Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mixed POV approaches-- Agatha Christie

From Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie: 1939

Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.

This shows the continual shift Christie uses from a 19th C sort of omniscient (where we the reader are outside the character, seeing what he does but not "doing it with him"):
Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. 

To a 20th C deeper third, where we are inside the character, perceiving what he perceives ("heard") and feeling what he feels ("hoped"):
 He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.
This is an effective technique and still used in mystery novels. It subliminally puts the reader into the viewpoint of the sleuth (or villain, sometimes) while reasserting the distance (outside, omniscient point-of-view) needed to evaluate and analyze all the evidence in the book (including what the sleuth doesn't know or misinterprets).

In Murder Is Easy (originally titled "Easy to Kill," btw), Christie uses a "pro-am" sleuth. He's a retired police inspector (from "the Mayang Straits"-- it's an area in Manipur, a peninsula in Eastern India), but out of his depth with the sophistication of British villains, who are, I'm sure we can agree, the most elegant of all. So we can see the pro at work from the omniscient angle, but the uncertain amateur (who is also falling in love, about which more later) through the single-third-person interior viewpoint. We feel both his certainty and his uncertainty, and have much better sense of how just plain difficult it is to figure out the

This book apparently came after several books featuring her impeccably correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot, who is never uncertain and seems to have no inner issues beyond a distaste for British weather. We don't really need an internal view into Poirot as he's not hiding much of himself. (In fact, several of the Poirot short stories are narrated, Dr. Watson-like, by a friend of his.) Luke, however, isn't just a "detecting machine" (you can tell I'm not a big fan of Poirot as a character, though I like the mysteries in those books). He's a young man, long exiled from his homeland and now returning, rootless, almost friendless, and most important, falling in love-- and all this shapes how and why he bothers to detect, especially as all the murders could plausibly be regarded as accidents.

What the more interior "single-third" viewpoint gives us is Luke that man, ruled by this new emotion-- falling for a woman he's unsure of and might not even like (I'm doing this in my Regency CSI series, and I can attest it's a difficult dynamic to describe). What we see is not Poirot's almost ruthless efficiency, but an amateur's repeated mistakes. (He's always fingering the wrong people!) Christie's use of omniscient (usually when he's sleuthing and gathering clues) allows us to judge whether or not he's right. And we have to notice that several times he's wrong. What the single-third deep viewpoint gives us is the reason he's so often wrong: From inside Luke, we participate in his biases and his impulses.

His first real suspect is Mr. Ellsworthy, the local antiques dealer. While the shopkeeper has been in the village for years, he's very much an urban character, and out of place here. He is (probably-- Christie is always a bit muddled when it comes to sexuality in general) homosexual, and Luke's instinctive distaste leads him to suspect the innocent Ellsworthy. From inside Luke (the single-third passages), we get a good sense of the first-half-century straight man's horror of the alternative. (We also get that muddled mid-century view from Christie-- Ellsworthy is not gay so much as generally "abnormal, perverted, depraved" (she uses all those terms, along with stage villain-type hysterical giggles, a "prancing and mincing" gait, and -- no joke-- slightly green hands... just plain devilish... inhuman). He practices witchcraft and Satanic rituals, of course. And it's assumed that he also abuses women sexually-- that is, he's portrayed as all that is perverse. This isn't, of course, a sympathetic or accurate rendition of any alternative sexual identity, but rather an expression of the horror Luke is feeling towards "the other".

So it's not a stretch to see Luke pretty soon fastening on Ellsworthy as the killer. Ellsworthy's supposed perversity would account for the seeming randomness of the murders (nothing seems to unite them except proximity)-- after all, an abnormal inhuman satanist wouldn't need any real motivation for murder!

Luke doesn't really discard this suspicion until he turns his attention onto another suspect. Again, this choice is influenced by his inner reality. He has fallen in love with Bridget, and naturally hates the rich, powerful, and unpleasant man she is going to marry (Lord Whitfield). It's no stretch for him to start suspecting Whitfield, who does have the suspicious trait of having employed most of those who died (and most of the village, it must be said-- he's very rich). While of course Luke's view of the man is colored by jealousy, it's also psychologically apt-- Whitfield is indeed a very large and destructive toddler who wants attention and demands immediate gratification, and can't stand opposition.

When we are sequentially inside and outside of Luke, we can understand his interpretation of something Whitfield confides (that he was once engaged to a lady in the village, but it was broken off because a pet bird he loathed "had its neck wrung"). Luke assumes-- because of his resentment of Whitfield, who gets whatever he wants, including Bridget-- that Whitfield was careless confessing to killing the bird. In fact, if Luke hadn't been so ready to think the worst about his rival, he might have noticed how careful Whitfield was to put that in the passive voice ("the bird was killed," not "I killed the bird"). From the outside, we notice that he jumps to this conclusion that Whitfield is a killer, and thus THE killer. From the inside, we understand why Luke makes this mistake (Whitfield is his rival for Bridget). We are able then to both judge him from the outside and empathize with him from the inside. (He does eventually figure it out, just in time to rescue Bridget from the real murderer.)

I'm going to try to be more analytical as I re-read the other books, and watch for this omniscient/single mix, or one or the other. My hypothesis is:
  • The "professional" books (the Poirot and Miss Marple ones) will have mostly omniscient, mostly outside the "sleuth" character and presenting action also from the perspective of the other characters (like "Sanctuary" gives the POV of the vicar's wife who discovers the body as much as that of Miss Marple solving the crime). The omniscient here recognizes the irrelevance of the interior lives of these professional sleuths (I know Miss Marple isn't paid for it, but she's professional in her skills).
  • The "pro/am" stories (where the sleuths are as much amateur investigators as professional, like Luke and Tuppence and Tommy) will have more back-and-forth between the exterior analysis level and the interior emotional level. In fact, this will provide a lot of the conflict and complications to the mystery-- solved not by the objective application of observation and logic, but through making emotion-based mistakes which lead the sleuths deeper into the mystery.
  • And in the books with the true amateurs, like Bobby and Frankie in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, we see mostly from inside, from their own limited and emotionally charged perspectives.  Their ability to solve the murder will come more from their intuition as much as their observation, and they will rely much more on empathy and instinct ("I knew he was a liar!") than on logic.

Thoughts about this? Examples that support or don't? (Also I should look at The Man in the Brown Suit, with its somewhat clumsy use of "objective" or camera-eye perspective in the first scene, where the victim "stars".)

List of Christie's books, dated. From

Agatha Christie - The official information and community site

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Is retention the point of reading? And if it's "a point, not the point," how can we improve that?

From The Guardian: Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds

As someone who can't remember the plot of any book I read, print or E, I would have to point out that "remembering the plot" is not necessarily what readers are going for when they read. I'm a great reader (in the sense that I read a lot, not that I do it well), and I don't read for retention but for the experience as I read.

But this is an interesting study, however limited. The experience of reading electronic books might be different from reading books on paper. (The greatest difference I notice in my own reading, actually, is with audiobooks, which in many ways is closer to watching -- or listening to-- a TV show than to reading a book with your eyes. I like all the experiences, but they are different and have different benefits and problems.)

But if this is so, that e-readers are retaining less, what does it tell writers? I think I'm taking from it
that continuity is going to be more important than ever, things like
having each character have a distinctive name (not "Mark and Mary") that
can be tracked easily from paragraph to paragraph and page to page
without confusion, and clear markers (like a tagline at the top of a
chapter) of changes in scene or time.  That is, while not losing sight of
the small-picture accuracy of detail, we might also want to focus on the
ways readers will construct an unbreakable chain of the story in their
minds-- what are the connectors between parts of the book?

What else? Should we be concerned about making books more "retainable" regardless of the medium of presentation?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coolkayer commented:
Alicia, perhaps you've already done this, but please consider a post on capitalization after a colon. Every time I think I've got it--if the post-colon portion of the sentence is a full sentence unto itself, capitalize--then I see someone not cap a full sentence, and once again, I'm sunk. It's better than he thought: He can run all day now. Or It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. (This example confuses me to no end as it might be a semicolon or an em-dash instead of a colon. Ugh!) Thanks! on Sentences: Why a clause? Why a comma? Rules bend for meaning construction

Good question! I think part of the problem is that like so much else, the colon does double duty. It's used to join an introduction with an explanation or definition:
(Explanation... "why")
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

(Definition "what")
First, understand what sociopathy is: a personality disorder that causes the person to engage in antisocial behavior due to a lack of an awareness of morality.

But the colon can also signal that what follows will be a list:
(list of three or more)
My cousin has failed at marriage three times: with Mike the love-maker, with Joe the taker, and with Pete the faker.

The list can be bulleted or numbered also:
My completed legal coursework includes
  • ·         Legal Research and Writing
  • ·         Advanced Legal Research
  • ·         Legal Ethics and Law Office Practice
  • ·         Business Law  
  • ·         Tort Law
  • ·         Practice and Procedure in Litigation

Now the rule about capitalizing after a colon is conventionally that if what follows is a complete sentence, you capitalize the first letter after the colon. Why? Because the colon is sort of a super-powered period (end stop) then. It's separating two sentences:

You should know why I left the party.
My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

But here we don't want to just be making two different sentences. We're connecting them to say that they go together, that (in this case), sentence B explains what we mean in sentence A:
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

The capital letter at the start of the second sentence acknowledges that it's a sentence, while the colon acknowledges that the two sentences are meant to be read together.

When the second part after the colon isn't a full sentence, that capital letter would be distracting (indicating a full sentence when it's not), so we leave that lower-case, as with the definition sentence.

Bulleted and numbered lists, however, sometimes have capped first letters... for each item in the list. (No matter what you choose, the choice should be applied consistently for every item on the list.) This isn't really required, but often looks better. In the case above with the course list, those are all titles of courses, and so would probably be capitalized anyway. 

With your sentence, 
It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. 
I think the problem is "it's" as the subject. It's not informative enough to set up the "explanation," which is "He can run all day now."

That is, yes, the "He" should be capped after the colon, because what follows is the explanation (what's not as bad as he thought) and it's a full sentence. However, because "it's" is so uninformative, you're not really setting up the question in that first clause to be answered after the colon. Try this:
His condition is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His recovery has been better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His leg is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His stamina is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
So you were right-- colon is good, cap letter is good. However, your mind was telling you that something was missing or needed improvement... and that's the subject of the sentence. The first sentence or clause before a colon sets up what is to come, and so should probably be clearly informative.

What do you think? It's (as much as I use "it's" myself, as you can see!) always a good idea to check sentences with "it" and "this" and "that" as subject and see if a more precise term will sound better. The fact that I could come up with four plausible nouns there indicates that you might want to be more specific in what "it" is. :)

Good question! Punctuation has secret depths, huh?


Writing Process Blog tour

I was tagged by @ElenaGreene7 to join the Writing Process Blog Tour! Tagging #dennysbryce and Wesley Redfield at

Four questions about my writing process:
**What are you working on?
I'm working on the first of a series of mystery-romances set in the Regency era. I'm almost done with one, but haven't come up with a title yet. Titles are hard for me.
**How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
My strengths are writing emotion, and crafting elegant prose, so I'm more of a miniaturist than an epic writer. I like to focus on fine points of a scene—choosing exactly the right combination of action, reaction, design, and expression to give the reader a deeper experience. I've tried to learn that from the two greatest writers concerned with this time period, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
**Why do you write what you do?
I'm writing what I'm interested in reading, actually—complicated relationships that end happily, against the backdrop of glamour and beauty that is the Regency period.
**How does your writing process work?
Not well. I always write out of order—whatever scene or event is intense in my mind—then I have to piece all these scraps together! Call me the "quilt-writer." I first write the dialogue, and then go back and add in everything else. So my scenes are mostly centered on dialogue rather than action.

What's your process like? Is it effective for you? Mine isn't, but when I think about "writing freely," about writing from the muse, I realize-- for me, that's out of order, just dialogue, just intense moments. (And fill in the blanks later, which is the hard part.) 

I'm tagging a couple friends who have very different writing processes.

Denny Bryce, the 2014 GOLDEN HEART® Winner in Romantic Suspense, writes CONTEMPORARY ROMANTIC SUSPENSE, HISTORICAL WOMEN'S FICTION, AND URBAN FANTASY. Her stories straddle the thin line between sex, danger, and love, which she calls ROMANCE ON THE EDGE. 

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New Mexico while a professor at the University of New Mexico. His participation in reenactments and extensive trips on horseback in the Southwest add authenticity to his writing.  His latest book, Santa Fe:  Holy Faith, the sequel to Sangre de Cristo, comes out this fall. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saw Mother Courage this weekend-- thinking about the author's deliberate alienation of the audience

Bertolt Brecht used the German term Verfremdungseffekt (don't ask me to pronounce it) to define the authorial choice to force a distance between the audience and the character. This is of course antithetical to the more common desire to encourage the audience to identify with the character. This choice to estrange the audience from the character is often accomplished by making her unappealing or her actions incomprehensible. The point is, I think, to force us out of the comfortable companionship of thinking, "She is like me, and therefore good" and into evaluating her more objectively (and perhaps evaluating ourselves  more objectively).

Brecht's most famous expression of the "distancing or alienation effect" is in the title character of his play Mother Courage.  He wrote this while in self-exile from his native Germany during Hitler's reign, and that might give us some idea of why "distancing" or "alienation" might have been a particularly valued goal at that point in history.

What's interesting about this choice is that it discards the enlistment of an audience's most valued ability, empathy, in order to present human action and interaction in a more unsparing fashion. Brecht meant Mother Courage to be a more "true" representation of humanity perhaps than a character shaped to draw the audience's fellow feeling. Techniques that can cause the alienation—well, the most important would be presenting the character's action without justification, and the character's flaws without mitigation.

That was what Brecht was playing with in Mother Courage, alienating the audience from her by using her as a representative of the capitalist and mercenary set. I think he wimped out enough -- making her a mother who loved her children-- that the audience wasn't nearly as appalled by her as he wanted, or maybe we just naturally have fellow feelings with most other humans. In fact, I tend to think that characters who are presented rather starkly in their unappeal end up winning the audience over (Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O'Hara). I might go so far as to say that characters who are hard to identify with early in the story are often the ones who attain sort of cult status or become cultural icons like Sherlock.

Without the easy empathetic identification, the audience will have to judge the character on her own actions and interactions rather than empathy. I think when it works, the audience ends up really in deeper identification because they have to really think about how and why this character is this way and does these things. It's like you might love a difficult friend more because you actually had to work to love her at all.

I'm wondering if comedy might rely more on distancing—we don't, after all, laugh at ourselves usually, so too close an identification with the comic character might diminish our ability to find those pratfalls funny. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Interesting article about autocorrect's effect (positive) on the conveyance of good grammar

#Nuance ‏Atlantic Monthly: Will autocorrect save the apostrophe, and slow language's evolution?

(Joe Pinsker):
Meanwhile, as the battle rages on, our devices seem likely to nudge us even further in the direction of language preservation. The software company Nuance, which invented the predictive-texting technology known as T9, is developing autocorrect software capable of suggesting more-substantive grammatical changes, like proper verb conjugation. Which means that we could soon be texting like the grammarians our software wants us to be.

 Extra credit for the mention of the culture war between the extremist groups, Kill the Apostrophe and Apostrophe Protection Society.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sentences: Why a clause? Why a comma? Rules bend for meaning construction

I was writing along for one of the "real jobs" (that is, the ones that pay), and in a response to a submission, wrote a sentence structured like this, "As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs."

Now we all know the rule. To distinguish between the two independent clauses in a compound sentence, we use a comma plus a conjunction (, and). But there aren't two independent clauses. There's a dependent clause: As I said earlier, appropriately followed by a comma. (No, I won't argue the alternative or go into the very few exceptions here. I read too many student papers where there's no distinction between the introductory element and the main clause. Trust me. The reader needs it, and it was only the AP's need to save ink for newspapers that made this at all arguable. If you have read a thousand student sentences like this where there are no commas to distinguish sentence elements you would agree that a comma is usually necessary in complex sentences.
There's a main clause, with the sentence subject and predicate:  I grew up near Richmond

And there is a second predicate with a direct object:  recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs.

The need for the conjunction is clear as we're linking two predicates, and the second predicate (recognized) with the sentence subject (I). But the comma before the "and"-- what's that about? Why did I immediately put that in? Ordinarily I wouldn't. Ordinarily, with one subject and two predicate sentences, I would just use the conjunction. So why did I use the comma? (I could, of course, just have made a mistake, but I don't usually make that kind of mistake -- years of editorial work have trained me in punctuating, though it didn't beat the dash-addiction out of me.) When I do something like that, I go back and try to figure out why I did it. I trust my instinct, but question it too. (Hey! I just did it again-- comma before the conjunction before a second predicate! Why? I think because the second is a contradiction of the first, so I signify that with the comma-- "... here comes something different.")

Anyway, back to the original sentence. (And the point of this is to say that the rules are important because they're based on the logic of sentencing, and when you understand the logic, you can tell when this particular sentence needs a non-rule treatment because it's doing something that is outside that logic.)

The kicker here isn't actually the subject (I) or the double-predicate. It's that introductory element (As I said  earlier).  What exactly did I say earlier?

What I said earlier in the letter was (in response to the setting of the book) that I had grown up near Richmond. I was trying to establish commonality and also present the reality that I was perhaps more able to appreciate an aspect of the book (the photos) than another reader. 

But... what I didn't say earlier was this:
  recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs.
That's new. I said "main clause with predicate 1" before, but not "trailing phrase with predicate 2" before. 

Without the comma, I would be saying that I'd said all that before, and the reader would be looking back to the first paragraph and wondering what had happened to the mention of the recognition.  

The comma says, "What's before me is separate in some meaningful way from what's after me." I don't have to necessarily specify what the difference in meaning is, but the comma is a recognition of that so that the reader doesn't have to wonder. We can trust the reader to sense if not completely consciously understand that there is a distinction between this:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (That is, I said all of this earlier.)
and this:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (I said only the Richmond part earlier.)

Now I could also have done it the standard compound (two clause) way:
As I said earlier, I grew up near Richmond, and I recognized many of the monuments portrayed in the photographs. (That is, the trailing phrase is now a clause with its own subject.)

That would have been just fine, except three I's in one sentence might seem repetitive, not to mention egotistical. So precision of meaning gave way to reverse-vanity, I guess.

Point is, as usual-- Know the rule. Understand the underlying logic. Intuit exceptions. Second-guess your intuition. Make a conscious ruling. 
Do all that, and I'll even shut up about exceptions to the rule about commas and intro elements... but you have to add, "Explain your rationale" for that one. :)

Punctuation is part of the construction of meaning in a sentence and paragraph.



Monday, June 23, 2014

Back to sentences

We're both still alive! Just distracted. Anyway, I came across a sentence construction that made me long to blog again. Here it is--

Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

I know, too complex, too wordy, all that. That always happen when I try to riff on an actual sentence to disguise where I got it. (Sure, the Major Author I'm paraphrasing probably isn't following this blog, but once I discussed a poem I'd read -- fortunately not negatively-- and the poet popped up and commented... so I'm spooked. This internet thing sure ruins the secrecy of sniping.)

But what I want to talk about is how we can use sentence construction to amplify or clarify the meaning. The context on the page is that Josie need Bill's help but hasn't broached the subject yet. But the way the above sentence is constructed, with the "conflict" kind of encapsulated in the relative clause (whose experience). The conflict is the point of the sentence, to show that Josie is going against her own beliefs to agree.

One way I (and many readers) mentally distinguish sentence and sentence parts is "positive and negative," or as I actually think of it, "Plus 1 and minus 1."  Basically, is the message sent by this a yes or a no? For example:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of city government, 
That's negative, in that she is "jaundiced" (cynical) about this.

About this same thing (City Hall, that is, mayor?), Bill is "positive". And Josie is positive also suddenly:
nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

The reader has to get the idea of the conflict, or she'll say, "Huh?" and go back and read to find out if she missed something ("Did I misunderstand what 'jaundiced' means? I'll go look it up").  Here, Josie's shift from negative to positive (about the same subject) in one sentence would usually indicate the need for a "conflict signal," that lets the reader know that the author knows that this is a conflict, that there's been a shift. (Hang on there-- I'm anticipating your objections, and I'll get to at least one, but this book didn't do what could have made this right. Anyway, I want to make this one point first. :)

Another issue is that the negative (her cynicism) is as important as her action-- the juxtaposition makes them both important. The point is  not that she's cynical or that she nods agreement, surely, but that she's cynical and yet she nods agreement. The juxtaposition can be more evident if one element isn't buried in a relative clause. That is, as you revise sentences, think about what the "weight" of each element is. Generally (there are exceptions, as when you want to trick the reader or be ironic), important things are in the main clause. (Putting important things in minor sentence elements can create subtext-- but "subtext" exists because we have "text" first-- we might have to know how to do things conventionally in order to do the unconventional really well, at least those of us who aren't naturally unconventional. :) (BTW, my husband just reminded me of the single greatest recognition I ever got in my whole life -- except the boys telling me that I was the best mother evuh, and I suspect a lot of other mothers got something similar in their Mother's Day cards-- was that at Blacksburg High School, senior year, I was voted "most non-conformist" in the class. You can tell what a repressed class we were, if I ended up being the wild one.)

By far the most common way to signal a conflict is to use the word "but". "But" usually introduces an independent clause, so I'd merge the relative clause with the subject and make that an independent clause, so we'll end up with two independent clauses of the same "weight," thus syntactically the same importance:

Josie's experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, but she nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

(Consider the different "feel" if we used "so" as the conjunction-- ironic? Grim?)

Now both parts of the sentence are of equal importance, and the juxtaposition (negative/positive) of both creates the joint sentence experience. It will cause the reader to pose the right question, which isn't "How does the dictionary define 'jaundiced'?" It's "What's her purpose in pretending to agree with him about the mayor?" Getting the reader -- with a single sentence-- to ask the right question helps create that "narrative propulsion" that keeps the reader reading (to find the answer).

Readers can be quite sensitive to nuance, and a sentence that doesn't create the experience you want them to have-- yes, a single sentence-- can throw them out of the fictive world. It's often hard to find those "clunker" sentences, but once you put on your reader hat and read like a reader and find them, they're usually easy to fix.

But... exception! Objections! As I said, the book I paraphrased this from didn't supply the context-- this was in fact the first sentence of a scene. But if there had been some context (like that she needed to stay on Bill's good side or get him to give her an introduction to the mayor) set up in the passage above, or the paragraph above, then the original sentence:
Josie, whose experience with the police department had given her a jaundiced view of City Hall, nodded agreement to her friend Bill's admiration about the mayor.

... would have been a lot more understandable (in the right way). It would have been like Josie Smiling Very Hard-- we would probably have understood quickly that this action of nodding was both against her own inclinations (revealed in the relative clause-- see, relegated to secondary "weight" because it is now less important) and in furtherance of the previously identified or intimated goal. If we had a bit of context, we'd know she's "not herself" because she's playing a part, not because the author screwed up the characterization. :)

Context is all, and we don't have to supply enormous buckets of it. But in the absence of context, our sentences should say what we mean, or rather, say what they need to say to give readers the experience we want them to have this very moment. In this case, it might be "asking the right question;" in another, it might be "understanding the context." 

We are the ones in control, and control of prose is based on the sentence level. Lots of writers are quite intuitive and don't need to second-guess themselves... but the rest of us might need to check to make sure we're creating the experience we want the reader to have-- at that very moment, and in accumulation of moments of the story.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Because empathy.

My favorite language writer is John McWhorter, because he has an unabashed appreciation for how language grows and no negativity about it. He also agrees with me (or rather, I agree with him) that the Millennial generation is the NICEST generation ever, kind to each other, instinctively cooperative, and intensely social, so more empathetic than ever. Here he explains why some of the most common language affectations of the group reflect their desire to "soften" confrontation:

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Back to blogging! One new year's resolution is to post more. Anyway, Wes mentioned the anti-hero, and I thought maybe we could talk about anti-heroes, how you would define that kind of protagonist, examples maybe?

In my understanding, the anti-hero is usually someone who isn't heroic in the standard sense because he lacks some of the striking "good" qualities of a hero, while he has the heroic qualities of strength or purpose or something that gives him power. And he uses that power (and perhaps some underhanded "unheroic aspects") to do something good. That is, his character might not be heroic, and his motivation might not be heroic (he might want the right thing for the wrong reasons, like revenge or money), and his methods might not be heroic, but what he achieves is heroic (the results). And for whatever reason (this is tricky to accomplish), the reader identifies with him in some way.
The classsic pairing has been Superman (hero), Batman-Dark Knight (anti-hero). Superman does the right thing for the right reason. Batman does the right thing for the wrong reason. Both use heroic strengths to achieve something good, but Batman also uses bad tactics.
Scarlet O'Hara is an anti-heroine in that she has heroic strengths that help her survive the war but more than that, to help others (her whole family, her beloved's wife that she hated ever) survive the war. She's willing to do anything to save her farm, including marrying her sister's fiance (not heroic, but achieved a good end). She's actually more of an anti-hero than Rhett (who actually realizes that his romantic need to be a hero in the war was pretty stupid).
There was a time that "antihero" was used to refer to "nebbishy guys" like Benjamin in The Graduate, who have no heroic strengths and aren't at all "Bad", but that didn't last, fortunately. They aren't anti-heroes but more like "everymen".
The Byronic hero is generally considered to be artistic and "moody" and obsessed with women. I wouldn't say they're anti-heroes, but what we romance writers would call "the romantic hero"-- heroically tormented emotionally.
But the antihero usually is the one who does the right thing for the wrong reasons (but with some strength or power that would ordinarily be considered heroic). A villain will often do use heroic strengths to do the WRONG thing (though it might be for the "right" reasons like religion or patriotism).