On my recent trip to Taiwan, I had the time and opportunity to reread most of George R. R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. In addition to neutering 24 or so hours that would otherwise have been spent asleep or watching TV, it gave me the chance to appreciate the way Martin planted seeds for later developments early on. This is one of the really satisfying things about long form fiction, and Martin is a master at it—look at the way he peels back the layers of obfuscation around the end of the Targaryen dynasty, the way he hints at the truth about Beric Dondarrion and sets up the Red Wedding entire books before they’re cashed out. It’s a huge pleasure to watch.
It turns out, though, that this is really difficult to do. Forget considerations of creativity or inspiration—it’s a difficult cognitive feat, a test of working memory. (Actually, I think knowledge and working memory capacity are strong determinants of creativity, but that’s another post.) It’s a certainty that some people can do this more effortlessly than others, and maybe some people are sufficiently memorious to hold several plot threads in memory simultaneously—but I’m not. I have trouble holding even one.
This, as it happens, is a big problem.
I’m probably going to cock up explaining why exactly it’s a big problem, because to say it’s a big problem you have to have a theory about why fiction that works, works. And no one has a really good theory about that. But I can say a few things.
One, obviously, is that it predisposes my long fiction to fall short of Martin’s with respect to the planting and husbandry of plot seeds. This is a problem even for relatively simple plots with single points of view. To the extent that I can’t keep the plot in my head, I tend to write the next scene without referring to previous ones; that makes the story seem flat, and it makes it hard to motivate action. The action I do write lacks the air of inevitability that’s critical to suspension of disbelief. I, no fool, perceive this, and become unmotivated. If I’m on a day where I’ve decided to conform to a word quota, I tend to regress into dialogue full of sniping and recriminations, because I find it easy to write spite and irritation when I’m frustrated. Then things start to seem uneven, because you’ve now got some perfectly reasonable section that, for no reason, plummets into a thousand words of conversation whose only function is to reveal that the characters are butt-hurt about each other. And, of course, when I sit down to write again, I’ve got wet noodles for a springboard.
The problem is less pronounced for short stories, although as a rule I can’t hold a short story plot in my head either. Short stories aren’t as intimidating to revise as longer work, so I can fix things like superfluous dialogue and overwriting relatively easily, and they don’t rely as much on accretion of detail as novels do. Still, writing without the end in mind leads to ragged, trailing endings that eventually have to be tied or hacked off in the eight- to ten-thousand-word range (for reference, most magazines seem to prefer stories south of six or seven thousand).
Speaking of hacking off endings, I want to get this posted. So let’s take this as a partial and possibly misguided statement of the problem—videlicet, writing without an end in mind produces undesirable results— and move on to potential solutions in the next post.