Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Author authority -- items in a series

Theresa and I talk about signs of "author authority." No, that doesn't mean your characters always do what you say, or you can command high advances! Rather it means that something in the voice tells us that this author knows what he/she is doing, knows (instinctively or no) how to get the desired reader effect. It's hard to define, but we know it when we read it-- it's like nervously sitting down in an airplane and looking out the window at the driving rain, and then hearing the pilot on the PA system, "Hey, folks, this is Captain Mason, and I know it looks like a muddy night. But don't you worry. Just sit back and relax. Me and the crew, we know what we're doin'." And you TOTALLY believe it, and you know that if you should turn out to be very pregnant and go into labor right there in the plane, the captain and his crew would deliver that baby just fine at 40,000 feet in the sky. (And, oh, yeah, he's got a slight West Virginia drawl, and sounds just like Sam Shepherd playing Chuck Yeager.)

Anyway, when we read the first page of a manuscript with "author authority," we can just sit back and relax and read, because we know-- this author knows what to do.

So how do we know that? There are a thousand indicators that let us know that this author is going to give us a good ride. But I'll just talk about one common one today, and no doubt we'll add more later.

Items in a series. NOT very exciting, huh? But for various reasons-- sentence balance, conveyance of trivia overload, conveyance of overwhelming force, all sorts of reasons dependent on context-- authors often like to list things. And HOW you list them tells me whether you have an ear for rhythm, a consciousness of significance, and an awareness of construction.

Here's a famous example, the characterization of Byron by Caro Lamb: "He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know," which is such a great capsule description of the dark hero. I love the interior rhyme there (mad/bad) and the last item's transfer of meaning from who he is (mad, bad, dangerous) to the effect on people (to know).

So some guidelines, just in case this doesn't come naturally to you.

1) Think about your numbers here. How many items are you putting in there? The Byron example uses the magic rule of three. This rule, which isn't a rule but an observation, follows the notion that that triangle is at once the most stable and most conflict-filled situation. Mom, Dad, and me = three. Red, white, and blue= three. Three strikes. Three outs. Three point play (just cuz it's March Madness. :). Three-time loser.

Two's a coincidence... three's a pattern.

Notice that Caro Lamb knew that we respond instinctively to three items. We feel a completion with three. With "mad and bad," we would be left waiting for the punchline. (Notice how many jokes are "three"-- A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar.)

Our expectations, however, mean that you can play with that rule of three. If you put only two items in a series (AND, and this is a big AND, you've given us reason to think you haven't just screwed up, that you've done this to some purpose), then the sense of suspension, of waiting, can make us wait-- subconsciously we're waiting for something to happen. That's actually a good way to set us up for some disaster, and thus is an important component of suspense-- make us wait for that third item.

And using more than three can make us laugh and then make us annoyed, which is great if that's what you want. Notice that standup comedians often start with a list of three, and then pause, and start adding to it, so it's kind of like this (I'm not very funny, so don't expect to laugh):

So I ate the peach. And then I ate the pasta salad. And then I ate the burger. (Long pause.) And the five-bean salad. (Pause.) And the baked beans. (Pause.) And the scalloped potatoes. (Pause.) And the au-gratin potatoes. (Pause.) And the tablecloth. And my nephew. He got in the way.

The repetition (and the...) adds to the accumulation and sets us up for the punchline.

Going on beyond three is a way to really pound home a point. Here's an example from a Don Delillo novel:
As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

That's a critique of capitalist society, in case you didn't notice, but for those of us with kids in college, it seems pretty true to life. Yes, it's annoying, and even gets a bit boring there at the end, but see how visual the scene becomes, as we imagine all that junk coming out of the car and piling up on the sidewalk.

But breaking the rule of three only has the effect of transgression because inside each of us is that expectation of three. So start with that, and then decide if you want to bust that expectation. But authority lies in your knowing WHY-- what effect this will have on the reader. You don't have to know this consciously, but your readers can tell if you know instinctively what you're doing and why.

2) Start with parallel structure and violate that at your own risk. Parallel structure is the expectation that all items in a series will have the same grammatical form, that is, they'll all be adjectives (mad, bad, dangerous) or all nouns (the stereo sets, radios, personal computers). If they are phrases or clauses, they are all the same type (participial, relative). And all the items in the list should follow from the sentence root, so for example, if the sentence is structured if the sentence is Subject-Verb- LIST, every item in the list should be structured to follow the verb.

I want to know everything. I want to know how the sun rises, and why the sky is blue, and tomorrow's lottery winner.


I want to know everything. I want to know how the sun rises, and why the sky is blue, and who will win tomorrow's lottery.

(Emphasis added.)

3) Rhythmic balance is important. Lists are really poetic devices, and you're using them for poetic effect, so go for rhythm rather than clunk. That usually means putting the shortest item first, and the longest last. Look again at "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," and read it aloud. Hear yourself drawing out that last item so the list comes to a conclusion right at the right instant? (The interior rhyme helps by pairing the first two, so that the three-word last item is still longer, but only just enough.)

4) Also try and end on the most important item:
He was tried for usury, embezzlement, and high treason.
(I'd suggest adding something to "high treason" so it's also longer than "embezzlement," say, "rank high treason" or "attempted high treason," but I'm compulsive.)

If the last item is more than one word, try to end it on the word you want to linger in the reader's mind. "Treason" is a strong word, and if you had, say, "... a high treason attempt," you'd be ending instead on a weak word (attempt means he didn't manage it!). Think of where the conflict is, which item opens to a story better, and it's not always what you might think. After all, torture is worse than temptation, right? But look at this: The devil specializes in torment, torture, and temptation. Temptation is the one that will open up story/scene possibilities, right? Torment and torture are solutions, however nasty. Temptation is an open question-- will the victim resist or succumb?

Again, at any point, you can defy reader expectation for comic or suspense effect. They'll expect, for example, that the last item will be the most intense or important, so if you put something trivial there, it will be amusing:
He was tried for high treason, murder, and spitting on the sidewalk.

5) As I said, the list is meant to be poetic and rhythmic, so if you have a secret hankering for alliteration (torment, torture, temptation) or anaphora (Churchill: we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.) or rhyme (mad, bad), go for it. Don't go for it too much, but this is precisely the place to have some fun.


Ian said...

I LOVE using the Rule of Three when it comes to items in a series! Part of this comes from my webcomic, where I've had to learn to be funny in only four panels (and I often use the "Beat" device of a silent third panel to enhance the effect).

You know, ladies, I check this blog compulsively several times a day. Why? Because it's fascinating, extremely informative, and I keep hoping to see my name pop up in your posts. :)


PS: anyone who wants to read my webcomic can find it here: The Adventures of the S-Team. This Friday will be my 500th strip!

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I love this article. Love, love, love it! There's your three.

Jody W.

Dave Shaw said...

Very interesting article. Odd coincidence to reinforce the importance of three - Charmed is on TV as I'm typing this. LOL

I'll definitely be paying more attention to my lists now.

Edittorrent said...

We spent an entire week of class time on lists in one of my fiction technique classes. At the time, I thought the professor was indulging in pet theories, but I have a different opinion now!


Dara Edmondson said...

This makes so much sense. I've had the feeling when I write a line sometimes that something's missing. It's the rhythm. I go back and play with it, tweak it until it rolls properly. Knowing this should prevent me from pulling my hair out, trying to figure it out!

writtenwyrdd said...

This is wonderful info. I've been paying attention to when I do or do not use a 3-word list. Your post gives me hope that I actually have a good eye for that sort of thing.

PJD said...

One of my pet peeves is the lack of parallelism in a series. I hate seeing things like this: "I went to the store, the bakery, and parked the car." Not only is it annoying, but it's incorrect. Argh.

I have a hard time calling two items a list, but in this context one that has always amused me is on San Francisco's BART. The announcement comes regularly: "Please make seats available for people with disabilities and seniors." I think recently they changed it to "seniors and people with disabilities."

(And a quick shout-out to writtenwyrdd who provided the link that got me here. I'm adding this blog to my feed reader now.)