Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Critiquing Critiquing Story
Story: Turns out you're doing it wrong.
Everyone is- and what's more, anyone who tries to make a foray into storytelling without having mastery over their efforts merits endless scorn.
I've had the privilege of sharing advice with some other creators of late, and seen some of the (usually anonymous) criticism being leveled at their work. It's noteworthy for being intense, superficially sophisticated, and misguided.
Now, there are two kinds of creators out there. Those who don't give a fig for what other people think, and dismiss all criticism out of hand.
...Those creators tend not to improve.
Then there are those who care about the quality of their work, take pains to make it enjoyable for others, and are receptive to feedback.
These individuals have the most potential as writers, and are also most vulnerable to their efforts being permanently deformed by vindictive critique.
They'll be assured their characters are flat cutouts with no depth or realism. But if the character reveals another facet, they'll be decried as inconsistent, self-contradictory and arbitrarily written. A scene, or even as little as a page, will be declared 'nothing' and pointless because there isn't a clear-cut goal being pursued. If a goal does emerge for the characters, it is declared to be a ham-fisted MacGuffin. The critiquer will complain that there is no context to support events, that nothing makes sense. Then they will pounce on the first sign of explanatory exposition- reviling it because they can identify it. If they find narrative summary, they'll condemn it as a horrendous writing technique- and proceed to complain about the length of scenes where not enough happens to 'justify' them. A character is a pathetic unrelatable loser- unless they're a too-perfect writers-pet Mary Sue.
Any fresh writer struggling to internalize criticism like this will not find their efforts improved- they will find themselves paralyzed by second-guessing and fear, afraid that every step will be the wrong step.
But evaluating reader reactions is critical to learning. And it's so easy to discount those who like your work- after all, the critics discount them. They inoculate their judgments from being measured against popularity by declaring the masses to be sycophantic, ignorant, unperceptive. Your ability to entertain others will only prove the low, pandering quality of your work in their eyes.
So is the most miserable reader by default the most insightful?
And it's helpful to understand why.
First, let's assume these critics are well intentioned. Those which aren't exist- but what motivates them and why is another can of worms, and entirely beside the point.
But for negative critics who genuinely believe they're providing helpful insights- where are their ideas coming from, and how accurate are they?
I think they exemplify the maxim that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Perhaps they sat through a creative writing course, or came across a book or two on writing and story.
I've consumed over a dozen (and counting), and there's a myriad of different models and definitions competing for what makes a valid story. Every book claims to have the keys.
There's the 'W' model of plot, the Hero's Journey Monomyth with it's required stages, the Snowflake model of development, the 6 Core Competencies approach, 3-Act structures, 5-Act structures, 7-step structures...
Various story theories will place more importance on one element of fiction or another.
One school of thought holds that thematic armature, or the conveyance of a moral precept, is the highest purpose of story. Everything else- character, setting, plot- only belongs to the degree it can dramatize and clarify the point.
This means characterization and everything else must be brutally minimized, lest it prove a distraction from the core function of story. Under this lens, a parable is the ultimate narrative.
Another idea about story maintains its all about character- one character- specifically, about the inner struggle of a protagonist. Story is really about how external plot events force the main character to resolve an internal obstacle or misperception. In this model, it's a cardinal sin to have any characters competing for dominance and clouding the issue of who the *real* protagonist is, within which the relevance of the story unfolds.
Yet another concept holds that stories are survival simulations. This model places primacy on the premise of a story, and the ensuing cause and effect of plot- What ifs. What if dinosaurs were genetically engineered in a park, and then got loose? What if terrorists took over Nakatomi Towers and all you had was a service piece and no shoes? In this model, stories are all about safely gaining the experiences of others, mentally rehearsing various social or survival scenarios, to better prepare one for dealing with life.
Another idea about story is that it provides a voyeuristic, escapist experience. The purpose here isn't to prepare us for danger- but to expose us to the novel, the profound, the unattainable. To enjoy things that we otherwise can't. To provide experiences which, though not otherwise useful, are inherently worthwhile.
So which one is right?
That, I think, is the core that drives much critical nitpicking. Being right. There's a certain narcissistic appeal to being correct, supreme, unassailable in justifying one's feelings. And- within the context of one model or another- these critics can be right and sleep well at night, having sated their needs.
There's also a temptation for new creators to swoon for one model or another, grasp onto the reassuring grip of Automatic Rightness- and then mash and smash that template down onto their story until it fits. However awkwardly.
The truth is something which may make disciples of the ivory-tower templates uncomfortable:
They're all right. And none of them are.
I watched 'The Princess Bride' recently. By most of the models described above, it's an awful piece of fiction. Absolutely awful. The characters are over-the-top cliche' stereotypes, their relationships arbitrarily forced by their roles in the script. The dialogue stilted. The plot points contrived, puppet strings clearly visible on all the players. The over-arching theme trite, banal, driven home with clumsy obviousness.
Yet The Princess Bride is beloved, undeniably entertaining, and gloriously fun. It's one of those rare films which has transcended generations in its enjoyment and renown. It deftly captures and charms its audience.
But how can this be when it's 'objectively' bad?
Isn't that the question.
It's something the paint-by-numbers crowd doesn't like to admit when it comes to analyzing and assembling fiction- but there is indeed an x-factor to entertainment that one can't quite put in a box. Some stories do everything technically right- and flop.
Asking which model's right is like dumping a box of tools at the feet of a sculptor, and demanding to know which utensil is the right one for sculpting.
The answer depends entirely on which one helps the sculptor more accurately bring their vision to life. That's what these models and templates are, and should be seen as- tools.
And ultimately, a creation isn't about the tools. It's about what they can convey- from within the heart of the artist, to the eye of the beholder.
Often those who adopt the 'right' way of thinking about story will, over time, perceive little else. Their own paradigm becomes so engrained that regardless of how beloved or successful a piece of fiction is, they can see only where it falls short. And will not hesitate to share their pronouncements.
That's why such pious critique can be perilous for a green creator- the temptation to mash the nearest model onto their work may well destroy what it could have, should have been.
In truth, the most useful feedback you get will not be from know-it-all critiquers. Even other creators and writers aren't optimal for feedback, as they tend to see how *they* would do it- now how you could.
Your average reader, what they like and dislike, understand or not, is a better ruler for assessing your efforts. They're not coming to the table with scads of philosophical baggage or circularly refined prejudices- they just want to hear a good story. Listen to them. And listen to you.
Now, this shouldn't be taken as license to ignore critique, or forego learning the tools of your trade. Capturing and keeping the attention of readers is beyond challenging. You can blithely assemble a story however you like, and an architect can haphazardly nail garbage together and call it a building. But that doesn't mean people will want to go in it.
Learn the tools of your trade. Just because some people misuse them doesn't mean they aren't necessary. And critique is crucial-
The more the better. When numerous readers independently point out the same flaw, you have certainty about what needs genuine repair. You'll always learn something from critique- either about your work, or about the person talking to you.
Just remember not to give negativity undue weight.
And have fun- because it shows.