Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing Advice 13 — Weaving

Weaving is a technique I love. I love to use it when I write and I love to see it when I read. I often use it as an indicator when determining how good an author is at their craft, because weaving is a true art form and not easy to do.

Weaving is exactly what it sounds like. Just like in basket or cloth making, you take one thread, wrap it around another, then let it go, only to bring it back later and wrap it again. Checkov’s Gun is a famous, but extremely simple form of weaving. You show the gun early on in the story establishing it. Then you allow the reader to forget about it, and then you bring it back. In this way, the gun is not perceived as a deus ex machina event. It is instead something the reader had information on and could have figured out if they had remembered it. The problem with the Checkov Gun is that modern audiences know this technique very well and using it usually tips your hand. It is the same in movies, where the camera lingers for a second too long on a book hidden under a magazine, or a credit card that no one noticed falling from a purse, these things scream, “This is going to be important in the future so remember it!”

The challenge is to avoid the deus ex machine by planting clues, but to hide them making it possible to surprise the reader. There are two ways I’ve found to do this.

There is the Horton method and the Genre Bias method.

In the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who! An elephant named Horton hears the mayor of a microscopic world called Whoville speaking from a dust speck. No one else can hear the Whos and they don’t believe him. In order to stop his foolish behavior other animals of the jungle take the flower and hide it in a massive field of other identical flowers. This method of hiding in plain sight is the Horton method. A writer can present Checkhov’s Gun, but then also present a knife, a blow dart, a bottle of arsenic and Uncle Herby’s pet alligator who has a love of human flesh. The reader will have no idea which of these will ultimately be used.

The Genre Bias method, is a bit more devious. In this technique you use a reader’s expectations against them. If it is the trope of every mystery novel that the butler is the killer, then point the clues at him. Let the reader believe that you are doing the same old tired plot. They will ignore the Checkhov’s Gun in the hand of the policeman because they are so certain that the author is following the same path they’ve been conditioned to expect. (Note: this has the unfortunate side effect of readers giving up on a story partway because they are convinced they know what will happen and that you are an unoriginal, hack writer.)

But these are only a small part of weaving which is not simply confined to hiding clues to avoid a contrived plot. True weaving is when story elements are reused repeatedly.

I’ve read books where whenever a scene needs a character, a new one is invented. Whenever a new place is needed, it is created. I considered this to be linear, or straight-line writing. Single straight lines of threads are useful, but they lack the abilty to draw in a reader and heighten tension. If however you reuse elements, bringing old ones back to fill the new roles you need, weaving begins. Not only is this reuse helpful in the form of not having to completely build an element from the ground up, but it causes the reader to feel a sense of familiarity that helps with the all important suspension of disbelief—this world is real because things don’t just disappear never to be heard from again.

This weaving allows for the creation of twists and patterns—something you just can’t do with a linear style. Twists are obviously unexpected occurrences, but patterns are what result when you take a story element and weave it so that it changes into something different. Whether a character, a place, or even an idea or motivation, these can be twisted from one pattern to another. A bad character can become good. A desire to right a wrong, can become a wrong in itself.

By causing elements to weave back across the main plot line, each intersection becomes a possible opportunity to develop something new—to build a new idea. And this building on top of an existing foundation adds depth to the story. Usually the path of a main character who grows from one type of person to another is a form of weaving. But it is much more interesting when the weaving effect is used on multiple characters, settings and plot elements.

I know this sounds a bit abstract, but we are in the advanced class now, so I expect a higher level of understanding—or at least more patience with my inability to communicate. Remember I’m only a writer. Still let me try to present an example.

Let’s say your group of adventurers stop at an inn for the night, and the next day they really can’t have their horses, so you decide they will be stolen that night. You’re first instinct is to create a wayward theft, who will be captured later when they need the horses back and he will be forgotten. However, if instead of inventing a new character to steal the horses you could use a previous character—the squire wannabe—one who may have been a trusted friend. The advantage is that it would make logical sense for them to trust this friend with the horses making the adventures appear less inept. Of course now you have to find the motivation for this previously good guy to do this act of evil. Was he always intending to cause harm and just pretended to act nice? Is he being blackmailed? By whom? Will the adventures now need to help him? There are tons of possibilities here, and by solving this riddle, the story will gain detail and depth and rather than one more bland, backgroundless character—the horse thief—you have instead what used to be just the squire wannabe, who now just may be…the illegitimate son of the main character! (Well, hopefully something better than that.)

The more interconnections with less starting points, the tighter the weave of a story. It also helps to ensure that all loose threads are tied up. Readers don’t much like it when you leave a plotline or a character unaccounted for. (I know a few people still upset with Rowlings wondering what happened with the house-elf revolution.) My goal is often to make nearly every element in a book have at least more than one use. Nothing that I take the time to introduce, and force the reader to use their time to read about, should ever be a one shot deal.

In my mind, tighter weaves, that use less characters and settings to tell the same story, are like plays in contrasts to movies. The restrictions generated by the limitations of space and cast demand greater effort, skill and creativity on the part of the writer. And writing almost always benefits from extra effort and greater challenges.

In a recent review of my latest work, a friend commented, “I was surprised to see the girl coming back into the story. I just thought she was there to establish the main character as sympathetic.” This person had not read any of my other works or I would have been surprised. But it does say something about the state of reader expectations.

In what I consider a well constructed story, nearly every element is a Checkhov’s Gun. If you show it, you’d better use it. Nearly every character, setting, prop, or idea, is reintroduced and used for a new purpose, a purpose that utilizes its unique history already established in the story to lock that new pattern in the bedrock of the plot. Builds upon builds, foundations lending themselves to new foundations.

What happens if now that Squire Wannabe turned Illegitimate Son, is in the end the real antagonist? How wonderfully buried would be that Gun! Weaving provides you with the freedom to take a story in new and unexpected directions, for intersections are exciting things.

That’s the bell. No running. Next week: Multitasking


  1. What about weaving through a series of books? I have a few things that are only mentioned once or twice in my first book, but come back in later books.

  2. You only want to do that if you want to be a successful series author. :)

  3. Love, love, love this post. Great insight. This is why some stories feel so shallow. The world feels fake because set pieces, characters, and settings are only used when they need to be and then cast aside, never glanced at a second time. There is so much potential to play with reader emotions by using old characters or using a setting one way in one scene, then using it a completely different way in another. This just opened up new possibilities for my storytelling.

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