When I trained Fencing and Martial Arts in my youth I was struck by the fact that novices and masters seemed to choose their techniques in a different way. Novices seemed to be more deliberate and when they went for a technique they struggled to do the move correctly, just as they were taught. Masters, however, seemed to be more fluid and spontaneous. I learned that masters did techniques in order to breathe correctly so that everything happened naturally. Novices, however, tried to breathe into the technique, forcing themselves to breathe in a manner that allowed for a good technique to happen. You can see the same thing in football, for instance. When you see someone like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi playing, they seem fluid and you can pick up that they use different techniques in order to go in a particular direction or be in a position to strike. They don’t even seem to think about the techniques they use. Maybe they don’t even realize the techniques they use. (Btw, Portugal just won the 1st UEFA League of Nations Cup – kudos to us.)
Let me give you a writing example. When I was a kid I was enthralled by a particular sentence I wrote. It was something like this (loose translation): ‘The Moon was up on high, a comma of false modesty, hidden but interested.’ I just thought this was the most beautiful sentence I would ever write. It was a clever sentence, as I was describing the crescent moon. It seemed like a comma, falsely modest because it was mostly hidden in the shade but still very beautiful, and it was hidden but looked like it was slightly popping out of the hiding place to look at us. Clever… I still think it was a very good use of a metaphor. But I believe nowadays I write these kinds of sentences and use this technique all the time, without even noticing it. I don’t use it to make a beautiful metaphor or a beautiful sentence – I use it to lead the reader to a specific position and feeling. And that’s all I care about.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not always learning new techniques or new ways of doing this or that. Take a look at this dialogue by Hemingway I talked about here. It’s from ‘A FAREWELL TO ARMS’:
(The leading couple is in bed. The protagonist is trying to convince his girl to marry him – she refuses.)
(…) ‘I am married. I’m married to you. Don’t I make a good wife?’
‘You’re a lovely wife.’
‘You see, darling, I had one experience of waiting to be married.’
‘I don’t want to hear about it.’
‘You know I don’t love anyone but you. You shouldn’t mind because someone else loved me.’
‘You shouldn’t be jealous of some one who’s dead when you have everything.’
‘No, but I don’t want to hear about it.’
‘Poor darling. And I know you’ve been with all kinds of girls and it doesn’t matter to me.’
‘Couldn’t we be married privately some way?’
Hemingway is using a technique some call ‘Talking Heads’ – he ignores the scenery and physical aspects of the scene and just writes dialogue from one character to the other. It’s a tricky technique, as I explained here, because if it’s not done well it will confuse and annoy the reader. But I like it a lot because it’s very cinematic (curiously enough) and expects the readers to be intelligent and fill in the blanks. Now recently I read one of THE WITCHER’s novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and he uses the technique all the time. But he goes a step further. Here’s a scene by a master teaching his young pupil to fight:
‘Beautiful! Now jump away, jump away immediately, pirouette! I could have a dagger in my left hand! Good! Very good! And now, Ciri? What am I going to do now?’
‘How am I to know?’
‘Watch my feet! How is my body weight distributed? What can I do from my position?’
‘So spin, spin, force me to open up! Defend yourself! Good! And again! Good! And again!
‘Not so good.’
‘Uff… What did I do wrong?’
‘Nothing. I’m just faster.’
See what Sapkowski does there? He almost writes in the second person POV. It’s an action sequence but he doesn’t describe any of the movements except… through dialogue. You’re following the action through the dialogue. In my view, that’s taking the Talking Heads technique to another level. I love it! I’d never seen this technique used like this!
Actually, the implicit question in the title is a wrong one. You never ‘don’t use’ techniques. Every time you are writing you are using techniques, whether you know it or not. And it’s good to know about them because you will then notice them in other writer’s texts and you can consciously experiment and develop your portfolio, your tool-kit, and your writing. I believe we writers must be able to learn from one-another and reading is absolutely necessary for this.
But having a tool-kit, knowing techniques, must improve your options, not restrict them. Different techniques give you alternatives and new solutions for this or that situation you face. It’s not indoctrination. You should be very wary of people who tell you: you should do this and not do that. ‘Protagonists must be this way or that way. Chapters should be this way or that way. Stories must be like this, genres should be like that. Don’t do metaphors like this, make your sentences like that.’ That’s all bullshit in my view. Original writing, writing that is truly interesting, comes from experimenting, from making mistakes, from doing things people haven’t done before – or did it worse. Also, don’t go asking those kinds of questions: ‘should I start my story this way or that way? Is it wrong to use first person POV in a comedy? What if I describe a fight through dialogue, is it okay? Can I do Talking Heads or is it bad?’ These questions should not take place! Seriously! Just do it. See what happens. Then ask your readers to give opinions. But you will never be original if you write ‘by the pole-numbers’.
My mother taught me this story as a child, of a man trying to paint his house. Every person who walked by had a different opinion about the color he was using and every time he accepted the other’s opinion and changed the color he was painting with. Of course, he never finished painting the house. We must accept that we will never please everybody and that there is no perfect way of writing a story. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s an Art, not a Science! It’s not about being able to repeat the experiment; it’s about experimenting in novel ways.
Now, not everything that is original is good. There was this screenwriting agent I once met who told me that ‘when people come and tell me that this hasn’t been done before, I usually find a good reason for not having been done before.’ Originality is not just about being different. Most of Creativity is actually Creative Problem-Solving. It’s about solving problems in a creative way. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need to analyze the problem and invent a new solution. But you can do Level One changes – solving a problem in a completely different way; or Level Two changes – solving a problem by improving past solutions. Both are possible and both are desirable, as long as the problem gets solved effectively – and doing that with Level One change, i.e. inventing new techniques, is much more difficult and time-consuming. You can always do Level Two: learn a lot of techniques and use them in original ways – i.e. having a well-furnished tool-kit.
At least that’s my take on the subject. I hope it makes sense to you. See you around the next campfire, fellow knights.