Setting-Up a Scene with Isabel Allende

With breezy confidence and breathtaking detail, Isabel Allende evokes the forty year history of a slave woman from 18th century Haiti and other people connected to her. Allende’s prose moves with the speed of a jet ski and the grace of a ballerina, and a few chapters of THE ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA cover several years in a handful of sentences, while always grounding the reading with specific details.  And it’s details we’ll be talking about, primarily. Using detailed summary, Allende effortlessly evokes many scenes in this novel. We’ll be taking a look at an excerpt that does this. 

THE CHALLENGE

Sometimes my prose really drags. Setting the scene, evoking the setting, getting to the juice of the conflict, takes forever. If Allende’s prose is a jet ski, mine’s a barge. But when I’ve tried to speed it up, I can’t seem to maneuver properly. So how does Allende use summary to introduce her scenes and evoke her settings? How does she transition from summary into scene and how does she escape when she’s ready to get out?

THE STORY

Although Allende’s ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA was not exactly what I was expecting, it really kept my attention. Part of that is the pace at which the story proceeds–it changes with every paragraph, only dipping into scene at the most precious moments. Sometimes those changes are huge (the fall of the French government, the burst of revolution in Haiti, the sale of Louisiana to the Americans) and sometimes they were small and personal (the beginning of a pregnancy or the starting of a hobby). But the story evolved through 40 years of time, 2 different countries, and thousands and thousands of nouns.  Detailed and specific nouns are the main way that Allende builds scenes, usually using summary to evoke a setting before dropping down into an actual conflict.

The following excerpt, from the start of the chapter titled “The Bastard” is an excellent example of this tactic:

The Temple turned out to be an island in the swamps of the delta, a compact mound of shells ground by time, with a forest of oaks that once had been a sacred site of the Indians and still held the remains of one of their altars; the name derived from that. The brothers Lafitte had been there since early morning, as they were every Saturday of the year, unless it fell on Christmas or the Virgin’s Ascension. Along the shore were lined up flat bottom skiffs, fishing boats, pirogues, canoes, small private boats with awnings for the ladies and rough barges for transporting products.     

The pirates had set up several canvas tents, in which they exhibited their treasures and distributed free lemonade for the ladies, Kentucky whiskey for the men, and sweets for the children. The air smelled of stagnant water and the spicy fried crawfish served on corn husks. There was a spirit of carnival, with musicians, jugglers, and a show with trained dogs. A few slaves were on display on a platform, four adults and a naked little boy about two or three years old. Interested parties were examining their teeth to calculate age, the whites of their eyes to check health, and their anuses to be sure they were not stuffed with tow, the most common trick for hiding diarrhea. A mature woman with a lace parasol was weighing with gloved hand the genitals of one of the males.     

Pierre Lafitte had already begun the auction of merchandise, which at first view lacked any logic, as if it has been selected with the single purpose of confusing the shoppers, a mixture of crystal lamps, bags of coffee, women’s furniture, paintings, vanilla, church goblets and candelabra, crates of wine, a tame monkey, and two parrots. No one left without buying; the Lafittes also acted as bankers and lenders. Every object was exclusive, as Pierre shouted at the top of his lungs, and should be, since it all came from boarding merchant ships on the high seas. “Look what we have here, mesdames and messieurs, see this porcelain vase worthy of a royal palace! And what will you give for this brocade cape bordered in ermine! You won’t have a chance like this again!” the public responded with clowning and whistling, but the bids kept rising with an entertaining rivalry, which Pierre knew how to exploit.   

In the meantime, Jean, dressed in black, with white lace cuffs and collar and pistols at his waist, was strolling through the crowd, seducing the incautious with his easy smile and the dark, beguiling gaze of a snake charmer. He greeted Violette Boisier with a theatrical bow, and she responded with kisses on both cheeks, like the old friends they’d come to be after several years of deals and mutual favors. “May I ask what might interest the only woman capable of stealing my heart?” Jean asked. “Don’t waste your gallantries on me, mon cher ami, because today I am not here to buy.” Violette laughed. She gestured to Morisset, four steps behind her.

THE SOLUTION

Discussing the above excerpt presents and interesting challenge: how do I talk about the details it uses without just re-copying the entire text. Few of its sentences lack detail. But there are, I think, a few sets of details doing the bulk of the work. 

This whole excerpt serves to bring the setting of the Temple to life. One of the first things to notice is how the details zoom in, both in space and time. We start, in the first sentence, zoomed way up, seeing the delta, the swamp and zoomed way back, learning the space’s history with First Americans.

While on the surface, the history of this space seems irrelevant, it ties in well with the central focus of the novel on power disparities along racial and cultural lines, which you can of course track throughout this excerpt. Throughout the entire book–including this scene–there is a focus on and centralization of hierarchical social relations; this opening serves to show how the pirates, who are themselves an oppressed minority of sorts, have removed and replaced the people who occupied that land before them. This may seem like a diversion in this discussion of setting up a scene, but it isn’t really, because these sentences help set up an atmosphere and a layered sense of history that the scene depends on. 

The following sentence, we zoom pretty far in to the arrival of the pirates that morning on the shore. Here is where we get the first list of details: [1] “Along the shore were lined up flat bottom skiffs, fishing boats, pirogues, canoes, small private boats with awnings for the ladies and rough barges for transporting products.” Lists are an interesting way to present details in a scene, and a common method among fabulist authors like Allende, Marquez, Kelly Link and Kij Johnson, among others. When handed details in a rapid-fire list sort of way, like in the above list, it’s almost impossible to actually categorize all the objects in a logical way. She’s clearly not trying to build a blueprint for a setting, preferring in this instance to toss a glut of images your way that call up specific associations. And it is specificity that makes this list function so well for that purpose (consider, for instance, the minute difference in image called up by “flat bottom skiffs” when paired with “fishing boats). The use of “along” with this extended list almost gives you the feeling of traversing the shore, seeing the boats all pass by. This list is an intentional sketching of the setting, not allowing you to focus too closely on any one object, but still moving those images through your mental field of view. It really is an expert technique for dropping you into the setting, and if you look at other “listers” they often use lists for the same purpose, although few other authors manage to capture this level of incredible specificity. But notice how quick a sketch of the setting this creates–these frequent list sketches are one of the reasons why Allende’s prose feels so quick and sharp. 

As Allende starts to really give you a sense of the setting, wanting you to hold on to some ideas, she pulls away from long lists and cuts back to lists of three–much more manageable for our brains. She describes how the pirates set up “canvas tents” with “treasures” and hand out “free lemonade for the ladies, Kentucky whiskey for the men, and sweets for the children.” Notice how much easier it is to even recall this info, none of it being surprising or particularly specific. If you asked me to repeat it back, I almost certainly could. That was not true with the list of boats. At this point, Allende is really engaging our sense of taste, and she zooms in farther to our sense of smell, providing a list of just 2 smells: “stagnant water and spice fried crawfish served on corn husks.” That’s incredible specific. It really plunges you into the feeling of the market. We learn that there are musicians, jugglers, and trained dogs–engaging a sense of sight and sound. But as much as we’re starting to get a sensory feel for the setting, we still don’t have a lot of specifics on the actual layout.

We finally get an anchor in the next moment: the slaves being sold. [2] “A few slaves were on display on a platform, four adults and a naked little boy about two or three years old. Interested parties were examining their teeth to calculate age, the whites of their eyes to check health, and their anuses to be sure they were not stuffed with tow, the most common trick for hiding diarrhea. A mature woman with a lace parasol was weighing with gloved hand the genitals of one of the males.” Notice that this description takes a good chunk of the scene’s words. In this book about slavery, Allende often physically orients us around depictions of slavery, centering it in the world of her novel. This scene’s only real anchor is the stage on which the slaves stand and they (four adults and a naked little boy) are the most physical, real, distinct element of the setting. We get a look at the whites of their eyes, their teeth, their anuses. What this setting evokes most explicitly, what we see through the entire scene, is just “background,” it’s just the objectification of these people while life goes on all around them. Only one of the characters is bothered by the display, and he was there to buy a slave himself. 

When I said we would return to power structures, this was the moment I meant. In this scene there will be a conflict over power–the way the pirates are subjugated by the American government, but also the way they hold power over Violette, who is a quarter black. But this layering of power extends well into the background, with the objectification of the slaves, and even farther back, with the absence of the natives haunting your mind. In this latter example, the details are more than just listed. Because they’re actions being taken, and because of how dramatic they seem, the prose manages to really turn this into a visual moment. It focuses you on the importance of the slaves and their journey. All of this background is important for preparing us for this scene, putting it into context, and evoking it for us on physical, sensory, and thematic levels. 

But we’re still stuck in the morning, you may have noticed, so we need to zoom forward in time. For this, Allende uses another list: [4] “Pierre Lafitte had already begun the auction of merchandise, which at first view lacked any logic, as if it has been selected with the single purpose of confusing the shoppers, a mixture of crystal lamps, bags of coffee, women’s furniture, paintings, vanilla, church goblets and candelabra, crates of wine, a tame monkey, and two parrots.” We see here the same listing technique as before, meant to toss you random images, which just give you a sense of what’s being sold and who might be buying. There’s an interesting nod to the chaos of this kind of list in the way that it points out how the auction lacks any logic, but Allende is careful to prepare you for the list by moving from the generic “auction of merchandise” to the specific, the list. The effect is very similar to the boats, if less specific. You almost see a line of goods progressing down a conveyor belt. Just when you think you can’t get any closer to the scene, Allende zooms in one final level. [5] “Jean, dressed in black, with white lace cuffs and collar and pistols at his waist, was strolling through the crowd, seducing the incautious with his easy smile and the dark, beguiling gaze of a snake charmer.”

This exceptional level of detail about Jean’s dress is a common tactic in ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA. In this case, it’s a little strange, because Jean plays such a small role in the novel (this is the only time you ever see him) but it sets up his personality well, and it brings us away from the stage of slaves and other goods, moves us through the crowds. It’s at this point that the actual dialogue and conflict of the scene begins. 

That’s a lot of time spent setting up. But it doesn’t drag by any means (giving the history of the space, and covering the passage of the entire day), and once the dialogue starts, it jumps immediately into conflict, because all of this background work has been done ahead of time. 

FINALLY

Despite being not particularly notable in the plot, this is one of the most memorable scenes in the book for me. I instantly wanted to write about it.

It’s so careful and detailed that it’s hard to imagine it’s not intentionally done this way. The setup is really what makes it memorable and powerful, transforming it from just a scene where something happens (and in fact, one of the few actually grounded scenes) into one of the most thematically and sensorily interesting parts of the story. The rapid-fire details and the layering of themes through time and space are a set of tools to keep in the back pocket. The choosing of precise details, well, that’s something to work on. 

How do you go about choosing what details to include to set up a scene? What do you think about during revision, when you want the scene to physically parallel your scenes? Do you have any favorite scenes you turn to that use similar techniques like layering and listing?

Relating Hallucinatory Imagery with Ahmed Bouanani

So, I just started reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, which was recently released in English, translated from a uniquely-Moroccan dialect of French. This novella is wonderful, mesmerizing, strange, and moving–it begins with the words “When I walked into the hospital, I must have still been alive.” And it leaps immediately and confidently into an absurdist fairy tale. 

THE CHALLENGE


At the age of fifteen, I ate a steak at some dime-a-dozen restaurant on a date with a girl who is now a woman and my wife, and later that night I came down with a dreadful case of food poisoning. First the fever and the sweat and shaking. Then a pointless heaving and gasping, my body trying to eliminate the source of its distress. Staying home from school the next day, as my symptoms continued, I had the house to myself. Unable to sleep, unable to eat, likely also suffering from some kind of anemic episode (caused by a then-undiagnosed chronic illness), I wandered the two story home, the three bedrooms, the kitchen tile cold against my feet, simultaneously sure that I was not a man but a space–a space filled with fast-moving lights that blasted across my distance like shooting stars, but brighter and multi-chromatic. Blues and reds and greens. They smashed into each other and they exploded! Each bursting bright and sending my body reeling at the white light. With every explosion, I felt physical pain. Pain that was all-too real. Brought on by hallucinations? Or just working in tandem with them? 

I write a lot about characters experiencing altered states of consciousness and I read about it a lot too. I love characters who wander in a stupor, who see the world in a twisted light, who experience hallucinations as a matter of course. It’s a constant struggle to orchestrate these moments in a way that is not only compelling but also relatable and discernible. I watch other authors, sometimes very skilled, very experienced authors, struggle similarly. 

And then there’s Bouanani. 

THE STORY


In this story, a man who is vaguely ill leaves his city and enters a hospital, where he interacts with other patients and rapidly deteriorates. Clearly, even explicitly, he is doomed to remain at the hospital for eternity. The story operates, on some level, as a parable, speaking about certain kinds of men and their experiences in an ostensibly post-colonial Morocco. It’s also a lengthy thought-experiment about reality and perception. On its surface, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about the author’s experience in a Moroccan hospital while being treated for Tuberculosis. 

Although it took about ten pages to really capture me, THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani now has me thoroughly enthralled. In part this is because the translator did a wonderful job–the prose is unbelievably beautiful. I can only assume that the original text is as wonderfully sonorous and precise. It includes this sentence: 

“One doesn’t enter a sleeping man’s brain with impunity, not unless you’re a brave head louse or a moonbeam.”

Damn. 

Now, I haven’t yet finished the book, so I can’t speak much to the plot. So far, most of it the book has just explored the depths of the narrator’s delusions and the general routine around the hospital. But Bouanani makes it fascinating. And, anyway, I never expected it to go anywhere plot-wise, because of it’s genre. It’s written in a similar vein as Kafka’s THE TRIAL (but with much more polish, power, and skill), and Camus’ THE STRANGER, an absurdist tale that relates its absurdity and moves on. Thus the brevity of it. 

But man, does it relate its narrator’s hallucinations in such a compelling and powerful and digestable way (that is, when Bouanani aims for compelling and powerful and digestable). Just a note, for clarity: Rover and Guzzler are both other patients. 

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough. My body, trapped between two slopes, doesn’t move. I can’t turn onto either side or the pains will return. In an effort to amuse myself, while I wait for sleep, I often localize each ache and assign an individual color to it. The shooting pain gnawing at my right side is a deep crimson; the one on my left, turquoise blue; the twinges budding in the hollows of my armpits are alternately yellow, pale green, India red, ocher, purple, and indigo; the areas that endure multiple syringe injections each morning are monochromatic landscapes, one single color in infinitely varying tones. Over time, I transform into an immeasurable palate unabsorbed by the night. I glow bright as a star, I rise above the room to a place where I can barely hear my companions’ breathing or snoring, I gently flatten myself against the cold ceiling, turn around so that I can look down upon the beds; the void that grows between the ground and trough. I sink into my memories in search of my youthful corpse. All I need for the past to shed its shroud, to slip on the rags of my six-year-old self, is a whiff of Brazilian coffee, a tune from a music box, or a fine drizzle falling in bright sunlight like at a jackal’s wedding. But there are not scents anywhere, no scents of childhood, no scents of once abundant fruits (mulberries, carob pods, pomegranates, black night-shade berries), of wild flowers, of the sacred plants from our stories (thyme, basil, henna, laurel). Where can I find, even in my dreams, a field of poppies and ripe cornstalks gently shaken by an autumn wind? Rover emerges from a silent thunderstorm. He laughs and slaps his thighs: “You want to know if the ocean is nearby? Nothing could be easier! You follow this path of cacti until you reach palm trees, you turn left and you start down a dusty trail, which leads to the head doctor’s residence. It’s a large windowless villa surrounded by fir trees. If by extraordinary chance his guard dog doesn’t rip off your leg or ass cheek, then that can only mean one thing: there’s no longer a head doctor at this hospital. You keep tearing down the hill, and you’ll arrive at the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. Then you can, if you insist, go for a nice little dip!” Guzzler appears in his turn, shoving Rover, who crumbles like dried clay: “You think that people like us can afford the luxury of memories, a past with clean diapers, notebooks, a pencil case, and a backpack? I was barely out of my mother’s vagina when my childhood went up in smoke. My old man broke so many rods over my skull that it was impossible for me to get through primary school; I became an apprentice tailor, an assistant repairman of every machine ever created, I even secretly married a widow so I could have cigarettes and pocket money like a proper daddy’s boy. Then, after an eternity of unemployment and begging, I started the back-and-forth hospital cycle . . . So what do you call childhood or adolescence? A fancy Sunday suit, that’s What!” Meanwhile, Rover has pulled himself back together, piece by piece. He coughs, vomits blood, laughs and wipes his eyes. Guzzler hands him a Marlboro, and suggests “Try and get yourself some good hash!” He turns to me: “Do you want Rover dead?” 
     “No.”
     “Then don’t ever stop him from lying! Lies have become second nature to him. Did he already tell you the story about the old fool who chopped up everyone in his bathhouse? You haven’t heard anything yet. Go head, Rover, how does it go again, the one about the guy who buys Al-Buraq at the Medina flea market? Not a two-bit engraving, mind you, but the real thing, the Prophet’s steed, go on, tell him.”
     “Come on, Guzzler, another time. Can’t you see that our friend is already asleep? Leave him be.” 

pg69

THE SOLUTION


He contained all of that in one paragraph! And it makes total sense! Of course you would want one long extended hallucinatory moment to be constrained within one fictive logical unit. Duh! 

I think it’s easy to understate the importance of paragraphs as a unifying force. Even when I wasn’t sure that the narrator was still hallucinating (in that middle bit where he returns to his “trough”), I was pretty confident he was still hallucinating, because no new paragraph

That has to be it. There were not really any other signs. 

Another something I notice, right off the bat: these two hallucinations don’t really go in the order I would have put them in. It goes from pretty abstract to pretty mundane, and that’s interesting in itself. Like Bouanani intentionally wanted us to wonder if he was still hallucinating or not–while subtly giving us a clue that he was still hallucinating. In the end, though, is he? I’m living for this ambiguity. 

One last final moment before really diving in; one final moment to celebrate the metaphors and adjectives just in this one paragraph. No future simile will ever be as evocative as “I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough.” Not for the rest of my whole life. As the narrator transforms himself into a painter’s palette, I’m so struck by the detail and specificity of the injuries and the colors: not brown, ochre; not just green, but pale green; twinges versus shooting pains versus the dull aches evoked by “syringe injections” which exist not in an area or on a stretch of muscle but on a landscape. And, finally, Rover, who “crumbles like clay” when pushed. Beautiful. 

But now, down to brass tacks. 

There’s one really key insight in this nugget of story for me. This hallucinatory scene is a complete scene, and it begins with the character setting a goal, or at least a plan, a way to “amuse” himself until he falls asleep. We can even, to a certain degree, outline it using Swain’s methodology for scenes. Goal: to get to sleep Conflict: he’s in too much pain, so he labels all the pain with colors; but then he dissociates and has to fight to return to his bed; finally, either he hallucinates an argument, or dreams it, or his friends are in the room (and are only peppered with hallucinations). Either way, it’s keeping him from restful sleep.  Resolution: his friends go, and based on evidence from the next segment, he appears to sleep. 

This being said, my point is that Bouanani makes this such a compelling, engaging hallucination because it’s structured around desire and a plan that’s been justified to us with a certain kind of logic. Labeling his body with colors is just the narrator’s way of distracting himself–it’s one of the things that’s we take for granted. But that distraction goes to far and he is distracted to the point of dissociation but it’s a logical step, in part because we are already aware of the narrator’s propensity to do this, but also because in the labeling of his pain, he’s evoked such a psychedelic image of himself as a colorful, cosmic landscape, that we’re just waiting for it to escalate. He sets up an expectation that it will. 

Expectations built by a character stating and enacting what seems to be a habitual method for dealing with his pain!

And he just takes his time to first build the psychedelic image, then drive it deeper into the narrator’s (and our) psyche, and then expand it out to the whole room. 

How deceptively, wonderfully simple.  

And Bouanani continues this tactic even as his narrator spreads out across the ceiling: he seeks some sensation to plunge him into memory, to further distract himself. But this effort is thwarted by the appearance of Rover, who tries to guide him to the ocean but just captures too much attention. And then Guzzler comes and de-rails the entire conversation. 

This moment, too, is anchored in desire. It’s a desire to get away from it, a desire to get to sleep, to his past, to his dreams. The hallucination is the obstacle that stands in the way of the narrator finding his peace. That’s what makes it so compelling. That’s what grounds it, too. 

But that’s not the only thing grounding it. The other thing is the dialogue itself–it’s a sound on the page, it’s imagery–and the detail being described in the dialogue. Both Rover and Guzzler speak in such concrete and specific terms that it’s easy to overlook the strangeness, the hallucinatory nature of the interaction. 

FINALLY


Let’s stop here. Brevity can be wonderful, especially after a couple of long posts the last few weeks. In summary, Bouanani seems to be using two key techniques: 

1. Ground the hallucinatory moment in desire and conflict, give it a “logic”
2. Ground the hallucinatory moment in specific, detailed nouns 

These two things work in tandem to really evoke these moments and to relate them in an interesting way. 

When you want to write a moment that’s hallucinatory, what examples in literature or film do you turn to as a guide? What do you think about, as you put the scene together?

Pacing Techniques with Jeff Vandermeer

One thing I noticed (and loved) about BORNE was that, compared to Vandermeer’s previous work, it’s much lighter on its feet. It dances and weaves and generally just progresses at a much more rapid pace than say, FINCH, which was much more grounded and plodding. The scene we’ll look at today, with rapid problem solving and quickly escalating conflict, is probably the ultimate example of what I mean. Spoilers abound, this time, since it’s such an important scene that takes place late in the novel. 

THE CHALLENGE


One of the missing skills in my toolbox, which I’m trying to improve upon, is the ability to pull back from the level of grounded, moment by moment play by play I do in a scene. For much of my writing time–especially while working on script writing–I’ve focused on writing as an act of continuity, sentence after sentence, moment after moment. But being able to pull back to even a detailed, immersive kind of summary allows you to float and bend through time in a really powerful way. It puts you in charge of how long each event takes and allows you a greater control of the scope of your story. 

Every time I’ve attempted to do this, it’s been a failure. So, as a part of looking at this, I wanted to take a look at Vandermeer, who is sort of touchstone author for me. But I’ll likely look at a similar topic with other authors as well. 

THE STORY


When it comes to BORNE, I’ve already talked about it a lot. Go look at one of those for a nice summary. Here I just want to appreciate how different it is from much of Vandermeer’s previous works, even his more recent work, like ANNHILATION. 

In some ways, BORNE feels like a messy, chaotic book. But part of that feeling comes from his deployment of an incredible range of styles, moods, and techniques. One of those, of course, is a huge range of pacing techniques that shows a very deliberate methodology. That’s what I’d like to talk about in the following scene, which rapidly moves through a series of problems and escalations, which I might have spent fifteen pages writing, but Vandermeer crams into just three:

I woke several hours later to tiny meteorites hitting my face. I woke up to Wick’s fireflies winking out, not one by one but in droves, swaths going dark, and the dead bodies falling onto the bed. Our alarm system.       

I shook Wick awake.       

“Wick–we need to go. Now.”     

He stared up at the ceiling bleary-eyed, and then he was reaching for hits pants and we were putting on our clothes in a frenzy.     

Thirty fireflies were left, then twenty, then ten, then we lived in darkness except of the faint pale glow from Wick and his remaining worms. The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.      

“Where are they coming from?” I asked, even though I knew. What we didn’t know is who the intruders were.       

“Everywhere.” A preternatural calm from Wick as he pulled out his emergency pack, gave me mine.       

My heart was a bludgeon trying to get out of my chest.       

We had what we needed to survive. We knew our escape route. It had been maybe two minutes since I’d noticed the dying fireflies.       

Wick threw open the door to his apartment.       

The corridor was full of bears.                                                                                                                    *   *  *
A wall of coarse, dull fur given depth by shadow. The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway. The smell of unconstrained savagery that close poured into the apartment: blood and mud and shit and rotting flesh. The traces of leaves and lichen, the hot, bitter aftertaste of Mord breath that filled up the corridor, finding our new air.     

Half a second before I shut the door.       

Two seconds before Wick fortified it with his last beetles, four seconds before Wick had pushed me up into the air duct, five seconds before I pulled him up into the air duct.       

Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it. Swatted at the entrance to the air duct, Wick bringing his legs up to his chest, and then, as I pushed forward, surging almost on top of me to get away from those claws, those questioning paws.       

The bellowing and the terrible smell were right below us as we crawled through the air duct. A smashing, splintering sound was a paw punching up through the air duct behind us. Then another. More, following, ripping thorough the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.       

We veered off at an intersection, both silent, feeling our bellies exposed as we crawled as fast as we could because the air duct still ran above the corridor. One well-timed swipe from below and the ceiling would cave in and our entrails pour out in a cascade of blood.       

We were both like blind, dumb things burrowing in a panic so absolute that it came down like a dark, deep wall and became something like a great calm. Our packs were abandoned down below. Our minds were down below, being feasted on by the bears. Only our bodies had escaped, kept churning through the tunnel of the air duct reflexively, must soon come to a halt but kept going anyway. Our only urge was to get away, to get away, to get away and we pushed forward heedless of harm, bruising our shins, scraping off the skin on our knees, because our devotion to escape form the place we had spent so much time defending was so mindless and absolute that nothing else mattered, nothing else registered.       

At first I as in front of Wick, kicking him in the face without meaning to, and then he was in front and I was eating his kicks and yet there was no pain, not then. That came later, along with the lingering ache across our bodies, as if we’d been fish thrashing in a net, half in and half out of the water, unable to drown and unable to live.     

Finally, though, the hot, raw pain of my bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles brought me back out of my animal self.       

“Wick! Stop!” I hissed, but Wick didn’t hear me. “Wick!” But still he didn’t hear me.       

I caught Wick’s foot, grappled with him, pulled him back into myself, pinned down his arms in that space and felt a shudder run through his body and with it a kind of resignation or surrender, and he went limp.     

 “Just listen,” I said in his ear.       

We listened. We could hear the bears in the distance, delivered to us via the acoustics of the air duct as a kind of tinny droning roar. A dim thick digging sound also sounded far away.       

“Where are we?” Wick asked.       

“I have no idea.” If he didn’t know, I definitely didn’t know.       

All I could see was air duct five feet ahead and air duct five feet behind.       

“They destroyed it all. They’re destroying it all,” Wick whispered, thrust into a pain I knew wasn’t all physical.       

The attack had sprung all our traps, destroyed our biotech, had come from so many points of the compass at once that the snapping of those leans, the ease of it, traumatized us almost more than the physicality of the invasion. An intricate map, burned, with no copy. It made it hard to think. It made it hard to breathe. We could not even frame the questions that would come hurtling toward us later, like why and how.       

And we were still in danger, we both knew that.        

[as the scene goes on, they make a plan for escape]

From How We Lost What We Had Fought For in BORNE, p227-229

THE SOLUTION

This is going to be a little piecemeal. I just want to take a look at specifically what techniques are used in the prose to create different kinds of pacing in different moments, and consider why that choice was made.

So I’m going to go through these one at a time. 

[1] I woke several hours later to tiny meteorites hitting my face. I woke up to Wick’s fireflies winking out, not one by one but in droves, swaths going dark, and the dead bodies falling onto the bed. Our alarm system.  

I shook Wick awake.    

 “Wick–we need to go. Now.” 

This moment, with the fireflies going out, seems to me to be unambiguously a traditional scene with the moment-by-moment pace that such moments should have. It’s the close attention and focus on an the fireflies and detailing specifically how the fireflies are dying that slows this down to the level of scene. The paragraphing of this moment also is consistent with most scenic writing, with a new paragraph for each action and for the one line of dialogue. And while dialogue can appear in some summary moments (especially in works by writers who make constant use of summary) it has a tendency to slow the pace and ground the event in a scene. 

[2] He stared up at the ceiling bleary-eyed, and then he was reaching for hits pants and we were putting on our clothes in a frenzy.       

Thirty fireflies were left, then twenty, then ten, then we lived in darkness except of the faint pale glow from Wick and his remaining worms. The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.

Notice how quickly the pacing ramps up in this segment. Part of that is what’s not given: no particulars. We’re not given the color or sound of them getting dressed, or how they get dressed (like we were told how the fireflies were dying in the first segment), or what they’re thinking about while doing it. This part is “told” more than shown, and is much closer to summary than the first segment, although it’s probably not quite what would traditionally be called “summary.” In the next paragraph, we see the fireflies rapidly die (note the listing technique, which we’ll return to], and we get a few particulars about the “pale glow from Wick” and then, suddenly, a distinct image that drops us into scene: “The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.” What’s notable about this, I think, is the use of adjectives. They create a more specific, more grounded image and slow down the pace of change. It’s also nice and short, almost punchy, making it feel like a landing zone at the end of the runway that was the previous sentence. 

[3] “Where are they coming from?” I asked, even though I knew. What we didn’t know is who the intruders were.       

“Everywhere.” A preternatural calm from Wick as he pulled out his emergency pack, gave me mine.       

My heart was a bludgeon trying to get out of my chest.       

We had what we needed to survive. We knew our escape route. It had been maybe two minutes since I’d noticed the dying fireflies.       

Wick threw open the door to his apartment.       

The corridor was full of bears.

[4] A wall of coarse, dull fur given depth by shadow. The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway. The smell of unconstrained savagery that close poured into the apartment: blood and mud and shit and rotting flesh. The traces of leaves and lichen, the hot, bitter aftertaste of Mord breath that filled up the corridor, finding our new air. 

Notice the paragraphing again; this moment is very much “in scene” in the traditional sense. We get dialogue, moment by moment action delivered in discrete paragraphs. We even get their reaction to this moment, finally, a particular that seems to really slow down the pace when delivered with a metaphor in a standalone paragraph. Then of course, another very final landing-zone: “The corridor was full of bears” followed by a line break, for good measure. 

That line break clearly exists to put emphasis on the final line in [3] but I think it’s also interesting that the story then reopens with an extended description, putting us distinctly in scene but definitely at a slower pace than before. This is a macro shot, a closeup. We get are given several sentences of particulars on the bears–how they smell (in a multi-faceted way), their positioning in the hall, the exactly look of this bear’s fur in the doorway, and how it notices the “new air” from the open door. It’s easy to overlook how precise this is, how slow. Is it fair even to call this “scenic” in the typical sense? I’m not sure. This is a question I’m hoping to look into in my next post. But for now, it’s certainly close to what we consider a scene, and it’s the wealth of sensory detail delivered over the course of many words, and the slow motion sense of action that gives this moment that scenic feel. We essentially run through a long, detailed list of every sensory possibility, even including taste. This list, by gradually revealing the descriptive details, and picking out individual images shows the bears in motion, but gives a sense of time slowing down. Consider the difference between this current sentence: “The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway” and what it could say: “The massive head of another Mord Proxy swings between the side and haunch of the nearer one.” There’s a significant pacing difference between simply noticing the head, as in the original, and showing it moving. Especially when using the verb “swing,” which evokes a certain kind of speed. 

[5] Half a second before I shut the door.       

Two seconds before Wick fortified it with his last beetles, four seconds before Wick had pushed me up into the air duct, five seconds before I pulled him up into the air duct.       

Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it.

This segment is fascinating to me. Similar to the segment [4] with the bears, it shows a series of static images, but instead of in different sentences, it’s in different clauses. And instead of all being tied to one subject (the bears) this shows Wick and Rachel in pretty rapid movement, flashes of progress rapidly progressing. This is actually a pretty rapid pace. Vandermeer could have shown them stretching to reach for the entrance, fighting their way up, the metal rim cutting into their hands. But he didn’t. And the way their movement is all delivered in one sentence, rather than in a series of sentences or paragraphs, speaks to the summary-like nature of this moment–that construction definitely picks up the pace. And then notice the enormous difference between [4] and the final sentence: “Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it.” It’s a massively quick action with sharp verbs (burst! destroy!) but notice how even the verbs aren’t painting a picture, aren’t delivering any particulars. That’s pure summary. 

[6] Swatted at the entrance to the air duct, Wick bringing his legs up to his chest, and then, as I pushed forward, surging almost on top of me to get away from those claws, those questioning paws.       

The bellowing and the terrible smell were right below us as we crawled through the air duct. A smashing, splintering sound was a paw punching up through the air duct behind us. Then another. More, following, ripping through the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.       

We veered off at an intersection, both silent, feeling our bellies exposed as we crawled as fast as we could because the air duct still ran above the corridor. One well-timed swipe from below and the ceiling would cave in and our entrails pour out in a cascade of blood.

Another fascinating edge case here. Definitely not clearly summary, and if you were looking at this through a scene/summary binary, it’s definitely scene, right? We see the particular way that Wick moves, the particular smell and sound of the first bear claw cutting through the air duct. And yet, it’s more of a quick sketch than anything really drawn out. Certainly it has nothing on [4] and it’s definitely not quite as grounded even as [1] in detail and dialogue. But the paragraphing is very scene like, with each action getting a dedicated paragraph. 

It definitely trends from particulars (the specific way that Wick moves) to generalities (“We veered off at an intersection”) but even the half that could be seen as summary is full of particulars, and we see here a carry-through of conflict that definitely ties this moment together as one. The entire time, the main concern is that the bears will claw through the duct at just the right place, killing them. 

I see, here, another list. “More, following, ripping through the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.” This is a list of actions, and particular ones at that, like you might see in a scene. But the actions are also broadened by the way these actions are attributed to a collective entity. 

[7] We were both like blind, dumb things burrowing in a panic so absolute that it came down like a dark, deep wall and became something like a great calm. Our packs were abandoned down below. Our minds were down below, being feasted on by the bears. Only our bodies had escaped, kept churning through the tunnel of the air duct reflexively, must soon come to a halt but kept going anyway. Our only urge was to get away, to get away, to get away and we pushed forward heedless of harm, bruising our shins, scraping off the skin on our knees, because our devotion to escape from the place we had spent so much time defending was so mindless and absolute that nothing else mattered, nothing else registered.       

At first I as in front of Wick, kicking him in the face without meaning to, and then he was in front and I was eating his kicks and yet there was no pain, not then. That came later, along with the lingering ache across our bodies, as if we’d been fish thrashing in a net, half in and half out of the water, unable to drown and unable to live. 

Here we finally get into Rachel’s head a little bit, learn how she’s reacting to this moment. We get lots of particulars in this moment about her internal state, and lots of adjectives. This certainly slows the pace a little. Of course, if we look at the action in the scene, it clearly trends on the summary end of the scale. The action takes place over an undisclosed period of time, but it tells of turns and multiple injuries, so it feels as if the time period were extended, and the writing itself could definitely be slowed down to elucidate all of the bumps and injuries and awkwardness. The structure of the sentences here matters too, with the pileup of commas and clauses doing double duty–firstly, giving a sense of rapid pace, and secondly giving a dizzying sense of circularity. Doing most of the summary work, most of the action-oriented work, is (again!) a list. The list of injuries is what creates a pile-up of action that progresses rapidly. 

And then we land int he second paragraph, which is super interesting. Something that never quite occurred to me is the value of ramping down from summary into scene. Vandermeer basically uses the idea of injury to transition from the general list, into a few extra particulars about “eating his kicks” which starts to slow down the pace, without actually reading like scene quite yet. And then it slows down even more, with a very specific action at the start of segment [8]. 

[8] Finally, though, the hot, raw pain of my bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles brought me back out of my animal self.       

“Wick! Stop!” I hissed, but Wick didn’t hear me. “Wick!” But still he didn’t hear me.       

I caught Wick’s foot, grappled with him, pulled him back into myself, pinned down his arms in that space and felt a shudder run through his body and with it a kind of resignation or surrender, and he went limp.     

“Just listen,” I said in his ear.       

We listened. We could hear the bears in the distance, delivered to us via the acoustics of the air duct as a kind of tinny droning roar. A dim thick digging sound also sounded far away.       

“Where are we?” Wick asked.       

“I have no idea.” If he didn’t know, I definitely didn’t know.       

All I could see was air duct five feet ahead and air duct five feet behind.   

“They destroyed it all. They’re destroying it all,” Wick whispered, thrust into a pain I knew wasn’t all physical.       

The attack had sprung all our traps, destroyed our biotech, had come from so many points of the compass at once that the snapping of those leans, the ease of it, traumatized us almost more than the physicality of the invasion. An intricate map, burned, with no copy. It made it hard to think. It made it hard to breathe. We could not even frame the questions that would come hurtling toward us later, like why and how.       

And we were still in danger, we both knew that.  

There’s not much extra I have to add at this point. Segment [8] is a pretty straight-forward scene. What’s grounding this? Mostly dialogue, but also particulars of movement and imagery. In fact, it’s imagery (“bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles”) that takes the semi-scenic quality of the last paragraph of [7] and drops it into true scene.

What I’m interested in at this point is WHY and HOW? 

Why does Vandermeer write this scene with constant acceleration and deceleration? And how does he pull it off?

When I think about it, and when I consider my experience reading this scene in the novel, it’s pretty simple. The “why” is clear–Vandermeer felt like certain moments needed to be drawn out for suspense (the discover of the bears, for instance) while others needed to be sped up to keep the scene punchy and action-packed (the travel through the air duct, a common trope that in movies can take up to 10 unbearable minutes) while others still are given full scenes because of their importance (the conversation in [8] brings the scene back to the novels core focus, Rachel and Wick’s relationship). Summary is pumped up and made engaging using sharp, exciting verbs, and while dropping most of the action-based particulars, is the most-full of emotional, internal particulars. 

As to how, that’s simple too, I think. What makes this part of the story feel so cohesive, despite the jittery pace, is in part that this pace follows the state of the characters. When they’re distant and automatic, the prose becomes summary-like, and when the characters are on high alert, noticing every minute detail of their environment, the text drops into scene. Often, Vandermeer even transitions with state-changing language for the characters, as in [8] when he says “brought me back out of my animals self.” Given that this story is narrated in first person, this puts us close to the character and makes it only obvious that the story would ebb and flow with her state. 

FINALLY 
At least for Vandermeer, there seem to be a handful of specific techniques he uses to create varying levels of pace. 

For summary 

  1. Use lists to make action pass quickly. 
  2. Cram the emotional beats here. 
  3. Pass this by in one or two larger paragraphs. 
  4. Cut down on sensory detail and punch up the action verbs. 

For scene 

  1. Pump up that sensory detail! The more you include, the slower the pace. 
  2. Dialogue seems to really work, maybe because it’s also sensory detail. Including small clips of dialogue in summary can do a lot to slow down a summary and bring it to life. 
  3. Smaller paragraphs, dedicated one to each action.

Some of this is, of course, not at all surprising. If anything, I’m surprised at how simple the techniques actually are. But I’m also impressed by the deliberate transitions, which exist in sort of half-scene, half-summary states to smooth out the space between.

What did you notice that I missed? Is there a particular part of a book or story you turn to for an example of pacing or scene and summary in action?

Sensory Action with Samuel Delany

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. 

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. 

pg11

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. 

pg141

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 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. 

p7

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. ¨C80C¨C81CFurther than that, it seems like context clues and grammar can also play a really large role in sensations. ¨C82C¨C83CDo 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 ¨C102Crelated topic you’d like to see? Let me know. 

Setting as Obstacle with Brian Evenson

When I’m working on a new novel, I try to turn to old favorites to mine for examples of what I’m trying to do. Brian Evenson’s Immobility is one of those, for me. Today we’ll be examining a scene that’s doing something I’m attempting in the WIP–using a simple setting as an obstacle for a character. As much as possible, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. 

THE CHALLENGE

When you want to have a character alone in a room, interacting with a setting, building stakes and conflict, how can you maintain that for an entire scene? In what ways can settings and characters interact to create forward momentum in a plot? 

I’ve tried this in the past, and whenever I go back to the scene, it always seems to be mostly internal monologue, and it gets a tad redundant the longer the scene goes on. So I went back to a novel I enjoyed a lot a while ago that, at least in my head, had a lot of these moments. 

THE STORY

Although I’m a huge fan of all of Evenson’s work, I think that Immobility likely would has the broadest appeal to genre readers. It’s set in a post atomic-apocalyptic world and has a huge backbone of mystery, and a culture more or less foreign to us. One of the things that floored me about it was how the author maintains a sense of suspense and kept my interest despite its rather simple plot, and one of the ways that was accomplished was by allowing the main character’s physical handicap to create obstacles out of rather simple things–in the novel, he simply has to travel a few miles without any mechanical form of transportation. Main trouble being, he can’t walk. 

In that context, the setting of the book becomes a concrete obstacle–it becomes physical in the same way a well-drawn villain does. You’ll see one of the more direct moments of this in the excerpt below:      

The Tunnel was wide and high, rounded at the top, and continued back for what seemed to Horkai, pulling himself forward by his hands, a very long way. It ran deep into the mountain. The stone floor was cool and had been cut straight and polished. It was dusty, but other than that seemed to have suffered no damage.       

The hall continued straight back, curving not at all. Every ten yards or so, the light that was now behind him would click off and a light in front of him would click on. He counted six lights before he saw, just beyond the sixth one, a thick metal door, like a door to a vault.       

He knocked on it, but his knuckles hardly made a sound. HE looked around for something to strike it with but found nothing.     

 What now? he wondered.       

He sat there for a little while, staring at the door, gathering his breath. Finally he struck the door again, slapping it with his open palm this time. The noise it made was only slightly louder.       

The light above him went out and he was plunged into darkness. Briefly he was seized by panic, his heart rising in his throat, but the light came immediately back on when he began to wave his arms.       

He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he yelled as loud as he could. “Let me in!”       

The noise resonated up and down the shaft of the hall, but there was no sign he had been heard.       

What now? he wondered again. Should he crawl back down the hall and out again, find the mules, get them to open another gate for him? And if that didn’t work, would they go on to the next, and then to the final one? And what if that one didn’t open either?       

He pulled himself over until he was leaning against the wall.       

And what if I’ve been sent on a wild goose chase? he wondered. What if Rasmus was wrong about what is actually here? What if someone was here but now they’re gone?     

But that wouldn’t explain the redone road signs, unless whoever had done them had left recently. Even if they had left recently, it wouldn’t explain the plants they had seen–freshly watered, not even a day ago. No, someone was somewhere nearby. And with a little luck, they were here.  He cupped his hands around his mouth again, yelled anew. His voice echoed up and down the hall, but again there was no sign that anyone on the other side of the door had heard.       

He stayed there, wondering how long he should wait. He was still wondering, when the light switched off again.     

This time, frustrated, he didn’t bother to wave his arms, just lit it stay dark. 

There was a hint of something else other than darkness from the far end of the tunnel, the opening out in the night, where the sky was not completely dark but fading fast. There was something else, too, he realized as his eyes adjusted, a strange tint to the darkness around him, not enough to help him see, but something keeping it from being completely dark. He cast his eyes around, looking for whatever it might be, but saw nothing, no crack under or to the side of the door, nothing on the floor or the walls. But it was still there nonetheless, puzzling him.       

And then suddenly it struck him. He looked all the way up, at the ceiling, and saw there, above his head, a small red light.       

He clapped his hands once and when the light came on saw ,on the wall above him, a small camera. As he watched, it made a slight whirring sound, angling differently, looking for something. Looking, he realized, for him.       He knuckled across the floor and to the other side of the hall, where the camera could see him. It whirred for a little longer as it tracked past him. He stared at it, one hand lifted in greeting. Suddenly it stopped, moved to point directly at him.     

“Hello,” he said to the camera. “Can you hear me?”       

The camera didn’t move. He turned to determine if it possessed a microphone or speakers, but saw no evidence of either. Feeling helpless, he raised his hands high above his head as if surrendering, then gestured at the door.       

Immediately he heard a thunking sound and the door loosened in its frame. As he watched, it swung open a few inches, then stopped. Because of where he was in the hall, all he could see was the door itself, not what lay behind. 

(pg 113 – 115) 

THE SOLUTION

In this small excerpt, there are quite a few tricks to pick up. It’s not a long scene (certainly not as long as the one I’m planning, and maybe that’s a signal to me), but the action here is slow, even slower than most of the action lead up to it, and it’s methodical. Four main takeaways: 

  1. The setting acts very similarly to a character-based obstacle. It has a mind of its own, and after each attempt of Horkai’s to overcome it, it is given a moment to react. The resounding silences, the lights going on and off, the movement of the camera. It’s acting very much like an adversarial ally, because while it’s not working at exactly crossed purposes with him (he wants to be found and it, being half security system, wants to find him) but largely the conflict comes through the incompetence of the system and the mystery/suspense of who controls it. 
  2. Horkai begins with the most obvious of attempts–knocking. And from there he moves to less obvious stuff until it finally demands a discovery (the camera) before the obstacle can be overcome. It’s important, for this part, to know the layout of the setting, to have a good sense of where everything is, excepting the one detail. 
  3. The failures only last a paragraph or two. Horkai makes an attempt, gets a reaction from the setting, then regroups and tries again. By far the longest attempt is the final, successful one, which is not immediately successful but does end up paying off. 
  4. The failed attempts build to make sense of the setting, to teach us how this puzzle works. Knocking won’t work (it’s too quiet) and slapping won’t either (still too quiet) but movement does something (there is a motion sensor). This all leads up to the camera being obvious in hindsight, a kind of foreshadowing. Once he discovers the camera you think duh, it’s a security door. Why didn’t i think to look for a camera?

There’s a simplicity and clarity to this conflict that captivates, although it also helps that it’s at the breaking point for one of the biggest mysteries of the book: Horkai’s true identity. That has to be what gives this scene its sense of stakes. 

FINALLY

Keep it simple. Treat the setting as an opposing force, trying to get a word in edgewise. Understand the relationship between your character and that setting: does it want–is it designed to–help them get what they want but need help to do so (yes, but) or does it exist to stand in the way of what your character wants (no, and). For an inanimate obstacle to take on the suspense of a living one, it’s important to consider these things. 

How do you maintain a conflict between character and setting? Any major examples you can think of? Do you notice any tips that I’ve missed from the excerpt above? 

Thanks for reading!

Productive Dialogue with Jeff Vandermeer

Clicking the image to the left will take you to the Amazon page for the edition I own of Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, which we’ll be talking about today. Obviously, I don’t expect you to read the entire novel just in preparation for this post, but I’ll be providing a few pages below for context and I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Let’s talk about talk. 

THE CHALLENGE

I avoid dialogue. Part of that comes from what I read–most of the short fiction I’ve read is notably sparse on speech. But as I switch back into novel gears, I’ve noticed more and more how unavoidable dialogue is, and how compelling it can be in a sea of prose. There’s just one problem: my dialogue muscles are flabby from under-use. I can’t seem to write dialogue that moves the plot forward (or even understand what that means), and the language of it feels unreal, useless, loose. My writing loses the sort of density of purpose that I’ve come to expect of it. 

Is it even possible to write dialogue like I want? 

THE STORY

The Area X trilogy is a fascinating modern weird fiction. Shorter than your average novels (averaging out at about 250 pages), they read quickly and they take weird fiction right into scifi territory–and it’s the overlap of weird and scifi that tends to grab me the best. So these books really swept me up–they’re doing a lot of things that I desperately want to do. 

I will say, as a word of caution, that if you can’t stand mysteries that extend over several books (and indeed, may never be answered) then these books probably aren’t for you, ultimately. But there are still some great gems of technique, and one of those is dialogue. 

In this book in particular, Vandermeer’s dialogue is superb. It feels combative, high-stake, and tightly crafted. Here are two excerpts relevant to our discussion today, from the second book, Authority. First, one from the very first chapter: 

First day. The beginning of his last chance. 

“These are the survivors?” Control stood beside the assistant director of the Sourthern Reach, behind smudged one-way glass, staring that the three individuals sitting in the interrogation room. Returnees from the twelfth expedition into Area X. 

The assistant director, a tall, thin black woman in her forties, said nothing back, which didn’t surprise Control. She hadn’t wasted an extra word on him since he’d arrived that morning after taking Monday to get settled. She hand’t spared him an extra look, either, except when he’d told her and the rest of the staff to call him “Control,” not “John” or “Rodriguez.”

She had paused a beat, then replied, “In that case, call me Patience, not Grace,” much to the stifled amusement of those present. The deflection away from her real name to one that also meant something else interested him.

“That’s okay,” he’d said, “I can just call you Grace,” certain this would not please her. She parried by continually referring to him as the “acting director. Which was true: There lay between her stewardship and his ascension a gap, a valley of time and forms to be filled out, procedures to be followed, the rooting out and hiring of staff. Until then, the issue of authority might be murky. 

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least. 

“Where were they found?” he asked her now, when what he wanted to ask was why they hadn’t been kept separate from one another. Because you lack the discipline, because your department has been going to the rats for a long time now? The rats are down there in the basement now, gnawing away. 

“Read the files,” she said, making it clear he should have read them already. Then she walked out of the room.

(133-134)

Now, their third exchange in the book, only a little while later. 

“You interviewed just the biologist. I still do not know why.” She said this before he could extend even a tendril of an opening gambit…and all of his resolve to play the diplomat, to somehow become her colleague, not her enemy–even if by misdirection or a metaphorical jab in the kidneys–dissolved into the humid air. 

He explained his thought processes. She seemed impressed, although he couldn’t really read her yet. 

“Did she ever seem, during training, like she was hiding something?” he asked. 

“Deflection. You think she is hiding something.”

“I don’t know yet, actually. I could be wrong”

“We have more expert interrogators than you.”

“Probably true.”

“We should send her to Central.”

The thought made him shudder. 

“No,” he said, a little too emphatically, then worried in the next split second that the assistant director might guess that he cared about the biologist’s fate. 

“I have already sent the anthropologist and the surveyor away.”

Now he could smell the decay of all that plant matter slowly rotting beneath the surface of the swamp, could sense the awkward turtles and stunted fish pushing their way through matted layers. He didn’t trust himself to turn to face her. Didn’t trust himself to say anything, stood there suspended by his surprise. 

Cheerfully, she continued: “You said they weren’t of any use, so I sent them to Central.”

“By whose authority?”

“Your authority. You clearly indicated to me that this was what you wanted. If you meant something else, my apologies.”

A tiny seismic shift occurred inside of Control, an imperceptible shudder. 

They were gone. he couldn’t have them back. He had to put it out of his mind, would feed himself the lie that Grace had done him a favor, simplified his job. Just how much pull did she have at Central, anyway?

“I can always read the transcripts if I change my mind,” he said, attempting an agreeable tone. They’d still be questioned, and he’d given her the opening by saying he didn’t want to interview them. 

She was scanning his face intently, looking for some sign that she’d come close to hitting the target. 

He tried to smile, doused his anger with the thought that if the assistant director had meant him real harm, she would have found a way to spirit the biologist away, too. This was just a warning. Now, thought, he was going to have to take. something away from Grace as well. Not to get even but so she wouldn’t be tempted to take yet more from him. He couldn’t afford to lose the biologist, too. Not yet. 

Into the awkward silence, Grace asked, “Why are you just standing out here in the heat like an idiot?” Breezily, as if nothign had happened at all. “We should go inside. It’s time for lunch, and you can meet some of the admin.”

(150-151)

THE SOLUTION

To keep this as tight an analysis as possible, I decided to limit my talk to the three big takeaways that these two exchanges seem to be dishing out. 1. Be Efficient: A lot of the lean feeling of this exchange comes from it actually being lean. The spoken sentences are quite short, almost to the point of feeling stilted, and reading it out loud does not produce an exchange that sounds in anyway human. They’re worse than Spock. This may not work in all dialogue (I’d have to go looking for more–and maybe I will) but when two characters are speaking in this sort of conflict-heavy manner, it seems to really work. 

Another way Vandermeer keeps it lean is by not letting it get too chatty. When Control isn’t sure what to say, he just says nothing, and Grace picks the conversation back up. And when Control is explaining something we already know, he summarizes it (“He explained his thought process.”). Finally, he makes sure the conversation isn’t side tracked into obvious distractions from the task at hand (“We have more expert interrogators than you” could have devolved into a pointless argument, but instead led into “Probably true.”).

As a final note on efficiency (all this can only have come from ruthless cutting, right?), all of the conversations end rather rapidly with a line of narration or a quick quote into the next scene. 

2. Move the Story Forward Maybe this is not the only way to move story forward in a dialogue (BIG REVEALS come to mind) but this conversation uses an interesting technique: limitation. When Grace declares that she’s sent the other members of the team away, this of course functions as a reveal, but that’s not how it’s affecting the plot.  What it serves to do is tell the reader where the plot will be going–in essence it says “Don’t get distracted by these other three people, they don’t matter.” At that point we realize (and we had some reason to suspect this) that the story won’t be wasting its time with the other scientists. 

Of all the typical advice about dialogue, this was perhaps the one I knew the best but found the most mysterious. Here, at least, is one practical example of how it’s used in actual work, which was fascinating to me.

3. So Much of this Dialogue is Under the Surface

In the first segment, a bunch of narration is basically invaded by two short exchanges of dialogue. Mostly, I included that first segment because of how important the context of it is for the second exchange to make any sense at all. Providing this context lets the reader know, pretty much immediately in this story, that these two are playing a verbal chess game, and that colors all of their future interactions. Largely, these characters want the same thing, but they are heavily antagonistic to each other, and we’re never sure if we can trust Grace. 

I don’t know, but I certainly would expect, that the second exchange would be quite hard to follow without this context. Even without the gentle reminders of theirs conflict between lines in the second dialogue, it would be a little hard to understand why Grace has done something that seems to be against her own interests. But because of the context, and the stuff taking place under the surface (the breakdowns of communication) we can understand that not only did Grace do this purposefully to upset Control, she did it despite the fact that it would cost her. 

FINALLY

Perhaps the ultimate take away is that I’ve been writing dialogue far too flippantly. It takes an aggressive level of forethought (or post-thought or both) to write a solid piece of dialogue. Even a brief, two line exchange without this level of interrogation may corrupt your sense of strength and pacing. And ultimately, powerful dialogue boils down to concisely displaying conflict between two characters. 

What do you think of the three tips above? Might you add any others? Do you have any scenes of dialogue you go back to for tips now and again? I’d love to hear them and take a look at them myself.

Act One with China Mieville

Clicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

THE CHALLENGE

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

THE STORY

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

THE SOLUTION

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

FINALLY

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments. 

Setting the Scene in Historical Fiction with Marc Laidlaw

Clicking the picture to the left will take you straight to the purchase page for the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of F&SF, where you can find this weeks story “The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw. Unfortunately, the story is not available anywhere online. As far as the issue goes, I enjoyed it–especially the Cat Rambo and Sarina Dorie stories. Today we’re going to be talking about how to set the scene in historical fiction, using this story set in Early Modern England. 

THE CHALLENGE

Setting is a tough thing sometimes: how do you clue readers in to past or future without slowing down the narrative, short of doing something obvious like giving the story a particular date or year stamp? In looking to write a few historical fictions myself, I asked this question and turned to Laidlow’s story for a detailed answer. 

THE STORY:

“The Ghost Penny Post” is a fun and vivid story, especially in the fairy tale moments. It includes an interesting main POV–an old-timey postal inspector looking into a mysterious mail problem. It takes the form of a mystery, mostly, but also descends into a Wonderland-like absurdity. Also, it’s a multi-pov story with narrators who range in age, profession, and their position on the conflict. Of course, we’re most interested here in how the story sets the scene for all this to occur, and it turns out it’s fairly simple. 

THE SOLUTION

Here’s the first paragraph:

I hope London’s trust in me is not misplaced, thought Hewell as he sought his valise under roadside ferns. He spotted the leather case, still buckled, its sheaf of papers safe. Drawing it from among the fronds, he climbed out of the ditch to stand beside the carriage. Always fond of a good puzzle, Hewell was none too keen on mysteries; but events of the morning suggested more of the latter than the former were in store for his afternoon”

pg7

While also kickstarting the key internal struggle, there are a few ways that this paragraph lands us in the correct(ish) era. I’ll start from the simplest and go forward from there. 

  1. Technology: Mentioning travel by horse-drawn carriage is a quick short hand for “this happened a long time ago” and strikes me as practically useful but also widely overutilized. In this instance though, it’s doing it’s job, in combination with a couple of other things. 
  2. Syntax: A more formal, grander syntax seems to be doing some work in this story (whether or not texts actually written in that era show this kind of syntax is up for some debate, based on my readings, and it can certainly go too far if you don’t keep it tightly controlled). In this first paragraph there are a few (certainly at higher density than much of the story). First, “events of the morning.” Then “none too keen” and “suggested more of the latter than the former.” This kind of syntax is almost academic, and is used selectively throughout the story. 
  3. Vocabulary: This technique is used incredibly well in just this one paragraph. The basic form is simply to use old nouns (i.e. “valise”) but I’ve always wondered how to get away with using nouns that readers might not recognize. Even when I read this first sentence, I wondered “What is a valise?” and I bounced off of that a little. What has not occurred to me before is the ability to “translate” those nouns, and if you look in the second sentence, you’ll see it there: “He spotted the leather case…” To me, that was an interesting discovery, but also if you look deeper, Laidlow also translates a word back, from a modern to an early modern word: Sentence one’s “roadside ferns” become, in the third sentence, “fronds.” These three sentences are forming a feedback loop of sorts that state “This is in olden times!” And that really impressed me. 

These three techniques are working quite elegantly, and subtly, to set the scene in the story. They also happen to be highly-usable practical moves. I plan on snapping it up as soon as I can. 

FINALLY

Perhaps ultimately, the answer to my original question was fairly simple. Old language will set a scene in olden times, but it’s also important to do part of the work. This practical example really worked for me to figure this out, though, and now I’ve got to go find all my other historical fiction stories, and see if they’re making similar moves! 

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Any favorite methods for setting the scene in historical fiction or even in far future science fiction? Any recommendations for historical fiction I should be checking out on my journey to writing it?