Lurking Beneath the Surface

Grand Prismatic Spring – What is lurking in its depths?

The wind is blowing hard this morning. Yesterday’s promise of rain for today has blown away leaving me no choice but to go out to water the garden, a poor-cousin alternative. My wife and I have just returned from a week of visiting and exploring two national parks in the U.S.A. I love wandering through national parks in any country as there are so many scenes that present themselves that often serve as inspiration for new stories. What I didn’t expect was how one scene would have me look deeper into the craft of writing. The Grand Prismatic Spring presented a beautiful surface. What was hidden in the scene was the power that lurked in the depths.

Writing, at least good writing has to present a captivating surface, a scene that invites a reader to spend time investigating the story that emerges while reading. A writer can’t possibly present all the underlying reasons for why characters act the way they do, or why events evolve as they do. However, a writer needs to know those things.

Many books, especially action stories, don’t worry about what lurks in the depths. Fast paced dialogue and events don’t require complex characters or scenarios. Whether it is the adrenalin rush of a chase or escape, or constantly shifting scenes of lust, or the more common stories that use a template that follows a tried-and-tested storyline, complexity is avoided. As many prolific best-selling authors find, the solution is to keep-it-simple-stupid – the KISS principle.

Imagining the stories that could be told

If a writer is to risk digging deep into their characters or into the meat of their stories, there is a necessity to plunge into the depths, to lurk in the shadows, and notice all the details. There are so many stories that could emerge, even from one opening image.

I am currently reading a book that had a lot of promise in the opening scene. The story has characters that have personality and are flawed. The plot so far is plausible. Yet, I am finding it hard to stay with the story as the writer really doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. There is a solid attempt to offer a complex story via the characters and plot, however the foundation, what lies below the surface, what is lurking in the depths of the story doesn’t allow the story to succeed. This is when a typical reader drops a book and never returns to finish reading it.

If a writer dares to enter into a story that is complex, then there needs to be a lot of research. Think of research as lurking in the shadows, in the depths, observing and questioning the whys and hows of what is seen. I want to present an example that is drawn from the story mentioned above. The power grid in America is down. It might be down worldwide but the reader doesn’t get to know this. Internet and communication is shut down. No gas for cars. It becomes a rich possibility for a modern story of survival.

However, as in the case of this story of a cast of survivalists, too much is ignored [lack of research] such as alternate sources of power such as solar and wind which survivalists would tap into in order to keep water pumps running. Ignoring real survival strategies destroys the plausibility of the story, especially this story which is not set in an urban setting, but in a rural setting. Perhaps for a reader who is born and raised in a city with no exposure to what lies below the surface, the infrastructure that makes even a city work, the story might be okay.

As a writer, I want my stories to be plausible, even if they involve gods and goddesses. I don’t want a cast of knowledgeable readers to realise that I don’t have a clue what I am talking about such as the author of the story I am drawing from here.

There is nothing wrong about writing a story that stays on the surface. A reader can appreciate this kind of story just as much as a person can appreciate the scene of the Grand Prismatic Spring found in the first photograph. Yet even beneath the surface of the spring, there is a story that goes deep into the earth, breaking through the mantle to reach the powerful. I studied the panel describing what lurked in the depths beneath the Spring and I came to have a rudimentary understanding of what I was seeing which allowed me to appreciate even more the scene.

I guess, this is what is meant when authors are advised to write what they know. Outer Space fiction for example works because authors focus on what they know, typically how humans behave independent of where they are found. Fantasy works because of the same thing. Naturist fiction works because the authors have an intimate knowledge of being a naturist. A non-naturist [I personally dislike the word “textile”] trying to write about naturists would stumble and be quickly found out to be inauthentic by a naturist reader. As authors, we must let our imagination soar, but at the same time, we don’t want our wings to fall off because we used wax to hold our feathers together.

4 thoughts on “Lurking Beneath the Surface”

  1. Excellent observations, Robert.
    Writing about things you know involves a lot of research. Emma Nelson has shown me that in more detail than I care to remember! But it’s so worth it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul. It’s all about asking questions of oneself and then doing the work to answer those questions as best as one can.

  2. “A non-naturist […] trying to write about naturists would stumble and be quickly found out to be inauthentic by a naturist reader.” This is a great post overall about surface vs. depth. For example, in the Da Vinci Code and other books with the same protagonist, we don’t really get to know the protagonist with any degree of psychological depth. The protagonist merely solves puzzles to keep the plot going. As you say, such books do not “require complex characters,” and the nature of the book would change considerably were more complexity to be revealed. They are novels about puzzles, great page-turners if you’re into that, but so singularly focused that the emotions, when present at all, feel tacked on at the last minute. It does indeed bare comparison to a non-naturist attempting to write about naturist experiences!

    1. Your work, Will, is based on what you know AND a ton of research so that you can blend in reality, history, culture, and your view of the world with seamless perfection. Thanks.

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