Bad dancing and bad writing

by Neil

When new partner dancers are starting out as leads, they usually want to be able to lead really flashy moves: spins, dips, stuff like that. But teachers, and more experienced dancers, usually encourage them to focus on basics. Is this because their teachers hate fun? No. It’s because their lead is too noisy.

If you don’t lead simple, basic moves cleanly and purposefully, the follow won’t know what’s going on when you get to the fancy stuff. If the lead makes distracting, unnecessary movements, the follow has to ignore them; and vice-versa, if the lead fails to clearly indicate what they expect, the follow has to guess (or deduce, from trial and error, and the lead’s facial expressions) what the lead wants them to do. Either way, the follow trusts the signal less — so it’s difficult or impossible for the lead to communicate subtler ideas, and it’s a less pleasant experience for the follow, even if they do happen to guess correctly the whole way through.

Bad writing has the same quality. I read a very early draft of a friend’s short story recently. She’s a fine writer, but because it was such an unrefined fragment — she’d written it in about an hour while we were hanging out and drinking — I noticed that the piece had a lot of small misleading components. Individually, they weren’t a big deal, but overall, they created a fundamental problem.

To explain what I mean, let’s consider a simplified model, where a story consists of a series of setups and payoffs. In the dance analogy, we could say the setup is like the lead, and the payoff is like the follow executing the move, and ideally feeling good doing it.

If your story is titled Sarrasine,” I’m going to wonder who, or what, this Sarrasine is. If your story begins, I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia,” I’d better hear more about Uqbar, the mirror, and the encyclopedia. And if your novel begins, It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife,” I will expect it to contain one or more single men, and have a dry sense of humor about human nature.

Now let’s consider my friend’s story. The first sentence describes the narrator picking up two gallons on the way home.” So, hmm, maybe it’s gas, although that’d be a weird way to describe it? Maybe it’s milk, and they’re a bodybuilder or something? Or maybe it’s some fictional liquid, like the setting is a sci-fi dystopia where everyone has to get their government-mandated happy juice? But none of these made sense with the rest of the story.

Later, the narrator notices minute details about the decorations of their friends’ neighbors’ houses that normally wouldn’t merit attention. At this point, I was already uncertain whether I could trust my instincts. Was the narrator trying to keep their mind off something unpleasant? Was the narrator supposed to be autistic (like, Curious Incident autistic)? Was it going to turn out later that the narrator was a professional exterior decorator? Was it just a slightly-awkward way of indicating that the narrator had been here frequently?

Neither of these are catastrophic problems taken on their own; individually, they could give an air of mystery to the story. I could be left holding my breath, waiting to figure out what those two gallons were. But when many of these problems occur, there’s a fundamental shift, where I stop assuming that the things I notice are meaningful, and start assuming that they’re just the result of…well, someone writing a fragment on a short time limit while drinking.

This very simple setup-payoff model doesn’t explain everything about writing, of course; and even within this model, a really talented writer could give the reader a setup with no payoff. But that requires a masterful level of control everywhere else. The reader needs to feel that the writer is creating an effect on purpose.

Links to this post
100th post anniversary