September 22, 2018

Writing is an Art Form. Treat It Like One.

Human beings are fascinatingly creative creatures, coming up with a number of different art forms, from theater to dance to music to sculpture and two-dimensional art. Let’s focus on that last category for a moment: art on a flat surface. Here, we find all sorts of mediums, genres, and subject. By medium, I mean drawing (which can be made by pen and ink, oil pastels, or pencils), painting (oil, tempera, acrylic, and even spray paint), collage, photographs, and so forth; if we wanted to go further with medium, we might even include what the art is done on—paper, canvas, or even the walls of a building. By genre, I mean the loose and nebulous ways we categorize a “type” of art as: abstract, impressionistic, purely decorative, murals, comics, and so forth. And as for subject, the sky is the limit, from landscapes, still life, and portraits to superheroes (a favorite subject of comic book art), dreamscapes (which many murals depict), and plants (which decorate any number of household items). Two-dimensional art certainly is amazing in its variety, and we all admit it.

That is why, if you were to start critiquing a caricature artist’s drawings for their unrealistic anatomy, you’d sound a bit foolish. If you insisted that a photographer use certain brush strokes in his art, he’d likely wonder if maybe those paint fumes hadn’t gone to your head. If you complained that a landscape painting wasn’t telling an exciting enough story, or that a comic book panel wouldn’t look cute as wallpaper, or that a mural in a children’s library wasn’t provocative enough, you’re likely to get some strange looks (and rightly so). Basically, if you give advice or a critique for one sort of two-dimensional art and act as if it applies to all two-dimensional art, you’re going to sound like a raving lunatic at best and an arrogant snob at worst.

And it’s the same thing with writing advice!

Writing advice, or rather, the people giving said advice, don’t seem to grasp the beautiful variety that writing, as an art form, has to offer. For an obvious example, people quote a lot of advice from Strunk & White without realizing that it wasn’t written with creative writing in mind. But people do the same thing in advice specifically for creative writing, without realizing that there are a lot of different kinds of creative writing. Just as in 2D art, writing has different mediums, genres, and subjects.

Even beyond poetry and prose, there are all the different forms of poetry, and then all the different mediums of prose: personal essay, novel, novella, short story, flash fiction. You also have those nebulous creatures that cross over, such as novels-in-verse and epic poems (which I submit are the same thing, but that is a post for another day). Just as it would be wrong to insist on a certain rhythm and meter for a short story, it’s also wrong to insist that a novel follow a short stories rules. And yet the oft repeated advice, “Get rid of any unnecessary details”, applies specifically to short stories, but is silly for novels, where the writer and reader really want to soak in and enjoy the world and characters.

Beyond medium are all the genres and subjects that prose can focus on. I say genres and subjects because a lot of writing advice doesn’t acknowledge that the lines of genre are much more blurred than many might assume. Thus, for the sake of my point, I submit that “genre” would be more about the structure and feel of the story—drama, action, adventure, mystery, romance, comedy, slice-of-life, bildungsroman, and so on—while subject would be what the story actually has in it. A fantasy has fantastical and magical elements, and includes supernatural, urban fantasy, and even, I would argue, magical realism. A western involves western aesthetics or motifs such as outlaws, gunslingers, and so forth. Scifi, strictly speaking, should deal with real science, but usually has at least the trappings of technology, and includes many dystopias, robot stories, and space stories. Obviously, a lot of these subjects blend—specifically scifi-fantasy, and no one would really argue with that. Strangely, though, many people don’t understand that genres can also blend, and just because a story has a certain subject does not mean it has a certain genre.

What do I mean by this? The other day I read a post about “How to write fantasy”, and the poor author was laboring under the notion that “fantasy” must mean adventure and drama. All of the advice they gave—which was decent enough for an action adventure story—was wrong for someone writing a fantasy comedy, or a fantasy slice-of-life, or any other type of fantasy. “Fantasy” is not a bunch of people fighting or questing, plus magic. Fantasy can be about a little witch who goes about her day running a potion shop, or a wacky comedy involving a goblin arranged marriage, or mystery series where curses and ghosts and such are just a thing.

So many people giving writing advice just do not grasp that there are more genres in the world than Action-Adventure and Drama. “Raise the stakes!” they say, but you don’t really want to do that in a slice-of-life. “Make your protagonist dynamic!” they say, but what if he’s the protagonist of an episodic comedy? Sure, in an action-adventure, we want to see what the hero is up against and wonder at how they’ll overcome it, but that’s not the point of a slice-of-life, where we want to hang out with characters in their everyday world. Sure, in a drama, we want to see the internal struggles and conflicts that cause a character to change (or refuse to change!), but that’s not the point of a comedy, where we’ll be just as happy to see the protagonist change and grow as we will to see him be his same ridiculous self, as long as we’re laughing.

I don’t know if it’s because of what people learned in creative writing classes, or if they’re repeating what famous authors in one genre have said, but most people giving writing advice seem to have not even thought about the variety that creative writing has to offer. Shoving all writing into only one or two mediums, genres, and subjects is as short-sighted and narrow-minded as trying to insist that all art has to follow the rules of an impressionistic oil painting or landscape photograph. No one would ever limit 2D art like that, so why do people insist on limiting writing? Writing is an art form, and it’s time people treated it that way.

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