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Entries in have a coke and a smile (1)


Science, Idea, Moment, Voice, Music

Image from photographer Roger Hagadone at Science: alcohol, Idea: pregnancy, Moment: your objections, Voice: incredulous, Music: her laughter

Writing uses word choice, diction, and sentence length—the elements of voice and, in some ways, the tools of authorship. 

  • word choice (the components of the sentence)
  • diction (how the sentence is spoken)
  • sentence length (how many words you use)

These three elements (taken from a speech by Richard Ford) are mostly structural. They are the materials used to tell a story. 

Commercial writing uses simpler motivations and offers solutions to problems in its story; literary writing touches on more complex motivations and adds further perspective to a problem in its story. Literary writing has a more complex authority.

But beyond the structural elements, isn't there a more basic difference between the two? Perhaps commercial writing and literary writing are mostly built upon different things: one, ideas; one, moments.

Thor: An example of commercial writing

The 2013 movie “Thor: The Dark World” is filled with ideas. Much of the movie’s first act concentrates in great detail to explain the setup of the world in which the action occurs.

  • Thor’s mallet is established as all-powerful.
  • The universe, we're told, has nine “realms” coming into once-in-a-blue-moon alignment to produce the “breakdown” of earthly physics (The “ticking clock” for the narrative, as screenwriters call it.)
  • And the universe includes a "dark" side before there were sides. “Some believe before the universe there was nothing. They were wrong. There was darkness.” 

All of this sells the viewer on the big idea for how this world operates. Although the movie's ideas are complicated—especially the cosmology—it has simple motivations between heroes and villains.

It's a super-hero redemption story.

Five Easy Pieces: An example of literary writing

In 1970‘s “Five Easy Pieces,” Carole Eastman’s script includes moments, more than ideas. 

Instead of characters explaining how a fictional quantum field generator works, Jack Nicholson’s character Robert explains how he'd like a waitress to send him some toast by holding the chicken salad from a chicken salad sandwich between her knees. (Haha.)

He abandons his car and jumps in the back of a truck to play classical music on a piano being hauled through honking horns in a freeway traffic jam.

In the movie’s emotional climax, Robert wheels his stroke-addled, mute father to a vista above the silent San Juan Island sound, where he says, “We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway,” about his own failed life.

Literary writing wants us to understand these problems by concentrating more on their emotional moments rather than by experiencing the solutions to idea-generated problems.

Commercial Writing’s Biggest Ideas

Advertising serves the idea. Mainstream movies and advertising are linked in their search for the big idea—”It’s like 2001 mixed with Castaway." "It's Miller time."—to facilitate promotion.  

David Ogilvy in Ogilvy On Advertising:

“It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.”

The big idea, when done well, is commercial writing at it’s best:


But as David Ogilvy implies, the big idea is seldom hit upon. The television show "Mad Men" may be popular in-part because it eulogizes the passing of the golden age of big-idea men.

Direct advertising, which rose with database technology to challenge mass brand advertising beginning in the 1980s, contains more dubious ideas like, 

  • “Buy this or you’ll miss the sale price,” 
  • “It's fast and easy,”
  • "This offer for insiders only." 
  • and all that.

Digital advertising, as direct as any, now caters to viewers using search histories, social networks, and personal email, but it generally eschews the big idea, too.

Is it because ideas are expensive and harder to develop? Or perhaps moments in our lives are no longer removed from advertising's reach, so advertisers don't need ideas? Maybe I should expect Zappos to know I'm having a birthday, or Amazon to know I'm expecting.

Either way, the debate about the future of the "big idea" in commercial writing exists. Do we even need an idea beyond "You need this, and here's the lowest price. Buy now. Thank you."?

Image from photographer Roger Hagadone at Science: bourgeois rankings, Idea: exclusivity, Moment: your budget, Voice: dismissive, Music: Vegas show tunes

Amy Hempel and Big Moments

Amy Hempel doesn't put much stock in the idea at all. As one of the best literary writers today, Hempel says her short stories don’t come from ideas. They come from moments.

She says we don’t need ideas for stories, because moments in life don’t require ideas, really. 

“It's hard to do better than what real life offers. I have drawn a lot from my experience, though it ends up altered on the page (sometimes not very much, sometimes a good deal). I've found that nearly every time I've written about something that happened, I've had to tamp it down, cut it in half, to make it credible as fiction. 

“One thing that has never inspired a story is an idea. Never. An idea might spark an essay, but never a story. I confessed this to Barry Hannah years ago, and he said, ‘Ideas, Sugar, are not sexy.’ I never worried about it after that....

“I'm still drawn to MOMENTS, moments when power shifts between two people, or moments when something small but encompassing happens. There is a poem by Jane Hirshfield titled ‘Changing Everything’ that best describes what I mean by that last—a person walking in the woods who picks up a stick and moves it to the other side of the path and says, ‘There, that's done now.’"

Richard Ford and Authority

How can "moments" be discerned from "ideas" in writing? Author Richard Ford’s 2013 lecture at Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference offered some clues to the divide when he said, “Never think of a surface as a volume.”

A surface has two dimensions; a volume, three.

Ford also said, Science is words, not ideas.

“When I wrote Independence Day, it [the word] was all in my notebooks: ‘independence.’ The word was in play for making new intelligence. Canada, too. ‘Abandoned.’ ‘Borders.’ These words gave direction to sentences....

“It’s not too much to ask at the end, 'Does this matter?'"

According to Ford, the words are a kind of beginning and the writer’s job is to authorize those words to be on the page using choice, diction and sentence length. The writer can then change dictions (or styles) in a piece, “just make sure you’re telling something that matters,” he said.

“Something that matters" should have volume, and moments where the reader (or viewer) beholds that volume.

Commercial writing could be thought of as a surface composed largely of science (word choice, diction, sentence length) and ideas; literary writing is a volume, adding another dimension to the science and ideas with moments. It all creates voice.  

But if voice is a culmination, then what does it sound like?

Image from photographer Roger Hagadone at Science: alcohol, Idea: male pregnancy, Moment: your objections, Voice: Kermit the Frog, Music: Queen

Sweet Music

Ford said, “Voice is the music of a fiction’s intelligence—the sound it makes when doing what it’s doing. Voice is not the same as tone or attitude, and serious writing must always be working.”

  • Should writers think of word choice, ideas and moments as a hierarchy from basic to elevated? 
  • Or as a three-dimensional blend—a shape somewhere between the extremes of a surface and a volume? 
  • Doesn’t great writing get beyond all that without (over) thinking?

Intellectualization comes from working through the discomfort of unresolvable emotional truths. 

When writing has literary voice, it achieves an intelligence where science, idea and moment all play together. Perhaps what Ford means is that the best writing seems to expand voice from there into even greater emotional truths to a degree we might call “music.”

With a voice so sweet it's music. For need of a word to call it. And capture it. With authorship.