I switched karate dojos when I was nine. Amid the tumult of this shattering martial upset, I noticed something curious about the Karate Belt System.
The dojo I had started in was a small humble studio with only a couple dozen students. This school had five belts: white, yellow, green, brown, black. When that dojo closed, I started at a bigger dojo that had a couple hundred students. This institution (if I remember correctly) had ten belts: white, yellow, gold, orange, purple, green, blue, red, brown, and black.
My old school had intermediate steps symbolized by a stripe on the belt. We used electrical tape for the stripe.
The school I switched to required you to buy a new belt with a length-wise stripe across the entire belt.
Something seemed fishy about all this.
I knew this whole system wasn’t necessary. Back when my dad did karate, there were only two belts: white and black.
What I had discovered was that Karate in America was a BUSINESS. What it sold was belts. Lots and lots of belts.
This realization made me reject the entire belt system and ranking systems in general. Good was good, better was better, improvement was improvement. Rankings were meaningless. The whole idea was a scam.
I recently read Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson:
Sometimes there’s a line that just strikes you as PERFECT. When YT is sitting in jail, annoyed at the guard leering at her, she is overcome with frustration over men in general and she thinks:
“This is the gender that invented the polio vaccine?”
This got me thinking about how easily an amateur writer would have botched an opportunity like this. Your character is annoyed with men. What do they think?
“She mentally cursed all men.”
Work complete! Onto the next sentence!
Now how does a line like “She mentally cursed all men” measure up to “This is the gender that invented the polio vaccine?”
The latter is PACKED with teenage know-it-all sarcasm.
The former is just a sentiment. There’s no character in it at all.
Let’s say we bolstered the line a bit:
“Men can be the absolute lamest sometimes.”
BAM! Youthful sass!
Good enough yet?
Nope! The polio line isn’t just full of character, it references something random and interesting, which ALSO reflects on the character’s personality. Additionally, it turns a sentiment into a dilemma: how can men be smart enough to invent the polio vaccine and STILL be so dumb sometimes? A passing feeling suddenly becomes a THING I can think about even outside the story.
This whole line of thought led me to organize verbiage in my mind into three distinct categories:
1. Not even trying
“She mentally cursed all men.”
2. Making a small effort, but still bleghh…
“Men can be the absolute lamest sometimes.”
3. Taking the time to come up with something GREAT.
“This is the gender that invented the polo vaccine?”
Here are a few more examples:
1. His eyes hurt.
2. His eyes burned like they were on fire.
3. “His eyes felt like cracked ball bearings.” (from the Dark Tower: the Gunslinger, Stephen King)
1. She played the part of a young girl not with daintiness, but with strength. A reviewer loved that about her performance.
2. She didn’t play the part like a shy schoolgirl, but like an empowered modern woman. A reviewer called her a 20th century Joan of Arc.
3. “She played the part of a young girl not as a tubercular flower, but as a steel knife. A reviewer said that she was a cross between a medieval pageboy and a gun moll.” (Deleted scene from The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand)
1. Then there were the harebells, blue and beautiful.
2. Then there were the harebells, so akin to actual bells–but soft and blue instead of hard and grey. They had a magic to them, as if one could actually hear their song by listening closely.
3. “Then there were the harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.” (East of Eden, John Steinbeck)
1. If the other tire blew, we’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
2. If the other tire blew, we’d be stuck in the middle of God knows where, cold, hungry, and exhausted. Hopeless.
3. “If the other tire blew, there we were, on a wet and lonesome road, having no recourse except to burst into tears and wait for death. And perhaps some kind birds might cover us with leaves.” (Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck)
1. The hotel room was too clean. I never drink alone, but that night I got a bottle of vodka and took it with me right into the bath. Even the bathroom was too clean and too sterilized. It annoyed me. And when i got in the tub, I just wanted to sulk.
2. The hotel room was so clean I could hardly believe anyone had ever violated its airspace. It made me want to drink, and I never drink alone. I snatched up a bottle of vodka and threw open the door to the bathroom. There, I found only sterilized cups and a toilet bowl with a “seal of protection” insuring me of its inhumane cleanliness. It was unbearable. I sat in the tub and had a frown on my face the entire time.
3. “I went back to my clean little room. I don’t think I ever drink alone. It’s not much fun. And I don’t think I will until I’m an alcoholic. But this night I got a bottle of vodka from my stores and took it to my cell. In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: “These glasses are sterilized for your protection.” Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: “This seat has beens terilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.” Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible. I tore the glasses from their covers. I violated the toilet-seat seal with my foot. I poured half a tumbler of vodka and drank it and then another. Then I lay deep in hot water in the tub and I was utterly miserable, and nothing was good anywhere.” (Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck)
(Oh man! I could do this ALL day with Steinbeck!)
1. Didn’t even try
2. Mediocre effort
3. GLORIOUS EFFORT
(Note: All the above examples were prose, but this tool can be applied to dialogue as well.)
Why do we even NEED something like this? Just WRITE GOOD, PPL! AMIRITE?
Back to rankings and belt systems.
I realized the benefit of the belt system was when I was confronted by the LACK of a belt system for WRITING.
A white belt LOOKS UP to the black belts, but in his mind, he’s just trying to get to yellow belt. Once he gets there, THEN he’ll worry about what comes next.
Everyone knows what a beginner and a master looks like, but with the belt system, you get to CLEARLY see the intermediate levels. A yellow belt looks DRASTICALLY different than a brown belt. At each stage, you know what IS expected of you, what WAS expected of you at the previous skill level, and what WILL be expected of you at the next skill level.
In a craft with no belt system, you look up to the masters and find yourself trying to BE them WAY before you’re ready. Fantasy readers start writing by planning their 12-book series before they’ve even finished a single short story! Sci Fi readers take the cutting edge science topic they know most about and try to turn it into a story before they know a THING about plots or characters. What does this lead to?
But more importantly, discouragement and inefficient learning.
This Verbiage Level System gives you a good picture of where your writing IS and where it needs to go NEXT. Instead of not knowing if a description is good enough, you can compare it to your go-to list of Level-1’s and Level-2’s and see if it sounds similar. Instead of grasping at vague critiques of “make it better”, you can look at your list of go-to level 3’s and try to make sentences that measure up.
Usually, you’ll end up somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3, which is exactly where you want to be. You’ll have a description or line of dialogue that’s shows depth/insight/character to a more-than-adequate degree. BUT, it’s still not Steinbeck… cause you’re not Steinbeck. (Remember, a clean simple Level 1 is always better than a trying-too-hard, cringe-worthy Level 2!)
I don’t know if you COULD make a ranking system for a skill as varied as writing, and either way, I don’t think you’d really want to. For all the benefits I talked about, rankings DID turn karate into a belt business where people cared more about black belts than the actual skills. Still–without ranking systems, there definitely will be detriments.
Often the problem with ranking systems is making sure each rank really MEANS something. Most of the thirty-odd belts at that dojo I switched to didn’t correspond to any defined level of skill at all. The Verbiage Level System COULD be expanded to include more levels, but the four I listed are the clearest to me and have already been helpful in my own writing.
As nice as rankings might be in some respects, at least writers won’t get tricked into the “black belt” fantasy of thinking there’s an END to the skill ladder!
(Except John Steinbeck. Cuz he reached the top and became the best ever.)