On Thematic Storytelling

When I reached ninth grade, I was dumped briefly in Honors AP English, and my teacher initiated us into the secret language of symbolism in literature. Writing was (and remains) important to me, so that class made a deep impression.

It was life-changing to find that many of the things I had read or had yet to read contained hidden meaning. Throughout the next several years, my intellectual and spiritual development involved understanding layers of meaning, their connections, and their implications—not only in the stories I enjoyed reading and writing, but also on my life and my understanding of my own existence and that of God. It was the first time I realized that works of art and literature had meaningful things to say about my world and not just their own.

That class tied symbolism into overarching themes, and themes are really what I want to talk about now. Themes were like secret messages; symbolism, the vocabulary; and stories were the paper on which the messages were written. We learned about themes and symbolism with an emphasis on connections to ancient mythology, the Bible, and fatalism versus determinism. For me, this skewed the significance of thematic content above all other literary content. I took away the idea that these stories had such powerful and important existential messages to impart that all other elements of the story only were included to support them. The only way I could imagine writing a story this way was to start with the theme, which would inform everything else.

Unfortunately, that misapprehension stunted my development as a reader and writer for years after. When reading, I got too analytical. When writing, I didn’t feel creative anymore. I regarded everything besides the theme—all the descriptions, characters, suspense, drama—as fluff. I didn’t know how to start at a theme and end up back at the same place that originally inspired me to write a story, and I figured doing anything else was frivolous.

What I described about my English class—mining literature for symbolism that may or may not even be there—seems to be a rite of passage. It’s probably attractive curriculum because it reduces reading comprehension into something rather mechanistic and testable. For whatever reason, I know a lot of people who had an experience in high school like mine.

I don’t think I’m the only person for whom this approach to storytelling presented a dilemma. The problem, as I saw it, is that writers either started with a story and later artificially incorporated symbolism, or they began with the symbolism and tried to wring a story out of it.

I remember Stephen King writing about precisely this issue in his non-fiction book On Writing. King said he tended to write the story first, and if he saw the potential to develop a theme, he would elaborate on that as he wrote and rewrote, polishing the theme until it shone through. The biggest takeaway I got from On Writing is that thematic aspects of a story are sometimes already there naturally, waiting to be developed.

He’s prolific and has taken lots of approaches to writing fiction on a theme. Some of his books, especially the earlier ones, didn’t bother. It’s difficult to come away from Christine or Cujo feeling like you missed a deeper meaning.

Other books of his swung in the other direction, incorporating lots of symbolism. Insomnia is the one that stands out for me. In On Writing, King describes struggling with the amount of planning he did in that book, and it shows. It’s full of allusions, symbols, and outright literal descriptions of the protagonist defying deities and struggling against fatalism. The Waste Lands directly describes symbolism via an English class, itself makes heavy allusion to T. S. Eliot, and uses nonsensical jokes (among other things) to symbolize a world losing its coherency and sanity.

After several years, I finally realized this approach made sense when I considered themes as an element of storytelling on the same level as other elements such as setting, plot, or characterization. Any story entails decisions about how to include and involve them and to what extent.

One example which springs to mind right away is Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”, which contains almost no characterization whatsoever but whose plot and theme concern itself with nothing less than the nature of the universe, sweeping its entire breadth in space and time. In the same way, some stories naturally require elaborating on setting (think of worldbuilding in high-fantasy); others never allude to their setting at all.

This way of thinking about theme feels so right to me. It frees me from the problematic dilemma I described earlier, if only I apply the same kind of thinking about theme as I apply regarding, say, plot. For example, it feels natural to me to sketch out a story plot to begin with, letting each storytelling ingredient interact and complement one another, and then proceed to work out the details as I move along. The wholeness of the plot emerges as the work continues. Why can’t theme and symbolism manifest the same way? After all, it never occurred to me to let decisions about plot or setting paralyze me this way.

I also think it would be really interesting if high school English classes gave as much consideration to characterization or setting the way they do to theme. Maybe the thinking is that those things are written in an obvious way and theme is much more tied into the context and history of the writer. On the other hand, it’s easy to say that Stephen King writes about Maine because he’s from there without further examination, but does this efface a deeper conversation we could be having about why such a familiar and detailed setting makes his books work so well? If we have to read Catcher in the Rye in high school, is it more important to talk about what the ducks in winter represent, or should we be talking about what an immature hypocrite Holden is? Does Slaughterhouse-Five teach us as much about the historical destruction of Dresden as it does about how avoidable and pointless war is?

I guess my breakthrough is to realize all these questions hold equal consideration in my mind now and broadens the kinds of stories I enjoy and the way in which I appreciate them.

What I Need from a Notes App

Here’s what I want from an ideal note-taking application.

  • Runs on every conceivable platform. May or may not include a degenerate web app. This is the one thing Evernote nails.
  • Uses keyboard input intelligently. For example, a quick, judicious asterisk creates a list on the fly. A tab can easily kick off a table. Quick calculations are performed inline. This is something OneNote has done well.
  • Allows completely free-form control over what’s already input. I can select and cordon off something and pull it aside somewhere else. Whitespace expands infinitely in any direction to accommodate. Items (be they drawings, text, or whatever else) can be moved around, side by side or similar.
  • As a corollary, input with structure can be restructured. Lists are dynamic outlines that can be rearranged, re-nested, and so on. Tables’ rows and columns can be dragged around. Grippy handles on things abound to accommodate this.
  • Accepts any manner of input and handles it intelligently: audio recordings; drawing with mouse, finger, or stylus; dragged-and-dropped files, which can be inlined as images or rendered as documents if applicable.
    • Bonus points if the app can index all these things (handwriting analysis, image OCR, audio speech recognition).
  • Organizational scheme with at least two tiers above the note level. OneNote had/has notebooks, sections, and pages (notes).
  • Extremely configurable appearance of notes, easily templated. Organizational scheme is easy to configure (names, colors).
  • Preferably professionally designed.
  • Rock-solid brain-dead sync between devices, preferably with encryption on the client side.

I can sum up the above by saying that I want a large, free-form space that accepts anything from anywhere and tries to do something smart with it. I realize this is a tall order. I’m surprised to hear that this doesn’t exist, though, not even for an exorbitant price (which I’d pay for something which came close). If someone comes across something like this, let me know.

Toward Test-Driven Writing

In programming, we use a methodology called test-driven development. For every piece of a program we write (often called a module), we also write an accompanying suite of test cases. Ideally, you won’t find a single piece of source code that goes untested. It sounds slower, but it actually improves quality so much that it has become (mostly) uncontroversially accepted as a best practice.

Testing a piece (a unit) of code is pretty simple. Each little test asserts an assumed behavior by following a similar pattern. It sets up the environment in which that behavior should happen, runs the relevant unit of the program, and asserts the expected result. You’ll find dozens, hundreds, or thousands of these little tests for a given project, and importantly, no one may change how the project works without making a test case for their change and proving it works, independent of the other parts.

Better yet, to an extent, tests can replace explanatory comments. By encapsulating the expectations for your program, I can better describe a program’s design by illustration. Unit tests therefore serve as documentation, sometimes even the only way to understand a program.

I’m beginning to see how it might be useful to apply the test-driven model to writing. I want my writing to make a strong, believable case, against which readers can make unquestionable assertions. I’ve heard the advice to “show, don’t tell,” and I always thought it meant something like including supporting detail. Maybe that’s not quite right. The advice is not to tell at all, instead of simply backing it up. It tells me both what to write and what not to write. Just like with a unit test, I don’t need to stop and explain.

For example, suppose I want to describe a character who loves another. I might say, “Alice loves Beth.” But that’s clumsy. It sticks out of the story, rather than reading as part of it; I’ve stopped telling the story to impart this premise. Worse yet, “love” is a slippery word—it means something different for each of us. What kind of love is this? Family love? Romantic love?

What if my idea of love falls outside the reader’s experience? That is to say, what do I have to say about love itself? “Alice loves Beth” squanders the opportunity and remains silent on the subject.

In fact, let’s not say “love” in the first place. That word carries a lot of baggage. Maybe I’m not even describing something the reader would ever qualify as love. I might find I’m just bluffing, and the reader only has to call my bluff for the assertion of love to fail.

Suppose instead I write a passage like this.

Taking it down from its hanger at the back of the closet, Alice held Beth’s shirt close and inhaled slowly, afraid that she’d exhaust the source of Beth’s lingering scent. Like a flashbulb, it revealed fleeting memories, which rushed into Alice’s mind’s eye barely long enough to register before slipping away again.

I didn’t say, “Alice loved Beth,” nor did I say, “Alice missed Beth,” but who could question that those statements are true? And there’s more. We know Beth is gone, in some form that allowed her to leave behind a shirt but not much else. A faded scent demarcates a rough idea of the time passed. Something irrevocable happened. A bad breakup? A death? Possibly Alice is moving, or maybe packing up Beth’s belongings. I didn’t even indicate whose closet Alice was in. We do definitely get a sense of some romantic love that could have involved cohabitation, so that distinction may be immaterial.

My point is, it’s not just about how you feel after you read the passage above. It’s more about stating what’s immediate and undeniable, making a case, while leaving out flimsy or even misleading commentary. Within this context, every action in the story fits and drives the narrative forward. The idea of test-driven writing—even though there are no actual tests involved, beyond the reader—helps me better understand what to write, and what not to write.

Planning

Was reading over some of the ways famous writers have organized their works mentally and saw that their outlines represent a special kind of condensation of their thought process. The way they organize, plan, thread thought through thought.

I was particularly struck by Faulkner’s use of his office wall—so much space! And Joseph Heller’s outline is almost equally impressive.

Another little piece fell into place in my mind just now. I really want to indulge in the largest whiteboard or other writing surface I can find, even if I end up painting an entire room in whiteboard paint, just so I can have an enormous place to plan without geometrical limit.

I hadn’t actually realized how constraining I find linear outlines and small journals to be in that regard. I need room to explore time and points of view, to elaborate.

Maybe a computer can also give me that…

Writing within Constraints

I was joking around on IRC and Twitter today with @ashedryden and started alliterating randomly for fun, apropos this Tumblr:

New neuroses, now neatly nested.

Then she challenged me again:

<ashedryden> now if you can rephrase it so each word is one letter longer than the word before it

<ashedryden> you would win an internet.

<ashedryden> I would hand deliver it with cake.

I actually tried to do this for a moment and gave up (it stopped being fun). But it reminded me how much I enjoy embracing constraints when being creative. For example, last fall, a coworker randomly asked me to write a sonnet without using the letter “e”.

Rather than stifling my creativity, constraint seems to slow me down, make the process more meditative and deliberate, and ultimately explore more options.

It doesn’t seem as much like self-censorship. When there are fewer choices, it feels easier to choose among the remaining ones, and moreover, easier to see down the paths those choices lead to.

Never Read the Comments

You may have noticed that I don’t allow any form of comments on my site. This isn’t a technological limitation—the software supports it fine. I’ve got a few reasons for not allowing comments, but they boil down to this: this is my website, and you have the entire rest of the Internet for your own comments.

My reasons, such as they are, follow.

  1. Comments are a total waste of my time. Catching spam, moderating content, and generally monitoring discussion is a time sink which only grows over time.
  2. Without comments, I retain absolute control over my site. This means I can make assurances about what visitors will see.
  3. Finally, I just hate comments in general. Let it be your mantra: Never read the comments. Repeat this in the morning to yourself, let it guide you, and you’ll never go wrong. I can count the times on one hand that I’ve come away from a comment thread more edified than I entered it. On the other hand, I’ve personally had comment threads vampirically drain away a bit of my soul and leave only regret in its place. Why would I do that to you all?