Friday, March 17, 2006

AD: Good Beginnings, Bad Advice

It is widely advised in literary circles that one cannot write good fiction by beginning with a theme and constructing a plot and characters around that theme. This is often said to be the path to propaganda. Some read “Catholic Novelists” in Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and arrive at just this point. The author, they say, must allow the theme to grow from the natural interaction of the characters, trusting that the author’s world view will flow organically from the plot and characterization. That is art, whereas to methodically construct a plot and characters to express a predetermined theme is artificial. But I believe Ms. O’Connor would have agreed that the difference between art and propaganda has to do with the end result and not the method.

I did not start out a writer. I was trained at the college level in painting and sculpture first, and then moved on to architecture for two decades. Throughout those years I noticed two kinds of artists: those who treat their medium as a kind of partner in the search for something meaningful, and those who treat their medium as a tool to communicate a meaning they have already found. These two types can be quickly identified by looking at two ways beginning landscape painters work. One kind of beginner paints with bold color and spontaneous brush strokes but minimal attention to the proportions or perspective of the scene before her. Another kind of beginner works meticulously to get the scene correctly documented but somehow it ends up feeling stiff and awkward. If they have native talent, both painters will improve in time and each will do so by crossing over into the other’s territory. The best painters get things technically correct (insofar as they conceive “correct”) yet they do so in a bold and apparently spontaneous way. But while each artist must move into the other’s territory to paint well, that does not mean they must start out there.

Similarly, the Roman architect Vetruvius taught that a good building must have “firmness” (a good structure), “commodity” (maximum results, minimum investment) and “delight” (the intangible quality of beauty). This is just a different way of stating what our two landscape painters learned: the secret of good art lies in striking a proper balance between essential qualities, regardless of which quality first attracts us to the project. Exciting plots and rich characters that say nothing of substance are doomed to join the millions of novels that are forgotten virtually in the moment they are read. Themes that overpower the story and characters are equally doomed. But so long as the end result includes “firmness” (a good plot and interesting characters), “commodity” (maximum message, minimum moralizing) and “delight” (the beautiful turn of phrase) it does not matter where the author begins.

Athol Dickson,
Author of River Rising, and The Gospel According to Moses


At 8:30 AM, Blogger Matt E. said...

Interesting post. I've just begun to think about doing some writing and I think this blog is an excellent resource. Much thanks to all the contributors for taking the time to write for this blog.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Patricia Hickman said...

Welcome, Matt!
"Themes that overpower the story and characters are equally doomed. But so long as the end result includes “firmness” (a good plot and interesting characters), “commodity” (maximum message, minimum moralizing) and “delight” (the beautiful turn of phrase) it does not matter where the author begins."
It's true. You can always trim away or add-to. You can write each book starting out differently than the last. What is important is developing a critical eye that does not settle for substitute literature--that is, a poor substitute for literature.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christian fiction often lies within that realm of a "tool to communicate a meaning they have already found." Some authors believe that is how it should be. And I think we tend to think of Scripture in the same way. The authors of the Bible must have been simply communicating the meaning they had already found.

But I wonder if Scripture is in actuality more organic than that. I wonder if Paul has a bit of "making it up as you go" in his letters. I wonder if the gospel writers or the prophets ever used their writing or prophecying as a partner in the search for something meaningful.

And certainly as Christians we should be least afraid (of all writers) to let the pendulum swing, to let our writing be a partner in the search for meaning. We have the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth; why not let our writing be a tool of the Spirit, a partner in the search, and not be afraid of the outcome? Sometimes the outcome will be inconclusive. Sometimes it will expose us to the lure of lies as truth. And sometimes it will give us a glimpse of grace or hope. We should not be afraid of any of these outcomes.

And so using our art to communicate meaning we believe we have already found is almost the weaker option; it is the box that we want the Holy Spirit to fit into, the rules by which we want the Spirit to work in our reader's lives. It is limiting and relies too much on our own beliefs and meaning. It is the ambiguous and organic that leaves the most room for the scent of Christ to be sweet smelling to those who believe and the stench of death to those who are dying.


At 4:46 PM, Blogger johnny dangerous said...

Andy makes an interesting point, though I'd suggest that the writers of the Scriptures were not consciously writing "fiction," except, perhaps, in apocryphal books such as "Susanna" or "Bel and the Dragon" or "Judith," and possibly "Tobit," which scholars recognize as such. Those who consider them to be part of the canon (ie, Catholics) also regard them them as spiritually instructive nonetheless. However, Scripture aside -- for those of us who write fiction, the aim is to "tell all the truth, but tell it slant," as Emily Dickinson said, and as Flannery O'Connor wisely affirmed. To do so with characters in conflict (which is "plot") in a way that points to higher truths (the "theme") with respect for language (the "delight" that Matt mentioned) is very difficult - and very rewarding.

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The more I learn about fiction writing, the more I see that there are many paths to a good story. Great post Athol, thanks.


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