Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Long Form: Variation

Writing Wednesday

How many of you have been with a child who wanted to watch the same movie or sing the same song over and over? How many of you survived the encounter without needing medication or counseling?

Doing the same thing over and over quickly becomes tedious. This is why picture books are so hard to do well. Only the most masterful stand up well on their fiftieth reading.

But variation is more than simply changing things. Wikipedia says, "In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these." Musical variation only works if the listener can recognize both the theme and the ways in which it has changed.

At the fundamental architectural level, the three-act structure, with try-fail cycles embedded in each act, is simply three variations on the theme of solving the problem. Similarly, the arc of the relationship between two characters can be characterized as variations on the theme of the relationship. Or you could have two or more characters trying to achieve the same goal in different ways.

Some literary long-form writing uses self-conscious variations of a symbol or image. There are commercial writers, at the opposite end of the spectrum, who would swear on a stack of dime-store novels that they never allow nonsense like that to interfere with a good story. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, there's a natural way to use variation to enrich your long-form narrative: simply identify a basic element in your story and look for places where variations of that element might surface.

For example, if romantic love is an important part of your story, you could compare and contrast that kind of love with a main character's love for a sibling, or love of duty. Consider, for a moment, the nearly limitless variations on the theme of love.

Turning to the dark side, your story of revenge could include everything from lashing out in the heat of the moment to the Klingon-inpsired dish best served cold.

Abstractions work as well as emotions. Light can run from blinding to illuminating. Truth, from absolute to relative. I'm currently at work on a project that explores variations of certainty and uncertainty.

As a technique, variations only work when the reader can recognize the relationship between variations and thus appreciate the similarities and differences.

As a practical matter, don't get hung up on variations as an abstract exercise or as a way to show future English-lit students how clever you are. The point of the story is the story. Use variations to make the story richer and more compelling, but never as an end in and of themselves.

Image: Simon Howden /


  1. I found when I finished my first book, my beta readers found themes throughout my ms. that I had no idea I'd even placed there. I knew I had used the masquerade idea, but hadn't realized I's also taken it to a whole other level. I wasn't consciously aware of it. Now, as I try to do it for this next, and consciously put them in, I can't. I guess they have to be organic, b/c now my writing is off kilter. I know I'm trying too hard.

    Nice post.

  2. Anne,

    Thank you.

    I suspect themes emerge most naturally not when you try to develop them but because it's something you've been thinking about. That, at least, sounds like the case with the emergent themes in your first book.


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