Nails and houses
Since, for better or worse, this is mostly going to be a blog about writing, I thought I’d start off by quoting the most useful piece of advice I’ve ever seen on telling a story:
The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.
This quote comes from David Mamet’s slim volume On Directing Film, which, despite its title, is one of the most valuable books available on storytelling of any kind. The point of Mamet’s advice? The role of the writer—whether he’s writing a novel, a script, or a play—is to ensure that the smallest units of the story do the work for which they have been intended—and no more. In most novels, the smallest useful unit is probably the paragraph; in film, it’s the individual shot. And while it’s tempting to try and make each moment “contribute” to the meaning of the story as a whole, the writer is much better off defining each moment’s fictional purpose as narrowly as possible, and concentrating on fulfilling that purpose as cleanly and concisely as he or she can.
John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, makes a similar point:
The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps)…and when the description is perfect—and not too long or too short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to the story’s next unit.
When the writer neglects this rule, and tries to make a unit carry more than it can bear, the result can be, as Mamet puts it, “sit down because I’m the king of France.” Conversely, if the writer has chosen his units carefully, defined them properly (and narrowly), and arranged them in the proper sequence, the meaning and impact of the overall story will hopefully take care of itself.
I don’t claim that every paragraph I’ve ever written, or will write, follows this rule; in fact, most of them probably break it. But as a general guide for approaching the solution of the thousand fictional problems that make up any story, it’s the best starting point I know.