26 Jul 2014

Essay: The Essence of a Good Tale

PART I: The Forms of Art

I shall begin by saying that, although this will be an essay, it cannot really be called that; for it shall include elements of art, and—therefore—a more apt description would be ‘philosophical fiction’.

Such semantics aside, the purpose of this essay/tale/enter-what-you-think-is-right-here is not merely to ascertain the purpose of a good tale (contrary to its title); rather, it is to determine what art is, why it is important—and to make some (hopefully) humorous comments on all of it. Let us begin with an anecdote.

(Clearly, I am already committing a faux pas. Mea culpa.)

The Anecdote: Dutch Paintings

Recently, I was in the Netherlands. There, I had the pleasure of examining some of the works displayed in the Groninger Museum (named after the town I was in).

I saw some wonderful things there: abstract forms hinting of nightmare imaginations (ironically); capturings of strange, crazy artists; and landscapes—so many landscapes!

They were vast, awe-inspiring things; and they seemed filled with both the timelesness of nature, and the tenacity of the humans that lay upon them, and the very spirit of Holland: of the tiny, utterly flat country that yet seemed so imposing, and so full of the feats weaved by its inhabitants.

And yet—despite all of the myriad of colours, the range of expressions, and the intangibility of the forms—I felt there was something missing. I felt that it was somehow… incomplete.

One does not think such of paintings. After all: they are our most tangible sense—sight. We can easily tell that the man is decimated by a crushing sadness that pervades into every aspect of his world; and we can quite comfortably recognise the need for a rock in the children’s expression. Everything is clear. And yet so much is missing!

Paintings in Further Detail

Let me use another example: the smiling Dutchman. You can perhaps tell from the warm, brown eyes (bordering a shade of orange) and the strong, leathery hands, wizened by years of exposure; you can perhaps tell that his voice is powerful, and strong—and that he would move in confident, reassuring strides; and that, even, he would smell of freshly cut hay and angrily uprooted tulips and orange carrots.

But you would not really get all that. You wouldn’t get it straight from the artist’s imagination—that strange otherworld that seems to reveal itself only to a chosen few (and rarely then).

You would have to imagine all of these things yourself. Create them, if you like. To truly experience, a painting (or a drawing, or a pastel, or a photo)
requires that you fill in some of the blanks yourself.

In a way, this is a good thing: for the purpose of art—or better put, one of its purposes, for it has many—is to inspire its receiver. And art that requires this emotional and intellectual investment will invariably inspire you more—because it makes you think.

But writing—to take the personal example—does this too. The writer must never attempt to cover every possible minutiae of a scene. And writing can give you those other senses directly; those feelings of loss, and confusion, and fear—or the wonderful euphoria of falling in love.

Likewise, writing can make you feel the deadly caress of the assassin’s blade. It can make you smell death, and taste its bitter aroma. Writing can be everything.

But this comes with a cost.

Investment, Difficulty; Two Foes of an Artist

There is no question of the fact that a painting is immediate. You can instantly see the blackness of malice and the white of puerillity. And this means less work, for you as a viewer; and so a painting can be gazed at by so many more (for we all know that not many take the promise of a large, heavy book easily).

We can argue idealism all day. Why, you say, should a greater art form be confined to less? Heresy!

But this does not take into account the realities. (I shall refrain from discussing the relevance of said ‘realities’, for to do so would drive this off on a tangent.)

The best art is also experienced by the many. It is why a bestseller may be the better art than the niche tale, despite the fact that it uses less of the greater language and may employ some simplifications. While it is true that a more refined, upper-class work of literature may give those equipped to deal with it a greater short-term enjoyment (and inspiration), it does so at the cost of alienating many more.

Moreover, inspiration and enjoyment is also drawn by the reader when they are able to communicate (read: discuss) the work in question with others. Such a feat is much more difficult in the case of the latter. Furthermore, it will relegate such discussion to a small strata of people. There would be less variety, and less understanding.

Allow me to elucidate. Let us assume, briefly, that a story follows the life of the most quintessentially poor man in history. I shall say no more on this; for no more need be said.

A reader from more fortunate echelons may scoff and laugh; but the working woman—whose life revolves around the 9-to-5—would quite easily comprehend the true difficulty of the opprobrium faced by the poor, poor man.

But to go back to the point: writing requires greater Investment from the reader; and this isn’t a good thing.

What’s more, there is always the question of difficulty.

Oh no…

I have no doubt this topic has been debated before. To some of you, it has even been debated ad nauseam.

But perhaps the viewpoint of a writer and hobbyist pianist may be of interest to you.

Writing is hard. You will see this mentioned, but very few outside the literary circle really understand the scale of it.

Pay attention now. What does a writer do when they are writing? (This isn’t about what writing and other art is, though, mind you; but we’ll get to that.)

You cannot write if you do not have something to write about. Firstly, therefore, you must create.

And now understand this: you must create the kernel of the story first. (In much the same way one does for an operating system, to use a rather oblique IT analogy.) What is the plot? What is the premise of all of this? What makes you want to know more?

And who is involved? Why? What motivates these people; what do they cherish—and what terrifies them?

When you begin, you will start with a character and a scene. Thus begins the creation of sense 1: sight. You must describe the tower that your character is looking from, for example.

She lay in a tower—a terrible thing it was: embittering the clouds in envy; deterring any climber with its perfectly sculpted, gleaming bricks (of which no man had made); and imprisoning her.

You must describe her thoughts—and more.

Once, she had been angry; then an all-encompassing loneliness had made its den inside the confines of her mind; and then she had been sad, so sad. She could have made the tower cry, had it not been as lifeless as its master.

Now she was empty. Emptier than the damnable walls that so cruelly immured her.

A husk—but one with a purpose.

To kill the man who put her there.

You must describe touch, and smell, and even taste.

The floor underneath was hard, unyielding, and totally impenetrable. The air lay still; it seemed to mock her, she thought, with that stillness of it. There wasn’t much in the way of smell: rocks lacked that little human feature.

But she could definitely taste the power of the magic that bound her there. It was like drinking acid, bile and poison in one fatal gulp. (But it was not fatal; that would have been merciful.)

It was almost as bad as the taste of meaninglessness that was forever imbued in her mouth. She had no meaning now.

She was shattered.

And she would be the shard that could finally kill him. If only one thing went into place first: the birth of a mage foretold by a mad woman.

Yeah, it wasn’t much to bet on.

The final paragraph leads me to my next point: not only must you imagine all this, but you must transcribe it—you must give it form, through the medium of words, grammar, and punctuation. Indeed, not only is this aspect alone difficult (for children take years to master them to the point that they can produce something intelligible), but it is actually an art in and of its own.

And did I mention plot? Or direction? Or any of the numerous techniques that are employed (subconsciously, it seems to me) by writers in order to really take their prose into the next level?

I admit to not being able to paint or draw much. I can, however, create music. Making a song requires inspiration, technique, and a great deal of effort taken perfecting the song to the point that it becomes what it can be. (Hopefully.)

But song writing feels more raw, and turning it into a conglomerate of sounds is considerably easier for me than writing is. (And I am a much better writer than musician.) And of course, writing also necessitates some revision—quite a lot of it, often times.

Now you’re thinking: ‘Geez, Alex, but shouldn’t you be proud that you’re the toughest kid on the block?’

Well, if only it were that simple…

The Quality of Art

A lot of art isn’t very good. There, I said it. But it’s true: many ideas are never realised. Many books that could have been written, are not. Likewise many paintings go… unpainted, and many songs unsung.

Humans are fallible creatures, and we can’t always do an idea justice. Nor, indeed, are our ideas fit for the big, bad world.

Easy art is good. Easy art means an easier time for the artist (and artists go through much dolour in their quest to become who they are), and it means more art to go around. This is also good. Art brings to us inspiration, emotion and carries with it meaning—detail into which I shall be going into later on.

That said, a difficult art form can forever challenge and develop the burgeoning artist. It is why so many move from the pencil to the brush, and from the marimba to the piano to the violin. (Please appreciate that I am making some simplifications here for the purposes of illustration and brevity.)


I have thus far made little reference to this popular art form. Which is quite strange, considering my background.

This is because I think music to be a little… different, from other forms of art. Music is not something concrete, and easily tangible—it is, after all, based on a weaker sense. While all art is to some degree intangible (why does one particular shade of vermilion remind one of death, while the other reminds one of lazy days spent basking on the beach?) music is especially so.

This is not to say that being so is a bad thing, or a good thing. It is merely the way in which these artists express themselves.

The beauty in a less tangible art form is that it brings the most unique emotions and inspiration to each particular listener. This is also its curse. While a certain melody may remind one of vast arctic plateaus imbued with the light of the cold, white pearl that is the sun; for another it may remind them of alien electronica playing to the tune of dancing club-goers.

This aspect of music can also present Difficulty for the musician. The musician may be able to apply some of the principles that help music—rhythm, harmony, or even simple intuition—but the true nature of the song will always seem impervious to analysis.

And yet again, this confers an advantage: for if the subtleties and feelings, and meanings, of the song are conferred not through didactic telling—as plagues certain writers and storytellers—but through the true medium of the art itself, then the essence of the song shall be carried, specifics be damned.

Concluding Part I

I have made numerous comments on the forms of art, their difficulty; their weaknesses, and strengths—and on why this is so, and what this means for the art.

The perfect art form would require the smallest amount of Investment and Difficulty while producing the greatest amount of Utility, Emotion, and Inspiration. Clearly, this is impossible: Investment is usually a requirement for all of these three, and likewise Difficulty can enhance the artist themselves—again improving the desired qualities.

There are other concerns for the art forms, naturally: commercial success, let’s take. Once more, the idealistic may espouse the arts in lieu of any financial considerations; but the realities cannot be ignored.

It is possible—though difficult—to make a lot of money with a book or a song. For a painter, however, the tale is different: it is generally easier to gain attention for their work (this being particularly troublesome for writers, but posing problems to musicians also) but to become commercially successful is very much easier said than done.

The problem with much of the visual arts is that they typically pose high financial value only to an elite class of the wealthy—meaning that there is less money available for those artists as a whole, and that what money there is usually gets thrown on an even smaller artist elite.

This is not to say one should condemn said artists. It isn’t their fault, now is it?

No, what I hope this work will do to artists reading is to make them better aware of their strengths and weaknesses. It is a great strength to be able to make someone gasp with wonder at a brilliant painting; for the musician—and especially the writer—more time is required.

It is also a great strength to be able to give viewers a powerful view into your imagination, without requiring a great deal from them; again, this is not the case with writing.

But the power of a painting is so often ephemeral. One becomes used to the curves of the arches, and the strange hue of an insouciant sky; until, eventually, the painting becomes no more than a commodity—a crude fashion accessory.

Getting around this requires some creative business thought. I shall leave you to it, dear reader, if you are so inclined; for I have concerns of my own as a writer, and because only the artists themselves can truly empower themselves.

Also, this section is getting long. There is much to be discussed…

PART II: The Essence of Art

I am reminded of the phrase ars gratia artis. For those of you unacquainted, it means art for the sake of art. And that is part of my view: art is by its own merit a reward; a gain for the one fortunate enough to have completed it.

Of course, gain can mean anything at all. For a deeper understanding, I believe we should examine what art is—then its purpose shall become clear.

So: What is Art?

Is art the precisely engineered camera, capable of revealing the reality behind the world—as per the likes of Aristotle? Is art an illusion?

Or is art an expression of emotion, imagery, tale, sound and scent and taste?

Is art the heightened form of our experiences? Or are those experiences, in a way, beyond what we normally experience—and is that why art is valuable?

So many questions. I am of a clear opinion on this matter, and through my cogent writing (‘Alex, let’s not get too cocky…’) I shall convince you of it.

Art—Not Engineering

I like engineering: I enjoy the challenge brought about by real world situations; I enjoy the difficulties of research, experimentation and calculation; and of course I enjoy perfecting the final solution—and making life that little bit easier.

Art could not be more different for me.

I cannot engineer art. I cannot force it to follow my wishes, or to include things that—from a casual perspective—would improve it.

Because they don’t.

Art is not like an engine, where the problem is clear—and the solution is achievable by logic and fact. Art is not solving a problem. And there is something about it that defies logic: it is emotion and idea and it resonates in a way that cannot be measured by a microphone.

I do not invent a story in the way that I do, let’s say, a tablet: there is no thought of why consumers would like such a device (the story), or why it will have an USP over the rest of the market (rest of the stories), or how I should go about building said tablet.

Art comes to me. I did not come about the idea of a tower that puts the clouds to shame, or a Necromancer whose plight is so powerful I cannot deny it, or a about a ship that could save two lovers from extinction—I did not come about it by analysing markets.

Perhaps some of them are, to a degree, reflections of other art. Towers are a common sight in mediaeval tales; and there is a lot of work done on zombies, for example.

And yet, every story is unique. Clearly, we are not regurgitating the work of others. (Which would in itself be a logical fallacy—where did those artists get such a wealth of different ideas?)

I still think some art is inspired by and altered in the presence of other art—and that’s not a bad thing. A populated subconscious means ideas can grow, and meld with other ideas; the power of both can be combined.

The word subconcious is key here. I did not smash these ideas together consciously; instead they formed together, naturally, the way birds and bison collaborate after being together for a great deal of time.

And remember: the subconscious never sleeps…

The greatest proof of this, I think, is not from the art—but from the artists. If you were to put Aristotle to try and create a novel, what would you get? Even if he were to learn every writing technique known to man, and toil away at it for hours on end; his work would still seem to lack alacrity, and soul.

It would be nothing more than empty words.

Okay, Al; But What Is Art?

I must admit to not being of clear opinion. It is difficult to make an analysis on the nature of art: for art is something unique to each artist, and even unique to many of those who experience it.

I shall, therefore, contain my analysis to the things experienced by myself. References to the aforementioned shall only be made when they are suitably clear.

For me, art is… an experience.

It seems vague, but the word is the best one available in the forever limited vocabulary of language.

I suppose I could say that art is the culmination of feeling, thought and imagination amalgamated into artistic form.

I believe imagination is most important here. When writing, I have always felt there was something more to things—the glimpse of a deeper reality becomes visible when producing art.

Perhaps an example would better elucidate my thus far vague assertions.

Let us take my aforementioned excerpt: the woman in the tower. For some reason, many people would find her plight of great importance—they would wish for her escape almost as surely as she would herself; and, moreover, their hatred of the captor would be powerful, despite never having met the man.

There is a certain amount of emotion related to this. It is emotion that makes bestsellers, bestsellers; and likewise it is emotion that reaches out to grab the hearts of art admirers, and it is an emotion that makes a tune’s last echoes reverberate forever in our memories.

So there you go. Art is emotion.

But it is also an unusually powerful form of emotion—a dramatised version, you could say.

Still, part of me denies this. Many books do not dramatise the experiences of their characters. Indeed, this is considered a bad thing: feeling that seems forced or out of proportion becomes… unnatural. It alienates, rather than draws in.

So what do we end up with? Is art just true emotion?

Well, to a degree yes. True emotion is important; a lot of our behaviours in daily life show false emotion. The forced smile at coworkers who need not deal with concerns of your own. The faux interest in a boss’s ideas. Even, perhaps, the ostensible enthusiasm at a child’s new toy.

Humans do a lot of pretending. Much of that is unavoidable; for the realities of life cannot be ignored, as I have stated all too often now.

If art is true emotion, then art is who we really are.

So Why Is Art Important?

Why are we important? For if art is the expression of our true selves, then it would not matter if we had no care to find that out. Perhaps some of do prefer a life of unjust pretense and patinas devoid of meaning.

But for most, art brings happiness, and truth; art is a gateway to a better, truer world.

That’s the real crux of it all, isn’t it? By seeing who we really are, we can improve ourselves; and so we attain greater.

I suspect the above will lead some to debate the merits of various genres. No doubt some of these arguments will be rehashed, but allow me to present cursory reasons for the power of each genre:

  1. Fantasy. By creating worlds and characters with features beyond this one, we highlight the very importance of the human characters in an alien world. Additionally, Fantasy is the truest genre; for art is fantasy—as well as an expression of emotion—and this allows Fantasy to truly bring art’s greatest purpose to life: building a better world.
  2. Science Fiction. Again, syfy is a fantasy and humanity is all the more apparent in a world full of non-humans and tech. Syfy also shows us a glimpse of the future, or of a different place (a la fantasy). Thus current mistakes are revealed: the cyberspying, to take a popular example.
  3. Crime. Humans do evil things, at times. It helps to see the whys and the maybes. Additionally, a crime can shatter a person; and through this harsh punishment, their inner self is revealed.
  4. Romance. Love is one of our best creations, but it can also poison with verisimilitude. Romance can reveal these fallacies. Furthermore: it is good to learn of another’s love. It may show what you’re doing wrong.

Who Are Artists?

The gifted and the cursed. A most literary description, is it not?

But it’s true. Artists are… emotional people, for one. They’re people who feel, and who aren’t dissuaded from making that clear.

Artists do have a gift. I do not pity those of you who wished for egalitarianism in this regard; there isn’t any. Artists have a talent, and not all are as equally talented as one another. Nor, however, is the difference as great as some claim; truly, it is practice and dedication and determination that makes a good artist.

What is their gift?

I believe—and not without some uncertainty, mind you—that our gift is to be able to… not visualise; rather, imagine,
emotion that is not our own, people unmet, and places unseen.

We have imagination.

But imagination is also a curse. After all: you can imagine the empowerment of a poor farmer boy—his rise to power; fame; glory.

Likewise, you can imagine the terrible downfall of a great leader; or the decimation of a beautiful city; or the crumbling relationship between two highschool sweethearts.

And as I’ve also stated, we have emotion. The two seem follow one another. Emotion is a wonderful thing—who would abandon all happiness, love and excitement just to avoid sadness, loneliness and depression?

But this does mean we have unusually sensitive emotional antennae. Not necessarily thin skin though—just greater heights (and lows) of emotion, and smoother transitions between the two.

Sounds Like I’m Missing Out

Thankfully, it is not a selfish gift which we have. In fact, we feel a great desire to spread it as far and wide as possible; to make it the beautiful butterfly, seen and spotted—called to the many.

The others need not work to experience art. But they never experience it fully; an advantage and a disadvantage. You decide which is better. I suspect the artists will always choose art, and the non-artists will be too afraid to want it. Such is the way of things.

Finale: Good Art

And now we arrive to where this essay started: good art.

We’ve talked of the what. We’ve talked of the why. You cannot create good art without understanding those first.

You could say this is the how. It isn’t. This is not a guide to writing fiction, or any other form of art. There are other things for that.

(And if you do desire a comprehensive guide into my art written by me, email me at alexstargazerwriterextraordinaire@outlook.com and maybe I’ll think of making one.)

No, this final section is about recognising the things that produce emotion, produce the truest emotion, and which shows us—ultimately—of a better world.

Being specific is impossible. I shall try to keep my ideas confined to the literary medium; although many of these should apply to any other form of art you care to consider.

  1. Write for yourself, not for a ‘market’. Art is your emotion, your imagination, and your creation. Be true to yourself. If you try and write what you think x will like, x will not like it; for people are unique (and cannot, therefore, be taken as a whole and used to construct art) and also fickle. More importantly, you would have created a piece of art that… really isn’t one. It would be devoid of anything that would make anyone want to experience it.
  2. Prepare yourself. It isn’t easy.
  3. Understand yourself. Or in other words: don’t force your art to try and conform to a set of ideals or preconceptions. Your art is a reflection of yourself. Unless you’ve forced it. If you understand yourself, you can tell. The danger, of course, is that you do not understand who you are—or that you’ve changed. Always give art a long look before making major alterations. You might not like what you get if you don’t.
  4. Know that not all art is created equal. And don’t despair: you can improve.
  5. Practice. A lot.

‘Alex!’ you say; ‘but what about the features of good art?’

Alas, dear reader, this is where I leave you. Not that there aren’t techniques which can help polish and improve a specific art medium—for there are—but the real problem is: art is subjective. To a degree, at least.

While one may objectively ascertain the skill at which a novel is written—or a painting painted, or any other axiomatic example you care to think of—the final product produces what I have said uniquely for each person.

That said, a reviewer may make comments on how well they believe a piece of art accomplishes its purpose for the general audience.

But ultimately art is emotion and fire and the imaginings of strange irrational beings: cherish it, criticise it, and let it make you a better person.

This essay is finished. I am contradicting myself by writing that, so please don’t make me repeat myself. If you desire (for reasons unknown to me) to discuss it, email me at the aforementioned address. If you are reading this on my blog, comment. I don’t spy. (Google does that for me.)

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