Next time he meets someone named Ruth or Chuck, will they just be names to him?
A father calls his teenage son ‘stupid’ when he can’t find the right tool.
A suitor says to his intended, “I love you.”
They’re just words, right?
Every time I hear someone excuse their use of profanity that way, these are the things I think about. Is it reasonable to place all the burden of effective communication on the listener, to make them decipher what the speaker means (or does not) by their language choices?
I think not.
If your goal is to convey the coarseness many people still associate with certain language, that’s your choice.
Claiming that others have no reason for offense is not.
“Unbelievable” is hardly criteria for failure. In fact, it’s entirely immaterial, as long as the writer observes the only rule that matters about making sense: never pull the reader out of the vicarious experience.
Internal logic and consistency is important in helping readers stay in the vicarious experience.
I lean strongly toward the belief that readers want to believe, or at least suspend disbelief, and most will gloss over even glaring issues. I remember Michael Crichton’s translating earbuds in Timeline and after a moment of “Really?” I moved on and enjoyed the book immensely. (The movie, not so much.)
I fall squarely between Pressfield’s thinking and process (Resistance is a dragon, slay it) and Seth Godin’s (Resistance is an ally, use it.) I say Resistance is a bully, make it irrelevant. Note that I can’t say “ignore it” because you can’t ignore a bully. But if you defuse them, do things to take away their power, they are no longer a threat.
This, perhaps, stems from being a very small kid, reading at college level in kindergarten, skipping a grade early on. I ran home a lot in junior high school to avoid getting beaten up. Also I have two brothers, both aggressive, both bigger than me even though one’s younger.
I have far more experience dealing with bullies than with dragons. Or, truth be told, with allies, particularly dangerous ones.
Your own wording of who Resistance is and how to overcome it every single day is more useful than blindly accepting anyone else’s version.
When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.
For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”
The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.
As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”
Bill and Sara Coming Apart
Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:
She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”
He flicked a glance her way, then stood.
“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”
Now she looked up.
“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”
Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.
“I think I will.”
He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.
Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.
If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.
Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:
“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”
As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.
He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.
“I need you to love me, Sara.”
Now she looked up.
“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”
Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.
“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”
He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.
Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.
Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.
Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.
I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.
He comes, the old man by John R. Erickson.
Read it somewhere folks won’t see your eyes tearing up.
My mom had two cakes she introduced us to when I was a kid. She called them Mayonnaise Cake and Tomato Soup Cake.
Yeah, that’s how we reacted, too. Allow me to expand: the mayonnaise is used as a substitute for eggs and oil in a chocolate cake with coffee in the batter. A thick, dense, moist explosion of coffee-chocolate flavor. Frosting would be pointless. Vanilla ice cream works. We’d stir them together, unknowingly creating a cookies and cream experience 30 years before anyone was selling it.
My father was most precise in his speech. It was from him that I learned to look for the right word, the difference, for instance, between “loping” and “trotting” or “thinking” and “pondering” and such shades of meaning which give depth and clarity to our communication.
(That’s called “setup” so you’ll wonder, as I relate this, where it comes into play.)
A dear friend questioned Steven Pressfield‘s anthropomorphism of Resistance, the mental and emotional pushback we feel when we dare greatly, equating it with fear and wondering whether Steve’s focus might not be ill-conceived or misdirected. Here’s my answer:
I don’t accept that all things in the natural world are good, or healthy. Some things should be fought against. If I don’t remove the weeds and bug and animal pests from my garden, I don’t have as much food. If I don’t fight off some of the bugs within my body I have illness. If I don’t quash certain thoughts, I don’t have mental health.
You have a slightly different perspective from most people I’ve met because you are way way to the right on the “comfortable in your own skin” bell curve. Don’t assume that others can now, or ever, reach that level. I, for one, must constantly question my assumptions and thoughts and actions because I grew up with a load of nonsense in my head about self-worth, the value of work, the value of dreaming, the value of art, the value of money, on and on and on.
An aside: Steve P does not want to be a guru. Refuses the mantle. But he can’t stop helping people ’cause he’s a nice guy. Though try to get him to come speak at your event, fergit it. But people need a Messiah or they don’t know how to find the path. Some of us, though, can look at what Steve or Seth or whoever noticed, notice the same thing, find my own takeaway, and go on to the next thing.
Back to Resistance: We all have things we need to fight, for lack of a better word, every day. Physical health requires abstinence from some things, persistence in others. Mental health. Spiritual health. Avoid some, insist on others.
Our natural state is entropy, not growth. We tend toward being angry selfish lumps on the couch in front of reality TV. It is imperfect human nature, and it is not possible to go the other direction without work. Should we call it “work” or “effort” instead of “fight” or “war”? Okay. It’s terminology. But a spiritual writer I respect more than any person alive today, the apostle Paul, wrote about a “war in his members.” He knew what war and death were, coming from a violent persecutor’s background. He also knew peace, kindness, unselfish principled love, and spent his life until a martyr’s death teaching it and living it. So, if “war” works for him, I don’t argue it.
Am I even coming close to addressing your discomfort with “the war of art” as a term, a concept, whatever? Because I find your question fascinating and well worth discussing.
I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
After three variations I found myself stumped. The third feels right, but is it?
It’s easy to fly through storytelling, getting my readers to The End with the least fuss.
It’s better to make the critical scenes more than simply the conveyance of information. The deeper I dig into the core scenes, those that turn the story’s direction, the more memorable and emotionally fulfilling they are.
I’ve never done that, pushing myself to rewrite a scene multiple ways, looking for the best version. In the past, I’ve been satisfied to note the scene’s purpose, write a direct sequence of actions fulfilling that purpose, and let my editor tidy it up.
If he tidies brass, you get highly polished brass.
I want my books to be solid gold.
He didn’t reply. She tried again.
“My owner will pay whatever ransom you want.”
“How much am I worth to you?”
“Stop talking. If you were only a possession to barter with you would already have been sold.”
“Then what am I? Why are you taking me?” She suspected an answer but wondered if he would respond.
“Don’t I have a right to —”
He slapped the back of her head. “Stop talking. I won’t say it again.”
She turned. “I will not. If you intend to drag me through the forest you will hear me every step of the way.”
He had stopped a moment after her, one step too close. As he slid his machete from his belt she kicked him, hard, below that belt.
Before the machete dropped from his hands she was holding it.
“Do not follow me.”
He backed away. She stepped closer and flicked the machete in her two hands. The middle of his tunic split; just a small split, but the tip had touched him.
He continued backing away.
She turned and ran without a backward glance.
“Keep moving.” He shoved her.
Stifling rage, she smiled coyly. “I thought this might be a good place.”
As she stepped closer he raised his arms to either attack or defend depending on what she did next. “A good place for what?”
She softened the smile and tilted her head slightly. “Unless you don’t want to . . .”
That was the look she was expecting. All men everywhere were the same.
He lowered his arms.
She stepped closer and raised her bound hands. “Aren’t you going to untie me first?”
His face reddened and he put one hand on his machete. He leaned and stepped at the same time, his nose nearly touching hers.
As he opened his mouth to shout at her no sound came. Her hands were locked behind his neck, the thick rope pressing against the front and sides.
When he was unconscious she let him fall, took the machete, and fled back down the path. Time enough to free her hands when she was out of his earshot.
Every few minutes his pace changed; he slowed, to check behind or to rest or simply because it was how he marched.
She started counting.
The third time, it was almost exactly the same count.
The fourth time, she anticipated, quickened her pace, and was hidden among the trees before he could touch her.