A Rube Goldberg Device is something that is unnecessarily complex in order to accomplish a fairly simple task. Thus, by it’s complex nature it is clumsy, unwieldy, often breaks and fails to perform the task it was designed to do. Stories, it seems to me, often turn into such monstrosities. Yes, even published stories which get the full backing of a publishing house and make money for an author.
In stories turned Rube Goldberg devices, things tend to just happen. The author gets from point A to point D through events B and C, but those events are clunky and often seem constructed to purposefully drive a story through, even if they tend to make little sense as to why they needed to be taken even after they were taken. Such stories heap unpredictability among improbabilities upon out of character reactions until the story reaches the author’s desired ending. Don’t get me wrong, unpredictability is good because predictability breeds boredom. However, too much unpredictability, and not enough logic, leads to frustration on the part of the reader. A reader can only stand so many “out of the blue” realizations that save a character from certain doom, or plot twists that send the story off in new directions. Too many and the reader becomes dizzy.
There is one example that is most prevalent in my mind of this sort of story telling gone awry; the television series “24”. Although I hear the series “Lost” was the same way, but I can honestly say because I never watched it. The first season of “24” was great. I and many of my friends loved it because there were twists and turns and looking at them in hind sight, once revealed, made sense. The writers struck just the right balance.
Then came season 2, and it was good, though not as good as the first. The sense was that the writers knew that the unpredictability was the draw of the show, so they tried to squeeze in more of it. But some of the twists, even in hindsight, seemed little more than an appeasing grasp at the philosophy that unpredictability for the sake of it was a good thing.
After season 2, things went downhill fast. Some of the following seasons were better than others, but they all suffered from the same flaw of being too much like a Rube Goldberg Device. Characters would have a sudden flash of insight to escape a hopeless situation. Others would mysteriously appear for no other reason than to push on to the next cliff hanger ending each week. Still others would change stripes without any inclination that they were going to despite lots of screen time spent delving into their characters and portraying them in a certain light. Essentially, there series was chaos out of which emerged the ending some many weeks later.
Stories that proceed like this actually bore me more than encourage me to read more. Eventually, too much chaos and it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief.
As I am going through my edits on my novel Under the Darkened Moon, I have been thinking about the future of the story beyond the book and if there should be one. This past weekend I sat down and flushed out what todo with the world of Arrnna beyond the completion of it and IF I could get so lucky as to have it published.
The Tainted Son (a further story with the existing characters and some new ones about 20 years in future)
Through Elven Eyes (a parallel telling of Under the Darkened Moon from the point of view of the elven support/non POV character but in her POV and retold by her in her elderly years)
Final Days of Ice (a story about the last humans/elves on Arrnna as the ice age consumes the world and their struggle to survive)
I was goofing around last night and free writing as well as brainstorming some story prompts when out pops this new piece I have been working on. It’s a little strange and intriguing to me so I am adding it to my list of projects. It is definitely different than anything I have done stylistically thus far. It’s kind of freaky weird and hopefully it turns into something that I can move forward with.
Visit my information page for The Flames.
Ok, time to vent on a pet peeve of mine; people who claim that using the passive voice in writing is wrong. It is not wrong. In fact there is nothing grammatically wrong with writing in the passive voice. Yet I just had another encounter with another author, unpublished of course, who swears that the passive voice is grammatically incorrect.
What is the passive voice? Passive voice is when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence. For example, saying “Why was the paper written on by you?” is perfectly grammatically correct but is passive in its voice. The paper is being acted on and also where one expects the subject to be. One would expect the question to be asked, “Why did you write on the paper.”
The two sentences however have the same meaning. But the first is slightly more advanced, potentially leading to someone with a lower reading level being confused by it. That’s ok though. And here is why. Because repetitive, predictable sentence structure in prose is boring. I have read enough of it. And a lot of it exists in so called “Best Sellers” that numb my brain with robotic English.
I am here however to say that it is ok to throw in a couple passive sentences as long as they are not overly clumsy. Of course, writing too much in the passive voice can indeed be awkward. If half of your sentences are passive people are not going to like that. But if you judiciously make 3% or so (that’s just 3 out of every 100) sentences in the passive voice, it breaks up the inevitable monotony of your structure. By being smart about when you use the passive voice, a reader probably will not even recognize that you have pulled such a sentence out of your bag of tricks.
Most successful fiction authors seem to have their passive voice sentences down to a very low number. But they do not eliminate them. Remember all this next time someone tells you such a sentence is “wrong”.
A friend proofing my novel Under the Darkened Moon, asked me to describe my philosophy behind the book and the way I have it structured. He was uncertain what style the book was going for. I said it was fairly simple. The book was written to be read like one smokes a fine cigar. Obviously confused, I informed my friend that fine cigars change their flavor subtly from start to finish. Under the Darkened Moon does the same thing. It starts off as fantasy/mystery, the it morphs into fantasy/romance, then into fantasy/action and then climaxes as a hodgepodge of all three.
That sort of subtle change throughout the course of the story may not interest some people. But it interests me and that is why I wrote it that way.
Something I have noticed in a couple of the novels I have been reading lately is that there is a lot of, what I consider, overkill in certain passages. Especially when it comes to descriptions of things and events in the story.
These passages turn me off because they seem to drone on and on describing what seems to be mundane items or events in exorbitant detail. Even when the item or event is important to the story, I find myself flipping forward and scurrying past the repetitive words. Especially when I feel the author has already sufficiently described what is happening. Sometimes brevity is best I feel, and I certainly do not mind the occasional embellishment to add emphasis. But when it seems to happen over and over, I find myself and my mind starting to wander away from the story and having to refocus.
I am sure some people like this sort of writing. Apparently I am not one of them however. I just unnerves me that a good story gets sidetracked by an over use of over zealous descriptions. I wonder if they are just used in such an overkill fashion to add girth to a story.
I already have gone through my novel Under the Darkened Moon and ripped out huge swatches of these sorts of descriptions because they annoyed me so much. Maybe by doing so it makes the story too simplistic. But to me it makes the story better.
Fragments. For some reason some people hate them. But I guarantee you that they are useful in writing a story. Plus, I guarantee you that done properly, and when not viewed in a program like MS Word that underlines them and calls bold attention to them, most people don’t even recognize the fragment is there.
Fragments are useful when writing dialogue because people normally speak in fragments from time to time. They are also useful for pacing. Fragments are fast. They can whiz by and speed up action.
So next time someone tells you not to use fragments in your writing, tell them thanks for the advice. Smile. Then let them be on their merry, little way.
The more I delve into the realm of being a writer, the more I realize that there are a lot of opinions held by a lot of people about things that should and shouldn’t be done within the context of putting a story down on paper. Call them, if you must, “rules”.
I hear a lot of don’t do thats and must do these other things. Whether it is the common admonition of “show, don’t tell”, to warnings of the use of fragment or passive sentences and even cries over the apparent horrendous concept of blatant foreshadowing without any pretense of hiding the future of a story, I have heard them all. And you know what I say to all these “rules”? PFFFFTTT!
Every story which I have read violates some of these rules. Many of them violate these rules repeatedly and frequently. We are talking about best selling novels and classics of publishing history. And these books and stories all managed to get published along the way. How is that possible if these rules were in fact, “rules”?
I think some people have gotten too formulaic in their approach to writing. Writing is art. Art is rarely about coloring within neatly drawn lines. I have never read a story which consisted of perfect prose by any standard of writing.
Maybe instead of fooling ourselves into believing that there is indeed a magic formula to writing we should just write. We might be surprised what we create.
A friend of mine, a published author, suggested that any story I write should have a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of between 3.5 and 5.5 or 6.0 at most. I thought that seemed low so I cut and pasted some segments of published novels I have around in digital format into Word and checked. All of those tests actually fell into that range.
So I took the new Chapter 1 I have just written for Under the Darkened Moon and ran it though the readability statistics analyzer in MSWord.
The results were:
Passive Sentences – 2%
Flesch Reading Ease – 86.9
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level – 3.8
So looks like I am in that range and if there is anything to this I have that, probably minor, hurdle hurdled.
Just to make sure though I ran my free writing exercise which I recently completed though the tool as well.
Passive Sentences – 5%
Flesch Reading Ease – 83.4
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level – 4.4
I also ran my short story Second Chances:
Passive Sentences – 5%
Flesch Reading Ease – 85.8
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level – 3.8
Yep. Looks like I am solidly in that range.
I was almost finished with my rough edit of the first draft for Under The Darkened Moon when I stopped. I mean I was literally on the last chapter when I stopped.
Why did I stop? Because I decided to go all the way back to the beginning … and then some. I was not happy with the way the story started in Chapter 1. So I made it Chapter 2 and added a new Chapter 1 taking place eighteen and also fifteen years previously to add some context to the main character. This context and new chapter I believe will enable me to delete some of the text in later chapters which flushes out the backstory of the main POV character and make things flow better from start to finish.
We will see. A lot of cleanup is going to be needed because of this change.