Hiding the Joints

“Good writing is that which hides the joints.”

That’s one of my favorite pieces of writing advice. It came secondhand, back when I was at school in Wales. The words might not be exactly correct, but we were talking about transitions, about moving from idea to idea. Carpentry’s a good metaphor for it. Mediocre writing can look a lot like the kind of bookshelf I’d build, even if the ideas are good. I know how to measure, and I know how to use a saw properly. I’m confident I could build a fully functional shelf. A practiced carpenter can cut the pieces and fit them together so well that the joints, while not disappearing, don’t catch the eye.

Writers develop plenty of tricks to hide their joints. Transitions can be as simple as using parallel phrase structure in the sentences bracketing a paragraph change. They can be more complicated, of course, and a well-written paper or story can flow as smoothly as the unfurling of a flower or as inevitably as the ticking of a watch. Structure counts. The little things count, too.

Sometimes the little things can hide the joints too well, disguise them so thoroughly that we don’t notice structural flaws. I mentioned a timeline problem in my NaNo project a few weeks back. That was a smooth transitions/flawed structure problem. Reading the first four chapters of the novel, everything flowed naturally and made perfect sense…right up to the moment you stopped to think about it. As soon as you did that, it became obvious that one character had to have gone backward in time. I was able to untangle things, but it was a messy example of the way fluency can obscure problems. Yet another reason to avoid falling in love with your own prose.

Most of my thinking about transitions and structure has been on the academic side of my writing life. How can I lay out an argument to make it convincing? Which concepts are so fundamental to my project that they need to be explained fully and immediately? As I work with long form fiction, I’m having to adjust that thinking. Characters ought to develop, both over the course of the story and in the readers’ understanding. The plot has to unfold smoothly enough that the joints stay hidden…or at least elegantly enough that any breaks are convincingly abrupt.

There can be as much legerdemain as carpentry in hiding transitions. Movies have reminded me of that. I took my kids to see Despicable Me 2, and I was astounded at how brisk everything was. The movie is only ninety minutes. It’s got set pieces in it, too, that eat up screen time while contributing minimally to anything else. There’s hardly any exposition. Things happen, it seems, mostly because they happen. We don’t need motivations. The bad guy is the bad guy. Gru doesn’t want his daughter seeing boys. The minions are wacky. Doctor Nefario of course changes sides. Twice. Zip zip zip. There’s no time to figure out why they do any of these things.

Importantly, there’s no need to figure out why the characters do any of these things. We experience the movie like we experience music: in time. We don’t go backward. If the array of writers, actors, directors, and editors are doing their job, we stay suspended in the movie’s now. One of the easiest ways to realize a movie is bad is that it has given you the time to notice it’s bad. (That doesn’t mean movies can’t inspire reflection while watching them—there were parts of Django Unchained, for example, that were profoundly uncomfortable and made me think without jarring me completely out of the movie.)

The next night, I saw Thor: The Dark World. It was longer, and not in such a hurry, but there was a lot of the same sleight of hand. The characters are what they are. Holes in reality are placed conveniently to propel the plot or just to look cool. The Asgardian defense forces become bad shots when the bad guys invade for exactly the same reason that storm troopers can’t help missing the heroes of Star Wars. We get the bones of a story and a lot of hammer swinging and explodey stuff. It’s fun.

In both movies, the transition-hiding sleight of hand relies on convention. Despicable Me 2 ends with a wedding because of course the girls need a mom. The Dark World ends with the evil dark elf getting smashed up because that is what happens to bad guys in comic book movies. I enjoyed both of the films. What’s interesting to me, though, is how convention and thumbnail sketches of plot work to whisk us past the joints more than to hide them.

How much can we do that with our writing? When can we use convention to avoid the parts people skip? When can we hide the joints with illusion rather than carpentry? I read a piece a while back by a “serious” author doing Young Adult projects that highlighted the challenges of keeping all the attention on the story. Flowery descriptive digressions or psychological submarine expeditions nudge the readers out of the book. She was talking about young readers, but it goes for adults, too—part of the reason Y.A. writing has so many adult fans. The focus is on storytelling rather than being “writerly.”

Gene Wolfe is the best writer I know at managing both of those things. He’s a master of showing rather than telling, even when, in The Sorceror’s House, the whole book is a collection of explanatory letters. He manages economy without creating the forced briskness of an action movie or kids movie. He hides his joints superbly.

What about you? How do you hide your joints? How often do you allow yourself to use a little of legerdemain to obscure what might not be fixable?

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One comment

  1. Fantastic post. It is a challenge to work through transitions. Spending much of my time working on training materials, that flow become very important. A choppy training session or presentation will disengage an audience rapidly. I commonly use previously referenced examples to tell a story, of sorts, through a presentation to provide continuity and flow. It additionally provides the value of building a solid example of the trained content when I’m successful.

    The continuity of an example is akin to uniformity of character dialogue in more traditional writing. When reading a good novel, I sense the style and demeanor of a character through dialogue structure quite often. This brings me closer, as a reader, to a character and that proximity can lead my attention away from, or simply catapult me past, potential plot holes. Developed character dialogue seems like the ‘now’ you described in Despicable Me 2 and Thor.

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