Six impossible things

Analysis paralysis

Analysis paralysis stems from the same fear that’s at the root of choice paralysis: the fear that the writer will make a “wrong” choice and the work will be less – less good, less deserving, less saleable, less whatever – than it could/should be. And it’s based on the same misconception: that there is one and only one “best” way of writing the particular story, which writers must strive to achieve if they want their work to be successful.

So the analytical writer picks one of a myriad of systems – counting the number of words per scene and per chapter, or mapping out the pattern of shifting viewpoint characters, or color-coding subplots, or making a spiderweb diagram of characters and their interactions – and they break down their story according to the system, in an attempt to figure out what is wrong with it and fix it.

Being an analyst myself, I have to say that some of these things can be really helpful when I’m struggling with a problem that I can’t quite get my arms around. But they can also be, at best, a distraction from the actual work of writing the story. At worst, immersing oneself in too many different systems for constructing or analyzing a story can lead to total paralysis. After all, there are a zillion different methodologies for taking stories apart and examining the pieces. What if one of the ones you haven’t used yet will miraculously show you the one thing you need to know/fix to turn your story into a memorable bestseller?

Each of these systems starts with a bunch of assumptions about stories, how they work, and what the writer is trying to do. But not all writers are trying to do the same thing. A system that has fundamental assumptions that are congruent with your purpose is a lot likelier to be useful than one that is on a totally different wavelength. A writer who is trying to write an atmospheric slice-of-life story is unlikely to get useful advice from a system that assumes that a standard plot skeleton is the fundamental structure that all writers start with.

It’s not easy to tease out these fundamental assumptions about story structure and purpose. In my experience, they’re rarely stated because to the folks who develop these writing analysis and construction systems, they are blindingly obvious truths

The most useful analysis, from my perspective, is one that provides me with information about my story that I didn’t know, without telling me anything about what I ought to do about it. A program that lists the average length of sentences and paragraphs, along with the number of one, two, and three-or-more syllable words is frequently useful to me because I write for different reading levels, from middle grade up through adult. It lets me see when I’m letting my “adult” style (longer sentences, larger vocabulary) creep into my “children’s” books to an unacceptable level. I can then decide, based on where I’ve sold or expect to sell the book, what to do about it.

The same program, providing the same information, would be somewhere between annoying and actively detrimental if it included advice about whether to simplify my sentences or use a more complex vocabulary, because the advice would be assuming a set of readers who were older or younger, more or less skilled, than the actual audience I’m writing for.

The more complex analysis systems include considerations about things like genre and readership, but that just means the assumptions they make about stories are buried even deeper, down in what they think a “middle-grade reader” or a “science fiction reader” or “romance novel reader” likes, wants, expects, and/or is capable of reading. If those assumptions are wrong for a particular author or a particular story, the whole analysis is suspect.

Every story can be told in a multitude of different ways. One analysis system I saw estimated that there were 64,000 different ways of telling a story even before you got to the question of different viewpoint characters, time periods, or locations. None of those ways is inherently better or worse than any of the others; they’re all just different. Each one brings a different aspect of the story forward; sometimes it’s a personal, emotional problem that’s front and center, other times, it’s a big picture save-the-universe problem or an intellectual puzzle. Some books are meant to appeal to a small number of readers who share a particular taste; others are intended for a wider, more general audience.

Editors know this. They do not buy manuscripts because they are perfect by the numbers, because they know that readers don’t buy books by the numbers. (OK, I admit that I’ve met a few fifth graders who choose their book report books based on how many total pages they have, which is sort of by the numbers, but even they do not pretend that page count has anything to do with quality.)

Readers and editors buy books because they are engaged by the story and the characters. The quest for perfection is pointless; a reader who is sufficiently engaged can and will ignore all sorts of glaring writing problems.

After all, Randall Jarrel defined a novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”

4 Comments
  1. I’m experiencing this problem right now. It’s nice to put a name to it. Maybe now I’ll stop procrastinating and just write!

  2. “A reader who is sufficiently engaged can and will ignore all sorts of glaring writing problems.”

    Evidently, I’ve *never* been “sufficiently engaged”. I’ve tossed books across the room because of grammar, spelling, character inconsistency, and various other difficulties. All such things throw me out of the story, no matter how engaged I was or would like to be.

  3. The Randall Jarrel quote made me giggle. That’s as close to being a universal descriptor as any I’ve seen.

    Ta, Lois.

  4. Never underestimate the inventiveness of a writer’s mind when it’s coming up with things to do that aren’t writing.

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