On Complexity in Fiction

A man walks into a bar.  He says to the bartender, “Make me a drink.”

The bartender says, “What kind of drink would you like to be?”

The man says, “You ruined the joke.”

The bartender says, “Oh.  Well.  But we actually have quite a wide variety of liquors and mixers at our disposal.”

The man says, “That’s not the point.”  He leaves without leaving a tip.

But in fiction, it is.

Recently, in my novel writing workshop group get-together thingie, we were talking about a small bit in Tracy Jo’s book where she has the children of the colonized world playing a game.  It’s a variation of Ghost in the Graveyard, but in this case the word ghost has become something completely different from what the main character (a person essentially from our time) recognizes.  The word has changed down through a thousand years to be unrecognizable.  And what sparked this whole thought-line is that there are several explanations given for what the word means.

Say the game is now called Sheet on the Line.

(Ghosts are often childishly depicted as sheet-covered spirits with holes cut out for the eyes and a ghost in child-slang might evolve to a sheet.  Since that culturally-specific image might get lost over time, the graveyard is replaced by the line because where else would you place laundry to dry?)

Say the game is now called Goose in the Graveyard.

(Over time, pronunciation may change so that ghost loses both its hard t and it’s long o.  If the society we move into is post-literate, then without the spelling to confirm that what is pronounced gos is in fact ghost then the game might be interpreted as a gos or a gosling in a graveyard.  Instead of the players being hunted by a ghost, they are trying to find the lost gosling and bring it to safety.)

In the novel, we’re now being introduced to several things: How language changes over time, the passage of time, and its effects on culture, and a lack of certainty or instability in the culture depicted.  And all of that is important because it provides another layer for the novel and novels are all about layering.

(Because if you don’t have layering, what you have instead is a premise, is a cardboard cutout, is a backdrop to a stage play, is one of the background paintings in the original Star Trek that you accepted as truly depicting the planet because you had no choice and because Kirk and Spock were so fascinating and so you must ask yourself: are your characters James Tiberius Kirk and Spock Who Probably Has a Full Name But I Don’t Know It?)

I was thinking about language and layering and misunderstandings and mysteries (what exactly is the origin of that game) because Tracy Jo also writes with an outline.  Which I do not.  And this past week we were workshopping her outline for the next six chapters.

And what that means is that through workshopping the outline she has the chance to test-run her plot and, with our comments, add in complexities (i.e. Layers) to her novel before she even starts really writing it.

I, on the other hand, dive in to the text without outlining.  Now, it seems that after enough years of writing (say twenty.  Say it!) I am able to construct a plot on the fly that holds together and can draw the reader through.  But whereas Tracy Jo can slide in her layering from the very beginning, all of my revising (well, most of it) involves adding those complexities that I gloss over the first time in my efforts to live the book through my writing.

I’m not sure either way is better.  But I am sure that, however you get there, a layered narrative is essential.  After all, who doesn’t want to be playing Goggles in the Gravel Pit in five hundred years?

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