1. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    Utility in fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by thetyper, Jun 21, 2012.

    Hi all

    I'm new here, and this is my first post. I'm writing several novels at the moment with a view to self-publishing on Amazon. I'm not inclined to waste my time with agents and publishers because I've never been a gambling man, and I am content with my lot in life. The idea of forwarding a manuscript for arbitrary rejection has never appealed, and I would be content with selling just one copy on the internet. Seriously, that is enough for me.

    My question, today though, is about utility in fiction. At university I was taught that everything - everything - in a novel must have some direct bearing on the story, characters, plot, etc., but I am questioning this now, and see it as pandering to utilitarianism in art. I see no reason why I cannot write a scene purely for the sake of the scene, or more specifically the setting. Can a setting be selected purely for its beauty or interest, and not because it serves some utility in terms of the broader story? I'm thinking here about how beauty can in fact serve a purpose in its capacity to console us.

    Thanks and... any thoughts?

    TT:)
     
  2. Reptile Hazard
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    Reptile Hazard Member

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    Well, I'm no professional, but I believe that, as long as you don't go overboard with these kind of scenes, they are fine. I say don't go overboard because while the reader might enjoy a break from the tension of the actual story, they don't want half the novel to be about nothing in general.

    And besides, what you may fing interesting or beatiful is subjective, so these kind of scenes may seem out of place for some readers.
     
  3. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    Hi

    Thanks. I'm not saying that it is irrelevant, just that market-driven economics is turning fiction into toilet brushes. Look at the digressions of 19th century literature, when people had an attention span of longer than a few minutes. Today this would not be tolerated.
     
  4. Reptile Hazard
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    Reptile Hazard Member

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    Yeah, I agree with you. I always enjoy a short read about a seemingly trivial event, such as the main character stopping to admire the sunset, for example. But, in this day and age, as you stated, this seems to be frowned upon.

    I don't know; like I said, I enjoy it, but since you're trying to sell your story, it seems you're gonna have to cut this scenes. However, you also stated that, if at least one person buys (and I assume, likes) your story, then go for it. If you don't plan to sustain yourself and/or family with the income of your book, you don't really have anything to lose. And believe me, there will be at least one person who likes your book, so yeah, go for it.
     
  5. kingzilla
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    kingzilla Senior Member

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    Art vs Marketablity seems to come up quite a bit in this forum. I love the art of writing. I really do, short stories, poems, and full blown novels - I love them all. But sometimes, as with everything, changes come. I believe that everything nowadays is becoming straighter to the point, quicker, with more action.
    In video games (forgive me if you are clueless to video games, but I am a teen :D ) they are much more multiplayer, quick little matches with no story. Five years ago, some of the best stories were being made with great stories, (Mass Effect, Fable, Knights of the old Republic), and now that doesn't exsist.
    Back to writing, people now want a more action filled, to the point, kind of novel. It doesn't have to be a small story either. A song of Ice and Fire is MASSIVE, but almost every scene has a point. Whether it is setting up a future event, creating a tension between to characters, or whatever, its always moving forward (though in a hundred different directions).

    My point is success nowadays IMO is very much dictated by whether your book is moving forward all the time. My question is why have a scene that isn't working towards the story goal? I think if it isn't working towards the ending of the story, it isn't worth a place in your book.

    Once again, my humble opinion.
     
  6. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    "My question is why have a scene that isn't working towards the story goal?"

    I think I'm questioning the meaning of relevancy here. I'm not talking about a 5000 words digression about Persian ontology in the middle of a chase scene, but more along the lines of aesthetically beautiful distractions along the way, inside which some relevant part of the story is disclosed. I'm not coy about my writing, so an example here is a scene I am writing in which a character might be implicating himself in a crime, but I have set the scene in the south of France - totally incongruous to the story really - but I have done so to describe the landscape, and with the vague point that the character in question has the ability to be where he wants to be at a moment's notice, I suppose. Technically, there is no point in going to France at all other than the aesthetic quality of writing about a foreign landscape. It has no utility.

    I'm writing this as opposed to the Dan Brown school of cookie cutter plot lines wherein every chapter must end "..and the killer was..." and be set in a strict, relevant chronology and setting. I hate that. It's so tedious.
     
  7. kingzilla
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    kingzilla Senior Member

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    There aren't rules to writing, so if you want to write a scene to describe something to enthrall the reader, thats fine. I get urges to write good ole art fiction and I usually do it in short stories. As long as you can put an illusion of the scene being important, it shouldn't be a problem. Have a reason for the character to be there, as small as it might be. Maybe (without knowing anything about your story) he is a billionaire and he flys there on his jet to have tea in his mansion in France before finishing his flight to Berlin. The scene shows that the character is very laid back, doesn't have a sense of time, but really you wrote it just to write about the scenery. Put it in as a break before the action, the calm before the storm if you will. It won't seem so irrelavant to the reader that way. And they will be wowed by great writing without wondering why they are reading it.
     
  8. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    Thanks king. Yes, ostensibly the setting makes the point that my character is untied to the normal national boundaries that hem most of us in place. It also establishes that he is wealthy and owns several international assets. I could make these points by indirect reference in the main setting (England) though, and I wonder if hauling everyone off to France for a few days of parties is seen as self-indulgent on my part, but there it is. I'm the author and part 2 is in France.:D

    I like your final points btw - character establishment, etc. that can be advanced anywhere, so why not make the scene pretty?
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If the scene doesn't develop the story, or develop the characters in a direction consistent with the story, it doesn't belong in the story.

    This is not a marketing matter. This is a matter of quality of writing, period.

    Save it for a story for which it is relevant.

    There are rules to writing, and there are guidelines you are well-advised to observe. Are they absolutely inviolate? No, but if you go against them, you had better have a good reason for doing so.
     
  10. Show
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    I think a lot of what many write off as irrelevant to the story could actually be quite relevant. Could the story survive without it? Probably. But if we cut everything a story could survive without, we'd have a bare bones summary that isn't very interesting. Write your story and write it the way you feel inclined to write it. If something isn't working, you can cut it later and you'll at least have the scene in question written. So you will know whether it will work or not. And who knows, it might be relevant. Maybe it helps the character. Maybe it's a momentary obstacle. Or maybe it's just a setting nod. Sometimes as writers, we have to just go with it. Maybe we need to ask less about if certain things CAN work and more about does a specific element in our specific story work. (And without seeing the story, none of us can really say.) "Screw the rules, I have creativity!" (If anybody gets this nod, they get a cookie. :p ) Okay, we can't screw all the rules. But sometimes I think we end up approaching these "rules" in a legalistic manner and it smothers our story as a result. Rules in writing are important but the application of them need not be brutally rigid. We need some rules structure but we also have to know when what is best for the story requires us to go against the application of the rules that some of us writing forums folk promote. Sometimes we just want to add a brief moment just because, and sometimes that's okay. (Not all the time, but a lot of times it might work better than we think.) And who knows, until you write it, you can't say that it's not relevant to the story. I think too much time is spent debating what will work instead of just doing. Let's just write and see what happens! Take care of revisions later.

    And kudos to the OP! I think it's very admirable to have such goals. :) And I think your writing might be even better as a result of it.
     
  11. louis1
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    louis1 Contributing Member

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    I think doing so is a bad idea, I would get bored. anytime an author does something like this, I think the reader can feel it. if your characters goal is to get a promotion and goes in the park to take a walk. and you spend time describing the scenery even if it's beautiful. If I don't see character developmental or if something major doesn't happen in the park later, i'll feel like you wasted my time.

    as an author I don't see why you would want to write such a scene. there's no point. if it achieves nothing but being beautiful, it's like a really pretty girl but oh so stupid. I don't care how pretty she is, if she's stupid.
     
  12. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    But you have to define "develop the story" before you can say this. Who decides what constitutes development? As I allude to above, much 19th century writing in terms of quality is far and away superior to the drivel that gets published today, and they contain outrageous digressions that do not develop the story at all. Look at the tracts in Moby Dick or more modern take Naked Lunch by Burroughs. Story development? I could point to a fiction which adheres strictly to your definition like Da Vinci which is universally understood to be low quality, and I could point to classic stream of consciousness novels which contain no development but are high quality fiction.

    As for rules, I'm not so sure there are rules for writing. There are rules for grammar, punctuation, spelling, form, genre, characterization, length, chapter structure, but not "story creation".

    Thanks Show

    I'm not free-styling too much, but just thinking about what constitutes relevancy and development, and playing with that in what I hope is a subtle way and without drawing the reader away from the plot, which I am forming mainly through misunderstood dialogue, with a very unreliable narrator due to memory problems. I could make the point I want to make in an English setting, but feel that it would be more aesthetically appealing if I make the point in Provence. There is no other reason - no internal development requirement - to move the characters to France, but off they go anyway just because of the inherent beauty of the landscape, and for no other reason - no utilitarian reason anyway. The rise of utilitarianism in art reflects in my opinion the increasing neoliberal attitude to economics and the production of capital, and by moving the characters to a random location just for aesthetics I hope to make the point that beauty is worth appreciating for its own sake, even if it is pointless. Above this, of course, the story continues to unfold.
     
  13. Show
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    ^^^^I don't think it's really as pointless as you make it sound. Beauty can be a point. (Just ask the antagonist of one of my novels. He's all about "beauty." ;) )"Flowery writing" can sometimes become less than beautiful because it becomes boring. But the idea you're describing doesn't necessarily sound bad. Could it botched in execution? Of course, like anything. But I say go for it. Enjoy writing. :)
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Clearly, the writer does. But be honest with yourself. If the scene doesn't have a real purpose in moving the story forward, it should be ruthlessly cut.

    The readers will also know. At least, those who read purposefully will. Those who read less critically may simply be aware that something feels wrong about the scene, that it somehow doesn't fit.

    That's a matter of opinion. The works that you are aware of from back then is arguably the writing that has best stood the test of time, so to begin with, you are comparing this to a modern body of work that has not been filtered in that manner.

    In addition, the writer's craft has continued to evolve. Outrageous digressions are just that, an excursion out of the story that should have been left out.

    If, on the other hand, the digression does have a well-considered purpose in supporting the story, it does indeed have a place in the story.

    It is up to you to make sure that everything that remains in the final manuscript does indeed have a purpose that justifies its inclusion.
     
  15. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think there is a place for 'beauty tangents' in stories, as long as one bears in mind a few things. One, the author's idea of beauty may actually be nothing more than purple prose. Also, the length of these tangents greatly affects how they're received - if the author drones on and on, eventually the reader is going to skip ahead or toss the book. After all, they bought it for the story, not the author's self-indulgences. And that's basically the crux of the matter. Does the 'beauty' enhance the story - or is it just the author waxing poetic because s/he is in love with their own words?
     
  16. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    While I personally wouldn't read a story with loads of pointless deviations, even if they were well written, a few scenes that are just there for the sake of prose is acceptable. And you are after all not seeking to get published, so you don't have to constrain yourself to the marketing and business side of things.

    Incidentally I'm currently studying the French New Wave in my film study's course which takes a similar approach with film: many of the scenes are entirely tangential to the plot and the movement has influenced virtually the entirety of the film industry since. Why then can't these types of scenes appear in literature? No reason is why.

    Sadly you'll find an awful lot of pessimist writers about, both here and in other places, who are concerned entirely with what is "marketable" and whether works "follow the rules." Personally I'm against this constraining of writing and expression, and applaud those who go into the more experimental side of writing.
     
  17. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There is the notion of "what you can get away with" as opposed to "what is good practice." Novels can tolerate some slop. The novel is better without it, but the odd indulgence here and there won't be a deal killer.

    Short stories need to be tighter. But you are still better off keeping your novels tight and trim as well.
     
  18. Program
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    Program Member

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    I think your university was right. In a novel, I'd assume one would want the events linked closely together, or else it would fall apart. You wouldn't want to talk about this, then that, etc. when none of them have anything to do with the main story. In the novels I've read, there's one main plot, and everything that happens goes along with that main plot. If you want to write a scene just for the beauty of the scene, you could consider writing short stories. Short stories don't have to center around a plot (events), and can center around a theme (e.g. beauty, or writing for the sake of a scene) instead. But then, if you really want a scene in your novel, I'm sure you can find a way to make it connect with the main plot.
     
  19. kingzilla
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    kingzilla Senior Member

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    Yeah, I probably wasn't too clear when I said there aren't rules to writing, because there are, but I meant the rules are bendable.
     
  20. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It seems like a lot of people in this thread read the OP's original post differently than I did. I didn't think the issue was whether or not to include a big slab of description, no matter how well written. Rather, I thought it was more about including scenes that do not drive the plot forward in any obvious way, but do contribute to the reader's understanding of the story and the characters.

    For example, in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, he uses these short inter-chapters told from the sheriff's POV between the main chapters that carry the action. A lot of the material in these inter-chapters consists of almost nothing but the sheriff musing about his own life and the serious situation that he finds himself in this late in his career. Just an old man and his thoughts, if you will. But no real contribution to the plot. But these inter-chapters are very important to the story for a couple of main reasons: First, they let the reader know that the story is about the sheriff - he's the MC - even though he takes a back seat through most of the novel. Second, they illuminate the themes McCarthy is concerned with in this novel.

    When the Coen Brothers made their film version of No Country for Old Men, they left out these inter-chapters. I saw a lot of reviews and online comments by viewers who hadn't read the book and were baffled by what happens in the movie. I think that even though the inter-chapters didn't advance the plot, they shed a lot of light on the character of the sheriff, and that helped explain the story, and the movie was much less understandable without them.

    My point is that it's possible for a writer to drop into idle gear for a bit every now and then, and not advance the plot, but still provide scenes that aren't merely aesthetically enjoyable, but are important to the reader's understanding of the whole story. The professors at the university may object to these little scenes, but they would be very wrong to do so.
     
  21. Ben_
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    I think this is an interesting point. I've never thought of this idea of utility as being applied to setting. Previously I've always thought of it as meaning that actions, events, objects etc. shouldn't be redundant in a storyline. Although I guess if you are changing setting halfway through then that is an event.

    I'd be interested to know what happens to these characters while they're in France. It would seem to me that it would be different than what would happen if they stayed in England. I know I behave differently on holiday. I feel it would be difficult to avoid this having some bearing on the story.

    I would also guess that a different setting would impact the meaning of a piece: a love story set against a grey impoverished urban landscape in the north of England, meaning something quite different from one set against the excesses of the extremely rich in Monaco.

    Also, I think using aesthetics to enhance emotional impact can be important in adding meaning to a piece.
     
  22. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is basically what I meant about the piece enhancing the story, though you're right - I was focused more on descriptions. But not everything has to move the story forward; it shouldn't be there just because the writer feels like putting it there however. If it adds understanding, as in your example, then it's 'good'.
     
  23. lallylello
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    lallylello Member

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    As a rule of thumb, if you can remove a paragraph (or several pages) and it has no effect on the story at all, then cutting it is good. I have read too may books with huge, tedious sections of descriptive prose which served no purpose at all except to massage the author's ego. A good example is the 'Clan of the Cave Bear' series - anyone remember them? Thousands upon thousands of words, a lot of which could have been replaced with "insert tedious descriptive passage here". They'd have moved on quicker and been more interesting if the author had dumped the descriptive bits (result of thousands of hours of research probably) and just got on with the story.
    Gone are the days when writers can afford to be self-indulgent, our only purpose now is to entertain!
    Having said that, descriptive passages which set the scene are essential - Wallander for instance wouldn't be the same if we didn't understand a little about the expansive, barren Scandinavian landscape it's set in. I don't think it's easy to get the balance right, but it should be all about the story not the writer.
    God, I'm rambling now - and being self-indulgent. I should stop.
     
  24. Show
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    Extreme examples can be found on both sides, IMO. I think there's a lot of stuff that can be cut without destroying your story, but I honestly think very little can be cut and have no adverse effect on the story at all.

    Of course, ultimately, theoretical cuts do absolutely nothing to help anybody. lol No specific examples makes all of this conversation kinda like those paragraphs that supposedly have no purpose.
     
  25. thetyper
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    Hi Cogito

    It's not that scene doesn't have relevance or move the story forward - it does so because contains dialogue that develop the "tale" but that the setting in France is completely unnecessary and purely for beauty's sake. By rights, it should be set in England, but that seems tedious to me. I'm starting to think that setting is actually irrelevant in some cases as long as the dialogue and narrative have relevancy to the story because one can make a point in a number of ways. Fitzgerald chose to make the point about vacuous materialism by having Gatsby hurl his shirts around his room, but he could have made this point by having him, say, show Daisy his 25 wristwatches or lighting a cigarette with a $5 bill, etc. So the point is made, irrelevant of the setting and specific action, and the reader never knows what alternatives there could have been.

    So my setting in Provence could be changed to New York or Paris or London or the North Pole, so long as the point I am making is made, I think.

    So thanks all for your input because it helped me think about this in another way!:)

    Hi Minstrel

    You have it yes - I'm not talking about writing pules of purple prose or long descriptive passages about something irrelevant to the story, just about what makes a setting relevant to the plot, and can we choose a setting purely for aesthetic reasons without pandering to this the mundane but expected - story set in England - but part 2 goes to France when it could just as easily be kept in England. Why? Just to shake up the colour of the book. I am trying to advance the plot on every page, via the thought processes of the MC (unreliable though!) but setting - always setting is on my mind.

    Now I am loving this concept! Of course - they behave differently because the setting is different. There is a yacht, a casino. Gone is the austere atmosphere of burnt-out England, and they find themselves in the classic stereotypical land of the playboy - south of France. So yes, their behaviour must be different. I have no demonstrated that, although I have thought now of a material reason why they are there - to meet a third party in a neutral location foe the execution of a crime.

    Thanks again to all. I'm 53,000 words by the way and when I'm done and it's on Amazon I will let you know if you're interested enough and you can critique it.:eek:

    Interesting point about French New Wave in cinema, thanks. I will look into this.
     

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