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The Unified Theory of Writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Sep 27, 2012.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Okay, I must admit that a not-so-small reason for writing this post is a fun dig at Steerpike and Christopher Wright. On the other hand, I think I put forth some hopefully good points for discussion in an (again hopefully) entertaining manner. Now, on with the post:

    In physics, scientists since Einstein have tried to create a unified field theory that ties the interworkings of gravity and electricity and magnetics together. Think of it: if we knew how they related, antigravity might be possible.

    As an engineer who is passionate about becoming an author, I seek the unified theory of writing, an equation that will unlock the secrets of creating great works of art that are also engaging and readable. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

    Writing = Storytelling + Technique

    I define storytelling as the “what and when” and technique as the “how.”

    Storytelling informs you of when you need a fast or slow pace; technique shows you how to speed or slow the pace.

    Storytelling informs you of when you need to show and when you need to tell; technique shows you how to show and tell.

    Storytelling informs you of what elements need to be included in your story for plot and character development; technique shows you how to incorporate these elements.

    So, which is more important?

    The easiest answer is neither. Let’s assume that the best theoretically possible piece of writing ranks at 100 on our scale. Both elements contribute equally to the total. If you’re at 50 on the storytelling and 0 on the technique, the best you’re going to get is a 50. Same with the reverse. I think that a publishable piece needs to achieve a minimum in the range of 70 to 80.

    However, I consider technique to be the more important field of endeavor for the beginning writer. Here’s my reasoning:

    1. Technique is easier to learn. It’s simply a set of rules that anyone can pick up. There are hundreds of books and 10,468,115,924,245,209 blog articles (I know; I counted them all) explaining this element of writing.
    2. Learning technique quickly improves your writing. Take a beginning writer and teach him to use proper grammar, to show instead of tell, to use tension in every scene, to add emotion, and not to info dump. That beginner is going to go from producing unreadable dreck to creating something that can at least get his ideas across. This allows him to be able to focus on what he wants to say and boosts his morale.
    3. A good portion of storytelling is intuitive. Humans are natural storytellers. To an extent, the talent is ingrained into us, especially if we’ve spent our entire lives watching stories unfold on television and in movies and reading them in books. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers who start out at 1 on the technique scale. I’d say it is unusual for one to start below 10 to 15 on the storytelling scale.
    4. To transition from an intuitive storyteller to a good storyteller, you need to study the types of stories you want to tell. The best way to do this is to read and analyze those types of stories. However, if you don’t understand fully the techniques being used to perform the storytelling, you’re missing the first fundamental step in determining why the author chose to tell the story that way. Understanding technique is crucial to understanding storytelling.
     
    Christopher Wright likes this.
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Theories of marketing exist which could be applied readily to storytelling. Prose and technique, in those theories, would be on par with your delivery system or the production value associated with your message. Message, however, would be represented by several boxes funneled into your delivery system and then connected to your recipients, the target audiences (yes, plural).
     
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  3. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Interesting ideas. Thanks!
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I was hoping to google a good marketing flow chart, but I'm not finding anything.

    Roughly, for storytelling, I would go with:

    Characters + Plot + Setting = Elements
    Elements + Progression = Story
    Story + Delivery = Writing

    But that's just me.
     
  5. FireBird

    FireBird Troubadour

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    You can try to come up with techniques all that you want, but there is no universal technique when it comes to writing. There are general rules, but there are no absolute rules set in stone. Many things that work for you will not work for others and vice versa. A unified theory of writing does not exist.
     
  6. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Just out of curiosity, did you read the post or just the title?

    Perhaps I didn't explain myself well. I define the following: Techniques are a set of rules that tell you how to write. Storytelling is using your judgment to figure out how to apply techniques.

    Your post didn't seem to address anything that I said.
     
  7. Well struck, sir. But two can play at this game...
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't mind a scientific approach to things. I worked as a research scientist and spent two years in a Ph.D. program before jumping ship to go to law school, and I still work with engineers every day so I have a certain fondness for science. I don't think it works particularly well with respect to creative endeavors, however.

    The cornerstone of the scientific method is observation, in my view.

    Relying only on "observation" to assess your statements, I'd say the first place you go wrong is equating technique and storytelling in terms of importance. I submit that observation of the body of literature available, and what sells best and is most popular, indicates that storytelling is more important. In fact, whether it is Twilight, Potter, Da Vinci Code, or what have you, highly successful books are routinely taken apart bit by bit, their bad technique held up to the light. The books succeed nonetheless because the writer as storyteller has transcended limitations of their skill with technique. The hypothesis that technique and storytelling are equally important, then, falls in view of observations made of the real world.

    Turning to the techniques themselves, you characterize them as 'rules.' Again, turning to observation, which if your approach is truly scientific should bear out the underlying hypothesis (i.e. that there exist 'rules' of writing). There can be no question, however, that for any given rule of technique you can find many good and successful books that violate them, and plenty of good and successful books that violate more than one. So the idea of techniques as rules also fails, scientifically, in that it is not supported by observation.

    Teaching technique to new writers is a good thing, in my view. But you teach it in an honest manner. You don't tell them, falsely, "here are a set of rules you have to follow." You tell them, truthfully "here is some information about technique. You can take it or leave it as you see fit, but understand that these guidelines have developed because they constitute good advice in most situations, especially with new writers." In other words, you don't hide the ball. And if you are approaching this scientifically, then of course you have even more incentive to teach the beginner truthfully, because the truth is what is borne out through observation.

    Finally, it is important to the new writer, as well as to the advanced writer, to understand that there is not just one correct way to write, one correct set of techniques you have to use to tell a story, and so on. It is important to understand it because 1) it is the truth, and it is better to know the truth than to believe a lie; and 2) believing the lie can do harm to the writer's creativity, especially when dealing with new writers who don't yet know enough to realize you are lying to them.
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  9. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    Thanks for the response.

    Note my definitions of the words.

    If storytelling is the knowledge of how,what, and when to apply technique, then knowledge of technique must maintain equal importance. How can you apply that which you do not understand?

    As to your specific examples, is bad technique applied well truly bad technique?

    Perhaps I have not explained my new concepts well enough. You seem to be again arguing the same discussion we've had in the past rather than delving into the ramifications of my new ideas.

    My concept is now to define "rules" as: to show, you do the following. The storytelling aspect then becomes: when do I show and when do I tell.

    If a writer comes up with an unaccounted way to show or tell or what-have-you, the new method is added onto the known ones.

    I think, perhaps, we are finally on the same page here.

    The rules are now instructions on how to achieve a desired effect whether than a perscription for what to do. A beginning writer could then be told that, to get your ideas across clearly, you should employ these rules: followed by a list.

    I'm not sure if this is in response to my post.

    I clearly advise that, if you want to learn how to tell a certain kind of story, the best way to do so is to find that type of story and study the techniques used. I couldn't tell if this is in dispute or if you're continuing an old argument.
     
  10. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    Wow, timing.

    An hour ago I added my signature to my settings, and, well...
     
  11. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

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    Am I misreading something here..? Are you applying the five w's and 1 h - who, what, where, when, why and how - to technique rather than story?

    Because that's story, not technique... they are two completely different things, not to be confused with each other.

    Who is the story about?

    What happened?

    When and where did it happen?

    Why did it happen?

    How did it happen/how did they deal with it?

    There are lots of other questions with the same interrogations...
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I can't be sure, but I think you misread it.

    My whole point is that I'm defining technique as the physical mechanism by which you tell your story, a set of "how's" that explain building tension and defining character.

    I define storytelling, as much as I can tell, like you: the guiding force that tells you how, when, and why to use technique.
     
    Butterfly likes this.
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Just, no.

    /10char
     
  14. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    I've seen beginning writers start at a 1 on the storytelling scale. I can think of at least one who was good enough when it came to grammar and such, but as for the telling of a story at all... He told me he had an idea for a novel and wanted to start writing it. I asked what it was about (assuming that if he didn't want me to know, he'd not have brought it up), and he replied, "It's set in an alternate history where Rome never fell, and the main character is a soldier." So I asked him about the general plot - what happens in the story. His reply: "It's set in an alternate history where Rome never fell." He NEVER got beyond that to coming up with something to actually happen in this novel he wanted to write. He got quite angry when I suggested that he needed a plot - and more about the protagonist than "he's a soldier" - if he was going to write any story.
     
  15. TheYoungWriter

    TheYoungWriter Dreamer

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    Thanks fellow Scribes. This helped me.
     
  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    A lot of "discovery" writers (the term is new to me though it's the technique I use) come up with a concept and a character and go from there. Just start writing.

    Your story, to me, doesn't indicate a lack of storytelling ability.
     
  17. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Good! Any part in particular?
     
  18. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Starting from this argument, I'd like to go one step further: I think many of the rubrics by which technique may be judged are fundamentally incompatible with each other, and none are fundamentally wrong. That is to say, the writing style used in Twilight isn't objectively bad, it's just bad according to some rubrics, and it may be good according to others (just as Finnegan's Wake may be rubbish according to some rubrics.)

    On the other hand, I think the creation of interesting characters and believable worlds is more standardized--some audiences may want more detail, and some audiences may want less, but most engaged audiences will find a complex protagonist and a lived-in world interesting at some level of detail. Blank-slate characters are only interesting to the most casual of audiences, who want a framework for a personal fantasy more than they want an actual story, and I think that's the real reason Twilight and its main character are so hated.*

    Anyways, if you don't want to tie yourself down to a particular audience, this makes storytelling more important than technique.

    * This is why blank slates do so well in video games that are designed specifically to be power fantasies rather than stories, and why they're often found boring at best and irritating at worst when they appear in video games where all the other characters have personalities. These days, games with an artsy feel tend to give even their semi-blank slates a semblance of personality--play Mass Effect for a good example of that.
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  19. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

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    It indicates a lack of storytelling ability if the person who wants to tell the story NEVER comes up with an idea beyond that initial concept.

    I often start with just a partial idea, myself, but then I add to it and find the rest of the background details that I need as I go along. I do not assume that the initial concept is the story.
     
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