The Moral of the Story

Pepe Silvia meme

Your story – what does it all mean? How can you give it a good theme, something for readers to interpret and think about?

Well, it’s okay if a story doesn’t have a moral. It’s fine for something to be fun or scary or sad or whatever simply for the sake of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism – even, perhaps especially, in today’s crazy climate. You are not obligated to comment wokely on everything that happens all the time.

But meaningful fiction is great and important too.

The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay. Hey, why not write some non-fiction then?

In On Writing, in line with his pantser/gardener approach, Stephen King says that:

starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories[…]

This article takes a similar view, but says having ideas in mind from the start can be helpful so long as it’s with a light touch:

if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do? Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work.

Kristen Kieffer takes a more ‘plotter’ approach here. She says that ‘You can make a point of choosing these themes during the pre-writing process,’ as well as letting it develop naturally and emphasizing it in later drafts.

Kieffer suggests building theme by considering the implications of your character arcs:

Take a look at the main character(s) in your current work-in-progress, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
  • What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfilment?
  • How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
  • Do they overcome their characters flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
  • Who has my character become by the end of the story?

Once you’ve answered these questions, review what you’ve written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. What are you trying to say about these topics?

This is a more deliberate approach that can be used to plan theme in a first draft. But notice that it still avoids approaching theme ‘front ways on’, to hopefully not be ‘crass and didactic’. This more plotter/architect tactic still takes King’s point about fiction that ‘begins with story and progresses to theme’.

Where King first writes the pure story as a first draft, then thinks about theme while editing, Kieffer’s approach suggests planning character arcs, building theme through that, and then writing a first draft which has both story and theme there from the start.

In both cases the theme arises for the reader through implied points and subtext, from the story itself instead of from a heavy-handed author dropping in to give a speech.

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Security Culture

See it. Say it. Sorted.

Anyone who’s travelled by train in the UK lately will be all too familiar with this slogan – see it, say it, sorted. ‘If you see something suspicious, contact British transport police on [unintelligible numbers apparently spoken through a fan].’

The message itself, on the level of semantics, doesn’t seem too troublesome. An unattended bag that sounds like a grandfather clock might be something to tell someone about, after all. But hearing this so repeatedly begins to feel a bit threatening. There’s an amorphous enemy out there, among you, and you’d better keep your eyes peeled.

The youtuber Philosophy Tube has a great examination of security culture:

The hypothetical enemy, as he points out, is just that – hypothetical. And because they’re hypothetical, there’s always the justification of ‘better safe than sorry’. There’s always a need to remind people about reporting suspicious behaviour, because if the security is relaxed, and then something happens…

The always non-zero possibility of an attack justifies the reality of the obnoxious, intrusive, threatening security culture. Because the risk can never be eliminated, security can only increase.

The security slogan announcement begins to feel more common than announcements about the actual trains. ‘Constant vigilance!’ Mad-Eye Moody tells us. The transport police aren’t that on-the-nose about it all yet, but security culture does nudge us to further vigilance, to (highly racially charged) suspicion of our fellows, to building ourselves a panopticon.

Having armed police standing around a station is even worse: as said in the video, it feels more like an occupation than protection. Who are we being protected from, exactly? The momentary flicker of fear they inspire (why are they here? Is something going on?) serves to justify their presence. They create the very fear that they are supposed to take away.

If advertising is meant to create ‘an anxiety relievable by purchase’, security culture creates an anxiety relievable by continued security. Better safe than sorry.

But we are never absolutely safe. Countless everyday objects can be used as weapons, any location could be bombed, any car could be driven into a crowd. I could have an aneurysm right now, but I don’t want a government drone popping round to give me statins, damn it. I’m safe enough. Safe enough should be enough. It should be possible to step back and remember that most people are not a threat.

If the goal of terrorism is political change through fear, our security culture is ceding ground. They put bombs in shoes, take your shoes off. They use liquid explosives, use this tiny bottle. They attack the Tube, we have to hear this damn slogan every five minutes.

I get why we can’t carry katanas in hand luggage. But I don’t get why we have to let so few people have this much influence.

Getting Characters Between Places

adult-airport-arrival-1008155

Since seeing Michael James tweet about finding them difficult, I’ve been thinking about movement/physical transition scenes – showing characters going somewhere, whether from one room to another, or on a journey further afield. This isn’t something I see mentioned a lot. There’s a great deal of discussion about pacing, worldbuilding, planning, all the large-scale stuff. But actually, this smaller issue presents real headaches.

I can definitely look over my writing, especially first drafts, and see points where the characters are going from room to room and it feels like a succession of ‘they went to the kitchen, passed through to the living room, sallied forth into the spare bedroom…’ Wooden, switching up the verbs to try to hide how mechanical it is. Meh.

I have a few ideas for trying to make physical transitions work better, but if anyone has more insight, do chip in.

Skip to the arrival

A chapter ends with a character realising they need to go somewhere distant. Do we need to see their time on the train, plane, or boat? Unless something interesting happens on the journey, it may be stronger for the next chapter to begin with them arriving. You could show the change in climate as they shiver in a thick coat, or the duration through the bushy beard they grew on the ship.

This can work for smaller, room-to-room transitions too. Two characters can meet at the front door, then be talking at the kitchen table. It’s pretty obvious that they walked there, you don’t always have to say it.

Something interesting happens on the journey

Instead of ‘they <verb> to <place>’, make the journey a worthwhile scene in its own right. Long journeys have a lot of potential for important conversations and dramatic events. They can be a moment of calm where something more about the character is revealed, or throw up unexpected obstacles and conflicts.

On a shorter trip, such as between buildings, focus less on describing the route – second left, straight past the dentist’s, blah blah blah – and more on any conversation, thoughts, and observations on the way.

For room-to-room transitions, there can still be a great bit of detail in the description. A nugget of worldbuilding, a small note steeped in subtext. On the way between rooms, a character might overhear half a line of dialogue that ends up overturning the whole story later on.

Tell, don’t show

‘She rummaged through all the wardrobes, then went to the kitchen and tried all the drawers…’

Why not just: ‘She searched the bedroom, kitchen, and the back of the sofa. The locket was gone.’

Instead of showing the character moving about, tell us in a brisk swoop that they either achieved or did not achieve The Thing. Sometimes a quick bit of telling can pack more of a punch than showing every step along the way.

Switch perspective or subplot

While one character is going somewhere, this might be a good time to see what someone else is up to. What is the person they’re going to visit doing to prepare for the arrival? Is there a subplot you haven’t gone back to for a while?

A character travelling can be a natural point to leave them and address something else, coming back to them as their side of the story kicks back into gear.

Is it actually bad?

Maybe there isn’t really a problem. It just seems like there’s one to us, because we’ve read our little transition scenelet a whole bunch of times, actively looking for flaws, doubting ourselves. A normal reader might take it as given and breeze on through without a second thought. Take a break, try to be more objective, perhaps consult other people.

Random Notes on Writing and Diversity

Just some bullet-points I’ve thrown together, about a pretty big topic these days.

  • This isn’t ‘SJW snowflake liberal cuckoldry’. It’s realism. Real life is diverse. If your fiction isn’t, that’s on you as a writer. (Plus, you should get that it’s important people are represented anyway, but hey.)
White genocide in action.
  • As with anything, some people will have unreasonable demands, and you will never totally please everyone. But you should still try to do a decent job. Think of diversity like any other aspect of writing – you research it, do your best, and take advice and criticism appropriately.

  • Men writing female characters – there’s a lot to say about the Bechdel Test and annoying tropes. But for a start, can we at least not be like this:

  • Characters don’t need a ‘reason’ to be black or gay or anything else. People are just born like they are. Does your character’s hair colour need a reason to be what it is?

  • ‘It’s unrealistic how many […] characters there are in…’ If the writer is going to absurd lengths to try to cover every possible angle, you have a fair point. But aside from that, remember that people like to associate with others like themselves. Is it unrealistic, or just not your experience?

  • ‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

Degenerates
  • ‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine someone who isn’t white, or a woman who (i) isn’t a package of copy-pasted tropes and (ii) talks to another woman at some point? Why? This is a bizarre lapse in imagination.

  • There are so many resources out there now. Use them.

There’s a lot more to be said about all this, but these basic points are hopefully a place to start.

Blame the Real Causes

When there’s a problem, we naturally look for a cause. One of the many troubling aspects of political discourse in the UK and elsewhere is a consistent scapegoating of the poor, powerless, and innocent for the crimes of the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt. If that wasn’t bad enough, their position in society is too often cruelly attributed to their own personal failings.

Many people are worse off since the 2008 crash, while great wealth has trickled up to the top of society. Housing is a mess. When a lot of people in this country do the natural thing and look around for someone to blame for these issues, they see migrants, put 2 and 2 together to make 5, and think the solution is tougher borders.

Migrants are not responsible for the decimation of social housing, high rents, and the housing market. How could they be? They didn’t make the policies responsible, did they? Was it Abdul down the road who asked Thatcher to sell off social housing at a loss (creating a glut of rent-seeking landlords) and prevent councils from building more? Did Jamilah from the newsagents tell Blair not to build affordable homes?

They’re not responsible for declining wages, either. Migrants would have no effect on wages if employers weren’t able to exploit them; if there was a cast-iron real living wage and worker’s rights protected by a united workforce. Migrants don’t control what people get paid. Bosses do. If your wage goes down, maybe blame the person who writes the cheque.

As I said in Foreign Aid: Britain Can Multitask, ‘Let’s not blame the global poor for the actions of our own government and the greed of tax-dodging millionaires.’ Who caused the 2008 crash? The deregulated financial sector, bailed out with public money in a vast scheme of privatised profit and socialised risk? Or a Polish corner shop?

More broadly, poverty is often blamed on the poor themselves – on fecklessness, a lack of hard work, being ‘chavs’. The media rapidly skimmed away from the awkward reality of the Paradise Papers, while tabloids never tire of stories of benefits cheats, someone having too many kids, etc. On the other side of the coin, we see stories of individual poor people working their way up the social ladder, presented as icons of what others could achieve if they worked harder.

In general, the large-scale theft at the top of society receives less attention, and certainly less action, than it deserves. A 2016 article in The Week reported that:

a 2013 survey found Britons believe almost a quarter, 24 per cent, of all benefits were claimed fraudulently, 34 times greater than the official 0.7 per cent estimate [and that] at £1.3bn to £1.6bn, it appears outright benefit fraud accounts for less of a burden on the taxpayer than the £4.4bn officially assumed to be lost by [tax] evaders.

I’m not saying that benefit cheats don’t exist. But the issue receives a disproportionate level of focus. When we do have a national moan about tax-dodging, it’s like a valve releasing pressure so that we can swiftly forget again and carry on doing nothing about it. As for issues like wage theft, or the idea that there might be some sort of connection between soaring wealth at the top and stagnant wages for the majority over the last few decades, don’t hold your breath waiting for Murdoch’s media outlets to address them with the same ferocity they whinge about migrants.

Blaming poverty on the poor is simply cruel. Do CEOs and hedge fund managers work so much harder than teachers, nurses, firefighters? Is work really the ‘route out of poverty’, when success is so influenced by one’s background and luck, when it turns out that ‘A record 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work’, when nurses are using food banks?

Homelessness and rough sleeping have both soared in the UK in recent years. It seems unlikely that this could be because of a sudden failure of people to work hard enough. We have to come to terms with the economic and social factors that lead to something like this. In the long term, we need to recognise those factors and get rid of them. In the shorter term, we also need to just f*cking give them a roof over their heads and the support they need. Not only because it turns out to be substantially cheaper for a country to literally straight-up house homeless people than leave them on the streets long-term. But also simply because homelessness is a moral nightmare.

At its worst, blaming the individual for their position in society rather than recognising wider factors can lead to an outright fashy perspective. ContraPoints’ analysis of the U.S. Baltimore uprising points out the depths of racism to which someone can sink if they refuse to acknowledge the realities of redlining, lead paint, and other reasons for racial disparities. I don’t want to be too quick to leap to the f-word, but fascism is very much a style of politics involving scapegoating of outgroups for social problems. It’s critical to address scapegoating early, before it gets enormously out of hand.

The idea that we live in a meritocracy can be more comforting than the idea that we live in an oligarchy, because it tells us that we’re ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaires’ who, if we knuckle down like Alan Sugar (an ‘East End boy made good’, he likes to say), can also become a billionaire with an unelected role in government.

But meritocracy has a dark side, which is brutal social darwinism. It’s not so comforting when you’re a nurse using a foodbank, when you’re homeless among oligarchs’ empty second homes, when you’re struggling to make rent but your taxes bailed out the City: and somehow you are the one to blame.

The other option it’s easy to swing to is hating the rich. It may be cathartic to share guillotine memes, but I don’t think that’s really the right way to go either. There is a place for pointing out the greed and corruption of individuals, as this Current Affairs article does so well, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there. Aside from the bitterness of feeling like that too much, and the real-world horrors it can motivate – the old ‘you hate the rich more than you love the poor!’ thing being usually a crappy argument but still not to be entirely dismissed – blaming individuals gives an incomplete picture.

The real issue is the underlying system. If wise and noble philosopher-kings were put in the 1%’s position, without changing the structure that lets a small handful of people be richer than half the planet in the first place, soon enough the system’s ingrained logic would reproduce Jeff Bezos and sweatshops and all the rest.

Blaming migrants and the poor is cruel and nonsensical, a lashing-out at those we should be working together with. It makes a lot more sense to blame the people with real power and influence, while understanding that meaningful political change (rather than mere grievance at them as individuals) is the way forward in the long-term.

However, I can see why there is resistance to seeing things this way. It challenges the status quo, it requires nuance, and, most importantly, it’s unabashedly leftist. As Hélder Câmara said, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’ Yikes. We don’t want to live in V U V U Z E L A, do we?

If we want a better society – one where nurses don’t need foodbanks, homelessness isn’t such a crisis, and ordinary people don’t struggle to subsidise the bonuses of the bankers who gambled with their money and lost – we have to ask how we got to the society that we have. This raises hard questions. Blaming the system instead of its victims calls for a radical shift in perspective.

But ultimately, it isn’t about hating the rich, guillotines, or anything like that. It begins with common sense, with a recognition that we are all human beings deserving of a decent chance at life, and with a refusal to let stories of benefit cheats distract us from the real causes of our problems.

 

Book Reviews (6)

Godblind – Anna Stephens

The Rilporian Gods of Light are waning, and the Red Gods are rising. The Mireces are preparing to invade, returning their Red Gods to the world by spilling the blood of Rilpor.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. There were some pretty cool scenes and characterisation – the effects of Rillerin’s life after capture by the Mireces were portrayed with thoughtfulness. But also cartoony bad guys, occasional excessive ‘telling’, and really short chapters flitting between characters too much.

But then I got to the scene which informs us that Anna Stephens should never be trusted around a hammer. (Yikes) And it became really good!

The head-swapping was still often unnecessary, the bad guys were still quite ‘ha ha I like blood and death for some reason lol’, and a crucial – otherwise great – scene felt too reliant on rules-lawyering for me: but it was a lot of fun.

Fast-paced and brutal, with constant twists and really well written fight scenes. This is a book where if a sword hits your hand, you’re absolutely losing fingers. But there’s also impactful crisp description, and when Stephens does develop a character, she does it brilliantly. A particular scene/character arc with Crys at one point compares favourably to SPOILER LINK (a highly-regarded story), capturing his complex state of mind in that moment.

The grimness and gore are exciting – though, naturally, not everybody’s cup of tea. The writing approach has flaws, but also real talent.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism – David Harvey

An eye-opening examination of what neoliberalism is, how it came to power, and its effects across the world.

Harvey meticulously outlines the contradictions between neoliberal ideology – free markets with only minimal state interference as the path to prosperity and freedom – and the reality in practice – states bailing out the chaotic financial sector, soaring inequality and social decay, economic imperialism through institutions such as the IMF. Neoliberal ‘freedom’ turns out to be the freedom of market forces and corporations to put sand in everything else’s sandwich.

Among Harvey’s investigations of IMF mischief, the inefficiencies of ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics’, the role of the state, etc, runs an underlying class-conscious thread which may strike readers not already way to the left of Thatcher and Reagan as too ‘ideological’ (which is a dumb complaint).

This is rigorous enough to make a very solid case against neoliberalism. Not only from a leftist viewpoint, but by many of its own standards for what it was supposed to achieve and how it is supposed to function. At the same time, it’s not too hard to read.

So, after all this criticism of the last few decade’s political/economic orthodoxy, is there an alternative? Harvey doesn’t give an exact blueprint for one. He prefers to focus on making the idea that there can be an alternative a serious proposition, and promoting an ethic of equality and solidarity rather than individualism.

At first I found this ending dissatisfying. But on reflection, it’s an inspiring conclusion which neatly caps off the issues raised. Harvey setting out his preferred alternative would have to be a whole other book in its own right – and I’ve had enough graphs for now.

Thunderhead – Neal Shusterman

Scythe was *fire emoji*. This was even hotter than my new mix tape.

The world-building continues – going further into the Thunderhead, the previous book’s extracts from scythe journals replaced with passages of the AI’s thoughts. The separation between the Thunderhead, which rules, and the Scythedom, which gleans, forces it to watch the unfolding chaos without any active intervention.

The continuing cast are still solid, but new characters also shine. Greyson’s storyline takes us through aspects of this world that weren’t shown in much detail in Scythe, and he’s just such a cinnamon roll.

Everything that was great about Scythe, but more!

Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions

There’s a lot of very rigid writing advice out there: never do this, always do that. And there’s a lot of receivers of advice who take points too literally, like those who listen to criticism of purple prose and think they’re being told that description is bad, full-stop. And there’s a lot of people who ask questions starting, ‘Am I allowed to?’ or ‘Is it okay if?’ as though they’re glancing around a dark alley for cops ready to pounce on writers who do the wrong thing.

Unnecessary adverb! Ten years in writing gulag, bucko!

Whenever you read advice, mentally insert a ‘this is what works for them/that context/that genre/often but not universally’ disclaimer.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

It wasn’t until later, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing, that I really realised plotters vs. pantsers or Gardeners vs. Architects was a thing. I adjusted my approach, and it worked.

But this doesn’t mean that plotters are wrong! And I don’t agree with everything said in On Writing either, not because I know better than Stephen King, but simply because I am not him. He may find that ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%’, and you may too, but I don’t, and that’s fine.

There are no ironclad rules – only general principles, guidelines, and suggestions. You’re allowed to try anything. Understanding why things are generally done a certain way will make the times you choose to ignore or subvert them more likely to be successful, but what you do with your own laptop, pen, charcoal stick, or quill dipped in centaur blood is entirely up to you.

You’re allowed to tell things rather than show them, use exposition, use dialogue attributions other than ‘said’, take days off, use adverbs and prologues, include dream sequences, describe narrators when they look in the mirror, and anything else you can think of. Just use your judgment.

But wait, I thought that show-don’t-tell-

The reason these rules exist isn’t because they’re universal constants. It’s because they’re often helpful, and because they counteract some common bad habits.

Show-don’t-tell is a very useful guideline, as are the ones about not being too expository, not making every dialogue attribution a different crazy verb to inject fake drama where well-written dialogue with an unobtrusive ‘said’ works better, and the one about adverbs not being used where a more specific verb or subtext could be used instead.

But there is also a place for anything anyone will tell you to avoid. That place is where the venn diagrams ‘I wanna do this’ and ‘that worked’ overlap. If a trope or technique is cringy 99% of the time, that means it sometimes isn’t.

If you try it and it doesn’t work, you will not be arrested.