Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Got Armature?

"It's not the pearls but the string that makes the necklace." --unknown

In the art world, an armature is the framework that supports and ultimately gives shape to a clay sculpture. It's this wire frame that provides the structure and strength for the final product. Prop shops for movies use them, too, for monsters, masks, creatures, you-name-it costumes and props.

Two items of import are readily evident: An armature provides structure and it is invisible to the naked eye. It is an essential piece of the overall product, but the viewer should never see so much as a wire poking through.

As a writer, a novelist, why do you care? Well, Brian McDonald, screenwriter extraordinaire, explained it all like this: Your masterpiece must have a point that you're trying to prove. Every decision you make is based on that point. So, the armature is the message that your story proves. [Note: the message must go somewhere. You can't have a message like "love" -- but you can have one that states "love sucks."

Did I mention that it provides structure? And that it's invisible?

He also stressed that every scene must prove this point -- anything else just dilutes the message. Sub-themes may emerge, but they will always complement your point. Don't muddy the work.

Okay. I'll buy that. But I'm still wrapping my head around the invisible part. My reading sorrows of the past year have all revolved around the lack on invisibility of this armature. From Anthony Horowitz to Eion Colfer, I swear it feels like every YA author out there is clumsily foisting his personal message down my throat.

So, I'm curious: how do you balance the need for thematic continuity with the requirement of invisibility? Or do you even worry about a message or theme? If not, how do you achieve cohesiveness throughout your work? If so, how do you create the illusion that it's natural and organic? How do you make us forget the armature exists?


  1. That's a really tough question, Alex. If I knew the answer I guess I'd be a Big Name writer. One thing I do know, I can't stand to have characters spout off rants on politics, religion, ecology or any other message from the author. The characters are not a soap box, they are there to enact a story, to envelope the reader in an engaging tale. If they impart certain messages by the way their stories unfold, that's good, but it should never be done via lecture disguised as dialogue or interior monologue.

  2. Great post and wonderful term, Alex. Subtlety and spare prose make for some of the best writing and IMO it's what we should all be striving for.

    My day job is teaching and a constant reminder to my students about their papers is "less is more" and it's much easier to write a good long essay than an exceptional paragraph.

    With regard to embedded messages, I do think it's possible to convey struggle and desirable (even for the universe) outcomes, but in order to successfully do so I think those message should be driven by the plot and cannot just be thrown in on their own. My own book is a YA/crossover and I really tried to achieve this end in the novel; hope it worked (fingers crossed now).

  3. Super cool visual!!! (it's perfect)

    Do we think about how many acts are in a Shakespeare play or the fact that a tragedy will end in death? I don't when I get into a story. Why? The characters come to life, the conflict feels real, and I get caught up in the emotion.

    I think that when we look at great works of fiction we will find that there is plenty of structure, but all the things that are great about it make us pay attention to the moment by moment action and drama rather than the structure itself.

    That's of course assuming that you are on the first read or viewing and not an overly analytical English major or teacher (like me)who cares as much about how and why a story works as how enjoyable the story is.

    And the theme, or premise, arises as a natural, or inevitable, outcome of the conflict itself. I think that Shakespeare does a good job letting his characters fight it out.

    I'd suggest reading the Art of Dramatic Writing. It's one of the best writing books ever and has plenty of examples that show how a premise (theme) is proved through dramatic action and conflict.

  4. Balancing the two is art! I love incorporating themes my work, so this question is an essential for my writing. I once heard someone say that writing is hard work and if you do it well you make it look easy. That quote seemed to fit your post.

    Best words of wisdom: Don't overkill...Subtle is key. Allow people to be smart.
    ~ Wendy

  5. You know the funny thing about theme for me is, I don't really know what it is when I start the book. I know that it relates to what I like to write about, the unintended consequences of technology, but I'm not quite sure where it will go until I've finished.

    It's only when I am in my second revision and my palm suddenly smacks my forehead that I realize, Oh yeah, that's what this is about.

    You are absolutely correct though Alex. Having a point to the story is critical.

    It's interesting that agent Nathan Bransford wrote about the same thing today and he agrees with Alex. Though he also says if you can't make a point you might need to add more monkeys. http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com

  6. First, I love the analogies between architecture and writing. Not to answer your question.

    I’ve never consciously included a message, subtle or otherwise, in my writing. (Anger-filled rants excluded) After reading an early draft I discovered I had and it came off kind of preachy. I realized I had to tone that part down a lot. (An underlining subplot in my novel is about someone who travels to the future and finds it perfect. The MC remembers things that are wrong in the past.) It has to be included but in a way where it’s subtle and, well invisible.

    I’m learning as I go and I’m discovering that nothing will get by other writers unnoticed. Thanks Alex for making me think and for this post.

  7. I meant, NOW to answer your question. :)

  8. I absolutely LOVE this post! Thank you for the information and the ideas. I'm going to have to think about this one a lot concerning my novel. What an awesome way to look at it! Thank you. :)

  9. Love the analogy of armature!

    The best advice I ever read on this subject was from Holly Lisle:

    "If you want to send a message, buy an ad. If you want to create resonance, you work your theme in. If you want to have people love your book and treasure it for what it meant to them, you bury that theme so deeply only you will ever know what it was."

    I used that as my guiding principle when I wrote my novel. I came up with a one-line theme that reflected not only the feeling I hoped to convey from the book, but also my own personal journey in finishing it. Then I made sure *every single character's* journey reflected the theme--from my protagonist to the main villain, and every minor character in between. What's fascinating is that the same theme could be interpreted different ways, for different people.

    The hardest part was burying it--never writing it out in the book, never putting it on my blog--because I wanted to share it! :-) But if I could see the theme peeking through, it was time to edit. I'm a big student of fairy tales, parables, and metaphors, so I modeled my writing after that--hide the message in plain sight. :-)

    As Holly says, your readers may never know the theme you had for your story. But they'll feel that the book had meaning, and see their own themes in it. And that makes for a memorable book.

  10. http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Geth_Armature

    The Geth Armature is a mobile anti-tank and anti-infantry unit employed in high risk areas, oftentimes dropped directly from Geth Dropships. It is a quadruped 'tank' seen mostly with Geth Rocket Troopers. A geth that is easily a match for the armoured vehicles of other races, Armatures are armed with the Siege Pulse - which is deadly but slow to recharge - as well as a smaller weapon that is not as powerful as the Mako's machine gun but fires more rapidly.

    Armatures are not vehicles, but sentient machines capable of independent thought and learning. When inactive they can 'fold' into a relatively compact space: this, combined with their armaments, makes them perfect for garrison forces or an ambush.

    There is an even more deadly variant of the Geth Armature called the Geth Colossus.

  11. @tricia: i'm with you. it frustrates me to no end reading someone's soapbox disguised as dialogue.

    @andrea: thanks -- i like how you said that messages must be plot-driven. i realize some writers have chosen a theme and then written a novel around it (and done so successfully at times), but it seems that subtlety is key.

    @dave: having just finished up R&J yet again this year, i've been thinking about Shakespeare a lot. good thoughts!

    @wendy: i had an art teacher once who instructed us to NOT fill in every line. He said, "Leave something for the observer to do -- allow them to be an active part of your work." That stuck with me -- because it's true not only in art, but in writing as well. Good insight!

    @douglas: i think sometimes that the major idea or theme unveils itself with time -- and part of the revision process is to help reveal it even more. i have no doubt that our subconscious plays a large role in our writing ;)

    @charlie: i love messy, organic writing -- it's such a delight :) thankfully, we also have the rest of the process: revision helps weed out the undesirables. and i think you're so wise; sometimes it's difficult to recognize ranting in our own writing!

    @LadyGlamis: thank you for your enthusiasm ;) you always make me even more excited about my own writing, somehow.

    @mousewords: wow. great response. and i love the quote. i don't know holly, but i have a feeling i'll have to look her up!

    @anthony: you are such a boy. but, lucky you, i like boys.


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