Ernest Hemingway had a distinctive style of minimalist writing resembling an iceberg: most of the story existed beneath the surface. What you saw was only a fraction of the sum total. Hemingway went so far as to claim that when you omitted something, the redaction strengthened your story. Much like the part of an iceberg beneath the waves, unmentioned backstory lends a certain gravitas to the visible portion.
So we can make our stories better by leaving things out. Great. But which parts do we leave out? Randomly removing sentences is unlikely to impress anyone. After a few moments of thought, you might conclude that you should cut out repetitive language and unnecessary side plots. While probably a good move as far as general editing is concerned, that’s not what the Iceberg Theory is about.
Instead, when you read over your prose, look for places where you connect all the dots for your reader. Then hit the delete key. If you have some chemistry brewing between your characters, remove all overt references to emotion so your readers hang on every line of dialog trying to figure out just what is going on between those two. If one of your characters comes to some profound epiphany at the climax of your story, remove its explanation from the prose.
The idea is that you as the author know exactly what is going on, but you don’t give your reader the same benefit. Instead, you force them to dig for the deeper meaning in your writing. Why? Because despite what anyone might say to the contrary, readers enjoy a little ambiguity. They want to read things that make them think. So when you’re laying down the dots for your audience to connect, try leaving out a few to see if things resonate better. You can always add the words back if they’re needed.
Creativity should be a prerequisite for story-telling. While all readers look for books similar to ones they have enjoyed in the past, they don’t actually want to read the same story every time they crack a book — otherwise, they would simply re-read their favorites instead of seeking out new works. Yet the writing community chases trends with an ironic zeal, peddling knockoff plots duplicated from the latest bestseller. The uncharitable observer might question whether said authors actually possess the creativity to make something unique.
However, I am inclined to the opinion that the individuals writing rip-off stories did not go wrong because they stole too many ideas, but rather that they stole far too few. Einstein once said the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. Similarly, Picasso is quoted as having said that good artists borrow while great artists steal. The truth of the matter is that there are very few original ideas left in the world. Humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years. Over seven billion people inhabit this world at present, most of whom have probably spun a tale or two in their lives.
This makes coming up with a truly novel story idea a daunting proposition. Fortunately, you don’t need to be original. You just need to dig up some obscure ideas and meld them into a story that your target audience isn’t familiar with. For example, my series The Participants has the concept of a Creator who sends immortal Observers into a universe constructed mid-motion. For that idea and many others in my ‘creative’ series, I frequently receive feedback from my readers to the effect of ‘I have never read anything remotely similar to that before. How did you come up with it?’ While I love having my ego stroked, the truth is I did not do anything particularly creative. I simply spent far too much time reading about philosophy and eastern religions on Wikipedia. Then I stole the coolest concepts from my research and injected them into a modern narrative structure. The result? A story 99% of my readers perceive as unique. Woohoo! Grand theft concept!
Two pieces of advice for anyone trying to write a creative story. First, steal a lot of ideas from a lot of different places. The more you mix things up, the harder it will be for readers to recognize your sources. Second, get obscure in your research. Look at cultures foreign to your own, investigate historical periods, or read in a genre completely foreign to the one you write in. Happy stealing, my friends!
You know how that one character comes out and hands the reader a morality lesson wrapped up with a bow on top? I hate that. I can think of no greater insult to a reader’s intelligence than for an author to march a character out with the purpose of putting the work into the right perspective for those too dumb to get the message. I like to think that those of us who pick up a novel have enough gray matter to interpret the meaning of a story.
As far as I know, the most blatant use of an author surrogate is found in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. A character named John Galt speaks for an entire chapter. No matter what your opinion is on Objectivism (please, no politics), I’m sure any reasonable person will admit that this was not necessary. Every idea in that speech had already been expressed and repeated prior to that point. It all boils down to this: everyone needs to be responsible to only himself and Adam Smith’s invisible hand (and a bit of hard work) will transform this world into a paradise.
How about Michael Crichton’s character of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park? Malcolm’s constant anti-science rhetoric is prophetic of the blunders caused by the scientists. While the movie dumbed Malcolm’s polemic down to “nature will find a way”, the novel had a more reasoned objection that relied on inaccurate science. The moral of the story was pretty blatant in both the novel and the movie: if you play God, a dinosaur will eat you!
Want me to blow your mind? The Ghost of Christmas Past and (especially) the Ghost of Christmas Present are Author Surrogates for Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. I know, we all get the warm and fuzzies from this classic story of redemption, but Dickens wasn’t exactly subtle in his message. In case you didn’t get it: selfish bad, generosity good.
Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Aligheri both used Author Surrogates (technically Author Insertions, but whatever), so far better than me have found this literary technique to be sound. I just hate the assumption that readers can’t get it on their own. I say, if an author treats his readers as idiots, there might be a self-fulfilling prophecy in action. I’m not suggesting authors should write pretensious prose. I just think that every author should trust his readers to come to their own conclusions. And if there is disagreement or confusion over the “true meaning” of a story? Then well done author! You made people think for themselves. Socrates would be proud.
If you read The Tears of Things, you may come to the conclusion that one of my characters neatly sums up the central theme of the book. While I think determining the theme of a book is ultimately up to the reader (see above), I respectfully disagree. None of my characters speak for me. And neither will I interpret my own novel . . . other than to say that, in my opinion, the theme was never overtly stated in the novel.
I will say one thing (rather ambiguously) related to theme: the ordering of scenes was deliberately done.
When a writer begins the process of putting ideas and characters into prose, there is an important decision to make: first person or third person? (You can write a story in second person if you want, but good luck keeping a reader’s interest when every sentence is awkward and unnatural.)
There are many pros and cons to each option. I’m going to focus on one area that had big implications for the story I wanted to tell in my novel The Tears of Things. That would be the tradeoff between objectivity and subjectivity. First person is inherently unreliable narration. Your viewpoint character is your narrator, which makes any claim to objectivity suspect. Whether this is desirable or not depends upon the story you are telling. Third person can be objective (think the detail-obsessed impersonal narrator of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or subjective. There are many ways a third person narrator can be subjective. The narrator could be a juvenile fanboy of the heroes (I can think of no more blatant example of this than the Lensmen books – Doc Smith’s narrator has a permanent hard-on for Kinnison). Or the narrator could be disapproving of the viewpoint character (like Terry Goodkind’s villain VP’s). There is a whole spectrum of subjectivity in third person.
I wrote the first version of The Tears of Things in first person because it was important to the story to establish that Gabriel Hendel is a ticking time-bomb. First person let me do this by shading every scene through the distorted lens of an unstable mind. I was able to show rather than tell Gabriel’s mental state. His contradictory impulses let the reader know that if this guy snaps, anything can happen. He yearns for approval but loathes himself; he wants to forget his past but fixates on it; he fantasizes about dying but fights to live. This is the guy who can’t decide if he wants to save the fleet or watch it burn. If my narrator fails (and by extension, I fail) to convince the reader there is a real person behind these contradictions, then the whole story falls apart. Gabriel becomes an annoying punk who can’t make up his mind on a fairly simple issue. First person subjectivity seemed the best way to accomplish my characterization. Gabriel’s personality would filter the story, his unreliable narration simultaneously informing the reader about his experiences and his personality. And stream of consciousness would provide insight into his thoughts and reactions.
Ultimately, first person didn’t work for this story for two reasons. First, there was too much tail chasing inside Gabriel’s head. The subjectivity pro became a con. There was more obsessive thinking than action. The second issue was that due to communication barriers, distrust, and youthful ignorance, Gabriel didn’t have a clue what was happening around him. Reading Gabriel’s first-hand account was boring and confusing.
I wrote the second version in third person limited. The idea was that my narrator would provide information Gabriel didn’t know. This version was better than its predecessor, but Gabriel read as that wishy-washy idiot I was trying to avoid. I had sacrificed Gabriel’s characterization to plot when I separated the narrator and the viewpoint.
For version three (and by version, I mean complete rewrites, not drafts), I decided to use a combination of first and third person narration known as free indirect style. This is a narrative style that brings the subjectivity of first person into third person narration. It blurs the distinction between the narrator and the viewpoint character. Essentially, your narrator has been corrupted by the viewpoint character.
Let me use an example from The Tears of Things (Chapter 51):
- Had she lied about loving him? Whatever. It didn’t matter.
This could have been written so that thoughts are directly attributed to Gabriel:
- Gabriel wondered if she had lied about loving him. Whatever, he thought. It doesn’t matter.
So what, other than more economical sentences, did free indirect style gain me? The first version does a much better job of portraying psychological repression through those thought-terminating cliches — Whatever. It doesn’t matter. These thoughts abruptly disrupt the narration, mimicking the self-denial of Gabriel. In version two, these thoughts are faithfully reported by the narrator, but the immediacy is lost.
The right narrative point of view and style was essential to making The Tears of Things work. So the next time you sit down to write something, give a little thought to the available narrative options and how they impact the telling of your story.