. They have no life, no color, no vivacity.”


Wally looked shocked. “How can these characters be dull? They’re real people – every one of them! I took them right out of real life!”


“Oh”, I said. “So that’s the problem.”


“What?” he said.


“You can never use real people in your story. ”




“For one reason, real people might sue you. But far more to the point, real people – taken straight over and put on the page of a story – are dull. ”


Good fiction characters are never, ever real people. Your character may begin with a real person, but to make him vivid enough for your readers to believe in him, you have to exaggerate tremendously; you have to provide shortcut identifying characteristics that stick out all over him, you have to make him practically a monster – for readers to see even his dimmest outlines.

If your real person is loyal, you will make your character tremendously, almost unbelievably loyal. If he tends to be a bit impatient in real life, your character will fidget, gnash his teeth, drum his fingers, interrupt others, twitch, and practically blow sky high with his outlandishly exaggerated impatience.


Good fiction characters also tend to be more understandable than real-life people. While they’re more mercurial and colorful, they’re also more goal-motivated. In real life, people often act on impulses that grow out of things in their personalities that even they don’t understand. In real life people often don’t make sense. But in fiction, they do.


It’s just one of several ways that fiction surpasses and improves upon life. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? After all, if fiction were really just like life, why would we have to have it at all?


What need would it meet? Who would care about it?

Maybe Tolstoy is doing this precise thing, so masterfully that it fooled me into finding his characters realistic.  But I don’t think so.  True, Tolstoy’s characters are more goal-oriented than real people.  None of them stay in the same place and the same routine out of inertia, as most real people do.  But I think that Bickham would have some harsh words for Tolstoy.  War and Peace may have colorful characters—though many are not—but it is boring because it doesn’t pretend that life is made out of heroes and villains, or that even the grandest episodes in history make any sense.  It has little emotional impact and no suspense, just like most of life.  I think Tolstoy wanted to show the kind of grandness or flavor real life has, not of big things but of little ones, small prides and sacrifices and kindnesses and spites.  That’s deep.  But it’s hard to read.  It isn’t flashy and exaggerated, the way Bickham thinks stories should be.  “Who would care about it?” strikes at what’s wrong with War and Peace.

Maybe War and Peace is like a plate of broccoli, good for you but not as appealing as a jar of cookies that will make you fat and stupid.  Maybe Tolstoy is right, and that’s just how broccoli must be.

Maybe fiction can never be more than dessert.  Does it make any sense to force yourself to read a giant novel because you think it’s good for you, instead of reading a textbook on psychology?  I think so.  We only really understand and believe things when they come to us in the form of a story.

Or maybe Bickham and Tolstoy are both wrong.  Maybe a great chef can make broccoli taste good.  Maybe War and Peace is a crippled could-have-been masterpiece, hyper-realistic and loaded with psychological insight, but bloated with boring dinner parties, and full of missed opportunities where Tolstoy described loves and battles but never made it clear why we should care about them.  Is there a way to make a book that’s both realistic and exciting?

There’s lots written on “novelistic realism”, but it’s way more boring and pretentious than this, and seems to be about the trappings of realism (dirty dishes and characters who fart) instead of realism about how people and the world work.

Can you name any stories that are as realistic, and aren’t boring?  Maybe stories by Chinua Achebe, Yasunari Kawabata, and Jhumpa Lahiri.  I don’t know.  I’m going to go with Don Quixote for now.  The first real novel, and still possibly the best.