Thursday, July 18, 2013

Humor and Insight, Fiction-Style

Today's post is by Luke Bellmason, a regular here and author of The Canterbury Tales, Volume I:

One of the best things about writing short fiction is that you can experiment a lot more. You can monkey around with the format, the narration, the plot, print the thing on bacon, whatever takes your fancy really.

One of the great things I learned at art college was to experiment. Especially to experiment all you could while you were at college, for it may come as no surprise that in the commercial world spending a week collecting litter and then sewing it into an encyclopedia for no discernable reason is often considered an inexcusable waste of your client's time. At college, however, such activities are rewarded with high marks. The purpose of all this is to come up with original ideas. Even if that idea doesn't work it can lead you somewhere new.
With The Canterbury Tales I have established a sort of formula, because I know I've got twelve tales to write I want to set up an easy method which I can follow each time. The trouble with formulas is you tend to get a lot of the same thing and while consistency is good, predictability and sameness is boring.
When I start a 'Tale' I already have a character and a plot; rivalry, revenge, escape, etc. The outline for the story is drawn up from the plot, then the scenes are blocked out, then it's written up, edited, rinse and repeat. So how to keep them all different?
The great thing about having rules is that once you know what they are you can break them. After my first story, the Smuggler's Tale, my second, the Merchant's Tale, was a sort of sequel, which made a whole world of difference about how I went about writing it. It meant I was constrained a lot more in terms of what I could do and especially where my starting point would be, but again that was a good constraint to have.
The third tale, the Assassin's Tale, had a very clear ending worked out and this meant I was writing up to the ending, working backwards.
The fourth story, the Knight's Tale, became a two-parter, since I plotted out the scenes and the tracks the characters would follow, but could not, however hard I tried, make the story any shorter.
For my fifth story, the Miner's Tale, I have skipped the outline phase and gone straight to 'discovery' writing it, inspired largely by the fact that the theme of the plot is 'The Discovery', but also because it cuts a month off the writing process by not having to create an outline.
For future storys I'm hoping to mess around even more. I might move act III to the beginning and put act I at the end, or have another act III (I have banned myself from ever using flashback in my stories as I think its overused, confusing and lazy plotting). I could have a story with two endings or have no middle. I could tell a story with only one scene, in real time. I could tell a story with three plotlines but in only 6,000 words.
Another idea I want to try is to have two stories intrinsically linked, with each story describing the same events, but from opposite viewpoints. this turns up in Volume 3 with the Bounty Hunter, a tale about Pursuit, and the Pirate, a tale about Sacrifice. The two colours these characters have as their theme are blue and grey and so I am already starting to think along the lines of the Blue and the Grey in the american civil war.
One of the many books I'm reading at the moment is Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono. In it, he describes how humour and insight are parts of the same process; we find a pattern, look at its individual component parts and then rearrange them. Jokes are often broken patterns, where the ending is unexpected but fits another pattern, one which is also consistent.
The famous 'who's on first' sketch by Abbott & Costello is a good example. There are two patterns at work, one in which the players have 'awful funny names' but which phonetically sound like other words (Hoo's on first, Watt's on second), which by coincidence fit perfectly with the other pattern, which is more like regular standard responses to questions, 'Who' and 'What'.
The humour comes because we quickly understand that there's some misunderstanding between the two communicators, but we've seen how the patterns fit together. DeBono explains how insight works in the same way. Once you learn to look for patterns you can break them apart and use them like Lego. With lateral thinking we're not concerned with logic, or whether the new pattern 'works'. DeBono tells us to suspend evaluation while we are thinking laterally. We're only concerned with where the new pattern takes us. Sometimes it can take us to a place which logic would have prevented us from going.
So this, for me, is the whole point of experimentation. Often, it can seem fruitless and even silly, but you can occasionally get somewhere that nobody else has ever been, and then it's all worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment