Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The IKEA model of fiction

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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.

David Mamet, On Directing Film

Almost a year ago, in one of the very first posts on this blog, I said that the quote above was the most useful piece of writing advice I’d ever read. And that’s still true. Since then, I’ve written an entire novel and published a couple of short stories, and Mamet’s advice seems more valuable than ever. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that the big picture is the easy part. Every aspiring writer of any ambition is aware of the importance of theme, symbolism, character. He has ideas to share, issues to explore, points to make about how the world works, and probably has a fairly good idea of how the novel should look when he’s done. I’ve never known a writer of any talent who wasn’t mindful of such things. But one of the hardest things for any writer to master is balancing the overall picture with the small, intermediate, often superficially boring steps required to get there.

Because even the longest novel consists of a series of smaller parts. In particular, it’s a series of paragraphs. And it’s on the level of the paragraph that a writer’s talent will primarily be judged, and on which the novel’s larger themes and characters will gradually be articulated. But the more one thinks about this, the more daunting it seems. As I’ve learned repeatedly since moving to my new house, it’s hard enough to assemble an IKEA shelf, with all the pieces and instructions right there in the box; assembling a novel, in which the overall shape is little more than a hunch and the pieces all need to be made by hand, seems close to impossible. But in both cases, the secret is to treat each step as an end in itself. As tempting as it is to rush things along, you don’t build a bookshelf all at once—you go step by step, making sure every piece fits along the way. And you don’t present a story to the reader in one lump of exposition—you construct it out of a series of moments, which, if they’ve been properly conceived, allow the story to stand up on its own, even if it wobbles a bit at first.

And the simpler the pieces, the better. Regular readers of this site know that I’m a fan of the Wordplay blog maintained by screenwriter Terry Rossio. All of Rossio’s columns are worth reading, but if you’re only going to read one, I’d recommend number 49, “Situation-Based Writing,” in which he notes that every scene in a story needs to consist of a clear and understandable situation. As he points out, the first function of any story is to create interest in the reader, which is only possible if the action is clear from moment to moment. And the best way of doing this, by far, is to structure every scene around a clearly defined situation—a problem, an objective, a desire. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, this can be something as small as a piece of dental floss stuck in a character’s teeth. But it clarifies the action like nothing else. And the nice thing about focusing on the situation at the level of the scene is that you can pick it up, look at it, and consider it on its own merits, like a smaller component of a piece of furniture. And if all the pieces fit, the shelf will stand.

Such clarity and simplicity is especially important at the beginning of a story. I’ve seen a lot of science fiction, in particular, in which so much information is crammed into the first paragraph—multiple characters with alien names, an exotic planet, strange technology—that I have no idea what I’m reading. Presumably, the writer hopes that I’ll be intrigued enough to go on, but I’m more likely to give up completely, when I might have been interested in the simple problem of two characters fixing a flat tire, even if it’s on Barsoom. The bottom line is that complexity in fiction is great, but such complexity is the product of many simple factors, even as individual IKEA pieces can be turned into something like this. And as writers, we’re all IKEA hackers: we can take ordinary components and turn them into something that nobody has ever seen. But the result has the best chance of standing on its own if the initial pieces are simple—the sort of thing you can assemble with a hex key.

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2011 at 9:42 am

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