The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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! 

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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.

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 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.




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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!

Written by 
When I read Harrison Squared, what impressed me most (at least technically) was how detailed the blocking of character action was always clear where each character was in a space, and where important objects were in relation to them, no matter how fast the action was moving. When I got to chapter 21, I was even more blown away when I was able to track the location of a huge field of action, and that’s what I want to discuss today. Careful for some spoilers. I’ll try to keep the excerpts light to avoid them, but it is fairly late in the novel. 

The Problem: 

It’s hard to know when you’re accurately depicting the choreography of an action scene. You can picture it all in your head, you know where everyone is, so the biggest challenge is being sure that your vision makes it to the page. In looking for some tricks to master this, I turned to a published example. 

The Story: 

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a young adult Lovecraft novel with a special flare for adventure. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and isn’t too dark–although some of the monster POV scenes can get there. It’s a sequel to his award winning novella We Are All Completely Fine, which was one of my favorites of 2015, and there are a few more books in the series on their way. 

What I loved about this big battle scene toward the end of the novel was that I never felt lost. I could always track where the character was, and the narrator seemed keenly aware of when I’d need a reminder. All this is done with simple and subtle tricks. 

The Solution: 

It really is quite simple and eloquent: there are 2 methods that Daryl is using to keep us in the know. 

1. Solid Setup 

The story takes its time to orient us to the field of action. No need to rush into the events when a reader won’t be able to follow what’s going on. Check out this excerpt: 

      “Suddenly the wind roared, and the Muninn spun like a toy boat above a bathtub drain. I was thrown to my knees.
      The Scrimshander lunged at Hallgrimsson and batted aside the trident. The two of them crashed to the deck. Hallgrimsson yelled, ‘Run, Harrison!’
      I jumped to my feet and ran, skidding and swaying, to the other side of the boat. Lydia stepped out of the other side of the pilothouse, the wind whipping her hair, and pointed.
     The water under the cloud break seemed to boil, churning with white tops. The Muninn was caught in the outer rim of a huge whirlpool, circling at great speed and rotating at the same time, like a spinning planet caught in the orbit of a sun. 
     The center of the whirlpool was a circle of smooth water like the center of a roulette wheel. The raft floated in that eddy, spinning slowly . . .  The Albatross was stationed well back from the whirlpool, Montooth standing at the bow. But that wasn’t what she was pointing at . . . The Muninn spun like a compass dial. I hung on, and then the raft appeared, perhaps a hundred yards in front of us” (291-292)

This setup involves two things of note. For one, descriptive metaphors that take this large battlefield and give it a meaningful, consistent image. He uses metaphors of scale, one small (a toy boat circling a drain) and one enormous (a spinning planet orbiting the sun) and what i notice is that these metaphors are essentially creating the exact same image, except the first begins with a scale we can fathom, and then the second expands that scale into a huge one, giving a sense of the immensity of the field on which this scene will take place. 

The second activity in this segment is the creation of monuments that you can imagine in various places in this orbit or around this drain. There’s the Muninn and the Albatross, the raft and the glassy center of the whirlpool, as well as the whirlpool itself. Being able to paste these monuments onto the metaphors above is key to tracking the events in the following scene. 

2. Use the Monuments as Touchstones

The action largely oscillates between “big” events and “small” events, switching from the macro choreography of whirlpools and boats, to the personal tale of Harrison struggling to get to his mother. When we emerge from these moments, often rising up from underwater, Daryl returns to these monuments to show us where we are (how far from the raft, how far from the Muninn), as well as to track the passage of time (the Munnin swirling back around the pool). Consider the following excerpts, only three of such moments: 

     “I tried to take a breath, but my chest had seized up. My jaw felt like ti was trying to grind my teeth to nubs. I pawed at my chest and was relieved to find the knife still there.
     A wave carried me up, and I looked around frantically. The Muninn was less than ten feet from me. Then I spotted the raft, much farther away. . .” (293). 
     
     “A thrill ran through me, a hot jolt of energy better than Aunt Sel’s tea. I turned about, spotted the patch of clear air. When the next wave came, I dove into it. I kicked hard with my meat leg, and then the buoyancy of the vest pulled me to the surface
     Swim. Don’t think. 
     Some time later I realized that the wind has ceased howling. I stopped and treaded water. The surface was a s glassy as a lake, and the raft was only fifty feet away” (296). 

     “I got to my knees, scanning the water. The raft still stood in the center of a glassy lake. The Muninn still orbited at the edge of the whirlpool . . . Behind them, safely outside the whirlpool, was the white bulk of the Albatross. I could see a huge figure on its frond deck” (299).

These two strategies work in congress to produce an obvious-in-hindsight but invisible-in-situ effect that left me feeling total clarity and increasingly impressed. I’ll definitely be stealing this going forward. 

Finally: 

Be methodical, be obvious. What may not appear to be a smooth strategy on the surface could very well pass unnoticed when readers are knee deep in the climax of your novel. Part of the genius of this strategy is how close it comes to simulating how we orient ourselves in real life. Consider a time when you passed onto a busy street, the light so bright you couldn’t see your surroundings at first. As your eyes adjust, you look for some touchstone that can guide your way, tell you how long you have to go.

That’s exactly how Harrison is colliding with his antagonists in this scene. 

Do you have any tricks for managing huge scenes of battle? Any particular stories or moments come to mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you think I missed anything at all. 

Thanks for reading!

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Years ago, when I first read One Hundred Years of  Solitude, the first chapter blew me away. It’s a book that is hard to get into at first, but once I’d made it through the first chapter I was hooked. I wanted to take a look at what that first chapter is doing structurally–in the same vein as my discussion of Canticle for Leibowitz from last week. As much as possible–I’ll have to avoid discussing too much how this chapter connects to larger themes of the book–spoilers will be avoided. 

The Problem: 

Again–novels. Chapter structure is an odd thing, and it seems like it differs a lot from book to book. So I wanted to take a look at a second example, one that I think most people would find to be a quite different novel, to dig a little deeper. This will also be an examination of what this first chapter is doing. 

The Story: 

I’ve never read another book like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even Marquez’s other work, which I’ve also enjoyed, comes close to the brilliant experimentation taking place in this novel. They also don’t come close to matching the depth and breadth displayed here. Even the works of Allende and Borges, contemporaries said to be writing in the same subgenre, don’t really compare. It’s not, by any means, a fast-paced thriller, but it is profound and fascinating and reading it feels like steeping yourself in someone else’s mind. 

Probably the closest reading experience is Kafka, which I think is what Marquez intended. 

Anyway, enough drooling! The first chapter of this book is enlightening for its structure and it’s actually surprisingly similar in some ways to Canticle, which will probably become clear below. On top of structure, I’ll also discuss the things this story is doing as a first chapter to introduce the rest of the book. 

The Solution: 

What’s fascinating about this chapter as an opening is how much it feels like an opening, especially in contrast to Canticle. In the latter, the first and second chapters together almost feel like a short story that outgrew itself and had to turn into a novella and then a novel, while the former really feels like it’s introducing the story. Almost like the introductory paragraph to an essay, it has all the elements that will weave through the rest of the book–it touches on themes of solitude and superstition versus connection and science. It reveals the weird playing with time (Macondo, the central village, exists at a time when most things don’t have names, the narrator declares, but also Memphis exists–so late 19th century at the earliest). It shows how the names of the main characters repeat as the generations pass. These are all themes and conflicts that span the novel to its final page. 

Beyond that, the narration goes out of its way to emphasize happenings that feel inconsequential but will have major effects on teh rest of the story. It says things like “The children would remember for the rest of their lives” (which we will see all of) (4) and “…he made him a gift that was to have  profound influence on the future of the villlage: the laboratory of an alchemist” (which will feature on the last page) (5). This sort of thing is creating a kind of simmering anticipation, not quite suspense, at least not in the Steven King sense, but a longing to understand, to fill in blanks. 

These are all powerful things that the chapter does for the novel. The final thing it does, right at the outset, is very similar to Canticle in some ways: it provides an occasion. Here’s what it says: 

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). 

This is doing two things simultaneously. First, it’s giving structure to a huge portion of the book by mentioning the firing squad, which will not reappear for decades (or hundreds of pages, depending on how you count). This is, of course, vital to the sense of suspense for the book, and is a move that has been stolen 1000 times since–we might call it an extended occasion. But it is a two part occasion, just like the example from Canticle, and the other part (discovering ice) structures this chapter, with it ending at the moment they discover and react to the ice.  It’s just strange enough to propel you through the chapter to the end. A final note of difference: this chapter does not end on a cliffhanger. If anything, it ends in a way that feels complete, as if you could close the book and return later. Personally, I found this willingness to resolve in small doses to be a wonderful, refreshing thing. 

A second thing holding this chapter together, allowing it to cohere, is a unified type of plot event. It’s arranged basically as a series of visits by the gypsy (mysterious outsiders who bring a carnival and inventions from around the world) and the Colonel’s father, Jose. Jose is a bit of an inventor, and becomes a bit of a scientist, and it’s this gypsy named Melquiades who guides and encourages him on this journey. The chapter only briefly departs from describing these visits, a section specifically defined by their absence. This gives a sense of unity and purpose to the chapter, and direciton–any time something needs to happen, the troupe returns, bringing some new marvelous thing. 

And finally, something that will look familiar to those who read my last post, the chapter is structured using simple arcs. These differ a little from the other book in key ways. For one, they are a little more cohesive, a little subtler, with full transitions and gentle backtracking. Also, instead of being based on conflict, they are largely based on POV–namely, the distance the omniscient narrator takes at any given point in the story. Here are the arcs as I saw them. 

Arc 1: Close to Jose and Aureliano (P1-5)
Arc 2: Widen out to the family (P5-7) 
Arc 3: All the way out to the village level (P7-14) 
Arc 4: Narrow back to the family (P14-16)
Arc 5: Return to Jose and Aureliano (P16-18) 

This structure does a lot of important things. It introduces the village itself as a vital player in this story–community as character. It also gives a hugely necessary sense of pacing and real change over a chapter that get its unity from a repetitive plot, and uses huge blocks of detailed summary as its style. Without these arcs, it seems clear that the story would just wash right over you.

Finally: 

So in comparison to Canticle, this story also relies on arcs that progress and then regress. It also makes use of a two part occasion to leap into the story, giving a strong sense of mystery at the opening and unifying the chapter’s events. You could easily call this the “Ice Discovery” chapter on an outline, just as Canticle’s first chapter could be described as “the arrival of the pilgrim”–and I notice that the authors seem to have gone to great lengths to establish this sense of unity.

Also, a key element in the difference of pacing in these books may be (beyond that one is largely summary and the other largely immediate action) because of the rate at which these books introduce and resolve occasions. Canticle’s two part occasion is resolved by the end of chapter two, while Marquez delays the second half of his occasion until nearly 200 pages in. This made for massively different reading experiences, although both were quite pleasureable. 


What do you think of the differences between these two novels? Is there anything important about this chapter that I’m missing? Have you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? I’d love to hear what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading! 

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In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it. 

The Challenge: 

Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach. 

So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters. 

The Story:

One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect. 

Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story. 

Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first. 

The Solution:

Canticle
‘s first chapter opens like with this:

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert” (3). 

This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.

But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear. 


As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against. 

Arc 1. Intent: Solve the mystery of the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away. 
           Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict 
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith. 
           Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent. 
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night. 
            Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work. 
            Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict 
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim 
            Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence. 
            Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
            Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
            Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
            Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
           Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit      
           Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
            Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
            Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
            Obstacle: fear!
            Paragraphs 53 – 56 

A few things I immediately noticed.

First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another. 


This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing. 

This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words: 

“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one  but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17). 

This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?

We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening. 


Finally:

It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.

All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling. 



What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?