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April 2, 2013 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Fuck the straight line. by Chuck Wendig
posted by Fizz (50 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmm
posted by curuinor at 8:56 AM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


"In 1953 I realized that the straight line leads to the downfall of mankind. But the straight line has become an absolute tyranny. The straight line is something cowardly drawn with a ruler, without thought or feeling; it is the line which does not exist in nature. And that line is the rotten foundation of our doomed civilization. Even if there are places where it is recognized that this line is rapidly leading to perdition, its course continues to be plotted....Any design undertaken with the straight line will be stillborn. Today we are witnessing the triumph of rationalist know-how and yet, at the same time, we find ourselves confronted with emptiness. An esthetic void, a desert of uniformity, criminal sterility, loss of creative power. Even creativity is prefabricated. We have become impotent. We are no longer able to create. That is our real illiteracy.

-Friedensreich Hundertwasser
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:57 AM on April 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


In fairness, that post is surprisingly linear in building to its conclusion.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:02 AM on April 2, 2013 [13 favorites]


Dig the post title.
posted by yoga at 9:04 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Poor guy. He'll be so pleased when he discovers how to solve quadratics and think he's home free, then he'll totally hit a brick wall with cubics.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:06 AM on April 2, 2013


That reminds me of the old joke:

Person #1: "Question authority!"
Person #2: "Why?"
posted by chavenet at 9:08 AM on April 2, 2013 [14 favorites]


I wonder if Chuck Wendig is a fan of Tristram Shandy.

(Full disclosure: I was born on the birthday of Laurence Sterne, a straight-line-fucker nonpareil.)
posted by bakerina at 9:21 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nobody lives this life. There are people who think they are living the straight line life, but they are not.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:26 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I came in to mention Shandy, as well.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:31 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


What a bunch of squares.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:33 AM on April 2, 2013


Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is a pretty boring trope as well.
posted by dudemanlives at 9:46 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not sure I learned anything about storytelling.

But I did learn "Fuck" + (mundane topic) = blog hits
posted by superelastic at 9:47 AM on April 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


I dunno with my first attempt at a novel I was like FUCK STRAIGHT LINES DFW LIVES and so forth and as a work it is a worse failure than the Bush II Administration. But then, there could be other factors than my non-linearity.
posted by angrycat at 9:51 AM on April 2, 2013


Dig the post title.

I dunno; it's just a line. How about: ______________!________?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:55 AM on April 2, 2013


There's no straight line in I.

Er...
posted by Devonian at 9:55 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Um, am I the only one who found that overly dramatic and meaningless? No examples, no real explanation, just a lot of metaphor? I'm probably using it wrong, but the phrase "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" comes to mind.
posted by Canageek at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fuck Chuck Wendig
posted by ReeMonster at 10:01 AM on April 2, 2013


The ad copy for that edition of Tristram Shandy is weird. Like it can't be a good book if the paper it's on is cheap.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:02 AM on April 2, 2013


The obsession with the straight-line imagery obscures the thesis, which seems to be that intentionally breaking formula or linearity is Good and Important and Makes Us Special. Um, duh?

And we as storytellers are the crooked trees that do not belong.

Not really, but isn't pretty to think so?

Still, a good reminder of things are that important when writing or doing other creative work. Similar sentiments from a musician: shitty is pretty.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:04 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Previous post about Wendig where he uses the exact same schtick.
posted by Nomyte at 10:07 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fuck yeah stoned undergrad essay! That'll show The Man!
posted by cmoj at 10:09 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


The tone of this guy's writing reminds me of all ad copy aimed at teenagers from 1996.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:26 AM on April 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hey, I like Chuck. He's a friend of mine. Plus he's written some freaking incredible books and he's nominated for the Campbell Award this year.

And more to the point, he has the ability to say a lot of the same tired boring writing advice -- because let's face it, we have a pretty clear angle on what works in writing and what doesn't after all these centuries, even if fashions do change -- in a way that makes people actually understand and internalize it. Sure, he could have said "make sure the amount of tension in your story varies as you go," but that's a heck of a lot less interesting to read, isn't it? And unless you already understand in your bones what that means it's hard to do it.

The thing about his blog is it's an ongoing conversation about craft and the writing life, so picking one or two posts and reading only that and thinking that's all he has to say is... suboptimal.

Sure, he uses a lot of swear words and colorful metaphors and some people don't like that so much. But it also makes the literary edifice a lot more human and less imposing. That's deeply encouraging to some writers.
posted by Andrhia at 10:30 AM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


The tone of this guy's writing reminds me of all ad copy aimed at teenagers from 1996.
Yep. Banality + {100.times puts "fuck"} =/= profundity.
posted by waxbanks at 10:41 AM on April 2, 2013


I like Chuck Wendig -- like Andrhia says, he makes writing seem a lot less scary because he's demonstrating over-the-top writing that still gets the point across -- he doesn't self-edit to avoid offense, and that's a great example for the timid to follow. And I get the impression he uses his blog as a gateway into his own id, just a little bit.

Plus, a couple of days ago he called Florida a "land-wang," which made my day.
posted by mneekadon at 10:41 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


No life is actually a straight line. Against whom is he arguing?

(Not to mention that deliberately trying to add bumps and curves and peaks and cliffs to your life isn't morally any "better" than trying to live a life on a fairly even keel.)
posted by rtha at 10:41 AM on April 2, 2013


rtha, note that he's talking about plotting in a story, not dispensing advice on how to actually live your life.
posted by Andrhia at 10:45 AM on April 2, 2013


(Not to mention that deliberately trying to add bumps and curves and peaks and cliffs to your life isn't morally any "better" than trying to live a life on a fairly even keel.)

"Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d'être violent et original dans vos œuvres."

- Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Gertrude Tennant
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:47 AM on April 2, 2013


No, I got that, but I still don't understand who he's fighting with. And this just makes me roll my eyes: Our stories are best when they are like the storyteller: when they have gone off-book, off-world, off the goddamn reservation. When they have forgotten their lines and made up better ones, when they have lost the map and found secret passages and unknown caverns.

But okay, this piece is probably useful for some or many, or says something in a way that makes some or many peoples' eyes light up and their brains go "Oh!", so okay.
posted by rtha at 10:50 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


You see, this kind of advice was around in droves when I was 17, and I complained about it on the Internet back then, and the people around me said, "Lots of people find this kind of advice helpful."

Now I'm not a teenager anymore, and there are still great heaps of advice like this, and I still complain about it, and people around me are still saying, "Lots of people find this kind of advice helpful."

But despite a decade and a half intervening between then and now, the people who said this kind of advice was helpful are still crude hacks, while I have actually managed to quit writing entirely.
posted by Nomyte at 11:40 AM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think if he's fighting with anything, it's the Internal Editor. A lot of his pieces are targeted at newer writers, and I usually find a few little nuggets to file away.

I ended up skimming this one a little this morning, as it went on a bit, but I have a crapload of revision/re-outlining to do on two things I'm working on, and I can see his crazy-line diagrams in my head, reminding me that dull characters and plots do not make good fiction.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:46 AM on April 2, 2013


I actually think this is the worst kind of advice for new writers. I used to think I was doing all sorts of exciting art in this way but the truth was, I just had no idea how to string a story together and was covering up my lack of ability with various kinds of flash and dazzle (for some writers, that's explosions and ninjas; for others, like me, it was very pretty prose which conceals the absence of substance).

Or, as McKee says, in his introduction to one of the few useful writing books I've ever encountered (the others being Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress): "Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:16 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Andirhia Yeah, I will admit that his metaphors made my eyes glaze over, so I wound up skimming, but I really didn't get what he was trying to say. Why doesn't he just come out and say it, then give some nice examples, perhaps a labelled diagram or two since he likes diagrams, something that I don't have to fight with to understand? :S
posted by Canageek at 12:18 PM on April 2, 2013


Sorry, I wanted to say: I have no problem with the guy, and don't mean to offend you or him, I just wanted to say, I don't get it. Guess I'm not the target arty, writer, demographic.
posted by Canageek at 12:19 PM on April 2, 2013


I really didn't get what he was trying to say.

Shorter version: nobody wants the same old stories told the same old ways; well, maybe some people do, but it's a lot more fun and exciting to tell a new story or use a new way to tell it.

It probably seems a bit remedial to most of us, but it's not bad advice. Whether or not you enjoy the writing style or find it irritating is (mostly) a matter of taste and we all know about that.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:23 PM on April 2, 2013


Something like the same idea, but more helpfully expressed:
The first idea (“move towards the complicated”) is, I think, best understood as a habit of mind generally worth cultivating. Basically: steer towards the rapids. Say we’re writing “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we’ve just typed: “One day, Red’s mother handed her a picnic basket and told her to go see Granny, but not to talk to any strangers along the way.” So—should we have her meet a stranger? Yes. Should that stranger be potentially dangerous, like, say, a wolf? Sounds promising. Should Red engage with the wolf? (What a drag, if, at that point, she takes Mom’s advice and ignores the wolf: story over). Should the wolf she meets be evil, or a gentle, New Age wolf, who gives her some nice poems about daughter/granddaughter relations? Looking at a familiar story like that one, it’s pretty clear: a story is a thing that is full of dozens of crossroads moments, and if we make a habit of first, noticing these, and, second, steering toward the choice that gives off incrementally more power (or light, or heat, or throws open other interesting doors, etc.), this will, over the long haul, make the story more unique, more like itself, more incendiary. (Although even as I type this, I find myself intrigued by the poem-giving wolf. . . . )
posted by Iridic at 12:31 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shorter version: nobody wants the same old stories told the same old ways; well, maybe some people do, but it's a lot more fun and exciting to tell a new story or use a new way to tell it.

I don't think it's remedial. I think it's flatly not true in terms of what's commercially successful. Andy Decker's comment on Wendig's post is spot-on:
Strange but true fact: Baskin-Robbins reports their best-selling ice-cream flavor is vanilla. Think of all the wonderful flavors out there, and the public buys more vanilla. This is followed by the other two – chocolate and strawberry. I too likes me some circumlocution, but there are reasons people write vanilla and that is to sell to their audience. I’ve been advised to flatten a few story ‘arcs’ in the past (not that I sell many stories, so maybe that’s the problem right there). This might be my bad, as in the story can’t be followed, or the reader’s bad, as in the reader can’t cope with the curves. Either way, it’s the same effect. What do to?
Wendig dismisses this as "writing for the lowest common denominator," but I don't think it's necessarily the case, because there are a lot of very compelling stories that are written in traditional ways. The manner of telling doesn't invalidate whatever else might be of value; the manner of telling is simply a tool.

Some stories can't be told in traditional ways, and that's fine, but I think most unskilled writers don't know when that's the case. They're too likely to default to what they think is genre-busting but is actually just sloppy and inappropriate for the story they're trying to tell. Having been a sloppy writer (I said my stories were "slow burn" when they really just started too early), I'd much rather advise newish writers to learn about different ways of telling a story in order to figure out what's appropriate and when. And I'd much rather not blame the audience ("lowest common denominator") when one's grandiose experiments in unnecessarily avant garde style don't work. Those kinds of stories are a hard sell--they need to justify themselves. If you're skilled enough, they will. If not, well, then you're going to be doing a lot of whining about people Not Getting It. I know I did.

But such advice doesn't really make for the blog hits, I guess.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:36 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


The thing that bothers me about this sort of writing is the need expressed in it to write or make as if in constant, bitter opposition to another. My memories of being sixteen and writing fictions in diatribe mode are some of my worst, and I would hate to write now as if engaging in another battle inside my skull. Internal as writing is, it can be difficult enough without creating dull demons for company, particularly when they're so poorly defined.

But I'm clearly not his audience. For them, this may be a helpful call to arms and, like most calls to arms, will be at least as felt as understood.

Also, the goal of writing against expectations is overstated here. Common storytelling—that which follows a usual shape, with a usual cast—can be compelling, rewarding, and astounding. But if a piece like this gets an early writer to think about what they're doing and cull the best of their ideas, ditching the dimmest, that's fine.

(As an aside, I'm always a little disturbed by any mangling or murderous metaphors.)
posted by mcoo at 12:47 PM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I too have recently been railing against lines, though more the predictive graph lines which are sought by many social researchers seeking simplistic causality. I'm reading James Gleick's Chaos for clarity on how other fields think about complex systems, which I think maybe describe human behavior better.

What would a story that read like a fractal or a strange attractor look like? Or a scatterplot of nonlinear data? And -- be honest now -- would we actually like to read it? Narrative is linear. Isn't that why our brains like it? We like to believe in simple causality.

yes, I know, somewhere deep in the literary academy this has already been dealt with. I haven't studied literature in years. Hi, Roger.
posted by gusandrews at 1:53 PM on April 2, 2013


re: the post title - how'd you do that? (Get the html title to be "straight-line" while the actual title is "________________," I mean.)
posted by Navelgazer at 2:06 PM on April 2, 2013


Still I would kind of like to write a story that is basically like line, line, line, line, lin--EVERYTHING EXPLODING ALL THE TIME OH FUCK WHY IS EVERYTHING SPLINTERING INTO A BILLION FIERY MIRROSHARDS OH MY STARS NO end
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:33 PM on April 2, 2013


What would a story that read like a fractal or a strange attractor look like? Or a scatterplot of nonlinear data?

Try some Ted Chiang. This story may be what you're looking for. At least, it's certainly nonlinear.

Even if it's not what you're looking for, you'll be reading Ted Chiang, therefore coming out ahead.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:34 PM on April 2, 2013


I propose we fashion a peice of graphine 6km long by 2cm wide one layer thick. We will mount it horizontally on special automatically adjusting poles tangent to the earth. As the graphine expands and contracts based on forces the support these poles will adjust to keep this graphine line straight. We shall work to carefully cut the graphine such that its width it varies no more than a few nanometers all along its length. We will take care in leveling and stretching it to ensure that it remains true to its vector along the whole length. People everywhere will come to marvel at this line. Perhaps the critic linked above will still consider lines boring; but the world will disagree.
posted by humanfont at 3:19 PM on April 2, 2013


Even if it's not what you're looking for, you'll be reading Ted Chiang, therefore coming out ahead.

Yes, it's very true. Everybody put down your computing devices and go read some Ted Chiang right now.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:22 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


What would a story that read like a fractal or a strange attractor look like? Or a scatterplot of nonlinear data?

So one of the things Chuck and I have in common is a career involving transmedia narrative, which is fancy talk for breaking up a story so it spans multiple interrelated but not-redundant media. Sometimes it's interactive, sometimes it's not, there's a lot of academic debate that I'm going to try to sidestep right here.

Onto linearity: If you're telling a story through a series of video clips, Tweet streams, and comics (like Pandemic at Sundance, which, to get back to the topic at hand, Chuck co-wrote) or experiential projects like Sleep No More, or even through a disconnected series of payphone calls (like ilovebees) it's possible for the experience of the narrative to be entirely nonlinear. You can encounter the pieces in any old order you please.

One of my own early (and not terribly good) indie projects was a time travel story in a Google calendar, a sort of proof-of-concept on telling a story in a medium that isn't particularly meant for it, and in fragmenting the linearity of a story pretty sharply.

But these experiments with nonlinearity have eased up a lot because at the end of the day, the audience is just taking all of those pieces and putting them back in order again. If you go too nonlinear you make it difficult for the audience to come away with a coherent and satisfying story at all. Which is, at least in theory, the whole point.
posted by Andrhia at 5:47 PM on April 2, 2013


You know who really needs the advice in this essay? People who have read too many books on writing screenplays. Every single one I've read with that angle seems to have One True Structure that they want to explain and get you to use so you can become a Successful Hollywood Screenwriter writing the kinds of scripts that get made into big-budget films. Which... well, when's the last time you saw a big-budget movie and walked out praising the story structure?
posted by egypturnash at 9:01 PM on April 2, 2013


"prefer the standard to the offbeat."
...in choosing between the formal and the informal, the regular and the offbeat, the general and the special, the orthodox and the heretical, the beginner [should] err on the side of conservatism, on the side of established usage. No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden; there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly, and does not thrash about.

"But," you may ask, "what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?" Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness — the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.
-The Elements of Style
posted by coaster at 9:18 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flagged for Strunkanwhite. The operative word there is "beginner."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:20 PM on April 2, 2013


Which... well, when's the last time you saw a big-budget movie and walked out praising the story structure?

Cloud Atlas. (Whose structure was not at all like that of the book's but managed to create cohesive narrative tension out of 6 different stories.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:42 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Baskin-Robbins reports their best-selling ice-cream flavor is vanilla

Vanilla is a subtle, complex flavor. It's a flavor-enhancer, creating a base for other notes to be differentiated against. It's the dried seedpod of an orchid, and one of the most expensive spices in the world.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:39 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


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