A brief thought on Television Prose

Can we have an honest moment? Between us readers of sci-fi, fantasy, and possibly other genres of fiction, who are by and large most of the readers of this blog? That’s good, I’m glad you’re open to the idea. Now, I’m just going to come right out and say it.

Most genre fiction is not very well written.

Note that I’ve phrased this in a peculiarly English way, avoiding the more direct American approach of shouting that most genre fiction is the written equivalent of a huge steaming turd of words. But there, now I’ve said that too.

As a reader and occasional reviewer my tastes in SF / Fantasy and genre novels tend towards the well written. I do enjoy the occasional Star Trek or Warhammer franchise novel, where the existing visual splendour of those stories makes up for less than stellar writing. But when it comes to original storytelling, I like good words, organised in fine sentences. When I find SF / Fantasy writers who can wield words well, I become a lifelong fan. But that is a rare event.

(At around this point somebody usually quotes Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap”, which is the standard defence for the fact that 90% of SF writing is crap. Any field that NEEDS a standard defence for that accusation surely has a problem.)

(Shortly after that comes the old “It’s about the story not the sentences” chestnut, which, ok, if you really believe the sentences can be separated from the story in a novel, I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching the next Avengers movie produced on HI-8 camcorders.)

I was put in mind of this subject by K M Weiland’s post on “omniscient POV“, which I read with some interest. I don’t intend to critique that author’s teaching, which is well delivered, although I disagree with much of the content. But I do want to pick up on a specific point in the post which I find quite revealing.

“The problem with the omniscient POV—and one of the big reasons editors are no longer so keen on it—is that it’s dad-blamed tough to write. As you’re learning, this is largely because it’s a difficult concept to get our heads around in the first place!”

Hrrrrm. Well. Omniscient can be dad-blamed hard to write. But so in fact can Weiland’s preferred style, limited third person. Also interesting, of the two styles, limited third is far more artificial, which might make it a more difficult concept to get our heads around. An omniscient narrator is how stories have been told for millennia, and written down for centuries. Limited third person is only a few decades old, and is quite clearly a response to another narrative form. Television.

(For a high quality guide to the slippery nature of POV try How Fiction Works by James Wood.)

It’s for that reason that I call close third person, when it’s done badly (which is very often), Television Prose. It’s fundamental aim is to make the experience of reading a book much more like the experience of watching television. The story is presented through discrete scenes, focused on character actions and dialogue. Stories written in Television Prose also tend, ever more, to ape the dramatic structures of film and television. All of this CAN be great, different kinds of story SHOULD influence each other and share techniques. But I find Television Prose to be a problem for a separate but related reason.

Television Prose covers up bad writing.

But it doesn’t cover it up very well. Good writing is hard to write, regardless of the style it’s in. It takes a lot of skill and, crucially, time. But if you’re going to produce a lot of bad writing, often at high speed, then the limited third person style of Television Prose will hold together better than almost any other style. It’s basically descriptive in nature, which is easy to write and easy, if generally uninspiring, to read. With a kick-ass cover, in a popular genre, badly written Television Prose can often do just enough to please readers who, just as with franchise novels, are drawing on the stock imagery of visual media to do the imaginative heavy lifting.

And what’s wrong with that? I hear some folks saying. Nothing. You go ahead and read what you will, I’ll be over in my ivory tower enjoying my finer things. But. I do offer a mild warning for writers, who are getting this advice about “close third person ” all over the place these days. Learning to write in this flat, unimaginative Television Prose style is like learning to sing by copying pop stars who use auto-tune to sing. It’s a shortcut that, unless you win the hack writer lottery, will take you to a dead end. If on the other hand you put in the hard work, and really learn to write well, that’s a skill you will never regret having.

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It’s actually fine to steal from writers you love.

Ideas are an odd form of property. We protect them under law with copyright, trademarks and patents, but when it comes to the inventions of fiction, it’s very hard to assert meaningful ownership in a court of law. Instead, writers and readers enforce an ad-hoc moral code against authors who are seen to have stepped too far over the invisible lines of literary ownership.

My column for The Guardian this week stumbled over two cases of writers borrowing from their colleagues. It’s well known that Iain M Banks took some inspiration from Larry Niven’s Ringworld for the Orbitals featured in his novels of the Culture. Banks is now, arguably, far better known than Niven, and he altered the idea while inverting Niven’s politics, all of which seems to have earned him a pass for his minor misdemeanor.

The accusation raised against Douglas Adams in the comments of my column was new to me and, at least as presented, seem rather closer to outright plagiarism. Further research revealed that those accusations, sourced to SF author Christopher Priest in his obituary of Robert Sheckly, were somewhat overstated. Nonetheless it raises the question of just how much authors can borrow from each other before those invisible lines are crossed.

My rather wooly answer, that I suspect will not satisfy officers of the court, is that it doesn’t matter…as long as you only steal ideas you love, from authors you adore. I’ll get into the deeper waters of why in a bit, because first I want to flag up why this matters. It’s not just some writers who thieve from others, it’s all writers. And, if you don’t engage in some friendly pilfering, the fact is, you’ll probably stop yourself writing all together.

Writers aren’t lawyers, thank god. We’re artists, creators and dreamers. (We might ALSO be lawyers, because most of use have at LEAST two people in our heads.) And we start our dream lives inside the dreams of others. All the stories we read as kids are the mulch our own stories latter grow from. In our own stories we express the symbolic inner language of our imagination, and inevitably, many of those symbols are shared with the imaginations of the writers we ourselves love. If you DON’T use those symbols, perhaps because you fear being criticised for unoriginality, you risk violating the first law of creative life…YOU MUST HONOUR YOUR DREAMS. If your imagination gives you a gift, not taking it is tantamount to insulting the gods. And we all know where that leads.

Entertainment conglomerates want to own stories so they can, exclusively, profit from them. But writers, when they are honest, know that nobody owns the stories anymore than they own the DNA of life (corporations are also rather keen on owning those, whenever they can.) Stories are archetypal. They come from the great mythic beyond that only fools and madmen claim to understand, and only the very deluded claim to own.

But. None of this means you should go around creating half baked rip-offs of your fellow author’s work. Remember, it’s OK to steal fron authors you LOVE. And if you love them, you’ll want to create something that they love reading as much as you love reading them. I know nothing about Robert Sheckly, but I suspect it would take a hard heart indeed not to love Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Steal like a master criminal, then create like a master artist.

Big Dumb Objects. Sci-fi’s USP.

We humans love things we can’t explain. Witness the vast array of outlandish claims made about Stonehenge, from ancient calendar to alien stargate, when in all likelihood it was just a big clock or an early marketplace, a neolithic branch of Tesco.

When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

Read more on Guardian Books.

Yes. There is a secret to great storytelling.

Is it a secret? Some times a thing is so obvious we can look at it a billion times and never know it.

SOMETHING HAS GOT TO CHANGE.

You can tell where a writer is in their development by the answer they give to a simple question. What’s your story about. “It’s an epic fantasy crime noir blockbuster.” Beginners think about genre, which is nothing more than marketing categories. “It’s like The Sopranos written by Neil Gaiman.” Well OK, at least that tells us something about tone and form, but where are you, Mr Author?

It’s about a poor orphan boy who becomes a knight of the realm.

It’s about a man who protects his family but ends up destroying them.

It’s about a woman who learns to live again after losing her child.

 

NOW we’re getting somewhere. Not every writer knows it consciously (many do) but at the heart of 99% of the stories that have ever succeeded in fascinating an audience, is CHANGE. Were you entertained by Kingsman? Awed by The Godfather? Blown away by Gravity? Alfonso Cuaron fills the cinema screen with a vast spectacle of space based drama, but it’s the simple change at it’s heart which informs every part of the story.

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EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE SOMEBODY.

A great story can be told around any kind of change. But the stories that really stick with us are stories of BECOMING. How does a boy become a king? How does a woman become a hero? How does a good person turn bad? When does childhood end? These changes are the subjects of hundreds of stories. They’re archetypal, and that makes them interesting to everybody.

Every person who ever walked the earth is only human, but some humans become exceptional, or infamous, revered or reviled. We’re wired to be fascinated by these archetypal human changes, and tune in over and over again for stories that capture them. If you want to tell stories that people love, change is the secret. Learn more about the Rhetoric of Story, course enrolment is just $59 through the weekend ending Sunday 10th July.