by, Alex Yuschik
If you know me, you know I do math for a living, so really it was only a matter of time before I crossed the streams and mixed it in with writing somehow.
For the faint of math-y heart: fear not. No actual numbers will be mentioned. I’m not giving out calculus problems (if you would like some, though, please feel free to leave a comment or find me on twitter and I will be happy to provide). I’m going to talk about the heart of mathematics, which is the concept of truth.
In higher level mathematics, we have this idea of something called a proof.
A proof, loosely, is a logical journey from one starting point to an ending point. The mathematician makes a claim, and then shows the steps going from the claim to the final product. Sometimes, you change an object into another type of object, or a space into another kind of space. Sometimes you show that a familiar object has new properties or traits, and other times you show that an object cannot perform certain tasks because of some inherent characteristic of that object.
Sound familiar? A character changes over time, an environment shifts. A familiar character displays new strength; an antagonist fails by a flaw.
Mathematicians, though, don’t just figure out what things are true and which aren’t. The other part of the job is to convince other people of the truth of your claim. We go from a starting point, and use facts or properties of the objects we’re working with to get to the end, and we justify all the steps. The final write-up is the proof.
No one really believes you when you just assert that something is true– people lie all the time. And whatever, we’re fallible human beings, we do that. Truth, on the other hand, is irrefutable.
As a writer, I can tell you that a character is arrogant and self-centered all I want, but if I show you that same character tutoring at a Boys and Girls Club after school or working at a food pantry, you’re not going to believe all that arrogant stuff I said before. You have proof that this character isn’t what I’ve told you.
I think I’ve already re-directed you guys to Chuck Palahniuk’s thought verbs exercise, but I’ll do it again and gladly. Telling is insidious. Spot the telling:
1. “She was mad.”
2. “She stomped her foot angrily.”
3. “She knew that getting mad wasn’t the way to deal with this, but she also had firsthand experience that violence could be pretty great.”
Answer: all of them.
The first is textbook telling. The reader doesn’t even get the option to decide for themselves that the character is mad. It is presented as fact.
The second is a little trickier, and basically the core reason why people advise you to cut adverbs– because most probably those adverbs are being used to tell things that your reader picks up on anyway. How many reasons are there for stomping your feet? Not a whole lot. Depending on the context of the sentence, we can narrow it down even further– “Hayley dismounted her horse, stepped in a cow patty, and sighed before stomping her foot clean.” versus “She crunched the thin envelope from her first choice college into a ball, threw it into the trash, and stomped her foot.”
The third is good ol’ Chuck Palahniuk’s thought verbs at work. Yeah, I’m showing you that this girl is mad, but I am also telling you that she has this addiction to violence even though the logical part of her knows it is bad news (also this girl sounds awesome– write her, please, and share). I want to be shown how violence tears her up but how at the same time it’s a siren song — that would make her ten times more compelling. There’s a huge missed opportunity here.
More than that, readers don’t like it when you do the legwork for them.
One of my math friends is big into Rubik’s Cubes. He can solve a 3×3 (the usual variety) in under thirty seconds, half-asleep, with his eyes closed, drunk– you name it, we have probably tested it. He is insane. He calls math problems puzzles, like they’re just pieces that you have to poke around with, twist and play with, until you get to where you want to go.
We do the same thing with stories, and jigsaws, and hell, even just-add-egg muffin mixes. I know that I can put together this thousand-piece sucker and get a pretty picture of a fjord– why do I bother? Why not just google that thing? I can tell you what happens in the story I’ve been working the past 10 months on (Dominic hates himself for being a coward in a crisis so then he mans up and does something stupid and brave), but that’s not why (god, hopefully not why) you might want to read that manuscript.
You’ll do that puzzle, and you read books, for the same reason you use eggs when you make muffins or cupcakes from a mix.
(And why do we even do that? Don’t we live in a space-age futuristic world where powdered eggs are possible? Or are egg-less muffin mixes the hovercar of the modern kitchen?)
Happily, it is totally possible to powder eggs. Mixes actually used to have them added for us, back in the day, but then that stopped. It’s not because manufacturers got cheap or anything– it’s because we liked having something to do that made us feel involved in the cooking process. Without adding eggs, what does baking from a mix look like? Well, it’s just adding water and oil, mostly, and then putting that mess into an oven.
But cracking eggs, that is the cool part. (I humbly offer a scene from my favorite movie of all time on the subject. During high school, I baked the shit out of things so I could master this skill.)
And it’s true: the egg is the most fun part of baking from a mix. Here, you think, this is where the actually chef-ery comes in.
Here I am accomplishing a necessary task to finish the cooking puzzle. Without my involvement: nothing.
You don’t put the jigsaw together to see the picture on the front of the box, not totally. You do it because you like finding the way the different pieces fit together. You want to know that you accomplished that, without help. You don’t add an egg to your blueberry and deliciousness muffins because you are, by cooking law, mandated to do so. You do it because adding the egg is the kickass part of baking, and, handy as that mix is, there is no way it is adding a physical egg in for you. You need to do something or you won’t finish the puzzle.
For the same reason, you don’t read a book to know where the characters go. Not totally. You want to be able to predict what’s happening, compare and contrast the sad eleven-year-old who lives in the cupboard under the stairs with the seventeen-year-old wizard who walks willingly to his own death. You want the motions of characters to make sense in your own head, and for that, you as a reader have to work. You want to know how that box of tiny pieces became that picture of a fjord, so you build the puzzle. You want to help make the mix into something greater than a powder, so you add an egg. You want to see what it took for the scaredy-cat dope to finally do something brave, so you analyze his actions through the story and track how he changes as a character.
As a writer, you’re on the flip side: you are a designer of puzzles.
When you show things, you lay out all the pieces for your readers, and you leave it to them to construct the logical chain. With showing, you tell them hold to onto their apron and grab an egg because this puzzle is going to take more than searching google for pictures of fjords to solve.
When you show, you get your reader involved. And that, really, is what a reader is asking you to do.
Writing is tricky, because as puzzlesmith, your job is to make the reader believe you at every step, building a logical chain of actions and reactions that step the character through growth. You don’t want to tell the reader things because that’s the equivalent of jumping up and down saying “this is true!” without giving us a reason why.
I love math and writing equally, because to me, writing a story and writing a proof are the same thing. In each field, the goal is to lead the reader to the truth and make them draw the conclusions you’re gunning for.
The difference is that when you write a story, you want to make the reader think that did that all by themselves.