Friday, 27 June 2014

Intent

Before I start I just want to mention that my first novella is now for sale at Amazon! I've been working on it a long time, so if you have the time to at at least read the "look inside" excerpts, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

Today, I wanted to talk a bit about intent. Mostly, the intent of the writer.

There's a lot to talk about, but first I wanted to bring up an incident that happened to me not that long ago. It's fairly mundane, but it sticks with me like most mundane things do.

I once read the forward to a rather popular book that struck me a bit odd. The author was commenting on "Turn of the Screw" by Henry James and how the ending of the story fascinated and changed the way the person saw literature, in fact helping to inspire the very book I was holding in my hands. There's nothing wrong with all that, but here's the thing:

The ending was taught to the author by a college professor on how the narrator was a villain and really the monster of the piece. Now, that's a very valid interpretation, but, there's a problem with teaching such an interpretation as being exactly what James intended. That problem being, we don't know what James intended.

"Turn of the Screw" has earned its popularity for the very reason that it can be read at least three different ways and all three interpretations are quite interesting to dive through and discuss. Teaching only one possible interpretation and stating it as objectively the only true end to a class of fresh-faced students as if it were a universal standard is doing a disservice to the work and to the minds of the students. It seems even back then a lot of college professors were more interested in opinion mongering and less on the learning process. Here's hoping for better days ahead for learning institutions.

Now, I never read the earlier book in question (the author goes on to blame readers for "not getting" the follow-up, despite the fact that is not how art works . . . but that is another discussion for another day) due to mainly being turned off by a lot of the arrogance the writer puts forth, but it stirred up a question inside of me.

Why are we more interested in what we can "get" from a book than what the author has to say?

Don't get me wrong, a lot of stories have a lot in them the authors didn't see while initially writing them, but, by the same token, breaking down a story to be nothing more than the sum of its parts to get what you want out of it seems incredibly selfish to me.

Stories are about connecting storytellers to listeners, which means it's a way of having a conversation. Stories are not told in order to be pillaged, dissected, and then thrown out when an arbitrary goal has been achieved. Whether it be full of high adventure, romance, despair, action, or general weirdness, the story was written to connect with you, the reader, and get you involved in a conversation. It's a team effort.

Of course, no good story begins with the author saying things like: "Okay, I have this theme I want to express - so how do I write a story that expresses it?" It just doesn't happen. The author's intent always slips in without him knowing it during the writing process and he can either ignore it or build on it when it's caught, but rarely is it the initial driving force behind the story. Every story starts with characters and an interesting plot, and everything falls into place afterwards. It is a part of that person's identity. Very rarely will a writer ever construct a story contrary to what they believe, as that is how ingrained their beliefs are with who the person is.

That, to me, is what makes stories so fun to discuss. Finding the Universal Truths underlying everything, including those of whom you might not even agree with. That's what makes it a conversation and a way we can all benefit.

Now, sure, there are stories that go out of their way to have no meaning and to "surprise" the reader from expecting the expected (despite using highly manipulative means), but this is generally, and genuinely, not possible.

There is no such thing with a story without a theme, or a story without a point. You can try to write one if you want, but all that is going to encourage is the low-grade dissection I mentioned above without any of the benefits of proper readers having a conversation with you. Even a simple, straightforward thriller has a message drifting under the surface of its whirlwind plot, despite the reader not needing to see it to get a good story out of it. There's always a message underlying it whether it is in-depth or not.

But there are bad intentions authors are guilty of, too.

A big one is generalizing a group of people, a historical figure, a time period, whatever, in your story of all uniformly having the same uniform thoughts/being stupid/being everything wrong with the world. There is a reason nobody likes such idiocy, and that's because it isn't true and shows the author has a very infantile and shallow view of the world. It is this kind of thinking that leads to the conversation being about preaching instead of about conversing with everyone enjoying the story on a surface level.

Preaching, as well, is a bad habit among many storytellers. You are not writing a thesis or a dissertation on "How to Fix the World [tm]", you are telling a story about characters just like you and me. Common people in a strange place or with a strange problem. You are showing how they live through a bad or unbelievable situation, not how to point fingers and get on your soapbox about how, "Oh, if only they all listened to ME! Then the world would be so great and these characters wouldn't be suffering . . ." Talk about disingenuous. You are an individual in conversation with other individuals equal to yourself - you are not above them or in a position to teach from the pulpit of the Church of True Artists [tm] as if they are somehow in need of your expert advice to save them from their mediocre existence.

Personally, I think all stories should be about connections and conversations. That is why art exists in the first place, isn't it? So we can all understand each other a bit more and grow toward a better rounded and deeper view of the world. That's what stories should be all about.

Or they can be about stuff blowing up real good.

That's always fun.

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