Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Writing Sticky Fiction

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called MADE TO STICK by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, and it talks about what makes some ideas stay with us while others barely make a dent in our consciousness. I originally picked it up because I thought some of what it said might pertain to writing, and it does, but it also deals a lot with how our brains process and retain information, but not in a highly technical or scientific way, rather in a practical way. Which actually, come to think of it, also pertains to writing.

So one of the things that fascinated the authors was how vitally important information that had great impact on our lives could be so easily forgotten or ignored, while at the same time demonstrably false stories and urban legends lingered for decades. What made some ideas so darn . . . sticky?

It seems as if some of the six components they talk about apply more to writing than others, and yet I am finding a lot of useful information in all of them. This week as I read the book, I thought I’d talk about these components and how they might apply to writing fiction.

Take the first concept: Simple. Sticky ideas must be simple. So, okay, that doesn’t really work for a one hundred page story, let alone a four hundred page story. However, some of the principles of simplicity do offer some insight into writing fiction.

One of the things the authors talk about regarding simple is that the simple must reflect our core message. They also talk about feature creep—the phenomenon of adding more and more useless features to a device until it becomes so complex it is unusable. As I was reading this chapter, it struck me that this felt like a good description of the downside to overwriting. ☺

When we are close to a project and mired in our own story world and characters—as we must be when we are creating them!—it is easy to lose sight of what is truly relevant to the story we are trying to tell. The instinct is to put it all in, in the hopes that it will make the story feel richly detailed and complex, is nearly overwhelming.

The problem is, though, that the overload of information actually ends up obscuring our core story and we—as well as the reader—lose sight of what the story is supposed to be about. That is why the selective detail is so important, each detail should be chosen to reinforce our core, our theme, and to help reveal the story we’re tying to tell.

The authors also talk about proverbs as being the quintessential sticky ideas—short, pithy, and memorable. Often for centuries. The reason is because in addition to being short, pithy, and memorable, proverbs pack a big wallop in terms of insight or wisdom. And as I read that, I was struck by how much that DID pertain to writing. From the books we remember vs. the ones we quickly forget, to the difference between stereotypes and archetypes, clichés and resonance.

In order to be memorable, a story, character, or theme must contain an essential wallop of human insight or knowledge. But not just any insight, it needs to be an insight unique to the particular author and their worldview. That is what infuses what would otherwise simply be a cliché or stereotype into something memorable.

And lastly, the book holds the best explanation of high concept ideas I’ve ever heard: high concept simply means extracting complexity from a seemingly simple message.

Doing this relies on something called schema, which is basically a word for all of the associations and definitions we assign to a given thing or concept. So instead of listing all the associations and connotations for a new thing or concept, we liken it to something we’re sure everyone knows, and create a short cut to their existing knowledge/schema.

So basically high concept is simply an effective analogy. That’s it. It is simply a complex message that can be conveyed in simple, universal terms. Usually using schema. The trick is to have those simple terms be evocative and able to elicit an emotional response/reaction in nearly everyone who hears it.

Okay, so maybe I was the only one who didn't get that last part about high concept pitches. But now that I know what they are supposed to do, what mechanism they are relying on, I have a much better idea how to put one together.


dixie said...

Oh, dear!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Fascinating! That does make the whole high-concept thing easier to grasp.

Robin L said...

It does, doesn't it, Ruth? I finally get the why of it and what we're trying to accomplish...