Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Elements of Writing(But probably not the ones you're thinking of)

This was originally posted at You should visit there.

Joni Mitchell had it right.

“Great. What the Hell are you on about now, John?”

Bear with me. You know how my mind has to come at things sideways. You don’t? Um, perhaps you might want go take a quick break, get a beverage, smoke if you got ‘em, come back prepared to think all random abstract up in here.

You back? Great.

When you were learning about writing, about how to tell a story, there were I’m sure, lessons about elements of writing, elements of story. Do I know them? Some, but not the same. Sure-sure beginning, middle, end – plot, character – conflict, resolution … and yeah, some of those others I can’t easily bring to the surface. But I didn’t learn them in any real organized way as I should have. Misspent youth, too much fun,“OH, Shiny!", whatever. For me, a lot of this is happening as we go, studying when I can, gathering to mind other lessons and observations learned in the last fifty or so years and making them relate to this craft of showing, of telling, and hopefully of relating.

This is Bad. I don’t know what I’m doing in any formulaic, quantifiable way. Not in any way that’s easy for me to discuss, and especially not discuss intelligently as I’m doing it. I have to come at things a little differently. Think of it as the Pantsing Mind(i.e.- flying by the seat of the pants)

This is Good. I know from observation that all the world seems to crave the different, the unusual. Is that not what keeps advertising agencies, research and development departments, and all kinds of creatives going? Different – I got. (That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.)

“Artifice… Brutality… and Innocence – Artifice and Innocence” – Joni Mitchell, The Three Great StimulantsDog Eat Dog, 1985 – track number three.

Yes Joni had it right. Those are three great stimulants “for the exhausted ones”. And they will serve us well in the showing and the telling.

The artifice comes in as a necessary quality of crafting our words. A matter of choosing which and where and how we put them down. “Say me something clever, he begged.” Yes, yes we want our characters and our stories to seem to have grown “organically” from some greater or different nature, but let’s face it, a lot of it comes from carefully choosing, endless times of thinking, crafting, revising, editing.

Brutality may be actually brutal or it may come symbolically as an element of drama, trouble,“Danger, Will Robinson!”, conflict, something to add some spice to the mix. If you think of brutal in the sense of "from the brute", is not all human conflict on some level brutal in it’s most condensed essence?

Innocence provides the necessary balance to brutality. An animal which is by nature innocent of human malice may act in a way that seems brutal, but is it really? If so then they’re much as we, being capable of innocence and brutality within the same shell. Innocence may only be a relative position to the circumstance of the story or to a conflicting element or character of the story. Or the innocent element may truly be innocent, blameless, guileless and without a shred of meanness in it’s whole being. Next time you’re reading a story you love, look for artifice, brutality and innocence. See if they’re not there in some form.

How about some different elements?

A long time ago it occurred to me that there are certain aspects, objective as may be, that all good Rock ‘N’ Roll seems to have in common. Those are what I call Tooth, Edge, and Snap. No, they don’t necessarily correspond to artifice, brutality, and innocence but sometimes may.

Tooth is that element of nature, “red in fang and claw” as they say. Something to bite down on the beat with, the part that speaks to the monkey brain, gives us the primal in your gut sensation. It’s the “NnnnGar!” in the song.

Edge, though similar to tooth, is not the same. Edge is that part of good Rock ‘N’ Roll that literally puts you on the edge of your seat. It’s the electric Zzzzzap!, the sparkling shiny bit of tingly stuff in the sound.

Snap? Think of snap as the crispness, the bounce–back, the rock in Rock ‘N” Roll. It’s the actual snap in the beat and in the phrasing of notes.

“Okay John, enough about yer heathin Rocky-rolly, we’re here to be on about writing!” Well, of course we are.

It’s the same thing.

Yes, that’s right, I said a good piece of writing is much the same, has much the same feel, the same taste as a good piece of music generally, and rock sometimes specifically. Well, it does.

So, there then are some of the elements of writing that I think of, strive for, listen for. And even though I’m pretty sure you won’t have run across them in any of your normal writing studies I hope perhaps they will give you something to think about.

Now if you haven’t already, please go watch and listen to Joni Mitchell and friends, including pretty much all of Herbie Hancock’s band performing The Three Great Stimulants, which carries it’s own jazzy versions of tooth, edge and snap.

Are there any unusual or unorthodox elements you know of or look to create in your writing? I’d love to hear about them.