Attacking Story

Okay, yeah. I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m traditional. I’m a writing technician in that I’ve spent my entire career studying how stories and plots are constructed for best dramatic effect. So today I’m going to address a writing issue that has been troubling me for quite a while.

There’s a current trend cycling through commercial fiction that is reflective of a larger societal trend:  call it deconstruction.

I’m not even sure it’s an actual word. I looked up “deconstruct” in my Webster’s Collegiate edition, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bother to search for it in my unabridged dictionary because I’m beginning to suspect that deconstruct is one of those trendy let’s-use-a-word-contrary-to-its-correct-usage verbal hijinks so popular now. (E.g. the hot fashion for turning nouns into verbs, as in “Let’s movie” or “We summered in Bermuda” or “You have disrespected me” or “I gifted a book to my friend,” or “Chef Daniel intends to deconstruct an omelet and serve it with a fig reduction.” says that “to deconstruct” (verb) is a back formation of the noun “deconstruction.”

Aha! A modern corruption of a perfectly good word.

To deconstruct means the opposite of construct or build. Therefore, to deconstruct means to destroy, to tear apart. So why can’t we say destroy these days if that’s what we mean? Methinks the word might be too harsh for politically correct/sensitive ears. But I don’t like wrapping meanings in phony words and euphemisms.

When we deconstruct a recipe, we tear it down, tear it apart, destroy it, alter it into a different form.

When we deconstruct a fairy tale, we’re doing the same thing.

When we deconstruct classic plot structure, we’re destroying it.

Very au courant, as the French would say. So current, so cool, so trendy, so fashionable to take story design and pull it apart as a sadistic child pulls the back legs off a grasshopper. What’s left? A feeble, mutilated creature that can no longer properly function.

Ah, but I’m assured by those who claim to be in the publishing know that linear plot is “out,” and nonlinear storylines are “in.” So what does that mean?

As I said, I’ve been puzzling over it for quite some time–ever since a haughty young editor rejected one of my book manuscripts for being too linear. And while I quickly figured out what she meant, I have been shaking my head ever since as I watch writers and editors scurrying ever farther down the road to plot anarchy.

I’m told that youngsters these days are not linear thinkers. They are web thinkers. That sounded almost impressive at first, until I realized that someone who cannot think logically cannot think well. So when someone grabs a bit of information here and there in no particular order and synthesizes it into a conclusion–or assumption–hey, presto! Isn’t the modern brain so clever?

Well . . . maybe.

However, I believe the cleverness is perhaps bogus and this whole movement of new storytelling is but a rather fiendish mask for the same old phony ineptitude whereby clumsy writers fail to present plot skillfully to an audience.

Let me give you specific examples.

Over the weekend, my local PBS station aired two programs back to back. One was an episode of the popular hit Sherlock, and the other was a historical drama, Victoria.

Sherlock has grabbed and intrigued audiences by deconstructing Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and spinning bits and pieces of them into a frenetic, wildly over-the-top version that is seldom fully comprehensible. When this series first began, I thought it clever in how it adapted the old storylines to modern-day settings, using text messaging instead of telegrams, etc., but it quickly spun out of control and has pushed the boundaries of plausibility ever since.

This particular evening, the show was as webbish and nonlinear as it’s possible to be. It zigzagged among hallucinations, memories, present, past, future, oops, no that was a dream, and whirled from fragment to fragment like a dervish.

I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to sit down and watch such programs with my full attention because they aren’t designed for that. Instead, the swirling bits and pieces of nearly random scenes and fragmental character encounters are intended for distracted audiences to grab like catching fluffy bits of cottonwood fuzz floating on the summer breezes.

And ever since I stopped even trying to follow a Sherlock episode closely, stopped suspending disbelief, stopped caring deeply or empathizing with the characters, it has made no significant difference in my comprehension. I find there’s no reward to sitting down and concentrating hard or watching the same episode about three times to finally “get” what it is all about. And I needn’t worry about coming in ten minutes late because I can always gain the gist of it on the fly. (The gist being next to nothing at all.)

Perhaps that is the “genius” of this style of writing, this construction of story montage. Perhaps its anarchy and madness perfectly fit the needs of audiences with scant time or short attention spans.

When Sherlock ended, I then watched a segment of Victoria. I had no high expectations for it, but I intended to garner some meager appreciation of the sets and costumes.

To my astonishment, the episode was linear, logical, plotted along classic, archetypal plot patterns, and dramatically sound. I was surprised, then pleased, then delighted. I relaxed into the mood of the show, enjoyed the sets, empathized with the beleaguered young queen, and immersed myself thoroughly in this story world. I didn’t have to strain to be clever. I didn’t have to blink in confusion. I was never lost.

I don’t know who wrote it, but my hat is off to that individual or writing team.

Because–huzzah!–someone out there still knows how to construct a story that’s plausible and pleasurable to watch.

So I made up my mind that I’m no longer going to give way to this editorial nonsense, let alone cater to it. Good story is linear. It doesn’t have to be destroyed to be clever. It can be rendered less predictable by strategic ordering of scenes, jumping forward and folding back, judicious flashbacks, and viewpoint changes, but it doesn’t have to be a hot mess whipped into a mind-blowing froth.

I would far, far better read–or watch–a story that’s so skillful I forget I’m separate. I want a story that flows so logically, so effortlessly that I can lose myself inside the story world. I want a story that touches me emotionally. That is why I read. That is why I watch films.

Not to think, how clever this is. Or, look at that special effect! How was that done? But instead  to become the central character, to live through the moment, to vicariously be a part of the unfolding drama.

Chaos in fiction is a lie. It is hooey. It is a cheat to its audience, no matter how trendy it might be. I will continue to build stories, not destroy their proven structure for a fad.


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15 responses to “Attacking Story

  1. Foster-Harris and Prof. Campbell would welcome your words. To paraphrase Mayor Daley, they should be repeated early and often.

  2. Tom Crepeau

    Actually, deconstruction has a specific meaning but is hard to define, per this article on Wikipedia: it isn’t surprising if you aren’t familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida, he’s had a larger impact in music than in literature. he taught at the Sorbonne in the 1960s and took a position with ENS (a research university in Paris, I think) afterwards, and taught at the University of California (Irvine) from 1984- 2004. He said all of his essays were attempts to define deconstruction, which (Quoting the Wikipedia article): “Derrida states that “Deconstruction is not a method, and cannot be transformed into one”.[43] This is because deconstruction is not a mechanical operation.”

    I’m not actually trying to defend deconstruction, I’m not a fan of it- just I had a running feud with a friend over deconstruction and post-modernism for several years. I do enjoy Derrida’s assertion that NOTHING is out of context, merely thinking something is out of context means you missed the context, not that it wasn’t there.

    However, I had the opposite reaction to the three current episodes of BBC’s Sherlock. I watched them carefully, and today am rewatching the three of them,

    I got, and am getting, a lot out of them. I think I’ve followed Sherlock for a good while, and always enjoy it despite the angst it puts me through when its villians are at their most villainous.

    I find the sense of story in the series to be wonderful, and pay it close attention- and that attention seems to be well-rewarded.

    To each his own, however. Sherlock Holmes has multiple current attempts to keep him modern and relevant. BBC’s might not be your cup of tea, but I think it has a better story than the American one with a female Watson. That has good ideas, but lets me down on executing them. Attacking it for bad storytelling seems more relevant.

    My wife and I loved Victoria, by the way. That is rather linear, and very good.
    Tom Crepeau, TomCrepeau3 at aol.

    • Well, if you’ll notice, I didn’t mention the American show with the female Watson for the reason that it’s not worth bothering with.
      Glad you enjoy the BBC SHERLOCK. I think it does some things well, but the episode with the mad sister was my tipping point, except for when Sherlock plays the violin duet with his sister.
      The middle episode this season with the creepy serial killer in the hospital took me three viewings to appreciate, but I eventually got there and considered it better than some.

  3. Tom Crepeau

    I’m certainly not going to recommend seeing the third one again and again to anyone who isn’t a fan; by the third viewing, you might take the next terrorist mass murder incident as ordinary. There are some good parts in Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes movies, though, and there is a third one being filmed. -tc

  4. I’ve been watching CNN’s “The Eighties” on Netflix and found it interesting how much of an impact MTV had on television. Miami Vice is the most well known offender. Some television critics went as far as to describe the show as a 30 minute music video. I was raised on MTV so I didn’t notice how different Miami Vice was from other shows at the time.

    I saw Charlie’s Angels (2000) in theaters and walked away shaking my head. I know it’s just silly fluff, but I exited the theater with a headache. They say if it’s too loud you’re too old, and I left the theater believing both. I vowed never to see another another film directed by someone without any vowels in their name. (Charlie’s Angels was directed by “McG” — apparently, with more constraints in place, he has done quite well on television shows like Chuck and Supernatural.)

    I won’t even get into the Transformers films. The first Transformer film was the first movie I ever watched where I literally couldn’t describe by the time I made it back to my car. I felt like a giant robot had hit me in the head and given me a concussion. Trust me, I’m no movie snob (I just purchased Microwave Massacre on Blu-ray…), but Transformers felt more like an epilepsy test than a coherent story.

    I understand playing with the constructs of fiction as long as it serves a purpose. In Memento, the entire movie is presented in reverse order in 5 minute chunks. The protagonist has amnesia and is trying to solve a murder, so the way the story is presented, while difficult at times, makes sense to the story. Those types of films are the exception to the rule. The problem is, dozens of copycats came along and copied the concept and applied it in ways that instead of strengthening their narrative, destroyed it. There are ways to surprise your audience without confounding them for 100 minutes first.

    The editor who rejected your book for being too linear was wrong. Linear fiction, like navy sport coats and pearl earrings, will never go out of style.

    • Yes, indeed. I get tired of being disappointed by bad movies. I get tired of being “too old” to appreciate what’s coming out now. The problem is that I have seen better, and I still want steak instead of beef-flavored foam.

      Interesting that you should mention MIAMI VICE. It was a pioneer offender. I used to be so baffled by the show, and I felt dumb because I couldn’t follow the stories. I seldom knew what was going on. There was a lot of music and of course the male eye candy. But that wasn’t enough for me.

      Now I understand that it was deliberately taped to be incomprehensible. Because cool was more important than cohesive story.

      Somewhere along the road, filmmakers figured out that if you made a movie loud enough, splashy enough, frenetic enough, and special-effects/stunt laden, that was sufficient for box-office success. And as you said so well, the better innovators have been imitated by those who just don’t get it.

      Which is why so many current remakes of older successful TV shows now bomb. If you don’t understand solid writing principles, you can’t recognize them. If you can’t recognize them, you can’t put them to use. If you can’t put them to use, then you’re left with big hair, loud sound, and no plot.

      Believe me, I still yearn for movies that are so good I’ll see them seven times in a theatre. And sadly, it’s been far too long since I was served something that fed my imagination and emotions so well.

      I feel very fortunate to have grown up watching TV written by writers trained under the old studio system. The studio system had its faults, and it ground up talent, but it knew how to turn out solid plots.

      Sure, experimentation is good. Like your example of the guy with amnesia and how the story unwinds from that as he regains his memory. Terrific and clever.

      But when all we have are bad copycat imitators, the good stuff becomes lost. And once lost, can sound writing principles be regained?

      • The good stuff has become rather hidden, but it’s not completely lost. Some of it is coming from a few rather small publishers (in story form) and one or two indie filmmakers (for TV and movies). One example is the FSF house that carries the name of the late Jim Baen. While its catalog has enough “current style” material to keep it going in the current climate, it also attracts a number of authors who provide classic story.

        The very first thing that Prof. Campbell drummed into my head, in my first class under him back in 1949, was how to study a published story to determine its structure. That was the foundation for everything that followed; he told us we would never again be able to read just for fun, but would enjoy it more because we could appreciate the underlying craft. He was right. And series such as the Honorverse or the Liadens still teach that craft to anyone who cares to study.

        Foster tried for three years to teach me the art of plot, but I couldn’t bring my characters to life, much less keep them there. Reading and re-reading the work of David Weber, Sharon Lee, and Steve Miller, studying their techniques all the time. did the trick after some 65 years! A year ago, at the age of 85, I sold my first short fiction to a small independent press. This year, the second piece appears this month in an e-magazine from that same enterprise.

        Our art is in no danger of dying. It’s just keeping a low profile!

  5. I was taught by Bickham that persistence pays off, and you are proof of that. Congratulations on your publications.

    I wish I could have studied with Campbell and Foster.

    • Oh, I didn’t persist all that time. I simply accepted the inevitable. Campbell gave me the ‘Hey, you! See? So!” formula for doing non-fiction and I specialized in that. Did the first national-mag piece on Bud Wilkinson while still in the courses, for “Sport” magazine; it hit the stands the same month as Esquire’s expose of the 700 millionaires. After service in Korea, became a reporter, and after acquiring a family switched to tech writing to pay the bills. While still at the Oklahoman I began moonlighting doing how-to pieces for hobby electronics and ham radio mags, and kept that up through the rest of the century.

      My youngest son’s wife, Rebecca McFarland Kyle, had become a semi-pro fantasy writer by that time and talking with her, added to the lessons I had absorbed by studying Weber, Lee, Miller, and also Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, got me fired up to try again. First effort is up under my name on Smashwords, but it has no real plot, just emotion. Next effort, my first seriously plotted piece since 1959, sold first time out, to Wolfsinger Press.

      BTW, I learned a lot from reading Bickham, though I never had the pleasure of meeting him. I did have Dwight Swain teaching me for most of a semester, subbing for Foster when Foster had a serious kidney illness.

  6. Bickham taught me an enormous amount. And although I never took a class from Dwight, in a brief conversation he could always pinpoint exactly the plot problem I was wrestling with and offer a solution.

    I think Miles Vorkosigan is a really fun character!

  7. laurances

    Are there exceptions to the rules? Can a non-sequential plot be the best tool for a telling a story of chaos and violence? Can the non-sequential plot be best appreciated by a reader who has experienced similar chaos and violence?

    I am thinking of Joseph Heller’s book “Catch-22”. Heller broke all the rules on plotting and produced an exceptional war novel.

    I grew up in a civilian Department of Defense household and have met hundreds of veterans through the years. I have discussed war movies and books with many of these veterans. I found one interesting thing about Heller’s book. The greater the amount of actual combat a veteran had experienced, the more they liked Catch-22. Most of the veterans who had no personal combat experience had a low opinion of the book.
    The best quote about Heller’s book came from a friend’s grandfather, Patrick Johnson, British Royal Air Force, bomber command, gunner, World War 2, 1939 – 1945, 150+ air combat missions, had three airplanes shot out from underneath him. “I knew all the guys in that book. I knew fifty Snowden’s. He told it just right. Wars are nothing but a bunch of blokes trying to survive in the middle of a murdering madhouse.”

    Did Heller increase the reader’s comprehension of the true chaos of warfare by writing “Catch-22” as the non-sequential overlapping tails of the individual characters?

    Your opinion of this seasons “Sherlock” is dead on.


  8. No matter what opinion I express, someone can always find at least one exception. 🙂

    CATCH-22 is not the kind of classically plotted book I’m usually defending. It resonates with combat veterans as you say because it has aspects that reflect their true-life experiences. But that isn’t what conventional fiction aspires to do or generally accomplishes. A few unconventional stories touch people and succeed hugely. The rest may catch fickle public attention through shock or astonishment, but they quickly burn out.

  9. Scott Sparkuhl


    I haven’t seen the episode you’re writing about. I stopped watching the new BBC Sherlock in Season 2.

    But, the darling of non-linear storytelling was Pulp Fiction back in the ’90’s.. Yet, if you read the screenplay for Pulp Fiction it’s designed as three short stories, about one story, each with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Book ending the three short stories is the incident in the cafe. It’s told out of chronological order, yet each section of story is beautifully linear and complete.

    What you’re describing is both non-linear and non-sense. I wonder what went wrong.


    • I think you stopped watching SHERLOCK at the right time. 🙂

      As for PULP FICTION, haven’t seen it. Not my cup of tea. But what you’re describing probably reflects early transitioning into non-sequential plotting.

      There are many theories about what has led to the current kind of storyline. A popular one blames the World Wide Web and the way digital devices operate. People who have grown up with Facebook and the Internet generally process information differently than those who were alive before these entities were invented. Watch how a toddler interacts with a computer or a Smartphone. Many movies today are aimed at pre-teens with disposable income, because that’s the largest and most affluent viewer demographic. And therefore such films are designed to appeal to viewers who are impatient, who process information in small bits delivered rapidly, and who–sadly–need dazzling color, special effects, and shock in order to remain focused on what’s happening. That has, in turn, bled over into television, which has gradually trickled into books. And the majority of books published are now YA or middle-grade, with numerous adults reading them instead of children.

      As long as we eschew reading for special effects, and direct stories at children–or child-like audiences–this is what we get. Lower literacy, simplified information, insufficient focus, no depth. When I was a child, I had left kiddie books behind by the age of nine and was reading books written for grownups. Those books were not simplified for me. Instead, I had to reach in order to understand. Now, when I watch old movies, especially those produced in the 1920s-30s, I am amazed by how they focused on people, relationships, and people-oriented problems, whether the central character was a man, a woman, or a child. Anyone could watch them. And everyone could pull something different from them, depending on age, maturity level, and degree of understanding.

      Today, stories are too often nothing more than gimmickry. For me, it’s like trying to live on a steady diet of Cheetos. Delicious occasionally, but no nutritional value whatsoever.

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