The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Written by 


Just to be clear up front: I would not recommend you read The Trial by Franz Kafka–more on that below–but I think there are a couple interesting lessons to be taken from it anyway. Here, I want to take a look at one Kafka’s greatest strengths in all of his fiction: his ability to overturn his characters, to accomplish believable and powerful shifts in mood in just a few paragraphs. 

THE CHALLENGE
How do you believably and concisely accomplish huge shifts in character mood? These shifts in mood are necessary to turn a character-driven story in a new direction, but they can be hard to pull off. Here’s a look at one way you might accomplish this. 

THE STORY 
The first thing I noticed about Franz Kafka’s The Trial is how undeniably contemporary it reads, on a structural level. The paragraphs and scenes proceed in much the same way most well-crafted books do today. But I can’t recommend anyone actually read it, because the second thing I noticed is there is a disturbing amount of misogyny that threads through much of it–worse, even, than other work I’ve read from the post-WWI time period. This juxtaposition of modern scene structure and unapologetic misogyny might be intellectually interesting for scholars, but it’s off-putting enough to engender a mild case of whiplash. 

Maybe there are reasons Kafka requested this book be burned upon his death? An unfinished first draft, it certainly lacks the polish and astute observations of his short fiction. In short: if you want to read Kafka, go read “In the Penal Colony.” As for the handful of interesting tidbits from The Trial, I’ll try to cover them here, so you won’t have to go looking for them.  

One of Kafka’s most powerful abilities was his really deft sense of how a character’s relative position can change inside of a structure of power in sudden ways through subtle means. That’s what happens in the following excerpt (interestingly along with the most positive representation of any woman in the book. In this case, an unnamed woman). Up to this point, the protagonist, K., has been arrested by some mysterious court for no understandable reason, been to a hearing in which he gave a biting monologue, and has felt quite confident, even arrogant, faced with this trial. In this scene, he’s in the office of the court, trying to figure out when his next hearing is, and everything changes: 

K. didn’t bother with him and the others gathered there for long, especially when, more or less half-way down the corridor, he saw that it was possible to turn off through an opening without a door on the right. He checked with the usher that it was the right way, the usher nodded, and he took the turn. He found it annoying that he had to walk one or two steps in front of the usher all the time, it could well look, at least in this place, as if he were being taken under escort. K. kept waiting for the usher to catch up, but he immediately dropped back again. Finally, in order to put an end to his discomfort, K. said, ‘I’ve seen what things look like here, so now I’ll leave.’ ‘You haven’t seen everything,’ said the usher in non-committal tones. ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ ‘You haven’t got lost already, have you?’ the usher asked in astonishment. ‘You go to the corner there then turn right along the corridor and the door’s straight ahead.’ ‘Come with me,’ said K, ‘and show me the way. There are so many ways here, I’ll take the wrong one.’ ‘It’s the only way,’ the usher said, his voice now starting to sound reproachful. ‘I can’t go back with you, I have to deliver my message. I’ve already lost a lot of time because of you.’ ‘Come with me,’ K. repeated more sharply, as if he’d finally caught the usher lying. ‘Don’t shout like that,’ the usher whispered, ‘there are offices everywhere here. If you don’t want to go back by yourself, come along with me, or wait here until I’ve delivered my message, then I’ll be happy to go back with you.’ ‘No, no,’ said K., ‘I’m not going to wait and you must come with me now, when one of the many wooden doors all around them opened, did he look at it. A young woman, presumably alerted by K.’s loud voice, came in and asked, ‘What is it you want, sir?’ In the distance behind her a man could also be seen approaching in the gloom. K. looked at the usher. He had said that no one would bother with K. and here were two people coming already; it wouldn’t take much and the whole staff would have noticed him and would be demanding an explanation for his presence there. the only understandable and acceptable one would be that he was a defendant and wanted to know the date of his next interrogation, but that was the very explanation he did not want to use, especially as it wasn’t true, since he’d only come out of curiosity or–and this was even less acceptable as an explanation–out of a desire to confirm that this court was just as repulsive on the inside as it was on the outside. And since it seemed that this assumption was correct, he didn’t want to penetrate any further. He felt constrained enough by what he had seen already and was in no state to face a senior official, who might appear from any of these doors. He wanted to leave, with the usher or, if needs be, without him.
          But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss. And in the doorway stood the man K. had earlier seen in the distance; he was holding on to the lintel of the lower door and rocking a little on the balls of his feet, like an impatient onlooker. But the young woman was the first to realize that the cause of K.’s behavior was a slight indisposition. She brought an armchair and asked him, ‘Won’t you sit down?’ K. immediately sat down and rested his elbows on the arms in order to support himself more securely. ‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here. It is the first time you’ve been here, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t unusual, then. The sun burns down on the roof timbers and the hot wood makes it very close and stuffy. That makes it unsuitable as office space, despite all its other advantages. On days when it’s open to the public, and that’s almost every day, the air is hardly breathable. And when you remember that washing’s often hung out to dry here–we can’t entirely prohibit the tenants from doing so–you won’t be surprised you feel slightly sick. But eventually you get used to the air here. When you come the second or third time you’ll scarcely notice how oppressive it is. do you feel better now?’ K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse. The young woman noticed this straight away, and in order to give K. some fresh air, picked up a pole with a hook on the end that was propped up against the wall and pushed open a little skylight just above K.’s head. But so much soot fell in that she had to close the skylight again immediately and clean the soot off K.’s hands with her handkercheif, since K. was too tired to do it himself. He would have liked to stay sitting there quietly until he was strong enough to leave, but that would have to be sooner rather than later, depending on how long people would look after him. And now, anyway, the young woman was saying, ‘You can’t stay here, we’re in the way,’–K. looked round questioningly to ask what he could be in the way of–‘I’ll take you to the sickroom, if you like.–Would you help me, please?’ she said to the man in the doorway. he immediately approached. But K. didn’t want to go to the sickroom, being taken farther was the last thing he wanted, the farther he went, the worse it must be. So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again. He remembered the usher, who, despite everything could easily have led him out, but he seemed to have gone long ago. K. looked between the young woman and the man, who were standing in front of him, but he couldn’t see the usher.
           ‘I think,’ said the man, who was elegantly dressed–his grey waistcoat ending int two sharp points was particularly striking–‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ ‘You’re right,’ K. cried, so pleased that he spoke almost before the man had finished . . . (p52-54)

From here, the woman and the elegantly dressed gentleman help K. out of the offices–it’s a long, slow journey in which K. sees his mental and physical state deteriorate. When he gets outside, he immediately feels better, but this event will affect him for the rest of the plot. 

THE SOLUTION:
This entire chapter seems to exist essentially to knock K. down a peg, and to do so in a highly rigorous, convincing way. This is interesting in part because Kafka rarely puts in this much work to make things believable in the story and so much strangeness has already occurred–maybe he has some dedication to representing K. in a rigorous way, as his protagonist. 

The way I see it, there are 6 steps here that create a robust structure for us to witness the change. 

1. ” ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ “

Here we see the first introduction to the idea that K. feels tired, but it’s subtle, delivered between a split line of dialogue so that we skim right over it. It’s characteristic of an line that an author might want to register in us without drawing too much attention to. A sort of foreshadowing, I suppose. The line quoted above leads into a very circular, confusing argument with the messenger during which K. is strangely obstinate. We’ve seen K. be stubborn before, so it tracks with his character in the moment, but it quickly becomes clear that something different is here–he rarely has shown the patience to bandy back and forth with anyone, usually bursting into a monologue of some kind. 

2. “But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss.”

This is a short step, comprising basically only this line, but it’s powerful–it creates a great sense of alienation that K. has hardly ever felt before (one that will return several times later in the plot) and hints that the woman and the messenger know something that K. does not, that they even have some information about him that he does not have. This is necessary set up for the next step. 

3. “‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here.” 

The real gold of this moment, for me, is this step. It’s the pivotal step–in the sense of ‘most important’ but also in the sense of ‘where everything pivots.’ We realize now what’s going on: the very offices of the court are affecting K–the woman explains why in some detail. This level of detail is strange in the book, and it offers a rather high level of verisimilitude coming from someone else. She asks if he feels dizzy and he doesn’t need to respond–we know he does. We feel it instantly. It’s very interesting, to me, to see that the first real indication of K.’s inner state is delivered by another character. On top of being really very convincing–a roundabout way to show rather than tell the character’s emotions–it also props up Kafka’s major concern: shifts in power. This is the first time that K. realizes he’s in over his head; this woman he’s speaking to reads him like a book, she’s been through all this before, and knows exactly what’s going on. By comparison, K. is helpless. 

4. “K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse.”

We get no audible reply from K.–that would ruing the effect. But we do get confirmation in the narration that, yeah, actually, he does feel faint, and nauseated, and he’s getting worse. It’s important that we get some facts to back up the woman’s assertion, especially in a story where people are constantly making claims that K. deems to be false; it’s important that he agrees on some level here. 

5. “So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again.”

Finally, we see the character change in action. He gets up, trembles, and gives up, too weak to even stand. We have never seen K. acquiesce this quickly. His character has been completely cut down, and we can see that the woman was right, of course–the air here is so oppressive, it can destroy the strongest of men. This is evidence of the strongest sort. 

6. ” ‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ “

They then do exactly as this gentleman states. In an extended scene, they proceed back through the offices, shambling through, showing how weak K. continues to be. On the one hand, this feels maybe too long, and like overkill, but on the other-hand, it provides an incredible opportunity to deepen the change of character K. has gone through. Walking through these same halls, seeing the same sights, but viewing them with this new lens of acquiescence and pity, is deeply rewarding. It’s also deeply foreboding, because we see what K. will become–he passes several other defendants who are even more oppressed and despondent than him. We know that this will be K.’s fate, if he continues to visit the court. 

FINALLY
What’s most illuminating here, for me, is how the entire chapter is structured around one simple task: a change in mood. It’s clear that quite of bit of thought has been put into how to do that in a believable and dramatic way. It uses several elements of fiction, and a handful of techniques, to accomplish this effect, and it’s the most powerful moment in this short novel. 

What do you notice about this scene? Have you seen authors go through a similar process or give themselves a similar task for a chapter? If you have had to rapidly shift a character’s mood, how have you gone about it? 

Thanks for reading! 

Written by 

Sometimes, info is necessary, and even when it’s not, sometimes it’s the point of a novel, on some deeper level. This is often true with the work of Ursula K. Leguin. 

THE CHALLENGE
Expository writing is disparaged largely because they are often boring and not done particularly well by new writers. They grind the plot to a halt and provide dry summaries of a world that should feel engaging and dynamic. But, as Kim Stanely Robinson said in an article on io9, info dumps are not just “necessary but mechanical and ugly,” they are “often necessary, crucial, beautiful and hard to categorize or even see.” 

If you’ve ever read any of Robinson’s work, his opinions on expository writing are hardly surprising. To the degree that she is a similar writer, it seems that Ursula LeGuin would likely share this opinion. The question is, how do some writers provide exposition so wonderfully? 

THE STORY
LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness exists almost entirely for the world itself–the book is designed with world exploration in mind, and focused almost entirely on giving a detailed account of the environment and peoples of this world. This is not always suspenseful (usually it is not) but it is often alarmingly beautiful, surprising and detailed. Here are two example passages, from much larger sections of writing, that I think show how an expository writer comes to love dumping info on us: 

1. From page 98, Chapter 8
During the month of Kus I lived on the Eastern coast in a Clan-Hearth called Gorinhering, a house-town-for-farm built up on a hill above the eternal fogs of the Hodomin Ocean. Some five hundred people lived there. Four thousand years ago I should have found their ancestors living in the same place, in the same kind of house. Along in those four millennia the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery and all the rest began to be used, and a Machine age got going, gradually, without any industrial revolution, without any revolution at all. Winter hasn’t achieved in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades. Neither has Winter ever paid the price that Terra paid. 
     Winter is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is sure and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger. No margin, no reprieve. A man can trust his luck, but a society can’t; and cultural change, like random mutation, may make things chancier. So they have gone very slowly. At any one point in their history a hasty observer would say that all technological progress and diffusion had ceased. Yet it never has. Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going. 
     I talked a lot with the old people of Gorinhereing, and also with the children. It was my first chance to see much of Gethenian children, for in Ehrenrang they are all in the private or public Hearths and Schools. A quarter to a third of the adult urban population is engaged full time in the nurture and education of the children. Here the clan looked after its own; nobody and everybody was responsible for them. They were a wild lot, chasing about over those fog-hidden hills and beaches. When I could round one up long enough to talk, I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful. 
     The parental instinct varies as widely on Gethen as anywhere. One can’t generalize. I never saw a Karhider hit a child. I have seen one speak very angrily to a child. Their tenderness toward their children struck me as being profound, effective, and almost wholly unpossessive. Only in that unposessiveness does it perhaps differ from what we call the “maternal” instinct. I suspect that the distinction between a maternal and paternal instinct is scarcely worth making; the parental instinct, the wish to protect, to further, is not a sex-linked characteristic. . . 

2. From page 243, Chapter 18
Around midday we would halt, and cut and set up a few blocks of ice for a protective wall if the wind was strong. We heated water to soak a cube of gichy-michy in, and drank the water hot, sometimes with a bit of sugar melted in it; harnessed up and went on. 
     We seldom talked while on the march or at lunch, for our lips were sore, and when one’s mouth was open the cold got inside, hurting teeth and throat and lungs; it was necessary to keep the mouth closed and breath through the nose, at least when the air was forty or fifty degrees below freezing. When it went on lower than that, the whole breathing process was further complicated by the paid freezing of one’s exhaled breath; if you didn’t look out your nostrils might freeze shut, and then to keep from suffocating you would grasp in a lungful of razors. 
     Under certain conditions our exhalations freezing instantly made a tiny cracking noise, like distant firecrackers, and a shower of crystals: each breath a snowstorm.

THE SOLUTION
Call me a glutton, but let me take a moment to enjoy that last sentence again. It’s such a detailed and beautiful piece of writing, and so much attention seems to have been paid to it. The deep-in-your-throat breathiness of “exhalations” (instead of the all-in-your-mouth “breath”) and the way the cracking described by the sentence is also evoked by the repeated fire of the hard “c”s in cracking, firecrackers, and crystals. Sound is a key part of the pleasure of LeGuin’s expository writing, as we can see again in the first example, “death from cold or death from hunger,” that dramatic repetitive phrase also evoking “sure and prompt” with its use of quick, single syllable words. This expository writing isn’t just intellectual, it’s not just “info”–it’s also sensory. It’s in your head, sure, but it’s also pricking your skin, lighting your eyes, tap-tapping on your ear drums. 

That’s of course on the micro level of detail and exposition. We can zoom out as well and see how exposition is made more effective in Left Hand of Darkness by noting how the book itself was designed to deliver this exposition. Genly Ai, the narrator of much of the book and the main character, has an overarching goal of bringing the nations on this (to him) foreign planet, called Gethen or Winter, into a federated group of worlds called the Ekumen. His role is first to persuade, but also to learn, observe, collect data so another can try if he fails/dies. LeGuin has in this constructed created a natural, story reason for Genly to provide us with so much exposition, and she has also created stakes for the story. If Genly fails to notice some important detail, he dies. That much is quite clear, throughout, and made explicit in the very first chapter. We know that every detail Genly delivers to us is movement toward his goal, is ammunition for achieving his desire. That’s an important part of the structure of this novel, which is, depending on how you tag it, at least 1/2 up to arguably 9/10ths expository. 

Digging in a little closer to the technique used to deliver exposition, we can see that it’s almost always given to the reader on a plate of struggle. Most of the exposition in this novel comes during periods of travel, as can be seen in my second excerpt above, and involves the constant struggle with subarctic temperatures, huge mountains, narrow roads, and (truly) Ai’s impatience. The environment is a constant antagonist, and during the roughly 60 page voyage through the arctic north, we learn a lot about how to survive in and travel through icy, snowy terrain. That is the most expansive section of exposition in the novel, so it has the highest stakes and the hardest struggle, but we can also see a smaller scale version of this in the first excerpt. In this moment: “Here the clan looked after its own; nobody and everybody was responsible for them. They were a wild lot, chasing about over those fog-hidden hills and beaches. When I could round one up long enough to talk, I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful.” Notice how LeGuin sets up a struggle. The children are wild and hard to catch; this is a moment of struggle for Genly to learn about this world and attain his desire. He overcomes it quickly, by the next sentence, but LeGuin leaves us with an image of much time spent trying to capture a wild child. LeGuin keeps a constant eye for her character struggling, and will often spend time during long expository passages checking in on Genly–on how miserable, cold, uncomfortable, or afraid he is. The novel, very explicitly, forces Genly to struggle through all sorts of exposition. 

But of course, even with both of those structural factors in place (struggle and desire) the exposition could be dry and boring. But it isn’t. It sparks with life (most of the time), and it feels like LeGuin is deeply passionate about what she’s explaining. How does she do that? In part, it’s because she does feel quite passionately about the topics she’s explaining. Take, for instance, the description of child rearing at the village, and in Karhide in general. LeGuin was a stay at home mother who spent much of her early life caring for her children, to great personal sacrifice, struggling with her own mental health, and had a lot of strong opinions about our society’s failure in raising its children. But the real question is how she takes that passion and delivers it in the text. 

To me, it’s delivered through deep, intimate detail and especially through evoking sensations. LeGuin does not shy away from naming several examples of a phenomenon (“the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery”) or to pile on the adjectives (“I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful”) or from spending nearly 1/3rd of a page describing what it feels like just to breath in intensely cold weather. All of this is detailed, sensory and specific, to varying degrees, and it seems to speak to a person who’s just gotten a tad carried away with herself. It’s so packed with detail, it’s almost breathless, but it’s also hyper-focused. Like a cross-country runner bearing down on the finish line.

The details offered are also interesting usually because they are constantly delivered as something Genly notices because it’s different from how things are on his planet, Earth. And that’s a constant takeaway from LeGuin–the simple power of describing a world that is truly, deeply, and radically different from our own. 

FINALLY 
To sum up, it seems important to start from a structural place where exposition is both necessary and believable, but also tied to struggle. At the same time, only write exposition because it’s something you care deeply about–that will help it come to life on the page. And when it fails to come to life, think about how you might get a little carried away. What details can you add? What sensory experiences can you deliver while also writing informative, expository writing? 

Do you have any favorite authors who use exposition exceptionally well, even in small doses? What are your strategies for approaching exposition in your writing? 

Thanks for reading! 



Written by 

Just as I’m re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I get the news. Ursula K. Le’Guin, a writer whose work has taught me more than maybe any other, has passed away. So I’m writing this as a tribute of sorts to her, for what little its worth. I’d like to start by taking a look at how she delivers emotion during dialogue. 

THE CHALLENGE
There’s a difficult balance to strike when we try to emote through fiction, but I have frequently pinballed between the extremes of melodrama and distant emotionlessness. The common advice for avoiding melodrama and evoking emotion is to show your character’s emotions instead of telling them.

Speaking from experience, taking this advice to its extreme leads to scenes that read as overly technical and distant, and makes it hard for readers to actually understand the emotion that the writer is trying to portray. 

LeGuin gives us a much more nuanced look at delivering emotions during dialogues.

THE STORY
The Left Hand of Darkness is a technical masterpiece. It manages to be a largely internal, introspective piece of fiction that still maintains a slow burning suspense for 300 pages. Its key selling point, for a lot of readers, is the deeply imagined world it explores, one that overturns and re-imagines some of Western society’s longest held institutional and social structures. 

It also has an interesting way of depicting the narrator’s emotions during dialogue, which can be seen in the following short excerpt. At this point in the story, we know that the narrator (Genly Ai) is a visitor from a distant planet (Earth) who often struggles to engage with a society he doesn’t understand. His key guide in this world is Estraven, the Prime Minister of this monarchy, and after two years, Estraven has finally invited Genly to his home for dinner. 

Pg12 – 15: “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “that I’ve had to forestall for so long this pleasure of having you in my house; and to that extent at least I’m glad there is no longer any question of patronage between us.” 
     I puzzled at this a while. He had certainly been my patron in court until now. Did he mean that the audience he had arranged for me with the king tomorrow had raised me to an equality with himself? “I don’t think I follow you,” I said. 
     At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. “Well, you understand,” he said at last, “being here . . . you understand that I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king of course.”
     He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was a significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the King. Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and cooly announced that he was withdrawing his support. 
    “You’ve led me to rely on you–“
    “It was ill done.”
    “Do you mean that, having arranged this audience, you haven’t spoken in favor of my mission to the king as you–” I had the sense to stop short of “promised.”
     “I can’t.” 
     I was very angry, but I met neither anger nor apology in him. 
     “Will you tell me why?”
     After a while he said, “Yes,” and then paused again. During the pause I began to think that an inept and undefended alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the workings of government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor–prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it. 
     “Did you hear what the king said to me at the ceremony today?”
     “No.”
     Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, lifted the beer-jug out of the hot ashes and refilled my tankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, “The king didn’t speak to you in my hearing.” 
     “Nor in mine,” said he. 
     I saw at last that I was missing another signal. Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, “Are you trying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you’re out of favor with the king?”
     I think he was angry then, but he said nothing that showed it, only, “I’m not trying to tell you anything Mr. Ai.”
     “By God, I wish you would.” 
     He looked at me curiously. “Well then, put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here.”
     And so you’re hurrying to join them, selling me out to save your skin, I thought, but there was no point in saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, and I a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man. His inviting me to dinner showed that he thought I would accept his betrayal as easily as he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty. So I brought myself to say, “I’m sorry that your kindness to me has made trouble for you.” Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense of moral superiority, but not for long; he was too incalculable. 

THE SOLUTION
Begin with the final paragraph. That’s where all of Le’Guin’s work to this moment really pays off–the conversation after this point veers off in another direction, and this paragraph punctuates this short exchange. Quite powerfully, I’d say. It seems clear to me that what the character feels here is anger and betrayal. 

How is this passage accomplishing that? 

Clearly, LeGuin is telling, to a certain degree. She doesn’t say “I felt angry and betrayed” but she’s not quite showing anything–there isn’t a lot of sensory detail there. We don’t have a scene or even a physical action. What we do have is an interpretation of events delivered to us. Genly Ai interprets Estraven’s motives delivers them to us in a pithy, obviously angry speech. The feelings are more specific than vague adjectives such as “angry.” Instead of saying “I’m angry,” Ai says “Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty” revealing a clear break in values for our narrator.

Out of context, this paragraph could easily read as melodramatic. 

But it doesn’t, because of all the work that’s been done to build to this point to add context and weight to the relationship between these two characters. So what is the context? 


Let’s take a look at the context LeGuin adds in order. 

1. Before we even get to this conversation, we have a fairly drawn out section of the narrator wondering why he’s been invited to dinner only now, two years into his relationship with Estraven. This mystery is built up for several pages, until we feel the answer is so important that we need to know it. (And a note of genius here: the mystery is actually prolonged by the cultural differences and understandings between these characters). 

2. Ai interprets the way that Estraven is speaking in line with his fears (“He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself”). Because it is obviously interpretive, as readers we sense this may not be the answer–we have seen Ai misinterpret people several times already in this novel. 

3. Ai gives us a very specific, detailed breakdown of his relationship with Estraven. It shows how helpful Estraven has come to be, and why Ai has grown to trust him. Although it’s really told through summary, it’s evocative to a certain degree because of how specific it is. We get a mini montage, we come to understand that Estraven is Ai’s only help in this world. This important piece of context helps us understand Ai’s emotional motivations. 

4. Notice that most of the outward dialogue does not truly betray Ai’s emotional state. With the context, we can sense that he’s growing emotional in some way, but also it feels like he’s holding back. It’s important for him not to have some insane outward explosion of emotion–it would feel melodramatic. There are 2 key exceptions to this: 

This line: “You’ve led me to rely on you–” 
–This line shows the rising sense of betrayal. A less skilled writer might have grown off of this, but LeGuin squashes it immediately, not even allowing Ai to finish the sentence before Estraven apologizes. 

And finally, this line: “I’m sorry that your kindness to me had made trouble for you.” 
–LeGuin describes this as “coals of fire” which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the entire conversation. The conversation burns red with anger, but not like fire, in wild spurts, but subtly, controlled. This piece of dialogue is of course magnificent in part because it’s anger parading as an apology. This is Ai’s attempt to undercut Estraven’s face-saving techniques. 

FINALLY
You can probably guess the short answer to building emotion: context. When you want an emotional moment, it’s important for you to understand your character’s emotional motivation–why do they feel the way they feel in this moment? LeGuin here delivers that context through conflict and misunderstandings and through detailed, specific summary. It’s the history between these characters that opens up the emotional motivation of the character.

Written by 

Recently, I’ve been reading screenplays, because I’m writing one. As a learning activity for anyone who struggles with plot, visual writing or dialogue, reading and writing screenplays can be valuable. Screenplays offer fairly transferable skills, although they won’t offer any insight into introspection, complex sentence structure, or use of a wide buffet of senses (since you’re limited to sight and sound). 

Today I’m taking a look at dialogue in the movie Gattaca. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Dialogue with conflict that feels believable, tense and “not dumb” can be hard for me. I avoid dialogue–I’ve written entire novels that have no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. So I’ve been trying to round out my skills by focusing on this personal weakness. 

So I turned to screenplays, as a way to really focus in on dialogue. 

THE STORY: 
Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I love this movie. Slow to start, spending the first third in flashbacks, but with a tight emotional core and thematic resonance. And a surprisingly tense, suspenseful feel even during scenes of people sitting around talking to each other.

Be warned though: Jude Law absolutely outclasses every other actor in this movie. It’s embarrassing, really. 

What you need to know before you read the following excerpts is that the protagonist, referred to as Vincent in this portion of the screenplay, was born of a natural birth in a world of designer babies. He dreams of being an astronaut but Gattaca Aerospace only accepts the best of the best. In this scene he is looking for an elite designer-born person whose identity he can use to infiltrate Gattaca Aerospace. This is a very detailed process in a world that uses your blood, skin cells, hair, and saliva to verify your identity at every turn. 

Find screenshots of the screenplay below: 

   

THE SOLUTION: 
Perhaps, in reading that excerpt, you tell me: liar! Those had very little suspense at all! 

And you’re right. But you’ve probably not seen the movie, or you don’t remember it. Most screenplays don’t end up matching the movie itself–there are so many other people in the process making changes. This screenplay turned up surprisingly close to the movie, but there are small differences that improve the story immensely. 

One of those is that in many of the early scenes, where Vincent says things like “Even with lifts I’m never that tall” and German says “There’s a way,” the director has switched the dialogue around, often without even changing the phrasing. So instead, the movie has Vincent offering to wear lifts and German saying “Even with lifts, your not that tall.” 

This is important for a bunch of reasons. For one, the script tells us that Vincent has all this drive, but at every moment of struggle, he offers to give up. It’s totally inconsistent with his character. Secondly, on a thematic level, the screenplay puts the doubt in Vincent’s mind, as if it’s not the world getting in his way, just himself–that really doesn’t jive with the theme expressed in the premise (A world where oppression exists along genetic lines). 

Third, and probably most importantly on a scene-by-scene, technical level, the original conversation in the dialogue makes it so that Vincent’s allies are always propping him up, supporting him. It made it seem like the world is friendly, welcoming to Vincent’s rise above his genetic circumstances, and it makes the scenes themselves super boring. 

In the screenplay, when Vincent says “I’ll never be that tall” it’s a concession, a white flag, even a subtle hint that the show won’t go on. 

In the movie, when it’s one of his allies who says “He’ll never be that tall” it’s a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. It’s a barrier, and it shows how pervasive the “anti-godborn” sentiment is in this world–even his friends doubt him. Because it’s just science. He’ll never overcome, and everyone knows it. 

FINALLY
This simple shift speaker of the line lends credence to the argument that dialogue should be a contest of wills, that every relationship should be adversarial. And it points to at least one potential form that adversarial relationships can take: doubt.

Eugene and German both want Vincent to succeed for their own reasons, but they can’t help but doubt that he can achieve it, and they can’t help but vocalize that doubt. All throughout the screenplay they’re telling him how what he wants isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. It’s the same message Vincent’s antagonists are giving him, the same one the world is giving him, and it’s that consistency that gives the dialogue substance, clarity, and suspense. 

We spend the entire movie thinking: maybe German is right when he says “even with lifts,” Vincent will never overcome his genes. 

Written by 


Usually, I’m remiss to talk about theme. I worry that the discussion will start to dig into weird minutia and near-conspiratorial interpretations of “symbols” that can often come with amateur “literary criticism”–and, to be honest, even during my literature classes, whenever possible I’d swing from the “why” of literary criticism into the “how” that I try to cover on this blog, academically referred to as “craft criticism.” Now, it’s totally possible to have a craft discussion about theme, and that’s what I’m going to try to cover here, continuing on with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I reread for this study. 

 THE CHALLENGE:
There’s a lot of bad advice out there about theme. There’s this common piece of advice given at least in literary circles, that when a novel explores a topic, the writer shouldn’t seek to answer questions, but just to ask and explore certain questions. From my reading experiences, no piece of advice could be less realistic.

This common misconception connects in a lot of ways to the idea that themes should come across subtly in fiction. But no valuable thematically powerful book that I’ve ever encountered has been subtle. Consider some science-fictional examples: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Le’guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, Pohl’s The Space Merchants, Butler’s Kindred or more recently LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Okorafor’s Binti. All of these texts are excellent explorations of their themes. They vary in levels of nuance and complexity (with Pohl coming in at the bottom of the list in both) but none of them are subtle. It’s fairly obvious what “side” each comes down on in the debates on their topics. This is also true with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

So the goal here is to do some work to demystify how theme works, at least in science fiction, and get a better sense of how to convey themes to the reader. 

THE STORY:
Not to tread the same ground here too much, I’ll at least mention that I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in lyrical, sensible prose. It’s a really precise novel (sometimes too precise for my taste) and can, at key moments, really pack a major punch. 

You’ll need a basic sense of the premise at least to understand what’s going on here. On the off chance that any of you don’t have a sense of it already, here it is: The world is transitioning from the one that you and I know, to one that is dominated by an extreme, authoritarian version of Christianity due to a crisis caused by plummeting birth rates. Now women are separated into groups based on traditional female roles–the “Marthas” do cooking, cleaning, and general service work, the wives are older high-society women who are married to the higher-class men in the society, and final the “Handmaids” are women with “viable wombs” who are more or less treated like baby factories. The “Aunts” are older women who train the Handmaids, and they are the only women allowed to read. All the women wear highly constricting clothing meant to hide them from the gaze of men. The main character, whose new name is Offred, is a little over thirty years old, and before the crisis she was a comfortable middle class woman who was married and had a child. Now she’s a Handmaiden. 

THE SOLUTION:
How does Atwood manage to convey theme without getting bogged down in lecturing? In short: using comparisons. Lots and lots of comparisons. Every female character acts as a foil to Offred, showing different systems of beliefs and different paths that women take in this world.

These comparisons can be roughly divided into two different buckets. One compares characters, and the other compares time periods in the arc of society. Atwood really only uses two methods to deliver these comparisons–either they are delivered through introspection in dialogue (in a detailed, evocative way) or they are delivered by placing two similar scenes close together. 

For this post, we’ll just discuss the character foils, since they’re the majority of the novel and allow some excellent opportunities to show Atwood’s techniques.  

Offred’s mother, Ofglen, and Moira are presented as radical, liberatory feminists who constantly rebel in their own way–more active and stronger than Offred. Sarena Joy, who was part of the leadership that instated this regime, shows a greater level of authority and power, while also navigating the limits of her position. Meanwhile Cora, Rita, and Janine are women who’ve fully accepted their role and perform it, if not with passion, then at least dutifully. Finally, we have perhaps the most important foil, “Aunt” Lydia, the voice of the regime, who honestly believes the world of Gilead is a better one. 

In the following passage, we can see the comparison between Aunt Lydia and Offred being set up: 

I remember the rules [of U.S. society in the 80’s], rules that were never spelled out but that every women knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. 

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. Int eh days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (32-33)

We can actually see here how Atwood blends both the personal foil and the time-period comparison (and most of the time it’s pretty hard to splice them, really). And how both “sides” of the argument are being presented, to a degree. We can see how Offred gets the appeal of “freedom from” while also missing what she’s lost without “freedom to.” In this, we can almost feel like the anti-Gilead sentiments trying to be subtle, but this becomes less true as the story develops. 

We get this pattern in most of the comparisons–the comparison is made at the beginning of the novel, usually using dialogue or juxtaposing scenes (we get scenes of Moira in college making her feminist statements and Offred fighting back, thinking that Moira is too radical, for another instance). This is followed by development in the middle, too complex to cover in detail, but I’ll at least touch on how Aunt Lydia and Moira develop. 

In the middle of the novel, we see more of Moira and Offred agreeing, at least rhetorically. They converse more openly, and Offred seems genuinely more radical than in college, although in some ways she isn’t–what she seems to lack is the desire to take direct action. When Moria and Offred both end up at the Handmaid training center, Moira makes numerous attempts to escape (eventually successful, sort of) but Offred simply does as she’s told. 

We get a brief bit of introspection about Moira at the start of Chapter 28: 

They’ve given me a small electric fan, which helps in this humidity. It whirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grillework. If I were Moira, I’d know how to take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver, but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira. (221)

Offred wants to act, as radically as anyone might in this case, forging a weapon from a fan, but she fells like she can’t

With the comparison to Aunt Lydia, you can see some further development in the two passages below, which are essentially talking about Offred’s mother and feminist activists like her, the first from Aunt Lydia’s POV, the second from Offred’s: 

Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, the unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing. Mind you, some of their ideas were sound enough, she went on, with the smug authority in her voice of one who is in a position to judge. We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her index finger, waggling it at us. But they were Godless, and that can make all the difference, don’t you agree? (153)

We see, in a video of these protesting “unwomen” the image of Offred’s mother, and that launches Offred into a flashback, culminating in this bit of introspection:

Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway.

I admired my mother in some ways, although thing between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once. 

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But here is no point it it, this wanting. (156)

The more the comparison with Aunt Lydia develops, the more it becomes clear that Offred and Lydia do not see eye to eye, and that the narrative agrees with one more than the other–just based on the amount of time one voice gets compared to the other, even if you ignore tone. 

Also, a technique to notice here is that when characters begin pontificating, Atwood gives them objects and images that we can relate to. In this example with Offred’s mother, you can see that her mother is a stand-in for “all suffragettes” and their tactics, but in a way that is deeply personal to Offred. Simultaneously, we can imagine the footage being used as a jumping off point, and we can understand Offred’s emotions in reaction to seeing her mother. This gives the thematic content a sturdy, physical anchor. 

Offred usually views Aunt Lydia so distantly, a woman buried deep in her memories. It gets frustrating to see Lydia in her memories represented almost without direct comment. But when Aunt Lydia appears in the story physically, we finally get to the core of this comparison. We can see, in this moment, the resolution of the comparison: the end of the book dedicates itself largely to doing this. 

Offred sees Aunt Lydia on stage, and then:

I’ve begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit. The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like a Christmas creche. I can see wrinkles under Aunt Lydia’s eyes, the pallor of the seated women, the hairs on the rope in front of me on the grass, the blades of grass. There is a dandelion, right in front of me, the color of egg yolk. I feel hungry. The bell stops tolling. 

Aunt Lydia stands up, smooths down her skirt with both hands, and steps forward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is an instant and earsplitting feedback whine from the PA system. From among us, incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and the look of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face as she adjust the sound. This is supposed to be dignified.

“Good afternoon ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny and flattened. It’s ladies instead of girls because of the wives. “I’m sure we are all aware of the unfortunate circumstances that bring us all here together on this beautiful morning, when I am certain we would all rather e doing something else, at least I speak for myself, but duty is a hard taskmaster, or may I say on this occasion taskmistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are here today.”

She goes on like this for some minutes, but I don’t listen. I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases: the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. It’s hard to believe there will not be polite clapping after this speech, and tea and cookies served on the lawn. 

That was the prologue, I think. Now she’ll get down to it. 

Aunt Lydia rummages in her pocket, produces a crumpled piece of paper. This she takes an undue length of time to unfold and scan. She’s rubbing our noses in it, letting us know exactly who she is, making us watch her as she silently reads, flaunting her prerogative. Obscene, I think. Let’s get this over with. (353)

We see Offred here, viewing and contemplating on Aunt Lydia, in real time, for the first and only time. We see that not only does Offred have major political and social disagreements with Aunt Lydia, she also sees Aunt Lydia as quite ridiculous. It’s not just that her views are bad, they’re laughably, obscenely wrong. 

We can compare that to the resolution with Moira, which I won’t quote since this post has expanded rapidly. What I will say, though, is that when Moira’s comparison is resolved we find that she hasn’t, ultimately, escaped at all–even if it seems it at first. In this scene, it feels almost like Offred has surpassed Moira, and it makes us question how radical she ever really was. But we aren’t really directed to think of Moira as ridiculous or obscene for her views, just that she’s ended up not really succeeding. 

FINALLY:
That went on for a while, and could go on for a while longer. The last third of the novel or so, for instance, does this interesting move where the focus of comparison shifts from Offred and her female foils, to comparing three central male characters of the story. I’m not sure how I feel about this in a grander sense, because it seems to take focus away from the heart of the story, but these comparisons use similar tactics. 

As discussed, the external world of the story (its objects, people, and places) seems set up almost exclusively to inspire these comparisons. Also, the way information is revealed, the way scenes are ordered, and the way the plot moves seems shaped to allow the “contrast arc” to have really parallel form across timelines and characters–to allow Atwood to shift from establishing, to developing, to resolving. 

90% of the space in this novel is spent comparing and contrasting characters, events, places, philosophies. This post hardly scratches the surface. If you feel like some of the techniques here would be useful to you, definitely read the novel. There’s so much more you can take from it. 

Have you noticed any other techniques Atwood (or any author you’d like to talk about) uses to convey subject and judgement? Let me know.

Written by 
Because of how much time traveling it does, the narration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a bunch of useful examples of how to use control and contain your flashbacks. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Back when I started writing, I had that standard fantasy-writer habit of delivering flashbacks by skipping a line and italicizing the text. As I developed as a writer, I came to hate doing that, and so I often just launched myself into flashbacks in the narration. 

But that confuses readers. Often. They lose track. They have to read again–it disrupts everything! 

So how do you do this the right way? 

THE STORY: 
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a sci-fi staple. If you haven’t read it, please do. 

One of the striking things about this story is how it manages to be simultaneously highly evocative and emotive, and highly precise. This is a rare combination–most writers really do lean one way or the other. It offers a great chance to experience sentences that are short but feel as full as long sentences. 

Also, the narration is always in control–gracefully delivering flash backs even right in the narration. Here’s an example (which I suppose I should warn you, is horrific):


It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But Since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true. 

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. 

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. 


Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. 

She didShe did. She did. 

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lessson. Teach her a lesson. 

Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose. Her hair dull blond, her eyelashes so light them seemed not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever. For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. 

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. 

We meant it, which is the bad part. 

I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then. 

That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain. —PG93


THE SOLUTION: 
There are two ways that Atwood seems to help us keep up with this flashback, which might have been alarmingly confusing, because both settings are the same, and the characters are the same. Both of them are really quite simple–it’s astounding how often seemingly complex problems can have simple technical solutions, in writing. 

First, we’re warned of the flashback in the setup. We’re told that Janine told the same story two weeks in a row. This is an important context clue that foreshadows our eventual transition into flashback. 

And the last is to simply include the marker of “last week” as–more or less–a set of brackets. We begin the flashback with [last week] and end with [that was last week]. This method derives its power from it’s clarity and precision, it’s simplicity. 

It’s the closing bracket that I usually fail to include, because it feels like repeating information the reader already has. But it isn’t–it’s informing the reader that the flashback has ended. Another mistake I’ve often made in my embedded flashbacks is that I burry that first marker of time, organizing the sentence as “Janine burst into tears, last week.” Sometimes even with another phrase on the end, like “Janine burst into tears, last week, when we said this.”

I’m sure this is some self-conscious reflex on my part, trying to hide the mechanics of my writing. But it just creates needless confusion and weakens the usefulness of the tool. 

FINALLY: 
So it’s important to remember how simple writing can be, on a technical level. I keep saying it, and forgetting it, invariably. 

For embedded flashbacks to work, it helps to offer context clues and foreshadowing, but it also includes simple markers for the beginning and end. 

Thanks for reading!

How do you handle flashbacks in your writing? Do you have a key flashback passage you turn to for guidance? What else strikes you about this passage or this book? Let me know.

Written by 
Although I have yet to finish it, Dhalgren has already left some kind of mark on me. After reading Delany’s About Writing, I decided to give it a go, to take a look at the experiment he was attempting, quite intentionally, to write a character’s experience of the world on a finite moment-to-moment level. I’ve decided to call it “Sensory Action” and that’s what we’re going to look at today. 

THE CHALLENGE:
One of the big thing that’s been getting me, in writing novels, is pacing. After spending so long focusing on short fiction, it’s hard to know exactly how to fill 90,000 words without writing mostly fluff or without speeding through some insanely complex plot. 

How do people do it? 

Delany offers some answers for this, as you might expect. 

THE STORY: 
While it does not always work for me, Dhalgren is an interesting experiment in really evoking a character’s experience. At times it gets really really deep into introspection or just how something feels physically, and of course that makes everything take a lot more time. But that also means that large sections of the novel are intensely cohesive and that allows Delany to go really deep into introspection. 

I recommend Dhalgren to anyone interested in an experiment along these lines. Even just 300 pages in, it’s been well worth the effort so far.

And the moment I just experienced was crushingly good–so much that I could hardly pick up the book for days. This is a thing that happens to me when I read something that blows me away–but I usually have to get to the end first. 

ANYWAY. To look at sensory action, I want to start with 3 short excerpts, the first two of which worked really well for me and last of which gave me a lot of trouble. 

Pg11: Metal steps led up to the pedestrian walkway. But since there was no traffic, he sauntered across two empty lanes–a metal grid sunk in the blacktop gleamed where tires had polished it–to amble the broken white line, sandaled foot one side, bare foot the other. Girders wheeled by him, left and right. Beyond, the city squatted on weak, inverted images of its fires. 

He gazed across the wale of night water, all wind-runneled and sniffed for burning. A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water. 

“Hey you!” 

He looked up at the surprising flashlight. “Huh. . .?” At the walkway rail, another and another punctured the dark. 

Pg141: From where he sat, he could see into the kitchen: Other candles burned on the counter. Beside a paper bag of garbage, its lip neatly turned down, stood two open Campbell’s cans. He took another spoonful. Mrs Richards has mixed, he decided, two or even three kinds; he could recognize no specific flavor. 

Under the tablecloth edge, his other hand had moved to his knee–the edge of his little finger scraped the table leg. First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and ate more soup. 

Pg7 (In a dark cave, searching for something): He had to climb a long time. One face, fifteen feet high, stopped him for a while. He went to the side and clambered up the more uneven outcroppings. He found a thick ridge that, he realized as he pulled himself up it, was a root. He wondered what it was a root to, and gained the ledge. 

Something went Eeek! softly, six inches from his nose, and scurried off among old leaves. 

He swallowed, and the prickles tidaling along his shoulders subsided. He pulled himself the rest of the way, and stood: 

It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow. 

One end looped a plume of ferns. 

He reached for it; his body blocked the light from the brazier below: glimmer ceased. 

He felt another apprehension than that of the unexpected seen before, or accidentally revealed behind. He searched himself for some physical sign that would make it real: quickening breath, slowing heart. But what he apprehended was insubstantial as a disjunction of the soul. He picked the chain up; one end chuckled and flickered down the stone. He turned with it to catch the orange glimmer. 

Prisms. 

Some of them, anyway. 

Others were round. 

He ran the chain across his hand. Some of the round ones were transparent. Where they crossed the spaces between his fingers, the light distorted. He lifted the chain to gaze through one of the lenses. But it was opaque. Tilting it, he saw pass, dim and inches distant in the circle, his own eye, quivering in the quivering glass. 


THE SOLUTION: 
The three excerpts above offer a good sense of how Delany is writing action in this story. From the first two examples, the key lines for me are   

A) “A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water”

The first line blows me away every time I revisit it. It’s simple, really, in form. But in function, it’s genius. First, note how deeply chronological the action is: first the wind comes in from behind, blows the hair on his neck, and then, as it passes him, it (implicitly) blows smoke off the water (we can see this same kind of chronology in the appearance of the flashlights at the end of this excerpt, another moment i really like). And if that wasn’t enough, the parting of his hair actually evokes the movement of the smoke; we can feel smoke parting around rocks on the shore.  


On a purely grammatical level, past experience tells me that the use of “moving” has something to do with that. If overused it can be obnoxious, but present particles like this in light touches can have a fairly cinematic effect (this is something Dennis Miller was known for). But that’s only part of what’s going on here. Don’t underestimate the importance of that semi-colon. 

and B) “First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and mate more soup.”

Notice that this example is actually less chronological than the last. It gives us some semblance of chronology, listing his body parts in chronological order and then what he explores in chronological order. But delivered in a parallel format, which is not only wonderful grammatically and visually, but also totally sensible. Imagine how frustrating the moment might get if he had said something along the lines of “first with two fingers he explored the circular lathing, then with three the upper block, then with his thumb, the under -rim. . .” etcetera. Maybe he had originally written it this way, given what he has said about the experiment in About Writing, but it’s a smart change here. Still, he maintains what chronology he can.

Another thing to note is that this sentence seems to evoke itself even more than the other example. It has this winding feeling, in part caused by the grammar of the sentence, the short phrases separated by commas, but also by the imagery, the way we seem to be winding up his hand and the way we are exploring the parts of the table. The specificity of the nouns really helps with this–he tells us every part of the table, and even though I don’t know what each of those pieces necessarily looks like, I have a good sense of what he’s doing, that his hand is moving, that it’s feeling around a table leg. We’re giving that as startup context. We’re signaled by the new information at the end of the previous sentence, which mentions the table leg. 

So one of the key takeaways from this one is that setting up context can be super important. Telegraph what you’re going to do, then do it. That boosts the evocation and makes the complex (if parallel) bit of action a little easier to process. 

Finally, let’s turn to the excerpt from page 7, with a key passage. It’s hard to pick out a single troublesome line in this moment, but this is probably where it starts: 

C) “It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow.”

This part sets up a pretty confusing moment because we have no idea what “it” is–Delany hasn’t given us context for this moment, and he’s put the “it” at the start of a sentence, forcing us over the verb and the rest of the sentence, and in fact several more sentences (in which we see “it” looped around something and him reaching for it) before we learn what “it” is–a chain. 

And yet, somehow paradoxically, this final mentioning of the chain seems to weaken the passage even further. 

With the other passages, we gradually experience the world along with the character. Here, we get thrown into a rolling bit of pronoun confusion, only to have it rather rapidly resolved. One thing you might notice about this first chapter is that it’s paced much quicker than the other scenes. In slowing down, maybe this scene could have been fleshed out chronologically, starting with him noticing a glimmer, finding a charm, discovering that “it” is a chain and the other charms. 

FINALLY: 
These are perhaps just initial impressions; I haven’t yet finished the novel, although 300 pages of this style is pretty significant. But it seems like it’s really important, when evoking action, to try to really think through chronology and the order in which the character would experience the sensations. 

Further than that, it seems like context clues and grammar can also play a really large role in sensations. 

Do you notice anything I’m missing? What’s your take away? I’ll likely be doing a few blog posts on this book, since it’s taking me such a long time to read, so is there a particular Dhalgren-related topic you’d like to see? Let me know. 

Written by 




Writing dialogue is one of those elements of fiction that is harder than it seems at first. But when you come across well-done conversations in fiction, they immediately pop off the page, like the long section of dialogue in Michael Wehunt’s Story in The Dark, “Birds of Lancaster, Lairimore, Lovejoy.”

THE CHALLENGE:

My biggest beef with my dialogue, often, is how thin it feels. Compared with description, which often has a flow and moments of transition, dialogue can often feel too back and forth to come to any particular point, and too flimsy to communicate a lot of subtext.

At the same time, you want to keep your dialogue concise and conversational. If you weigh it down with too much description or shovel complex sentences into your characters’ mouths, it becomes unrealistic and jarring for the reader.


How do you resolve these seeming contradictions?

THE STORY:

While “Birds of Lancaster, Lairimore, Lovejoy” wasn’t one of my favorite Wehunt stories, it stood out from a lot of his work because a large chunk of it is dialogue, and it seemed like exceptionally successful dialogue at that. It’s odd how little he uses dialogue in his other work.

That said, this story is plenty enjoyable, short, and a fairly good introduction to the kinds of stories The Dark prefers.

It also has a fantastic trick dialogic trick that will help me with my challenge.

THE SOLUTION:

During the second scene of this story, Wehunt has a conversation between main character, Kay, and a boy nicknamed “Eggs” which takes up a rather large portion of the total story. It’s arguably the most important part of his whole tale—and it’s mostly just unadorned (or lightly adorned) lines of dialogue.

But the key to this dialogue is how, before it begins, the story creates context. And as it progresses, it turns and decontextualizes itself before ending the conversation.

We can see that in action using two different short excerpts from the story.

In the first, setting up the conversation, Kay has just stopped a group of boys from bullying a girl on a bike, shouting “Get away from her!” and chasing them off before realizing her mistake. Shown here:

“Kay understood the echo the second she knelt beside the pink helmet. Its owner was a boy. And he clearly had Down syndrome. His face was one she recognized from hundreds of commercials, that painful similarity of features. She felt a hot flush of shame at this thought and at the fact she was dwelling on it while the boy was crying with blood dribbling out of his nose.”

From this paragraph, we gain the understanding that Kay feels ashamed about misgendering Eggs in front of these bullies, and that she feels even worse about focusing on her own feelings while this kid is literally bleeding on the ground.

That’s the emotional context that the following dialogue takes place in, and it serves well as an introduction.

In the following dialogue, they continue to have two more misunderstandings, a pattern set up by context, so that we don’t get confused during the conversation. It also serves as an explanation for why Kay plans on going out of her way to help the boy get home. She’s willing to do this for him because she embarrassed him.

The conversation ends with a twist: that just like Kay, Eggs’ mom has died and his dad has retreated into negligent drunkenness.

This twist requires further context, so we get the following paragraph.

But she thought she knew. Two sentences and she saw it as if through a lens. Or assumed it, which she figured was a pretty safe bet. The special room would be a den of sorts, where a negligent animal laid itself up. For a moment she smelled the ghost of her own father’s breath. Its sour whiskey fumes. The bruises that would sometimes—rarely, but far from never—follow it. Something fell over in her mind, a sort of mirror image bleeding in the street here with her, and she decided to hell with her father. She would get in her car and drive back to Storrs, and he could slip away in his hospital bed, tied to beeping machines and tubes. She’d wrestle the paperwork when he was already gone. All these years of estrangement had grown cozy enough. Why break it here at the end?

This paragraph is vital in a few ways. For one, it’s the first real introduction we get to the main character’s internal struggle. But secondly, more vitally, it shows how the dialogue is progressing the story, turning events toward the main character’s main conflict. Functionally, it offers context so we can understand the rest of the dialogue.

Kay goes on to question Eggs about his relationship with his father. Personal, probing questions that would seem senseless without the recontextualizing of the
conversation. The context allows us to infer intent on Kay’s part—she wants to find how if things are bad at home for Eggs.

It also allows us to understand her final choice in this important interaction: she lets him go to his bike race, despite his injuries, because she’s thinking about his home life in the context of her past.

FINALLY:

Dialogue requires a descriptive context for it to feel like a real conflict, with desires and goals. For Wehunt, at least, it seems most efficient and productive to separate this context from much of the dialogue itself, giving it in well-developed paragraphs that lead into different goals.

How do you create dialogue that is meaningful to the story and impactful? Do you have strategies for making conflict and desire clear in a scene that is largely conversational? If you have any examples you turn to for powerful dialogue, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks for reading! 

Written by 
Two things immediately jumped out at me while reading Brown Girl in the Ring: Hopkinson’s muscular pacing over the course of what is ultimately a simple but suspenseful plot and her powerful control of language that is not only readable but also lyrical. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the latter, especially when it comes to descriptions of magical moments. 

The Challenge: 
When you have to write a moment that feels otherworldly, because it’s magical or because it’s literally on another world, it can be hard to know exactly how to approach it. A minefield of possible mistakes: a jarring and confusing landing, wording that feels sufficiently magical but lacks precision or fails to create an image, or just a basic failure to connect at all. 

To clue me in, I took a look at this novel by Nalo Hopkinson. 

The Story:
Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring was a thrilling read, and the kind of book where you can discover nuggets of wisdom all over the place. It’s got a plot that’s both compelling and steadily-paced, and it has incredible moments of linguistic strength. That latter bit plays a huge role in the ability of this author to describe magical moments in her story, two of which are excerpted below: 

Excerpt 1
I should help her. I have to help her, but God, the dazer! Tony heard Ti-Jeanne whimper, risked looking out of the corners of his eyes. Jay was frog-marching Ti-Jeanne over to the bushes, Crapaud scuttling alongside, gun still held nervously on her. 
And then Ti-Jeanne chuckled in a deep, rumbling voice, the same unearthly sound that she’d made in the chapel. ‘Brothers, brothers, don’t fight! It have plenty of me to go around.’ She suddenly seemed much taller than Jay. She broke his hold with ease, reached to her own neck with long, long arms, and grasped the head of Crapaud’s dazer. He fired. She shivered, apparently in ecstasy as the power surged through her. She smiled lovingly at Crapaud. ‘Ah, me brother; you know how pain could be sweet, ain’t? You want to go first?’ 
Crapaud released the dazer, took a step back. Ti-Jeanne/Prince of Cemetery took a daddy-long-legs step over to him, put a hand on his shoulder. The man did the crazy dance of the dazeshot and fell twitching to the ground. Jay rushed Prince of Cemetery, who picked him up like a baby and cradled him to its bony chest. 

Excerpt 2
They were coming up the Strip; Yonge Street, the dividing line between the east and the west sides of the city. For some minutes now they’d been able to hear the buzz of voices and music and see the glow of light that rose from the Strip, above the city buildings. The Strip came alive at night . . . 
The noise and lights crashed on their senses. If you didn’t look too closely, you could believe that the Strip was the same as it had been before the Riots. Garish storefronts flashed crazed neon outlines of naked women with anatomically unlikely endowments. Deeplight ads glowed at the doors to virtually every establishment: moving 3-D illusions that were hyped-up, glossy lies about the pleasures to be found inside.

The Solution: 
There are several key techniques worth noticing in these excerpts. 

  1. You can see the standard practice of known to new used in practice in both of these excerpts. Before launching into the magical description of the strip, it gets mentioned casually in the posterior of a sentence in the previous paragraph, so we’re ready to take in a description when the next paragraph returns to the topic, opening by mentioning the strip. Even the magicality of the description is known beforehand: “The Strip came alive at night.” We’re prepared to see it come alive by the time the metaphorical “crash” takes place. In Excerpt one, you can see the same thing taking place, if in a weaker form, with the mentioning of Ti-Jeanne at the end of the first paragraph, transitioning into her transformation. 
  2. Excerpt 1, easily the strangest and most magical of the two (thus the hardest to communicate), goes even further, syntactically. It focuses on Ti-Jeanne as the subject throughout the paragraph, holding on to her as the “known” information, introducing a new piece of magical information at the end of each sentence. This allows the paragraph to retain a sense of cohesion, making the moment easier to parse. Taking a somewhat similar approach, Excerpt 2 begins each sentence with a mundane part of any familiar “strip” and then uses the end of the sentence to add magic to the description. 
  3. As magical as the moments seemed in text, Hopkinson actually describes these events simply and precisely. In Excerpt 1, she describes a change in height by comparing Ti-Jeanne to another (rather tall) character, and we get a number of vivid verbs and adjectives: “daddy-long-legs” and “cradled.” We see the same precise word choice in Excerpt 2 (“crashed,” “flashed” and “crazed neon”) displaying Hopkinson’s powerful sense of language and obvious attention to detail. 

Finally:
What we can see here is a simple but effective framework for getting across magical moments. Pay careful attention to your word choice. Use an uncommon verb or adjective, or even an invented compound word, that pops off the page (Hopkinson’s gets across an entire metaphor in a single word) and let it pull weight for you. Try to set up your reader for the description by focusing your subject matter over a paragraph and following a known/new construction.

Written by 
 Music has greatly influenced my writing, and I have a novel brewing that was inspired by a song, but I was struggling with how to take that inspiration and spawn a complete story. It occurred to me that I may not be the only one. So I returned to a book that I’ve read a few times, Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet. 

What this novel does best is offer a window into an odd, sometimes horrific, world that simultaneously feels quite familiar. That familiarity largely comes from a connection to and understanding of the struggles of the main characters. But there’s another interesting fact that’s near invisible unless you’re a die-hard David Bowie fan: it was inspired by and outlined to the lyrics of “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Given that that is so hard to catch, I thought I’d change up the format a little this week to ask Daryl how he went about writing his novel. 

For starters, could you tell us a little about the story?

I call it an SF Southern Gothic murder mystery.  It takes place in Switchcreek, Tennessee, a small town nestled in the Smokies, where ten years before, a gene-altering disease swept through the town that killed many of the residents, but turning the survivors into one of three new species: the ten-foot tall Argos; the scarlet-skinned, ungendered Betas; and the bulky Charlies. Oh, and the elder male Charlies produce an addictive, hallucinogenic substance from the blisters in their skin. It’s that kind of book.  

The main character is Pax Martin, who was one of the “skips,” people who were supposedly unaffected by the disease. Yet Pax is haunted by the idea that he’s been changed on some deep, subtle level. He was sent away by his Baptist father when he was a teenager, but now he’s come back for the funeral of one of his best friends, a Beta who was murdered, and to take care of his father, who’s now a 600-pound Charlie being used as a living drug factory. (I warned you.)  The book’s about evolution, alienation, and the elusive nature of humanity, but it’s also about life in an East-Tennessee mountain town similar to the one my parents grew up in.


What particular set of music inspired this story and why?

A few of my short stories have been inspired by a particular song—my story “Damascus,” for example, came out of Johnny Cash’s rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Your Own Personal Jesus”–but this is the only novel I’ve written that was guided by one: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things.” That was also the original title of the novel (minus the exclamation mark), before Del Rey decided there were too many other books with similar titles. I really wish I would have fought harder for that title.

I’m a huge Bowie fan, and always have been. When I was sixteen I wore out my cassette tape of Young Americans.  Blackstar, his final album, moves me to tears every time I listen to it. (I don’t turn it on when I’m driving in traffic.)  “Pretty Things” comes from the album Hunky Dory, way back in 1971, and it’s Bowie in groovy SF freakout mode. Here’s a typical verse:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The earth is a bitch

We’ve finished our news

Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use

All the strangers came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay

See? It’s an SF novel waiting to happen.


How did this inspiration change your normal brainstorming, outlining, and writing process?

The Devil’s Alphabet was my second novel, and I remember starting it in a haze of panic. Did I have any more ideas? Could I possibly write another novel? I decided to help myself out by using “Oh! You Pretty Things” as my outline. There’s a sudden, God-like event—Bowie has a “crack in the sky” in the first verse—which leads to a struggle between parents and children, and the story ends with “You got to make way for homo superior,” the emergence of a new competitor to homo sapiens.

I laced other lyrics throughout the manuscript. This is a trick I first learned at Clarion in 1988, when my classmate Brooks Caruthers wrote an entire story linked by song titles on a mix tape. Maybe Brooks learned it from William S. Burroughs or Lou Reed, but wherever it came from, it’s a technique I’ve gone back to many times over the years. There’s something about borrowing an outside structure, or an arbitrary set of rules, that gets the creative juices flowing. Of course, later you can cut anything that doesn’t fit the story anymore, and that’s fine, too.


Were there any pitfalls in this process or in using music to guide you through a story? 

Well, the lyrics will only take you so far. They’re good for generating images you want to write about, but not so great at telling you why something is happening. Pax Martin is a kid in his mid-twenties who’s alienated and a bit lost: he doesn’t know why he’s come back home, isn’t sure what he wants from his father or his friends, and doesn’t know what he wants out of life in general. He’s not even sure he’s human!

When I wrote the book I was writing about people I knew who were lost at that age. But Pax’s disaffection makes him a difficult character to like. More critically, he’s not a great choice for a main character. He doesn’t want to participate in the story!

I shouldn’t admit this in public—and in general, writers should leave it to reviewers to bad-mouth their books—but because you and I have talked about this, and this newsletter is going out to other writers, I want to be clear: Don’t do what I’ve done!  When I teach plotting now I warn people against choosing this kind of protagonist. (Of course, you still can. There are no rules in fiction. If you’re Virginia Woolf, feel free.)


What did you learn from doing this? If you were going to do it again, what might you do differently?

I still stand behind The Devil’s Alphabet, and there are scenes, like the drug-hazed baptism scene, and the argo funeral, that I’m very proud of. But I’ve since learned to pick more active, decisive main characters.  It is possible to write characters who don’t know what they want, but you, the author, have to know what they desire subconsciously, and what they’re trying to get from other characters in the scene. Moment by moment, the character needs to be working on a concrete goal, even if it’s self-destructive, or in conflict with what the character “really” wants.

I say I learned this lesson from The Devil’s Alphabet, but actually I was re-learning something I’d had drilled into me in acting and directing classes when I was in college. (I was a double English-theater major, which I tell people is twice as unemployable as the usual liberal arts major.)  A professor once told me that as an actor you can’t play “running from a bear.” You can only play a “want”—wanting to reach a tree, or a shotgun, or the door to the cabin. If you don’t want anything, you’ve got nothing to do on stage.

Pax, in The Devil’s Alphabet, was running from life, but I hadn’t given him anything to run toward. By the end of the book he figures it out, but by that point he’s already frustrated many of the readers.

 

You have a new book coming out in June called Spoonbenders from Knopf! I could not be more excited, and have already pre-ordered my copy. Would you mind telling us a little about that project?

You’ve already pre-ordered? That’s crazy. Thank you. You don’t have to read it, by the way. By simply buying it you’ve done your duty as a friend and colleague.  

Spoonbenders is about Teddy Telemachus, a con man and card sharp, who falls in loves with Maureen McKinnon, a girl with real psychic powers, back in 1962. They marry and have three kids with somewhat mediocre powers—Irene is a human lie-detector, Frankie can move bits of metal, and Buddy can predict the scores of Cubs games—but of course Teddy puts them on the road as the Amazing Telemachus family. The book is about what happens after Maureen dies and the act (and the family) falls apart. Twenty years later, they’ve never made a dime with their powers. Then Matty, Irene’s son, discovers he has Maureen’s ability to move outside his body, and the family gets one more chance to make good.

It’s a bit of a romp, throwing together mobsters, the CIA, long cons, and old fashioned stage magic, but what drives the book is the family relationships. These grown kids fight with each other but also take care of each other when it counts.

So, I’m still writing about families, and mutants! But I’ve learned some lessons as a writer. With this book I went deeper into each character’s desires, even their modest, far-from-world-changing goals. The book has a rotating point of view, with each of the Telemachuses getting time in the spotlight, and I tried to not only understand what each family member wanted in each moment, but to find his or her unique voice, their way of seeing the world. Kim Stanley Robinson was one of my teachers at Clarion, and I learned something important from reading his books: He loves each of his characters, even those doing terrible things. His novels swell with empathy. In Spoonbenders I wanted that kind of love to shine through on each page.

Oh, and I also let myself be funny. In The Devil’s Alphabet, Pax was verbally awkward, and I stripped down my writing to show that. I deliberately cut out banter, pop-culture references, and much of the ironic attitude I’d used in my first novel, Pandemonium. (I guess I wanted to show… range? Hemingway-esque clarity?) I wised up for my third novel. The family in Spoonbenders—with the exception of Uncle Buddy, who’s almost mute—is a family of talkers, with a keen sense of the absurd. I hope readers have as much fun hanging out with them as I did.

Bio: Daryl Gregory grew up in Chicago and lived for 24 years in State College, PA, where he first met Mike Glyde. He’s the author of six novels, several comic book series, a short story collection, and the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards. In 2018, Tor Teen will reissue Harrison Squared, the first book in his Lovecraftian YA series, and publish two new sequels. He now lives in Oakland, CA.