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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Dialectics Can Improve Writing

Is it possible to apply an ancient process used by Socrates to our writing? Maybe so.

What is dialectics anyway? Remember studying Plato back in college? The questions and more questions? Socratic method, we called it.

Socrates discovered truth this way. He proposed something, found a contradiction to what he proposed, and then adjusted his thinking only to find a new contradiction.

First, a thesis is stated. This is the proposition. Then a contradiction emerges. This is the antithesis and the complete opposite of what was originally proposed. Now we have to compromise and correct our original thought and come up with a new proposition. This is synthesis, a combination of the original proposition and the contradiction to it.

What the heck does all this have to do with writing? Well, a lot because we're really talking about contradiction and change, and that's what story is about.

Day becomes night. Birth leads to death. Love becomes hate. The present becomes the past, and past and present determine the future. Right?

So in writing, we must concentrate on change. And this change is best shown in our characters. Human beings are complicated and our characters must be just as complex. That's why we develop character sketches and know our characters well. It is the contradiction within the human psyche that impels motion.

The good boy next door murders his employer for no reason. We read such stories in the newspaper all the time. A good boy gone bad. Ah, but within that good boy's character are the seeds of badness and we, as authors, must do our homework and develop the character traits so that we know exactly the reasons why a seemingly nice boy would do such a terrible thing.

The proper wife runs off with a poet, leaving her children to fend for themselves. Why? Because within her complicated past, her upbringing, her need for passion, her complex personal needs and makeup, there is an urgency to escape.

The thesis here is that the proper wife did the proper thing by marrying a proper but very dull young man. The antithesis is that this proper wife always wanted to travel the world, to paint and write poetry, and to never settle down and have children at all. And this desire burns inside her as she gives birth to one child after another in an effort to do the proper thing and please her husband who never reads poetry or takes her dancing or to art museums. The synthesis, then, is the resolution - the proper wife running away with a free spirited poet. It all makes perfect sense now.

So by understanding that change is what makes the universe what it is and contradiction is what makes for movement and action, we can better develop our stories.

Using dialectics we ask the "what if" questions of our characters as we develop them. What if the very nice girl's parents really want her to marry the very handsome and proper young man in town because he's well-to-do? What if he's duller than a sack of hammers, never reads a book, and doesn't know a metaphor from a metronome? And what if this very nice girl is really passionate inside, a poet, an artist, a free spirit? Well, you get the idea...

Analyze what successful authors do. Jodi Piccoult does it in 16 Hours. Elizabeth George does it in her Detective Lynley series. Their characters act and react according to who they are and where they've been and their entire detailed backstories contained in author notes and journals.

The very proper wife would never run off with a poet. right? It's not in her nature to do so? Ah, but the clever author has already established that this very proper wife is capable of doing that very thing. Change is what life is all about and the only quality we can predict about human nature.

Using the dialectical approach when developing your characters will enable you to provide more conflict, unique complications, and a much better story.


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