In January, I posted a short story entitled “The Magic Cat” for feedback on LegendFire. The critique I received inspired me to talk about my writing style here on the blog. It’s more of an advanced topic than what this blog normally covers, but knowing what you want to do and where you want to go with your writing is extremely helpful when dealing with and sorting through criticism. Staying true to those goals will not only bring you satisfaction as an writer, but also a genuine audience for your work.
Emotion and Negative Space
One of the main critiques that I received was that my main character Steven seemed inappropriately non-chaltant, given the situation he was in. I see where they’re coming from, and I agree – this is something I need to improve in my next draft. Where I don’t see completely eye-to-eye with all of the critiquers is how this should be fixed.
Emotion isn’t something I want to dwell on. I prefer that it remain largely implied, rather than stated outright. One reason why this is so is because there are people in my life who like to use emotions as weapons. I’ve seen them explode and fling their bad moods at other people. Many times, I have no idea whether they actually mean what they say, or if it’s simply for dramatic effect. What’s worse is that I have also seen them manipulate other’s emotions – say the right trigger words to deliberately make them feel bad.
Sticks and stones…
No!! Words do hurt! Clearly, whoever came up with that phrase never had their heartstrings played like a fiddle for somebody else’s satisfaction. Trust me, it’s one of the most enfebbling realizations, to know someone near and dear to you has made you the fool just to get what they want out of you. It’s caused me years of suffering.
Sorry. I’m okay. Really. I didn’t intend to go on a rant there. But hopefully, you see why I’m so hesitant to deal with emotions head-on. It’s because I have witnessed and experienced the harm they can inflict. Call it cowardice, a coping mechanism, or compassion, but I leave others’ emotions alone, both in fiction and in real life. There are other reasons why I don’t like stating a character’s emotions in narration (which I’ll go into later), but that is one.
My high school theater teacher always used the phrase, “Ninety percent of acting is reacting.” The lesson I took away from her class is that what you don’t say is sometimes more important than what you do say. I correlate this with the concept of negative space from the visual arts. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, this is the space that is deliberately left empty, as opposed to positive space – space which is filled in by something.) But long before I had a name for it, this concept fascinated me.
In third grade, I was given a reading comprehension assignment for the novel we were reading in class. One of the questions urged us to “read between the lines.” I took this phrase literally and focused on the space between the lines of printed text, thinking that maybe the fibers of the paper would form words and those would be the answers I was looking for. Once the phrase was explained to me and I was told what I should be paying attention to – what the characters are not saying and what they are not doing – I was surprised to find this whole other dimension to the story. It was a jump between 2D and 3D, and it was awesome! So I started paying attention to this third dimension in every story I encountered. This encouraged me to actively read and watch, and as a result, I could enjoy these stories far more deeply than before.
When I began writing my own stories, I immediately started playing with negative space. How much can I say without saying it? In a way, it’s an experiment on how much the audience is willing to pay attention, how much thought are they willing to invest, and how this differs from reader to reader. And given my natural hesistation to address emotion head-on, the emotions of my characters frequently reside in that negative space.
Linking back to “The Magic Cat” – the fact that I don’t just say Steven is sad, or angry, or frustrated, is born out of my desire to play with negative space. The feedback I recieved showed me that perhaps I left too much of his emotions in that comfortable negative space, and that I need to drag some more of it out into the positive space of narration.
Another aspect of my short story that critiquers commented on was my use of what they called “functional language.” I usually define it as clean and simple. One critiquer praised this, saying it was one of the stand-out features of my story. Another said that I “passed up opportunities to be more expressive,” skewing this in more of a negative light. This mixed feedback highlights a difference in taste, which is why I want to talk about it here on the blog.
I want my words to be understood rather than admired. I don’t want people to come up to me in the future saying that they love how I use the English language – that it’s so pretty or so unique. I don’t write to be pretty; I write to tell a story. The words I put on the page are there to serve that greater purpose. Nothing more, nothing less.
As a child, I was diagnosed with what they called a “speech disflunecy.” Stuttering is the more common name for it. It’s something I still struggle with to lesser extent today. For me, it was hard enough just to speak words. To communicate verbally and actually be understood was a true, physical battle. So the desire to be understood set in deep – deeper than it does with others for whom talking comes easy. It’s a big reason why I turned to writing as a teenager, and why I’ve always preferred function over aesthetics in word choice.
This is also the reason why I’ve never liked the phrase “painting with words.” In my mind, language is not meant to be pretty. Language is meant to communicate something, to pass ideas from one person to another. If nobody understands what you’re saying, then who cares how pretty your words are? It’s still meaningless.
This doesn’t mean that I hate beautiful language, or that I don’t use figurative language – metaphors, similies, etc. Far from it. Writing is an art, and all art strives to be beautiful. I do use figurative language. I like a well-constructed, interesting, and themetically relevant metaphor, just like any other writer. But I believe that beautiful and figurative language should enhance what you are trying to say, rather than obfuscate it. Confused readers are disengaged readers.
The thing with beauty is that it’s in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone enjoys searching the areas of negative space for additional meaning. Not everyone will appreciate langugage that doesn’t try to impress in a creative work. But that’s okay. Because I’ve found a handful of people who like my style the way it is, and who are just as excited about my story’s future as I am. This is the kind of audience I’ve always wanted to find. I’m grateful for each one. And I can’t wait to publish my stories, so I can meet more.
I hope this exploration of my style, and how life has shaped me as an artist, will guide you on similar journeys. If you are just starting out, you may not see it right now. But once you’ve built up a good-sized body of work (I’d guess at least a dozen different stories), even if they’re still drafts that you haven’t shared with anyone else, then it will emerge.
What is your writing style? What are your writing goals? Everyone has their philosophy on art and what it should be. Your views are likely very different than mine. Feel free to share your musings or manifestos in the comments below. But please, let’s be civil, okay?