As a Writer: Literary Cohesion
In my post about editing a few days ago, I referenced cohesion, and I’ve received requests to clarify this concept. So here goes.
My sense of literary cohesion has its roots in my undergraduate courses, where the esteemed Dr. Greg Scholtz cleaned my clock for four years about what makes writing great and what doesn’t and how to be a cleaner writer. We were working with 18th century British literature and academic writing, but I still learned more about how to stop the Heidi babble machine from him than I did in any fiction writing course. He taught me how to make a point and stick to it, and the basis of doing this is based on the principle of literary cohesion.
Cohesion in general is sticking together, but it’s less about glue and more about how things maintain their association. The picture to the left here is supposed to demonstrate social cohesion, and it’s probably the best visual metaphor for cohesion of any kind one can find. The hands placed together make a circle, but it’s not perfect. Each hand is independent and can remove itself at any time, so the cohesion, the sticking-togetherness, must be maintained or the cohesion ends. Also, each of these hands is different, and not just in skin tone. There are right and left hands. Small hands and big hands. Some hands have tan lines from watches or bracelets. The sand around each hand is also different. In short, a whole is created by these twelve hands on the sand, but the bond is not permanent and must be supported or it will fail.
In the academic papers I worked on with Scholtz, identifying the point around which I would create cohesion wasn’t difficult. Usually it was assigned to me, and if not, it was easy to come to the nexus point I needed to build around. My model for structure was the good old Western five-paragraph essay, which while boring and uncreative, does get the job done. All that was left to me was to stick to the point. In a short paper I could do everything in my head. For longer dissertations, I would create outlines and charts and make sure every one of my assertions linked back to my main topic. Cohesion achieved.
In fiction, cohesion is a much more nebulous beast, not only because finding the main point of one’s work is more challenging, but also because the definition of “main point” and “sticking together” has potential for wide interpretation.
Before I go any further with this, I have to stop and lay out a few assumptions for the kinds of fiction I’m discussing. For there to be any cohesion at all, there needs to be a main point for the story to gel around, and right away we’ll branch out here into conscious and subconscious writing styles. Some authors write deliberately, planning out what will be achieved in the story. Some make no plans at all and “follow the muse” or their instincts or something else which basically boils down to writing subconsciously. Many of us, myself included, do a combination of both. I generally have a plan which I swear is there only to distract me while the subconscious mind/muse/whatever lays out the actual book. In no way am I advocating any style over another. This said, primarily conscious writers can begin working on cohesion during the first draft. Subconscious writers and combo writers will likely be better served waiting until the first draft is done or until most of the book is in place, or until they are hopelessly stuck. I put this in bold because it should probably be in blinking neon. If you try and be a conscious writer when you’re actually a subconscious writer, you are in for a world of pain. Probably the reverse is true as well. You have been warned.
At some point, though, I am assuming the writer sits down and says, “What is this that I have written/am writing?” Even a completely by-the-seat-of-her-pants-driven novelist should polish and edit before submission/publication. This is my assumption, that at some point an author is sitting down and trying to figure out what her work actually says.
Commonly this “what does my work say?” is referred to as the central question, and it should not induce panic attacks in the author, because it should be fairly simple. Genre writers have a leg up because we can begin with the central questions prominent in our genre. I write romance, so somewhere in mine is always, “will they get together?” But just as our seventh grade teachers told us in those five-paragraph essays, our central question cannot be overly broad.
I’ll use my own work to put my money where my mouth is: in A Private Gentleman, the central question is, “Can a professional sodomite fall in love with the stammering, opiate-addict son of the nobleman who ruined his life?” Okay, I’ll admit as central questions go, it’s not the tidiest, and if I were putting that on a billboard I’d clean it up. But it gets the job done. Fall in love makes it clear this is a romance. Professional sodomite and stammering, opiate-addict nobleman’s son gives us the pairing. Not the conflict—that comes from the fact that Wes is the son of the nobleman who ruined [Michael's] life. The pairing, though, tells us the baggage each man will bring to the story.
How does this set me up for cohesion? Easy. If anything I write doesn’t serve this sentence, it doesn’t have a place in my work. If I wander off into a diatribe about the evils of…I don’t know, gambling hells, it had better be because that’s where Wes is doing and aquiring his opiates or because that’s where Michael got raped and the hells are part of the problem. It’s not at all unlike that five-paragraph essay structure, just with more condiments than you’d get in an academic work. Every single thing I put into my story has to serve the central question. Every. Single. Thing. Every time I break that rule, I violate my cohesion, and if I do it too much, I’ll render my story incomprehensible.
The more complex the story and the more sub-genres it embraces, the more danger there is for cohesion violation. I’ll offer myself up for this again: The Etsey series. Big, extended fantasy story with lots and lots of subplots. I’d planned to use astrological nebulae as my metaphor, but it seems I’m going with salad instead. If A Private Gentleman is a nice simple head of romaine with some olives, walnuts, carrots, and a simple but spicy vinaigrette, the Etsey series is a vast cornucopia of spring greens and some bean sprouts and an apple, strawberries, cranberries, three kinds of nuts, blue cheese, and an exotic dressing. I worked my ever living tail off to have a central question, but the truth of the matter is by the very nature and structure I set up, I probably lack cohesion there for a lot of people. The number of editors and betas and scrutiny that series has (thank you, Loose Id) is intense and necessary. And even with it, if I’m going to fail on cohesion for a reader, that’s where I will fail. Some people love that mess of stuff in their salad. Some find it obscene and don’t want to eat it. Neither answer is incorrect.
This brings us to the other difficulty in discussing literary cohesion: what is coherent for one reader might be incoherence for another, and there’s no magic way to make sure coherency happens. Readers aren’t wrong about what is and isn’t coherency unless they’re trying to say that because they see something as incoherent means it must be so for everyone. This does mean, though, that not only can we not please everyone, we can’t even find a sure-fire way to please most people. The only thing an author can do is work deliberately to achieve cohesion so that there is at least one solid path for coherence within the story. It would be advised she work to make this road for cohesion as broad as she is capable of making it within her story.
When I see a violation of cohesion in a literary work, it’s usually because there is no central question, or if there was one it got lost and the chaff was not removed. An easy place to flub this is in mystery-romances, because mystery has such a strongly rooted central question (who dunnit?) in its own right that it’s tempting to try and tell two completely separate stories, one about who dunnit and one about how two people will fall in love. The truth is, if two central questions exist in the same story, they need to serve each other as all subplots must, and likely the author is going to have to decide which one is driving the bus. In the case of a mystery-romance, the author must pick a lead cheerleader, the mystery or the romance. If it’s the romance, the mystery’s unfolding must revolve around the process and pacing of the romance. If the mystery is king, the romance serves the mystery instead, and possibly won’t even fully resolve in one individual story.
Why does an author need to have a central question? Why does she have to choose between two strong central questions serving two genres and make one subordinate to the other? For the reader. No matter what kind of story an author is writing, her main point is always and should always be that she is entertaining a reader. Without a map and guide for what to expect from the story, the author risks and possibly assures the reader will get lost and frustrated. The exception to this is literary fiction, where it shouldn’t be an exception and yet the genre has, in its lovingly messed up head, decided is just fine. Reader confusion and trickery is part of the gig. If you want to see how many people enjoy being confused and tricked, check out their overall sales numbers (not counting the lightning strikes that actually have plot and cohesion and clarity and make it into bestseller lists).
Not enough authors approach their work in the editing stage with the reader in mind. I have a whole ‘nother diatribe on expectations established in the first scenes, but we’re not going to go into detail on that today. Suffice it to say, cohesion rests in the author establishing to the reader what the story is going to look like so they know how to play along. In general romances begin with the introduction of the pairing, if not right away, then as quickly as possible. Mysteries begin with the introduction of the crime or puzzle, if not right away then as quickly as possible. I can’t give you a nice contract for fantasy/sci fi because those genres are more about setting and less about plot, but at the very least for cohesion’s sake that setting should be established tout suite. Whatever the genre/subgenre, the point remains that for the sake of cohesion, work on getting the story to stick together begins from the word go.
If the idea of consciously trying to work out a central question and making sure everything in the text links back to it feels daunting, there’s easier shorthand to use. Is my story clear to a reader? Can she begin reading and know what story I will be telling? Do I make her work to find out? If my story is complex, do I give clear signposts and stick to my main story instead of taking her into unrelated tangents? Do I follow established story patterns? If I deviate from usual patterns, do I do so in a way a reader can follow, or am I simply entertaining myself?
I highlighted that last bit because to me, that’s the most common sin authors are guilty of. In the first draft, we may be as self-indulgent as we like, but when we publish a work in any manner, our shift needs to move from gratification of self to gratification of our readers. No, that’s not an exact science. No, it doesn’t mean we sacrifice our story vision to make everyone happy. No, it doesn’t mean we even try to make everyone happy. During the editing and polishing stages, however, it is our duty as authors to prepare our tables for our readers. Our displays should be inviting and welcoming. Our food should be appetizing and appealing to the eye as well as the tastebuds. We can go back to my salad metaphors, or we can move on to something bigger here, it doesn’t matter. The point is that writing is for readers. Our readers. Everything else is dross.
Finding the way to serve readers best while still serving our story isn’t something anyone can bottle and sell, or even master. In no way is anything I write, especially in fiction, perfect in its cohesion. I can’t even say that with each story I write my cohesion gets better, because it seems like once I sort out one concept my muses toss me into something more difficult. For example, the story I just sent to betas ended up having two first-person points of view. The potential for poor cohesion is huge, but the story made it very clear to me it wasn’t going to come out in a tidy dual third person. I’m a rabid advocate of deliberate pacing (see the current course offering), which made it fun that for this story I ended up having one of the last scenes be an extended sex scene with a slower pace than I would have liked at the end of a story. This isn’t something unique to that story either. It feels like every time I create something new, I inadvertently tie myself into a pretzel over some writing construct I cleave to.
There is no mastering any part of writing craft, only the further complicating and challenging of the established “rules” we make and choose to follow or ignore. That said, every time an author is deliberate about how she writes, every time she accepts the challenge of her muse and wrestles with the dichotomy of following the story vs providing clarity to readers, I believe she creates better story. Great writers may or may not come with innate talent, but the best ones will always work hard with what they have and work constantly to acquire more skills.
My humble (or not so) request is that if you are an author looking to polish her craft that you consider examining your cohesion. A lot.