That Spark

Seema posted an interesting quotation from The Life of Pi. Here’s the crux of the quote:

Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you’ve mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You’ve done your research, gathering the facts — historical, social, climatic, culinary — that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been perstering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won’t work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right. Your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.

My contention is that the above situation is impossible. If you have the right theme, plot, dialogue, description, characters, and style, then you have a story. Nothing is missing. Writing isn’t magic.

If, on the other hand, your story doesn’t gell, then you have to conclude that one of the parts has gone astray - say, the plot doesn’t fit the theme or the dialogue doesn’t fit the characters. In particular, a story that’s emotionally dead must have either dull characters, an uninspiring theme, or leaden prose.

I’ll combat the depressing quote above with an inspirational Ayn Rand quote from The Art of Fiction. I was pleasantly surprised by her views on the muse: she believes in it and that it is the subconscious, but she also claims that the muse can be influenced, primed, and eventually forced to produce that elusive spark. Here is how to do it:

To master the art of writing, you have to be conscious of why you
are doing things—but do not edit yourself while writing. Just as
you cannot change horses in the middle of a stream, so you cannot
change premises in the middle of writing. When you write, you have to
rely on your subconscious; you cannot doubt yourself and edit every
sentence as it comes out. Write as it comes to you—then (next
morning, preferably) turn editor and read over what you have written.
If something does not satisfy you, ask yourself then why, and
identify the premise you missed.

Trust your subconscious. If it does not deliver the kind of
material you want, it will at least give you the evidence of what is

When you get stuck on a piece of writing, the reason is either that
you have not sufficiently concretized the ideas you want to cover or
that your purpose in this particular sequence is contradictory—that
your conscious mind has given to your subconscious contradictory
orders. […]

The solution is always to think over every aspect of the scene and
every connection to anything relevant in the rest of the book. Think
until your mind almost goes to pieces; think until you are blank with
exhaustion. Then, the next day, think again—until finally, one
morning, you have the solution. Do enough thinking to give your
subconscious ample time to integrate the elements involved. When
these elements do integrate, the knowledge of what to do with the
scene comes to you, and so do the words to express it. Why? Because
you have cleared your subconscious files, your lightning calculator.

One Response to “That Spark”

  1. Tournevis Says:

    I’m afraid I think it’s possible. The Brazilian novel from which Yann Martel stole the story for Life of Pi is exactly that, dead, even if it’s all good in theory. Though I don’t think Martel is as much a genious in English than what has been claimed (I find him much more interesting when he expresses himself in his native French), but he was able to take a second rate Brazilian novel and make it good. He admitted as such often enough.