Sunday, January 29, 2012


Some years back they rehabilitated the Statue of Liberty. No, she hadn't become an alcoholic, but the years and the elements had caused enough damage that extensive repairs became necessary. For a while the appearance of the statue changed dramatically.

In fact, you could hardly see the statue itself for the scaffolding that had been built up around it.

You need scaffolding whenever you're building something bigger than a bike shed whose walls your brother can prop up while you're nailing it together. Though there is a certain aesthetic appeal to the cathedral shrouded in scaffolding, it looks a lot better when it stands alone.

What has this to do with writing?

Some writers build worlds. It's a lot of fun. If you intend to design, say, a galactic civilization complete with competing empires rising to power and smashing together in war, you'll at least need a spreadsheet to keep straight all the birth dates and ages of the characters and how old they are when they found the Sirian Confederacy or abandon the Terran Empire. That spreadsheet is scaffolding. You the writer have to create and maintain this thing to keep things straight. And the amazing thing is that when you do this spreadsheet you'll see relationships and get ideas for stories you are not yet working on. This spreadsheet is scaffolding.

Likewise, it's embarrassing to discover that your strawberry-blonde supporting character with green eyes becomes blue-eyed a hundred pages later. To spare yourself this you may want to create a cheat sheet with all such characteristics safely tucked away in one place for quick reference and update. This cheat sheet is scaffolding.

Or let's suppose you've got a bit of backstory. Maybe the protagonist's and antagonist's fathers knew each other in the war. And maybe they exchanged some token. It's your story and your backstory. The reader needn't be bothered with the details. But you the writer must know all of them. The writer must understand why the backstory is as it is. In a case like this, I write a vignette of the elements of the backstory to work out the details. This vignette is scaffolding.

Maybe you're stuck at a point. You can passively wait for inspiration to strike you. Bad idea. Or you can write something related to, but off the arc of your story. By all means do so, you need to keep your writing muscles exercised. This puttering needn't go anywhere. You're just puttering until something breaks loose. This puttering is scaffolding.

Or maybe your story has a puzzle that the protagonist must work out. How did the murderer lock the door from the outside? You've got an idea, but you have to verify that it works. In my case, I got a chair and a door and a bit of string. It didn't work. So, I added a sheet of linoleum to make it work. (If I change linoleum to tin, it can leave telltale scratches your detective can detect.) Run the experiment with wife standing by in case something goes horribly wrong. This experiment is scaffolding.

Finally, there's that lovely map of Middle Earth with which you track your heroes movements. And estimate how many days journey lies between hither and yon. Scaffolding.

One thing about scaffolding is that although you may have a ball constructing it, you must tear it down and pack it away prior to publishing. Go ahead and do as much scaffolding as your world or your story or your scene requires. Scaffolding is not story.

And just because you don't sit down with the intention to write scaffolding, it doesn't mean you have not done so accidentally. One rookie mistake is to load your story down with unnecessary prose that does not contribute to the story arc. Usually, there's this preface or long expository passage in the front of the tale to "set the stage." Fooey. Dump it and start with your story's inciting incident while planning to dole out the fewest details only when needed. But it's pretty. Yes, dear, so is the scaffolding about the Statue of Liberty, but we have to put it away now.

No scaffolding should meet the public eye--with the exception of a map and a dramatis personæ.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Superlatives Are For Children

One of the things I notice about beginning writers is that their stories use superlatives: the strongest knight, does battle against the vilest dragon to win the most beautiful princess. The writer wants to impress and evokes those things that impress him the most. It's a rookie mistake.

This is telling, not showing.

Suppose the princess is the most beautiful woman in the whole world. OK, what does that look like? Show us. Describe what this nonpareil princess looks like to qualify her for the title of most beautiful. And after you've limned the curve of her cheekbones, the way her hair graces her shoulders, the dancer's legs, heaving bosoms, moistened lips waiting to be kissed, and--most importantly--the response of the gallant to her visage, the dear reader won't need to be reminded that she's not only easy on the eyes, but more so than any other girl ever.

Superlatives take the reader out of the story. Let's suppose you've got your knight, princess, and dragon. They've each punched the time clock, reported for work, and are at their stations ready to go. When you say this is the vilest dragon and what does your reader think? Viler than what? Other dragons. OK, who are those other dragons? Puff was nice, but Smaug wasn't very nice. But Glaurung was worse... Now, your reader's mind is crowded with those other dragons. Or worse, your reader has gone off in search of dragons of comparative vileness.

Now suppose your knight must venture forth to the dragon's lair. His mom sends him off with a nice lunch and a warm coat into the worst blizzard ever. Oh? Would that be worse than that blow we got back in '03? Then a geezer pipes up: Nah, that was nothing, you should have seen the blizzard of '78. That was something. Then an older geezer says: You young pups didn't live through '62 in Kamchatka. Once this starts there will be a game of one-upsmanship where one liar tops the next liar with a bigger lie. (Unless I'm telling the fish story, then it's true.) Once you write "worst blizzard ever" your readers will start mentally playing this game. The smart writer realizes the only way to win this game is to not play.

As stories get scaled larger and larger, the reader tends to lose connection. Let's suppose the knight is set upon by some knave with a knife. They fight hand to hand; the knife is kicked away; hands close around his throat; his head pounds about to explode; he can't breathe. The reader has some skin in this game. Contrast this with the villain with the big red button marked "Destroy The Earth." He pushes the button? So what. We won't have to go into work Monday. This is why James Bond always has a big hand-to-hand fight with Jaws or someone in the control room over who'll get to the big red button.

The writer does not need to make the hero any more heroic or the villain any more villainous than the reader needs to engage with the story. The most beautiful princess need not be any more than the girl in Starbucks with a nice smile. The strongest knight need not be more than a GI back from Afghanistan. The vilest dragon need not be more than an unpleasant supervisor. I'm not saying you shouldn't make the hero stronger, the love-interest prettier or the villain viler. Just don't make them the most-est.

Those more worthy than I: