We’ve all heard the sayings and truisms about writing: “Write what you know,” “show don’t tell,” and the like. They come in different forms, but they’re remarkably consistent all the same. What do these sayings actually mean? What value do they have, and how can they be misunderstood? That’s what we’re talking about today! We’ll discuss the sayings we think are actually helpful, the sayings that should probably be dropped, and then Wes will do some interpretative dance. How does that work on a podcast? You’ll have to listen and find out.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening theme]
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: …And for this podcast we are going to show, not tell, which is why the entire podcast will now be silent as we act out the lessons in silent-movie pantomime.[Silence]
Oren: See, isn’t this better, guys? I didn’t have to tell them anything! We just showed them.
Wes: I think it worked well. I was trying my best.
Oren: Yeah, I really liked the motion that you did which indicated the use of adverbs. I thought that was inspired.
Wes: Thank you.
Chris: If I were to pick one type of interpretive dance that Wes might do, it would definitely be about adverbs.
Wes: Thank you. That’s so nice.
Oren: Alright, so today I wanted to talk about common writing sayings. These are truisms or stuff that people say about writing, and everyone’s supposed to go, “Yeah, that’s a thing that is true about writing.” And there’s really one that I really want to talk about, but there’s a bunch so we can talk about more than one. I wanted to talk about them specifically because they are often misunderstood, or simply mean different things to different people, or it’s not even clear what they mean in the first place, and I just think it’s worth dissecting a little bit. So the first one I want to talk about is: “Don’t waste the reader’s time.”
Chris: So, so helpful. It’s like, “Don’t write bad.” Well, thanks. That’s good advice, “Don’t write bad.” I won’t do that.
Oren: So obviously this is not a super specific phrase. It’s basically the first rule in Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing. And it’s just kind of, on the surface, not very helpful because no one sets out to waste the reader’s time. It’s not a thing that you try to do. So, telling you not to do it is like, “Okay, I guess I won’t.” And yet, I have definitely felt very often, when I was reading books either published or unpublished, that this book is wasting my time, and I resented it. And so I just thought it might be worth trying to figure out why I felt that way, what that actually means in the story, and what we can take as perhaps a more actionable set of advice from it.
Wes: Okay, challenge accepted.
Chris: It’s sort of a tall order, but maybe we can do that.
Oren: Okay, I don’t know if we can do all of them. So, my basic thesis on this is that I tend to feel like my time is being wasted when the story is doing anything that isn’t related to the throughline.
Wes: I just want to back up a minute. When you when you feel your time is being wasted, what kind of an emotional rollercoaster are you going through? Like, are you bored, or…? I mean, I guess it’s a matter of engagement, right? Is it a struggle to read, or are you like, “My time’s getting wasted, but if I just get through this…” like, “It’s easy reading, but I’m bored,” or …
Oren: Okay, so as irrational as this, is I’m angry at the author, because the author is wasting my time.
Oren: The author isn’t doing something that I believed the author was going to do. It’s like we are involved in some kind of social contract, and the author is violating it and I’m upset and … you know, let me lay down on this couch, and I’ll talk about how this all goes back to a time when an interlude attacked me.[Laughter]
Chris: That’s exactly what this is. It’s about interludes, isn’t it, at least partly?
Oren: It’s largely about interludes. I often say that nothing good ever happens in an interlude and I have never been wrong yet, but it’s not just interludes, right? Interludes are just one of the most notable because if the author feels the need to label it as an interlude, it’s almost certainly unrelated to the actual story. Otherwise, it would just be the next chapter. There’s no reason to label it as an interlude unless it’s going away from the story to do something else. But that’s not the only time this comes up. A big one when it comes up are things like referring to a secret back story that I have no reason to care about. This happens a lot, where the author just assumes that I want to know the main character’s backstory and will reference it, but in a way that doesn’t actually tell me anything, just to remind me that there’s a secret backstory. I just feel like my time is being wasted when that happens, because it doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t improve the story in any way because the backstory is not inherently worth knowing. You have to make it matter somehow.
Chris: Yeah. I guess my issue with the phrase is that I’m not sure if it’s still useful at all the storytellers end. It obviously expresses something on the reader’s end about the reader’s experience, right? We can say it states something about how readers feel when you take them for granted or when you forget that stories need a specific structure to be entertaining, and that you can’t just break out of that without consequences. But, at the same time, from a craft perspective, it really does seem like anytime the storyteller deviates from the story, that could happen. A new story teller doesn’t even understand the definition of what’s necessary not necessary.
Oren: That’s certainly true. But I do think that by turning this around and making it more about the throughline – because, again, I could be wrong; maybe this is just me and I’m a weirdo – but I have just noticed that all of the things that I have on my list, of times when I feel like my time is being wasted – such as introducing new characters who aren’t related to the story, a bunch of setting exposition, that secret backstory thing I mentioned, going off on a tangent – that’s all basically abandoning the throughline in one way or another. I do think that if authors thought about it like that, it’s a useful thing to understand. Readers are more likely to feel that their time is being wasted if you deviate from your throughline, and that’s one of the hazards of doing so and why we recommend you don’t do it.
Wes: So, what we really need to do is just add onto that saying with the truest truth: “Don’t waste readers time; hire an editor right now.” I’m just thinking about like your examples, Oren, and I was thinking about my own and I get a little peeved, but I’m weird in that I always finish a book. I never stop. And I will tell myself, “Perhaps this will go somewhere. Perhaps will be payoff.” And I do enjoy the occasional interlude because I’m not as keen on throughlines, I think, as some are. I like being taken on weird journeys. But I definitely will finish a book and think to myself, “That was pretty mediocre. If it had been half as long, it would have been good.” So that’s kind of how I’m thinking about this: don’t waste our time. You need to know what to cut. Don’t use an interlude, right? I was looking at other writing things. It’s like, “Writing is 1% inspiration 99% editing” or something. Things like that also crop up. And it’s like, “Okay, well, if you’re wasting our time, then maybe it’s just not a finished story here.”
Chris: I’d like to address this “Wasting our time” thing with another quote.
Oren: Oh goodness.
Chris: And this is a well-known quote from The Elements of Style. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines, and a machine, no unnecessary parts.”
Wes: Thank you, Strunk and White, for that subjective nonsense.
Chris: Personally, I actually really like this quote. And I think that this quote, in its essence, is just about clutter. It’s just about word clutter, which is when you have pointless words that are not adding anything, that you can just remove to make your sentences tighter. So all the words that are in it are meaningful, and you’re not taking longer to say the same content than you need to. That’s, in essence, what this is. But the principle, basically, is that you should not have pointless things added to the stuff that matters. You should not dilute all of the great words in your paragraph by adding a bunch of words that mean nothing.
Oren: Yeah, it comes down to a philosophical view, where instead of looking at it as it’s done when there’s nothing left to add, it’s done when there’s nothing left to take away. Now, that, in specifics, can get very questionable, because often you end up with disagreements over what can be taken away. But you’re looking at it from the perspective of, “How can I get the most done with the minimum amount of stuff?” as opposed to “How can I just add more things that I want?”
Chris: I would like to get back to your criticism of this quote, Wes, by the way, but going back to talking about time-wasting – to me, it doesn’t just feel like it’s a deviation from the through line. It’s that in a good story, all of the parts are load-bearing, as I would say. Everything is there to contribute to the story as a whole and make it better, and if you add stuff that’s just freeloading off the rest, you’re just diluting the total power of the story. I think that does feel sometimes, especially if you’re well-attuned to stories, that it’s not adding anything, just as you hear it. You feel like your time has been wasted. The thing that makes me feel like that’s actually the real source of this is simply when you were talking about pointless characters – like, yeah, sometimes pointless characters are away from the throughline, but sometimes they’re technically involved in the throughline, they just don’t need to be there when we have backstory. I mean, technically they could be tangentially related to the throughline, but it’s just not it’s not load-bearing; it’s not necessary. It takes a storytellers a while to learn that they can’t just throw everything and the kitchen sink into their story. They need to look at what their story is about and only include what is necessary for that.
Wes: I like load-bearing. That’s a great term for that.
Oren: Yeah, that is probably a more specific and useful definition. I think you’re right that it’s not it’s not just throughline. Throughline’s a part of it, but that’s not the whole thing.
Chris: Yeah. Generally, a through line is there to define, plot-wise, what the story is and what it is not, kind of in a basic way. I mean, in practice it can get kind of complicated, but for the most part, so if something is breaking from the throughline, then it’s kind of by definition just not really part of the story and it’s not load-bearing.
Oren: Yep. That’s true.
Chris: So if we can transition … Wes! You did not like this Elements of Style quote.
Wes: Well, the reality is, I like quite a lot of Strunk and White. I like The Elements of Style. It’s just a quote like that amounts to that kind of “Don’t write bad” advice, because the thing is – this is getting to my larger point here – if we’re not wanting to waste the readers time, then you as storytellers should know how your reader is expecting you to use their time. Another writing saying is, like, “Tell your story.” And it’s like, well, if you want anybody to read it, they need to be down for what you’re putting on the paper and so there’s genre expectations and conventions. And so this idea of like cutting anything superfluous is subjective, because should I take George Orwell’s advice, and not use any French- or Latin-based words? Like, no propositions? Can I only use Anglo three- and four-letter words to be as concise and efficient as possible? I mean, we can do that. We could do that. But then, what are you losing? When we talked about what it means to be a literary work, some people have certain expectations on wordcraft in certain genres and stories, such as the choice of diction and the way the sentences are built. In a different story that might be time-wasting, but in this story, it’s actually adding to that moment. Again, we acknowledge that these are broad things, but anything that really gets into that subjectivity with cutting stuff, I think, is – and this is coming from somebody who loves to cut stuff. I love cutting things; that’s my favorite part about being an editor. But I’m weary with it in fiction. If it’s nonfiction, I’ll just hack it to pieces because it’s glorious. It’s a story. And to Chris’s point, every word matters in a story and so it should pass the load-bearing test. I guess it should hold water. It should carry weight. And that’s just the thing. If you have an editor, and you have your readers, make sure you’re on the same page as them. It’s like, “Hey, I’m using this kind of language here because of this reason and then this I’m doing differently because of that reason.” So, I think White basically collected Strunk’s advice from the college courses he took from him. So you can just imagine this professor standing in, I don’t know, probably a men’s college or something, just dictating like, “Don’t be Superfluous with your language! And by the way, don’t bother us with your nonsense!”
Chris: To be fair, in The Elements of Style, this is in the introduction to the conciseness section and then it gives you specific examples of phrases that are commonly used which can be replaced with a single word.
Chris: And that’s a good point about fiction versus nonfiction, though, because when I’ve done tightening feel like I’ve done a lot more tightening to nonfiction than fiction. I mean, for me, one of the reasons I like this is, you’re right, there’s always a lot of subjectivity about what to cut or not cut. Earlier in Mythcreants history, I had to go on a tirade getting everybody to cut clutter from their blog posts, and I actually had to fight against people to do that. And so having a statement that is just like, “It is just valuable to do the same with less, and it is just valuable to not have extra stuff” – just the principle of being valuable – to me, is not something that I would take for granted. It is useful, even if we don’t quite understand the implementation because the code is not specific enough for that.
Oren: Just to be clear, the Clutter Wars were a dark time for Mythcreants. I lost many good friends.[Laughter]
Chris: All right, let’s move on to another one.
Oren: Okay, there was actually one you brought up that I wanted to talk about a little more. Can we talk a little bit about the “Write your story” thing? Like, “Write the story you want to write,” or something?
Wes: Yeah, like, “Stay true to you no matter what. Everybody’s feedback is silly. You’re the best.”
Oren: That saying is … there’s a yes and a no to it, which I find fascinating, because on the one hand, I see it used all the time to justify, like, “I don’t have to take feedback. I’m gonna tell the story I want to tell!” and at that level of extreme, it’s like, “Okay, if you don’t care what other people think, then why are you seeking out writing advice? Why does anything matter if you literally don’t care? Just write whatever you feel like it and then you’re done.” And, I mean, don’t expect anyone to read it, because you’ll be disappointed, but you will have achieved your goal. And that’s obviously silly, and that’s why Chris and I often emphasize in our editing and writing advice specifically that you’re trying to make your work more accessible and more enjoyable to a larger number of people. But – there’s always a “but” – at the other side of it, there are some choices that will shrink your audience that are still worth making, be that because there are a lot of bigots in the world who don’t want to read about marginalized characters, or be that because you’re telling a story for a specific subgenre. For instance, military fiction is a very niche genre. and the readers of military fiction have certain expectations that someone who’s not really into the ins and outs of military fiction might just not like. This isn’t super common – most storytelling rules are pretty universal – but you do get into some of these choices. Like military fiction makes a big deal about different ranks, and in most stories that would just be kind of boring, but in a military fiction, it could be important. So there are some instances where it is worth it to shrink your audience in order to get a specific story you want told. Now, fortunately, there’s not actually any data that shows that by having a diverse cast, your story will not do as well. Everyone seems to think that’s true, especially in Hollywood, but there’s not really any data to show that, especially with books. So that’s not a choice you have to make, but if it was, it would still be worth doing.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I always try to be like, “Okay, this thing appeals to a niche audience, but is it possible to still get that while not making everybody else get bored and put down the book?” And this is something that happens a lot with wish-fulfillment characters, for instance, where we have a character that, to most people, is just kind of insufferable. Well, I really do think it’s possible that a character with a lot of wish fulfillment doesn’t have to be unlikable to everybody outside of that niche demographic which identifies with that character.
Oren: So can you have a Wesley Crusher who attracts 14-year-old Oren and 14-year-old Chris without annoying the pants off of 30-year-old Oren and 30-year-old Chris? Is this possible? Can it be done?[Laughter]
Chris: I mean … I think so. Part of it just about balance. For instance, Harry Potter has tons of wish-fulfillment value, but it’s not like everybody likes Harry Potter. I know, Oren, you didn’t like Harry Potter. I’m not honestly sure that a character that everybody loves universally is possible, but for the most part, he wasn’t widely disliked. But he definitely has lots of wish fulfillment about him.
Oren: Well, that’s two that I’ve picked. One of you should pick a saying.
Wes: I’ve got I’ve got one for you guys. Common writing thing: “Add conflict to every scene or they’ll get bored.”
Oren: That’s actually pretty good.
Chris: Yeah. I’m gonna have to vote yes on that one.
Wes: I’d like to define conflict, though.
Wes: Because I think if I stumbled across that advice and I’d never read Mythcreants, I might think, “Ah boy, I need to write a fighting book.”
Chris: Oh, yeah, it’s true. Conflict is hard because it’s a technical term in storytelling that doesn’t actually mean the same thing as its common definition, and we do definitely run into people who think that. And it’s not just from misunderstanding the word “conflict.” It’s also from people reading their books and being like, “Somebody got bored and told me I needed to add explosions.” No, you don’t need to add explosions. So yeah, I can define what conflict means in a storytelling sense. It means that you have a protagonist who is … oh god, this is getting into core concepts of, like, what tension is. Okay. So, basically, you have a protagonist that is trying to accomplish something or just trying to not fail, who is attempting something, and it is uncertain whether or not that protagonist will succeed or fail, and you are watching the protagonist’s struggle. That is probably the best simple definition of conflict that I can give. But it could be anything, like a character arguing with another character. The question is, will the character win the argument and get that person to let them in, or get that person to forgive them? It could be, this person has to sail out in a storm. Can they keep their boat from capsizing? There’s a struggle. It could even be trying to answer a mystery. This is a more subtle one, where instead of talking about problems, we’re talking about questions now. The character wants to look at the clues and figure out whodunnit, and do they succeed at that or do they fail? The point is that you have a protagonist, and you have a situation where they are struggling, and there’s a possibility of success or failure. And so the outcome is uncertain, but also then it has to matter. That’s what we call the stakes of the conflict. What happens if the protagonist succeeds and if they fail? So yes, I would say that conflict should be in every scene, although it can sometimes be subtle. It does not necessarily have to be super big or overt.
Oren: And there is a reason why we tend to associate conflict with physical violence. It’s not just because we’re a violence-obsessed culture. It’s simply that in a lot of cases, violence is easier to build conflict around. It has inherent stakes and an easy way to see who won and who lost and who got what they wanted and who didn’t, whereas other conflicts are sometimes harder to build those stakes around and it’s harder to define the actual conflict. So that’s why people have this idea that if your story is boring, you should have two guys kick in the door with guns. In some stories, that’s perfectly appropriate, but in others not so much, and being too literal with that is how you end up dismissing a lot of really great stories because they aren’t violent.
Wes: To provide an example of conflict that was absolutely hilarious, I recently finished reading Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, the first in the Watch series, and I mean the whole thing is just –
Chris: It’s a good book, yeah.
Wes: Yeah. But the scene … where I think Vimes is in prison at that moment, so then we’re with Nabi, Carrot, and Colon. This is when Carrot brings up that all dragons have their vulnerabilities, and so it’s clearly a Hobbit nod to Smaug having the scale missing or whatever. so he could shoot an arrow in there. And they’re like, “Oh, Colon is a crack shot!” and so they get on the roof and he tries to demonstrate and just kind of fails, but then Carrot happens to bring up fate and that, if it were a million-to-one chance, it would have to happen because that’s the way things work, specifically because of that phrase: “It’s a million-to-one chance. But it just might work.”
Chris: This is where Discworld starts following self-aware storytelling rules.
Wes: Oh my gosh, but then the conflict of the scene is, the dragon’s around, but not there yet. They’re actually battling with this notion that they need to make sure that Sergeant Colon has his bow and arrow but is positioned in such an impractical way that it would constitute a million-in-one chance so that he will succeed in his task. They have him standing on one leg, and covered in smudge, and all this stuff. And then the dragon shows up and he shoots and then we get Pratchett’s narrator’s saying that fate has like 999,999 votes. And so they got outvoted, but the million-in-one chance was that they survived the dragon setting that building on fire and they plunged safely into the water below. So it was just fun, but I love conflict, how you defined it, Chris, in that respect, too. There’s the problem, there’s the goal, but it can still be fun and witty. Anyway, I just wanted to talk Discworld.
Chris: Somebody trying to figure something out definitely can be conflict. It doesn’t have to be big and violent, and it can be quite subtle.
Oren: Just to be clear, violent conflict can also be boring if you don’t establish stakes and there’s no risk, or you don’t care about any of the characters involved. I don’t know if you’ve ever been watching a Marvel movie and felt so bored with this Marvel fighting. It’s because with Marvel combat, after a while you realize that the characters are all invincible, and no one is ever actually going to get hurt. And the mooks are all infinitely defeatable, and every Marvel movie is like that. So after a while you’ve just got to be like, okay. And I was really sad because that really hit me during Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, which by Marvel-movie standards is quite good, still has Marvel fighting and I was like, “I’m so bored in these Marvel fighting scenes.” And I know that this movie is not new worse than all the other Marvel ones in that respect, but it just happened to hit me in that moment.
Chris: I think in written stories, the most common way that this happens is when we just opened the story with fighting to try to make things exciting, but we don’t know who these people are and we haven’t been given any reason to care about them. So it’s like, “Okay, some dudes are fighting.” I don’t really care because there’s no attachment built yet, which is the chicken and the egg problem that happens at the beginning of the story. So you can have fighting, it just doesn’t feel like it matters.
Oren: I’ve even seen authors have, like, “Okay, now these two side characters are going to have a fight!” and even though we’re later into the book, I’m just not particularly invested in one of them winning even though the author definitely assumed I would be. That happened in – minor spoilers – Gideon the Ninth. There’s a scene where two side characters fight a duel, and we spend a long time on this duel – it is very prolonged. And as I was reading it, I just kind of realized that I don’t have any particular reason to want the character who the author thinks I want to win, to win. Which is a really awkward sentence now that I say that.
Wes: It came across.
Oren: I was definitely supposed to be cheering for one of them, and I can tell that because I understand how stories work. But when I looked back, I was like, “Actually, that house is just as much an enemy as the other one is. I don’t have a particular reason to want them to win.” And at that point, the fight was just incredibly boring, even though it was quite well described. Alright, well, surprisingly, we are actually out of time. I thought we were going to do more sayings, but each of these was really meaty, and we ended up talking about the meat for like 10 minutes each. It’s already been half an hour, so I’m gonna have to call this one to a close. Remember, don’t waste the listener’s time.
Wes: Well done!
Oren: Those of you at home. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And, finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We will talk to you next week.
Promo: Do you have a story that needs another pair of eyes? We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com.[Closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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