Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

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My 2017 Project: Become a Writer

In 2016, I earned my Ph.D., went vegan, and got my cholesterol under control. I was on a roll.

But I hadn’t successfully finished a piece of fiction (except one short story that I didn’t and still don’t like) since January 2014, when I finished the novel I’d begun the one time I legitimately won NaNoWriMo.

I realized I was never going to be a writer at this rate. So my 2017 project was learning how to write. Not how to get published or how to indie publish, but how to write fiction.

I wanted to break writing down into step by step aspects I could address directly. Writing is a HUGE “thing,” and I honestly didn’t know where to start. But I trusted that if I DID start, eventually I’d get traction.

For the first several months I studied Kishotenketsu, which was a fun warm-up to my serious studies.

Then Dannie, an awesome horror writer and long-time friend, told me about Holly Lisles’ online courses and Brandon Sanderson’s course lectures on YouTube.

The first thing I did was take Holly Lisles’ free flash fiction course. It honestly changed my life. I learned so much about structure and felt so much thrill of success planning and writing story after story.

I learned, proved to myself, that writing IS a repeatable phenomenon. It’s not magic we can’t explain, or lightning that doesn’t strike twice, or a wind that goes where it wants.

I started her novel writing and character courses, but she’s a serious outliner, and I’m much closerto a discovery writer, and that mismatch made them less useful to me. I still learn a lot by reading her blog. I’ll write a whole post about her later.

Then I started watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, and I learned so much about novels, including how to approach things from a discovery writer perspective. He’ll get his own post, too.

Brandon Sanderson recommended Dan Wells’s presentation on plotting, and I watched that. I also read Rachel Aaron’s article on planning a novel.

At that point, around July 1, I realized I was ready to start planning my own novel.

And so I did. But that’s going to get its own post, too.

The Problem with Passable

This video from Nerdwriter explained something I’d felt but never been able to put into words:  so many movies today don’t observe, imitate,  and speak to life,  but rather to other,  older,  usually better movies. 

This is a temptation for a lot of writers, I’m sure; it certainly is for me. 

Why? Because we know the movie, tv,  and fiction tropes. We’re confident that.  We’re not always confident in our own insights into people. 

We don’t feel like we really understand people that well,  and we don’t want to not write because of it. 

We also don’t want to take the risk of writing what we see as real,  and then having people tear it  apart. 

But I think that is the risk we must take. Otherwise, we’re just adding to the passable problem. 

Bury It and Rise Above: Chvrches’ “Bury It” Video, Kishotenketsu, and Race

Chvrches’ Bury It video is a great example of something called Kishotenketsu, which I talked about last week. 

Here’s a refresher: kishotenketsu is a mostly Japanese story structure that doesn’t rely on conflict to creat interest. It has four acts:

Ki – Introduction

Sho – Development

Ten – Twist

Ketsu – Conclusion 

Ki – the three young people (animated versions of the band Chvrches: Lauren, Iain, and Martin) are standing on a rooftop looking at a pile of random-looking items they’ve gathered. Lauren raises her hands and concentrates.

Sho – Lauren lifts some of the items telekinetically, holding several up at once. Iain and Martin join in, making individual items spin or lift.

Ten – (animated version of) Haley appears on a nearby rooftop. Random items float up in front of her, forming floating stepping stones, and she walks across the gap between the buildings. She then shows Lauren, Iain, and Martin just how much can be done with their power, including encasing herself in a ball of light and flying.

Ketsu – Lauren, Iain, and Martin join her, and they fly through the city together, happily, fully, embracing their abilities/creativity/identities.

There’s no conflict in the video, although when Haley first appears, she’s introduced the way enemies often are in comics and animation. Animated Iain almost falls when he tries to fly, then catches himself and flies off to join the others, but nobody sabotaged him, and it was a moment, not the main plot of the story.

I believe the story in the “Bury It” video closely follows the kishotenketsu form, whether anybody on the creative team intended it to or not.

There’s one more thing I love about this video: the parent carrying a baby, who was endangered by Iain’s near-fall was a black father. In the past, that would have universally been a white mother.

Black men haven’t been seen as parental in popular culture until recently. Neither were white men, but it was far worse with black men. Little things add up, and every subversion of the “savage black man” and “not a father” stereotypes (invented to justify slavery in the Americas and conquest in Africa) is a good thing, in my mind.

Did I mention I love this video?

Kishotenketsu, Story Structure, and the Nonviolent Imagination 


What is Kishotenketsu? It’s a four-act story structure characterized by a twist in the middle. 

As you can guess by the name, it’s Asian, originating in Chinese poetry and developing in many forms of Japanese poetry and storytelling.  It’s the story structure Studio Ghibli often uses in its films. 

But why should we care? Because unlike western story structures, Kishotenketsu is not rooted in conflict, and doesn’t rely on conflict to maintain interest. 

That isn’t to say that it excludes conflict, but that it doesn’t require it like the typical western storytelling. 

I’m not alone in my belief that we in the western world are primed (through a “mean world” viewpoint) to support war and nationalism by the stories we hear  from early childhood on. 

Western storytelling’s three-act structure is pure conflict: 1) introduce conflict 2) escalate conflict, 3) resolve conflict. And when conflict is resolved, at least somebody is going to lose, to suffer some kind of harm, be it physical or emotional or social.

Traditional three-act storytelling comes down to winners and losers, and I think we can do better. 

Kishotenketsu is a tool to help me do better, as a writer, yes, but also as a person in general. My nonviolent imagination needs nourishing,  just like everyone else’s. 

Kishotenketsu helps me imagine story structures that aren’t just boring navel gazing,  stories where things happen, even action things, but where the very heart of the story isn’t a struggle or conflict.

It’s also helps me imagine win-win situations, situations where conflict can be averted by reconciliation of opposites.

And it’s helped me learn to write short stories, which is something that completely escaped my understanding before 2017.

I think that’s enough for now: I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.