Monday, January 31, 2011

Concrete and specific

Credibility is about concreteness. We believe this is happening because the specificity of the details indicates that this is really happening, that only experiencing this situation would lead to such vivid observations.

Read this blog entry about "what it's like being poor" by s/f writer John Scalzi, and I bet it's clear that this is someone who has been poor. We believe this because the details are so precise.

But also imagine that you're writing about a kid who is growing up poor. Notice how many of these precise details could be used to infuse a scene (like the kid getting ready for school) with immediacy (she's getting ready, and her mom is making toast for her, and a roach walks across the bread, and both of them pretend not to notice because they can't afford to throw the bread out).

This is an aspect of voice, I think--the precision of detail. The desire to get so real, to make the fictional scene come alive, that's voice. It's not just the word choice, it's the recognition of the importance of getting the reality in there.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Setting by Example: Murray

Continuing our discussion of setting....

I thought it might make sense to look at an example of an author incorporating setting details at the moment they become relevant, and not before. I'm reading "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray. (Very slowly -- for reasons unrelated to the book's merit, I keep having to interrupt the reading process for other things. Hate it when that happens.) This book was recently nominated for an NBCC, and it's generated quite a lot of online buzz.

In one scene, the history teacher Howard is waylaid by the assistant principal, referred to in the text as "the Automator." They're walking through the school at a very fast pace as the Automator shares some of his thoughts about the nature of history and science teaching. This goes on for about a page and a half until the Automator stops abruptly and we have this:

"Howard, take a look around you. What do you see?"

Dazedly, Howard does as he is told. They are standing in Our Lady's Hall. There is the Virgin with the starry halo; there are the rugby photographs, the noticeboards, the fluorescent lights. Try as he might, he can perceive nothing out of the ordinary, and at last is forced to answer feebly, "Our Lady's Hall?"

(p.86-7 of the hardback edition, in case you want to examine it more closely. I urge you to do so. This is very strong writing, worth studying.)

Though this passage comes in the middle of a scene, and though they've been talking and moving consistently up until now, we didn't know where they were other than the vague understanding that they were somewhere on the school grounds. Until this passage, the only setting detail we're given is that they started within view of the exit and are moving away from it. Until this moment, everything is action and dialogue without reference to the specifics of the setting.

There are two reasons it works. First, Howard is concentrating on the conversation, so he might not be noticing the environment. Viewpoint influences which setting details can be included because the pov character is the lens through which we view everything. If he doesn't see it, we don't see it. Second, because of the lack of setting detail leading up to this moment, we have more contrast between the fast walk and fast conversation and then the abrupt stop and scan of the hall. Howard is dazed by the change, so much so that he doesn't know what he's supposed to see. The text reflects this.

But even without that contrast for effect, the setting details wouldn't be relevant until this moment. We don't care about photos and notices until they matter to the action and interaction, and that doesn't happen until the Automator asks his question.

The conversation unfolds a bit between them, discussing the hall's history without getting into concrete detail. Then we get this question about the hall from the Automator:

"Does it say, Ireland's top secondary school for boys?"

Howard takes another look at the hall. The blue-and-white tiles are scuffed and dull, the grubby walls pocked and crumbling, the window-sashes rotted and knotted with generations of cobwebs. On a winter's day, it could double for a Victorian orphanage. "Well..." he begins, then realizes the Automator has turned on his heel and is power-walking back the way they came.

And then they're back to the fast walk and fast talk that started the scene. Notice the use of three details in that second sentence: tiles, walls, sashes. Three is a magic number! But again, this closer inspection becomes important to the story at the moment that it's requested and not before then. Howard doesn't think about the condition of the building until after the talk about the year in which the hall was built. Only then does the age of the hall impress itself on him in those particular details.

The end result of the scene is the reader's certainty that the Automator manipulates everything, right down to what people notice in the world around them. It's a very controlled and well-written use of setting, and it's a great example of a scene that only incorporates setting details when they become relevant.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Immediate, not retrospect

I was writing a scene where a married couple were having one of those married conversations, about what to get his daughter for a wedding gift. The husband says they have to buy a gift. And I had the wife think that the daughter and her groom would probably prefer money. But she doesn't say that because (she thinks in her head) the last time she suggested that (giving a gift of money to a wedding couple), the husband (who is older and richer) scoffed at her, saying that it's tasteless to give money as a wedding gift.

And the wife thinks that she'll never understand the upper classes, all these rules, all this "taste" stuff.

See the problem? There's a conversation taking place NOW. In the scene. And yet the most interesting part of it, the exchange that reveals the class conflict between them, took place sometime before, about some other wedding. The conflict is in retrospect, not right here right now.

It's sort of scary how often I do that, slide into a retrospective of something that ought to be happening now. Easy to fix here, however!

Husband says they need to shop for a wedding gift (maybe specify something "tasteful" like crystal).

Wife says NOW, "Why not just give them the money and let them decide how to spend it?"

Husband NOW says, "We can't give my daughter a check for her wedding! That's -- that's tasteless."

And since it's happening NOW, the wife can maybe draw this out a bit more, demand what he means by tasteless, that when her sister got married, the groom's parents gave them enough for a down payment on a house, and no one thought that was tasteless.

And he can say, kind of coldly, well, of course, for your family, that was probably considered the height of good taste. But the rule is, money is not a good gift for a wedding. Something that indicates a long life together, family, tradition, that is in good taste. Like crystal.

And she can think about how she will never understand all these rules of the upper classes, that seem to be so at odds with real life.

But NOW she could give in, to keep the peace, and to prevent her husband thinking too much of her lower-class origins. The catalyst for her giving in would have just happened this way, not weeks ago.

And can I make the giving in more concrete? Maybe by her gathering up her purse and saying, "Let's go then to that crystal shop on Pike St." That would be a concrete representation of her capitulation.

Anyway, something to watch out for-- make the retrospective immediate if possible. Then again, this might be a problem only for me!


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Setting by Example: Brown

Continuing our discussion of setting--

Last time, we looked at a paragraph from Ishiguro's Booker winner, "The Remains of the Day." This time, for contrast, I thought we'd look at a sample from a commercial novel. Here's a paragraph from Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Lost Symbol."

For Robert Langdon, the Capitol Rotunda--like St. Peter's Basilica--always had a way of taking him by surprise. Intellectually, he knew the room was so large that the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it, but somehow the Rotunda always felt larger and more hallowed than he had anticipated, as if there were spirits in the air. Tonight, however, there was only chaos.

(Unrelated note: Why does Robert Langdon always refer to himself by first and last name in his own pov? This happens over and over throughout the text. I can't decide if we're meant to conclude something from that.)

The first thing I noticed about this paragraph is the use of three landmarks together. Rotunda, St. Peter's, Statue of Liberty. It's that rule of three again, but this time, instead of using it to create a spatial orientation (as in Ishiguro's paragraph), it is used to create magnitude and tone. These are more than landmarks. These are symbolic buildings, monumental in both size and emotional context.

Using symbolic references like this can have the side effect of making the text feel abstract. Brown counteracts this by relying on emotion signifiers --surprise, comfort, anticipation -- to try to bring it all back to a particular context. Does this technique work? Why or why not? Do any other words in the parapraph enhance or detract from the sense of abstraction? (These are real questions meant to prompt discussion in the comments. I have my own opinion, but it's a subjective response and I want to see what everyone else thinks.)

Regardless of the overall effect of the set-up, that final sentence is meant to act like a punch, reversing everything that's been set up so far in the paragraph. Hallowed monements, sanctified spaces, national symbols, ghosts in the air -- but not today. Today it's chaos. This is a good technique to keep in mind -- setting up a tone, and then jerking it away. The contrast can create tension just like the Ishiguro paragraph with the past/present cabinet/bookcase.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Never forget

Something I'm noticing in submissions and contest entries is the turning point that doesn't turn anything-- the big event (usually around the middle of the story) which has no plot effect and the characters never contemplate.

Hmm. How does it happen? Well, first if you write out of sequence (as I do often), you need to carefully place big events when you assemble the narrative. I might have dreamed up (when I write this way, it's often subconsciously inspired) some big moment where the main character realizes her beloved mentor has betrayed her. And I write it up, make it dramatic and heartwrenching. And then I write other scenes that come to me in blinding flashes. Then I have to think about what goes where, right? And presumably write connecting scenes between the big scenes. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

The problem is figuring out what goes where... and why (what leads up to it and causes it), and what effect the event is going to have in the next scenes. But in some of these stories I've seen lately, that doesn't happen. The event is there, fully dramatized, powerful, but then... it's like it didn't happen. But you know, if she discovered her mentor betrayed her, there'd be an effect. She'd be less likely to trust, more wary, angry maybe. She'd think about what happened. Something would happen and she'd automatically think of asking her mentor for advice, but then stop-- oh, right. He betrayed me.

When there's no effect, the narrative propulsion sputters to a halt (you mean, there's no consequence to events?) and the author's credibility is damaged (maybe she forgot?). I think this happens sometimes because we have a purpose for the scene (this is meant to isolate her so she can trust only the villain, maybe), or even sort of a meta-purpose ("I want the reader to know something about the mentor that will be important in the sequel") or a desire to expound a theme ("Never put your trust in men").

But scenes, especially important scenes, should have two primary purposes: To advance the plot, and to develop the character. Whatever other reasons a scene might have, the reader expects it to advance the plot and develop the character. If the character has no reaction to the event, no change, then no matter how many other purposes get fulfilled, it's a failed scene. And this becomes even more glaring when it's a turning point scene, with a dramatic or emotional event that really ought to have great effect.

I can just imagine all of us shaking our heads and saying confidently, "I never do that." But it's so common that maybe we do and just don't notice. I know the way I write (often out of sequence) creates a real hazard here. Sometimes when a scene is inserted into an existing sequence, we might not recognize all the ways it changes the story and character, or the slight or great modification it might make in the theme or message, or the ways it might affect the interaction or feeling between characters. The reader, reading in sequence, will be trying to make sense of this, and we might have to --yes, once again-- read as a reader to notice the disconnect and how to fix it.

Has anyone faced this issue and dealt with it somehow?


Monday, January 24, 2011

Strunk and White, take a hike!

An essay about sentences, stripped down or elaborate.

Go, elaborate!!

Setting by Example: Ishiguro

The other day at Romance University, I posted a few tips on how to incorporate setting details. I thought we might continue the discussion here by looking at a few examples of good portrayals of setting details. If you haven't already read that post, you might want to take a look at it so you have the context for this discussion.

So let's take a look at a sample from "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book is told from the point of view of a butler in one of England's great houses during the world war period. It is, in great part, the butler's attempt to understand his relationship to and character of Lord Darlington, the previous owner of the house. Here's the sample paragraph:

The study doors are those that face one as one comes down the great staircase. There is outside the study today a glass cabinet displaying various of Mr Farraday's ornaments, but throughout Lord Darlington's days, there stood at that spot a bookshelf containing many volumes of encyclopedia, including a complete set of the Britannica. It was a ploy of Lord Darlington's to stand at this shelf studying the spines of the encyclopedias as I came down the staircase, and sometimes, to increase the effect of an accidental meeting, he would actually pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed as I completed my descent. Then, as I passed him, he would say: 'Oh, Stevens, there was something I meant to say to you.' And with that, he would wander back into his study, to all appearances still thoroughly engrossed in the volume held open in his hands. It was invariably embarrassment at what he was about to impart which made Lord Darlington adopt such an approach, and even once the study door was closed behind us, he would often stand by the window and make a show of consulting the encyclopedia throughout our conversation.

Nice paragraph, isn't it? Its primary focus is on a detail of the habitual interaction between Lord Darlington and his butler, and setting details are used to enhance the butler's interpretation of that interaction. Let's break it down.

We start with two sentences of unmixed description of setting details:

The study doors are those that face one as one comes down the great staircase. There is outside the study today a glass cabinet displaying various of Mr Farraday's ornaments, but throughout Lord Darlington's days, there stood at that spot a bookshelf containing many volumes of encyclopedia, including a complete set of the Britannica.

These are slow, deliberate sentences, which is in keeping with the butler's voice and character. The first sentence gives us two setting details in relation to each other -- exactly what we mean when we talk about orientation. This kind of orientation is a powerful tool to bring the reader into the physical space of the book world. It's not just a list of details -- a staircase, a room, doors -- but an explanation of how these pieces relate to one another. This is an effective and concise way to present setting information.

Next, we have a sentence that describes how one setting detail has changed: now a curio cabinet, formerly a bookcase with encyclopedias. Change is the essence of drama, and incorporating change at this small-scale, sentence level is a good technique for creating tension in what otherwise might be a flat bit of description. This contrast between past and present is heightened by including both descriptive details in the same sentence. As an exercise, try breaking apart this sentence to separate past and present. Also try eliminating the curio cabinet. Do you see how that strips some of the impact out of these ideas?

Note also the use of three details to paint the scene: stairs, door, bookcase. Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while have heard both Alicia and I discuss the "rule of three." Not so much a rule, really, as this tendency for good writing to contain sets of three like items. Here, we have three setting details to paint a scene, and it works.

The next sentence describes habitual actions of the butler and Lord Darlington, but it accomplishes this in a way that echoes the orientation in the first sentence:

It was a ploy of Lord Darlington's to stand at this shelf studying the spines of the encyclopedias as I came down the staircase, and sometimes, to increase the effect of an accidental meeting, he would actually pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed as I completed my descent.

Because we already know the orientation of these setting details, we can easily picture the butler staring directly at his employer as he walks down the stairs. How much less effective would this sentence be if that spatial relationship had not already been established? Notice how the orientation details are continued in small ways throughout the balance of the paragraph:

my descent. Then, as I passed him,
back into his study
the study door was closed behind us
by the window

Because the space was established at the outset, the action can unfold against this backdrop without further pause to describe the environment. New details, such as the window, can be incorporated in the context of action without pausing that action for more detailed description.

Notice also the way the book carries through the paragraph:

the spines of the encyclopedias
pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed
volume held open in his hands
consulting the encyclopedia

What started off as a setting detail becomes a prop, and then evolves into a symbol of the awkwardness of the interaction between the two men. In this way, the setting is drawn into the action and acquires extra meaning.

All in all, an excellent use of setting.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Signal words

I was taking pitches this weekend, and one pitcher was summing up her story: "(Title) is dark and uplifting."

That gave me pause. The two adjectives there didn't seem similar enough to be joined by "and". I suggested that she put the word "both" in there, as that would signal that she understood the two terms are somewhat contradictory and wanted that conflict. That is, by emphasizing the "bothness," she would be signalling that she recognized and wanted the contradiction. (That is, not that she's so clueless she thought they were the same thing.

These little words are useful as they help draw attention to aspects that you might want to subtly emphasize. I was recently reading a submission where the hero and the heroine met in chapter two in kind of mysterious circumstances (and kissed), so in my head it wasn't entirely clear that they knew who each other was. Then they became betrothed (long story), and I kept asking, "Do they know that they met and kissed in chapter two?" For example, there was one scene where she's wondering if he is going to "press his affections" on her now that they're engaged, and she asks him outright, and he says, "When I kiss you, you'll have the answer to that" (or something like that). "When I kiss you?" But they've already kissed. Doesn't he remember?
Really, I asked this often enough that I think I became irritating. :) Finally the author said, "What is it I'm not doing that you think I should do?"
And I realized that if she just added "again"-- "When I kiss you again," that would be enough to signal that yes, he did remember kissing her in chapter two, that he didn't think the kissee back then was someone else entirely, and that he knew she also knew, that the kiss was part of both of their mental databases.

(Really, this is needed-- authors rather frequently forget what they've done earlier in the book. I've done it myself. When you do multiple drafts, you might think you cut out that she went to work the morning of the funeral, but in fact, you left that in there. So the reader reading that might think that you just forgot, right? And so when that verdict of "forgetting" could be applied to something you deliberately have in there, best to make it subtly clear with a signal word if you can. "No, I didn't forget. This will all make sense if you keep reading." Anyone have examples of this sort of thing I can use? :)

Twain said, The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I think also though that adding one of these "acknowledgment/emphasis" words can make your meaning and your intent plain, yet in a subtle way. It tells the reader you do in fact know what you're doing, that you remember what you have done. Doesn't usually take much, but establishes credibility, showing that you know the import of your events and your words.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In the moment narration

Another way to keep the narration vivid and concrete is to have as much as possible happen in the moment. Read through your scenes looking for anything that's even slightly retrospective and see if you can rewrite that to happen immediately, and that any reaction (and there should probably be a reaction to anything that happens) comes right then, not a few paragraphs later.

I think the retrospective happens when we need to show more or less simultaneous events but are hampered by the linear nature of prose. In film, we could have the video showing one thing (the child playing in the sandpile) while the audio shows something else (the explosion happening a few blocks away), but in language, we usually can't juxtapose or layer or intersperse so easily. So sometimes we have an event in one paragraph, then some simultaneous stuff in the next paragraph, and the reaction to the event in a third paragraph-- maybe a page later! And since it's a page later, we might have some backwards reference:
Paragraph 1 (they're talking, and he says something about missing her at the party)

Paragraph 2 -- Mary negotiated a tight turn and headed south on Rogers Avenue. The commuters were just starting out, and the sun was rising over the lake. The glare momentarily blinded her, and she just missed rear-ending a hummer at the traffic light. Her heart thumped in that panicky way that came when she barely, once again, cheated death or at least the auto-body repair shops.

She glanced at him to see if he'd noticed the near-crash. But he was looking sad, not scared. Now she
remembered what he had said just a few minutes before. She had hurt him with her careless actions. "I'm sorry. I should have called to let you know that I wasn't going to make it to your party."

Notice the "had"? That use of past-perfect tense is usually a sign that you've gone into retrospective, casting events into the past of the book. There are several problems with this:

1) One is that using the past-perfect (had) tense throws the reader out of the narrative continuum, the sense that this is all happening right now, in this order. You never want the readers getting thrown out of the story journey, even for a second-- you don't know if you can get them back. Now this might be worth it if your purpose (as in an experimental narrative or avant-garde story) is to keep the reader off-balance, or to make the reader question the "reality" of the story, or to demonstrate in a post-modern way the "nuts and bolts" that go into building a story. But most stories aren't experimental and post-modern, so probably you don't want that effect in a more conventional narrative.

2) Having a seeming lapse of time (it might be only a moment, but it's half a page on the page) between what he says and her reaction might indicate that what he said wasn't important. (Now do consider that if you want to slip in a clue in a mystery, this might be a good "distraction" technique.) If it's supposed to be important, a more immediate reaction might show that. The respondent doesn't have to verbally respond right away, but if she reacts in some way immediately, it will highlight the importance of the what he said (or whatever the stimulus is).

3) Interlocking dialogue, where what he says leads right to what she said, is a sign of the author's control and focus. Of course you can't always have that kind of dialogue, and you might not even want it (I mentioned up-blog a Muriel Sparks story where the disconnected dialogue was a reflection of the character's alienation). But absent another purpose, we might work on how dialogue can interlock, stimulus-response, cause-effect. That makes it "conversation" and not just "two monologues going on at about the same time."

So how do you do this when you want intervening action? When they're not just talking, they're doing? A couple thoughts, by no means exhaustive--

--Think about putting the dialogue that should interlock together, and the action before or after it. You're in control here! She can be doing the driving thing, and just be coming out of a turn when he mentions the party, and she can respond to that right away, having already made the driving action.

-- You can intersperse smaller bits of action, not a whole paragraph, with the speech. You might actually stretch out the speech, do some "what did you say" to make room for more speech time:
Mary negotiated the tight right-turn and headed south on Rogers Avenue. "What was that you said?" The commuters were just starting out, and the sun was rising over the lake.

"I was just wondering if you forgot about my birthday party, that's all."

"No, no," she said, distracted. "I didn't forget--" The glare momentarily blinded her, and she just missed rear-ending a hummer at the traffic light. Her heart thumped in that panicky way that came when she barely, once again, cheated death or at least the auto-body repair shops.

She glanced at him to see if he'd noticed the near-crash. But he was looking sad, not scared. "What?"


She had hurt him with her thoughtlessness. "It's not nothing. I'm sorry. I should have called to let you know that I wasn't going to make it to your party."

-- Keep in mind these people and who they are and how they would feel. Would Tony keep bugging her about this, or shut up after mentioning it once? Would Sarah be hypersensitive to his mood, or blind to it? Who are they? How do they interact, with the world and with each other? Don't lose who they are and how they are when you're writing the scene, just to get in some action.

-- Using repetition of keywords can make more coherence even in a somewhat distracted narrative. Notice how she re-uses "nothing" and "party" and "forget" from his lines. That helps the "interlock".

--Design sentences and paragraphs in ways that help the interlock. Look especially at the start and end. If she's going to "echo" something he said, even a word, try getting that to be one of the last things in his paragraph.
Also, transitions at the start of paragraphs (Theresa was mentioning this) can make for greater coherence. It might just be a word, but I really like occasionally (with me, it's frequently, but it's good at least occasionally) starting a speech paragraph with a sentence of either action or thought, but something that might relate to the conversation. Think "time and place," but also emotion, like:
Now she turned to look at him.
Sounded like he was accusing her. "What do you mean?"
When they got home, she pointed to the overflowing mailbox.
She thought about their future and slowly counted to ten. When she could speak calmly, she said,

These paragraph design techniques can really improve the flow of your prose, btw. Too many paragraphs that start with a line of dialogue might cause jaggedness. Experiment!

-- Quote tags can go almost anywhere in the speech paragraph-- before, during, or after the thing said. (Some paragraphs you might do without them altogether-- but probably not all.) Tags are not just a means of identifying who said what. They are also a way to create rhythm by adding a pause, something that can just be absorbed and accepted.

-- LISTEN to your dialogue paragraphs and passages-- not just the individual quotes and lines. Listen to the whole passage-- the rhythm, the interlock, the tone, the pace. You can vary each of those depending on the meaning of the passage, but you have to "hear" them to know when and how to vary.

-- Most important, know your characters and the way they think and interact. If you don't want her to come off like an insensitive blunderbuss, you don't want her to ignore for two paragraphs his sadness. If they're angry at each other, they'll be looking for things to get offended at, and reacting defensively to what they see as accusations. Show that in how quickly they respond. (After all, when you feel defensive, you respond right away-- if you take time to think, you might realize that his mentioning that his second-graders are moving from pencils to pens isn't really a slam on your inability to complete your master's thesis.)

Other ideas? I find in editing I'm often suggesting a short line (even just a single word) at the start of the dialogue paragraph (that is, before the first line of speech in the paragraph), but that makes it all the more important probably that the speech interlock around it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Talking Setting at RU

Today at Romance University, I'm giving some ideas for how to write a strong setting without killing the story pace. It's always a delicate balance, isn't it?


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Subtle techniques, subtext of horror

I've been reading a lot of the shorter novels/novellas of a group of women who wrote in the mid-century, mostly postwar, English and American. I'm sort of amazed at their subtlety and the grace of their prose and scene design. I suspect that they don't get a lot of critical recognition because 1) they were women, and 2) they wrote in the crime/horror area predominantly. But their stories repay study. Here is what I've been reading:
Shirley Jackson (The Lottery and other stories, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
Patricia Highsmith (particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley)
Muriel Sparks (The Driver's Seat, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Many of these have been made into films, btw. Why? I don't know, but I think partly because actresses can really show their stuff here-- the characters are deeply textured.

I would characterize all of the authors as being preoccupied with the danger in everyday life, the murderer next door. Might this be a result of living through the war, and seeing how neighbors turned on neighbors (and turned them in to be transferred and killed)?

Anyway, I was reading Sparks and came across what I think might be a technique that reflects the theme (Modern life alienates us from each other) but also the progress of the novel (a woman who wants to die searches subconsciously for the man who will kill her).

That is, in The Driver's Seat, Muriel Sparks has a worldview of alienation-- she presents a story in which people don't connect, where characters never understand each other. And this "disconnect" is represented in several ways, as in the symbol of the heroine's clothing, garishly colored and clashing. But this disconnect is developed most intriguingly in the dialogue. When the main character speaks to other characters, often the meaning just goes by unheeded. In fact, often they seem to both be talking, but not to each other. They're talking PAST each other rather than TO each other. Here is an example where she is talking to an old lady she has been sightseeing with. Notice there is none of that usual conversational interplay, where one answers the other's question, or responds to the other's unstated worry, or repeats an important word.

(Mrs. Feidke shows up after having "a spell" and fainting in the previous scene -- Lise left her in the restroom, unconscious.)

Lise says, turning to smile at her, "Look at this idiot girl. She can't stop dancing."

"I think I fell asleep for a moment," Mrs. Fiedke says. "It wasn't a bad turn. I think I just dropped off. Such kind people. They wanted to put me in a taxi."

"Look at her," Lise says in a murmur. "Just look at her. No, wait. She'll start again when the man puts on the next record." The record starts and the girl swings. "Do you believe in macrobiotics?"

"I'm a Jehovah's witness. But that was after Mr. Fiedka passed on."

But in the end, when Lise has finally found the one she has been seeking (the "boyfriend" she subconsciously wants to kill her), the dialogue suddenly meshes:

"Before you went to the clinic, how long did they keep you in prison?"

"Two years," he said.

"Did you strangle or stab?"

"I stabbed her. But she didn't die. I never killed a woman."

"No, but you'd like to. I knew it this morning."

"You never saw me before in your life!"

"That's not the point," Lisa says. "That's by the way. You're a sex maniac."

"No, no," he says. "That's all over and past. Not anymore!"

"Well, you won't have sex with me."

She's driving towards the park and turns right towards the pavilion. Nobody's in sight. The wandering groups are null and voice, the cars have gone away.

"Sex is normal," he says. "I'm cured. Sex is all right."

"It's all right at the time," Lise says. "And it's all right before. But the problem is afterwards. That is, if you aren't just an animal. Most of the time, afterwards is pretty sad."

"You're afraid of sex!" he says almost joyfully, as if sensing an opportunity to gain control.

"Only afterwards. But that doesn't matter anymore."

Notice how they re-use each other's words (all right, sex), and answer each other's stated and unstated questions. They are conversing in a way that Lise doesn't converse with anyone else: fully engaged.

The change from the earlier "disconnect" to the ending "connect"-- which connects with the ending, Lise getting killed, btw, the two of them acting in concert-- is an example of change as coherence. That is, the constant is the conversation-- Lise talking to people-- but the change in that constant is in sync with some plot change (from a disconnect with non-threatening characters to a "connect" with the killer).

Do we ever create a coherence like that consciously? Or is it an unconscious sense of how the story changes that leads us to create parallel scenes that develop differently? I don't know. I suspect some writers do this subconsciously. Can we do it consciously without being too heavyhanded?


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Literary How to

I came across the funniest mention the other day, of a retired European homicide detective who earnestly explained that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment was used as an investigative model for Italian police, because it said so much about how to catch a murderer.

What's next? To Kill a Mockingbird as a manual for hunters?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quotes and Excerpts

We were talking last week on twitter about quoting and excerpting other works from the academic perspective. Got me thinking about it from the fiction writing perspective. You know what I mean -- those snippets of poems or song lyrics or other quoted material that authors like to use at the front of books, as chapter headings, and strewn through the text. Can you, should you, etc.?

Let's start by refreshing our understanding of copyright as it applies here, and then we'll talk about some other concerns that don't get discussed as frequently.

From a purely legal standpoint, the first question is whether a work is still protected under copyright laws. Copyright protections vary from nation to nation, though there are international agreements which provide added protection. Without getting into too much detail, just remember that if a work is protected by any copyright law, it's up to the owner of the copyright to decide whether you may use it. And they can make you pay, even if they consent to the use.

In the US, if a work is in the public domain, it is safe to use an excerpt. Here's a pdf explaining how to investigate the copyright status of a work.

People like to claim "fair use" when quoting someone else's work, but fair use only applies to non-commercial uses such as research, teaching, and news reporting. If you're writing fiction, it's almost never going to be a fair use situation. See this for more information if you want it.

So, let's say you know you can safely use a quote. What else should concern you about this? Three things:


Some common phrases get misquoted frequently. A good example of this comes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." How many of you think the word still should be inserted after would? That's a common misquote. Always double check the exact phrasing to make sure you're getting it right.


Don't even get me started on the number of times I've run into this. The most common form of misattribution comes from assuming something is a common saying when it was authored by a specific source. You might think that a saying like, Discretion is the better part of valor, is a common saying which can be attributed to an anonymous source or not attributed at all. But some of us know that the source of that saying is Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One, when Falstaff said, "The better part of valour is discretion."

Another common form of misattribution comes when someone tries to ascribe a quote to a particular demographic. We see this when writers are trying to do some world-building and misuse quotes to try to bolster that world. Need an example? Imagine a book set in the world of professional tennis players. Now put that Falstaff line at a chapter heading and attribute it to "tennis coaching tips" instead of to the author, William Shakespeare. Or imagine something that isn't even a quote or paraphrase of an authored source, but something which is truly a common saying with obscure origins -- "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Now take that common saying and attribute it to a unique group: "Old Sicilian Proverb" instead of Anon.

Loss of Authority

Ever notice that the first part of authority is author? You're an author. Your job is to use your words to convey your ideas. Your authority comes from doing this in a way that leads others to recognize your unique knowledge, command, or expertise. Why would you delegate that authority to a different author? Why would you, in effect, signal to the reader that some other guy said it better than you can? Maybe we should just read that other guy instead. Maybe he's the one who really knows what's what.

You might think this logic doesn't apply to fiction writers, but it perhaps applies more to fiction writers than to nonfiction writers. Everyone accepts that nonfiction writers will rely on the ideas of other thinkers to generate new conclusions. But fiction? That's supposed to be original.

Can you think of any other reasons in favor or against the use of quotes and excerpts?


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Present perfect huh?

A car carrying a bride to her wedding has slid across the road and gotten stuck in a snowbank, but the state police have sent out an SUV to pick her up. The wedding has gone on as scheduled.

I changed the details there, but that's a sentence construction I just read in a news story. Now I know that journalism has an odd way with tenses (most headlines in present tense, for example), but this really stopped me. Did it just happen, as I assumed from the present-perfect (has slid)? No, it was earlier today. The "state police have sent out" seems to me to be saying that the SUV hasn't gotten there yet. But the wedding "has gone on"-- so obviously the SUV got there, picked up the bride (this actually happened to someone I know, btw-- you should never schedule a wedding in the winter in Northern Indiana... another couple I know -- also a January Indiana wedding-- had to move their reception because the snow-laden hall roof collapsed) -- what was I saying? Oh, yes, present perfect.

What does present-perfect tense imply to you? When you read that a car "has slid across the road," what does that mean to you about when it happened?

It's a bit confusing to me because "has" makes me think that the action happened very recently and maybe isn't concluded fully. But if the wedding took place, obviously she didn't just get stuck in the snowdrift. So that was sort of misdirective, that present perfect.

When do you use present perfect?


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Appositives: Quick Lesson From the Style Guide

An appositive is a noun or pronoun (or a noun or pronoun phrase) set beside another noun or pronoun. Appositives are modifiers, and like all good modifiers, go next to the words they modify. An appositive must match in number/case/etc. the word with which it is in apposition.

Example: Her car, a battered green wagon, leaked oil in my driveway.

Appositives are generally surrounded by commas unless they are very short essential phrases, as in “My sister Trudy won the lottery.”

Trudy is the appositive, and because it's short and essential, it requires no commas.

Do we all understand what is meant by "essential" there? An essential modifier is one that is necessary for the sentence to make sense. Think of it this way. Because there's no comma before or after the appositive Trudy, we know that there must be more than one sister. The speaker is distinguishing between her sister Trudy who won the lottery and her sister Elaine who did not. If she had only one sister, and that sister's name was Trudy, then she could leave the name out of the sentence without changing its meaning.

In other words:

If the speaker has only one sister, then
My sister won the lottery
My sister, Trudy, won the lottery
mean the same thing.

If the speaker has more than one sister, then
My sister won the lottery
My sister Trudy won the lottery
don't mean the same thing. The first sentence could refer to a different sister.

So the commas can change the meaning of the sentence, and that's why punctuation is important for appositives. It's not just for readability, but also for meaning.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Possession power

I was thinking more about how to efficiently establish setting and perspective and all that. One quick way to show more setting is to show ownership or possession of objects around. After all, if this is "John's Maserati" in the garage, the reader will probably think that this is John's garage and John's house (rightly?-- if wrongly, we have more work to do to explain why this is John's car in Jane's garage).

That little possessive has a lot of power to convey setting by identifying the "props" or objects lying around more specifically. But you know, possessives can also aid in my crusade to make narration more vivid and concrete. The enemy of concreteness is vagueness, and "the" and "a" in front of a noun can make even the most vivid noun vague.

He stopped in front of a yellow turbo-charged Maserati.

"Maserati," even minus the adjectives, is pretty vivid, huh? But "a" Maserati? Is it "his" Maserati? Is it "her" Maserati? Is it "the mayor's Maserati?" (Hey, the New York mayor could have a Maserati and not be assumed to be taking bribes.) We should use "a" and "the" generally only if the POV character doesn't know whose Maserati it is.

Those little words in front of nouns can help connect the object with a character (a possessive noun or pronoun), or to a previously indicated point ("This Maserati" or "That Maserati," for example, uses the demonstrative pronoun to connect to something earlier in the scene or paragraph). And just that amount of specification can make the description more useful and clear. I don't have to wonder so much whose garage this is if the car inside is identified as "John's."

It's interesting how little it often takes to make a passage more concrete, more anchored in the reality of the story. Has anyone else been working on that?


Friday, January 7, 2011

It Always Comes Back to Aristotle

Okay, so I think I've mentioned a time or ten that I've been reading these anthropology structuralist dudes from the mid-20th century, mainly because I wanted to expand my knowledge of superstructures beyond the basic Campbell mythic quest structure. And as part of that exploration, I've been reading Claude Levi-Strauss, a French academic who collected Pan-American myths and analyzed their structure until they cried uncle. Or oncle, actually, in deference to Levi-Strauss's nationality.

Anyway, he's taken a lot of heat for the way he tried to disconnect story structure from time. The basic idea here is that there are two kinds of structure. The first is what we describe as linear -- events unfold along a timeline, and generally have to occur in that specific sequence in order for the story to make sense. The girl can't fall in love with the boy before she meets the boy, right? Temporality is key to understanding most story structures. First this, then that.

Levi-Strauss, though, wanted to unhook structure from time. So he developed a theory of latent structures -- he called them paradigmatic structures, or, depending on the translation, structural paradigms. He said that structural paradigms are oppositional structural elements which can be uncoupled from the story's timeline and moved around. These can be reduced to single-word concepts which are the opposite of each other: love/hate, life/death, and so on. The order in which the concepts are presented isn't important (according to old Claude), as long as they both exist within the tale.

This can make your brain melt if you think about it too hard -- it nearly melted mine, until I realized he's basically talking about (wait for it) (and sing along if you know the words) one of Aristotle's ideas. Reversals. Yummy, delicious, drama-making reversals.

What's a reversal? It's when a story element becomes its opposite. Life/death, love/hate, and so on. Why did Aristotle care about it? Because reversals create drama: the essence of drama is change. And when we're talking about rising action on Ari's incline, we're talking about ways to pump up the drama. A reversal is a structural element with a big built-in dramatic oomph because the nature of the change is big.

The difference between a reversal and another kind of change is the oppositional nature of the elements. One is either alive or dead (excepting certain zombies and other paranormal creatures, of course *ggg*), and there aren't degrees of deadness or aliveness (again, excepting zombies, etc.). What are examples of non-oppositional changes? Anything that changes not in essential nature but rather in degree (mist to rain -- it's still precipitation, just more of it) or quality (green to blue -- color is still present, but it's a different color) is a non-oppositional change. These things might also have some dramatic value, but they don't pack quite the same pop as a reversal.

Why should writers care about this? Two words. Sagging. Middle. If your story slumps along through the middle, if reviewers described chapter eight as the perfect cure for insomnia, then think about the changes presented by the action in the middle of the book. What changes? Does it change in degree, or does it completely reverse itself? How can you magnify that change for more drama?

What are some other examples of oppositional pairs -- or, as our buddy Claude would have it, structural paradigms?


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Setting up setting

One of the purposes of the opening few paragraphs is to establish the setting. If the reader is going to embark on this fictive journey, he needs to know where we are, and when we are, right? We can establish the larger setting with a tagline after the Chapter One heading:

Topeka, June


June 1815, Waterloo

... if we want to-- that quickly establishes the overall limits of this world. But for the opening SCENE, how do we efficiently and evocatively establish where and when we are?

How about some sample lines that might appear in your own story's first couple paragraphs and tell the reader where this first scene is taking place, where and when the characters are?


The late afternoon light filtered in through the dirty store window.

New snow was piled another inch deep on the windowsill outside.

(Windows are useful because they show both inside and outside.)


Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, an escape out to the torchlit gardens.

To connect this to the character and event, maybe make the POV character do the perceiving, and react to it in some way:

Jamie squinted at the statue in the middle of the square, distinguishing through the glare of the noon sun the outline of General Lee on a horse. Gotta love the south and its fixation on the heroes of a losing side.


New snow piled up three inches deep on the windowsill outside, and Sarah pulled her shawl tighter.

Miss Carter stood in the doorway, surveyed her new kingdom, and started coughing. The early morning classroom smelled like chalk, pencil shavings, and teenaged hormones.


Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, Harry's escape out to the torchlit gardens.

This doesn't have to be done in all one sentence, of course, but I like to get clear early a few of these:
  • Where we are
  • Are we inside or outside
  • What time of day it is
  • Is it dark or light
  • What time of year it is or at least whether it's cold or hot
  • The POV character
  • That character's relation to the setting (Harry wanting to escape the ballroom)
  • Are there other people around
  • What it feels like there (stuffy or cold or crowded)
  • What's going on (a ball, a substitute teacher arriving, a chess game)
  • What the sound is like-- noisy, quiet

I find the last harder to get in (sound), I guess because the opening is so often primarily visual. Hmm. Maybe sound is a good "entree"-- after all, often we hear before we see. Sound is very intrusive. So is smell.

Anyway, look at the first paragraphs of your own story, and maybe you can post something, a line or two, that can establish "where and when" without getting out of the story?


Monday, January 3, 2011

Love Your Dictionary

We run into frequent style questions about particular spellings of words and how to use them. You know the kind, something like:

In the clause,
she wanted to backup her hard drive,
should it be backup, back up, or back-up?

The best way to resolve these kinds of issues is by checking the dictionary. I know, who'd'a thunk it? But these are basically spelling and usage questions, and that's what dictionaries are for. Not just definitions, but all kinds of other things, too.

Different dictionaries might resolve these questions in different ways, so the choice of dictionary is no small matter. Many publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines specify which dictionary to use. If you're writing for a particular target and you know which they prefer, use that one. Otherwise, pick one and stick with it. (I've been known to consult multiple dictionaries to try to discover the consensus opinion on various points of usage, but that's mainly because I was charged with the duty to resolve these questions in-house. And because, you know, I'm me.)

So let's take a look at one of my favorite online resources, the Oxford English Dictionary. (Oh, how I love the OED! insert rapturous swoons here.) We'll start with the entry for backup -- one word, no spaces or hyphens:


backup (back·up)

Pronunciation:/ˈbakˌəp, ˈbækˌəp/

1 help or support: no police backup could be expected
a person or thing that can be called on if necessary; a reserve:
I've got a security force as backup
the filter is an excellent backup to other systems
[as modifier] :a backup generator


There's more to this entry, but this is enough for our purposes. The first thing we look at is the way the entry is spelled. Does it match what we're looking for? No spaces, no hyphen, one word -- yes, this is what we want.

Next, we look at the part of speech specified in the entry. See those two bolded words? Noun, modifier. This is how this particular spelling can be used. So this should be triggering some warning lights for careful readers right about now. Why? Look at our sample sentence again. How do we use backup in that sentence? As a verb. Not as a noun, and not as a modifier.

So now we know we have to dig deeper and find the entry for backup as a verb. If we try a different spelling variation -- this time, back up with a space, no hyphen, two words -- we find these notes under the entry for back as a verb:


back up

1 (of vehicles) form a line due to congestion: the traffic began to back up
2 (of running water) accumulate behind an obstruction.

back something up
make a spare copy of data or a disk.

(usually be backed up) cause vehicles to form into a queue due to congestion:
the traffic was backed up a couple of miles in each direction


Aha. There it is. Multiple ways to use back with the adverb up, which is exactly what we need. Two words, no hyphens.

You see how that works? This might seem like very basic information if you already know how to use a dictionary, but we get so many usage questions that I thought it might not be a bad idea to go over the method for checking these things.