Fiction Daily.
A blog on writing, writers and why we read. Posted most mornings by Marion Blackburn.
Getting to the point
I once heard that the first three movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony were just the composer's effort to get to the point -- the fourth movement and chorale.

Thinking of these three great movements as an extended introduction Beethoven couldn't get beyond gives something to think about.

In writing, I often go all over the place trying to say something. I set things up like a comedian, but never arrive at the punch line. I offer some background, but have no point for it. The background consumes everything I had to say.

What I realize is that the information is not the problem. Rather, it's the approach. It's a failure to get to the point.

What is behind this lack of a point? Why do I wander all over the map, saying a lot but avoiding specifics?

I once had an editor who was horrid, rude and intolerable. No matter -- he taught me a lot.

He introduced me to the concept of a "nut graph," which is a paragraph, say three or four paragraphs into the story, in which you sum up what happened, where, and why it mattered.

This simple "nut graph" has kept me grounded through many stories, long and short. At some point, you have to say where you are.

A professor put it this way. He said that in our research papers, we should be like a preacher, "Who tells you what he's going to say, then says it, then tells you what he said."

Sometimes, we hear a lot of "blah blah blah." I think it's because we're not getting to the point.

AHEAD: What are we afraid of?
2008-01-24 12:35:09 GMT
Comments (2 total)
Agreed ... mostly. There can be value in building a scene, a character, a setting. Going back to an example from earlier in the blog, think about that long "Bird's Eye View of Paris" in "Notre-Dame de Paris." It is a highly detailed description of the city in the 15th century, a time and a place long gone by the time Hugo wrote. He felt it was important to add that texture, to bring to life the city as it was centuries ago. And being able to visualize 15th-century Paris really does add something to the experience of reading the novel. For more examples of this, read anything from Henry James' middle or late periods ... "Portrait of a Lady" is very little but color until about four-fifths of the way through, but all of that build-up makes the last one-fifth infinitely more rich and potent. So, yes, we do need to get to the point eventually, but allowing yourself to maunder for a while -- even for a long while (especially in a first draft, which you can always go back and trim later) -- can be important too.
2008-01-25 12:02:27 GMT
I think you've really made a good point. Some of our best writing meanders, lingers and takes the spiral path to the point. You've also made an even larger point about writing and writers -- it is critical to believe in what you're doing, to have a sense of where you're going, and why. If Hugo listened to the voices and inner critics that haunt us all, he may have simply stuck to the plot and we would never have that long wonderful section describing Paris you mentioned. I often fear I give up too easily ... lack the confidence to believe in my own vision long enough. And it takes a long time ... we can all relate to the struggle Dr. Seuss had with his first book. He carried "Green Eggs and Ham" to 38 different publishers before it was accepted. -- MB
2008-01-28 12:41:35 GMT
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