The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Written by 
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?

Written by 
Let’s take a look today at how to handle capital-D Drama. As with many things in fiction, drama requires a particular balance, and we’re going to examine a scene from How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a young adult near future science fiction novel that I highly recommend. To look at this, we’ll be dissecting a specific scene, and it does include some minor spoilers. 

The Challenge:

It’s hard, when I get to that moment I’ve been building toward, where everything has come to a head and something has to happen. How do you handle scenes of high emotion without melodrama but still with impact? Seems my pendulum always swings back and forth between the extremes of giving up drama and giving up impact. 

For some answers, I turned to a novel I’d read years ago. 

The Story:

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about an American girl living in Britain when things really hit the fan–they’re invaded and conquered by a mysterious, unnamed enemy. It’s a young adult romance and adventure novel that is both emotionally impactful and full of suspense. There are few novels I recommend as easily as this one, even to people who don’t often read. It reads quick and leaves a mark. It balances blot and character masterfully. And the prose is beautiful in a simple, streamlined way. 

For my purposes, I analyzed a scene toward the middle, at the end of a chapter of descriptive summary, little more than a list of chores in this fairly transitional moment of the story. Read the short scene below: 

One night we were driving home through the usual checkpoints and Piper and I were asleep and Joe, who sometimes came with us to stay with his parents in the village, suddenly took it into his head to stand up and get show-offy, and I guess thinking war was some kind of open discussion forum where everyone was really interested in your opinion, started shouting a whole bunch of obscenities at one of the checkpoint guards and when Major McEvoy told him to sit down in a really icy army tone of voice he ignored him and kept shouting stuff about Johnny Foreigner being an Effing Bastard and worse. 

And then in almost a lazy kind of way the checkpoint guy who’d been looking at him raised his gun and pulled the trigger and there was a loud crack and part of Joe’s face exploded and there was blood everywhere and he fell over out of the truck into the road. 

Piper watched the whole thing without moving a muscle but the shock of it made me retch and I had to turn away over the side of the truck. Someone else was screaming and when I turned back the whole world seemed to have slowed down and grown quiet and from inside the silence I watched the guard go right back to chatting with his friend and saw Major McEvoy’s head roll back for a moment and his eyes close and a look of despair crumple up his face and in that split second I wondered whether he was really that attached to the kid and then it was with horror that I looked down and saw that Joe was still alive, gurgling and trying to move the arm that wasn’t caught under his body and when I looked back at Major M I realized he was doing what he felt was his duty as a member of the armed forces defending a British national and still in slow motion he was climbing out of the truck and his plan must have been to get Joe to his feet somehow and then to safety when I heard about a hundred shots from a machine gun and the momentum of the blasts hurled Major M backward across the road away from Joe with blood welling up in holes all over him and this time you could see Joe’s condition was 100% dead and with brains splattered everywhere and our driver didn’t wait around to see what might happen next but just stepped on the gas and as we drove away I thought I felt tears on my face but when I put my hand up to wipe them it turned out to be blood and nobody made a single sound but just sat there shell-shocked and all I could think about was poor Major M lying there in the dust through I guess he was much too dead to notice. 

There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War. 

And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling (103 – 105). 


The Solution: 

At five paragraphs and about two pages, this is a decidedly short scene (although not too short for the book’s average), but it does a deceptive amount of work to both control the drama and heighten the impact. It’s doing a good bit of complex work to maintain this delicate balance, and I’ll try to pick that apart here. 

First a brief outline of the scene, as I see it: 

Paragraph 1. (Setup). Scene conflict begins, exposition is given with a humorous tone. 
Paragraph 2. (Escalation). One shot. A distant description of the bloody scene. 
Paragraph 3. (Reaction & Further Escalation). A wide range of reactions from a number of different people. A little more humor. Much longer sentences. 
Paragraph 4. (Deflation). A very muted response and a clean getaway that also connects the loss of life to the wider world. 
Paragraph 5. (Effect). A single, punchy line on how the protagonist has been changed by this scene. 

So how does this scene attempt to control drama, minimize melodrama? There are a number of ways that this is being done. Paragraph 1, for instance, seems only to exist for this function. It’s using humor to deflate the tension, exposition to slow the pace, summary (mimicking the rest of the chapter, which was fairly low-key) that creates a level of distance, and it even uses a linguistic trick to add to the drudgery (“usual checkpoint”). It’s routine. It’s a chore–just like the rest of the chapter, this will be every-day. That, of course, is not how it pans out. 

Paragraph 2 uses a similar linguistic trick when it describes the shot as “lazy”–the laziness of it reduces the melodrama. In Paragraph 3, a return to humor seems to aid the reduction of melodrama (100% dead). We also get a number of characters who fail to react in any active way to this shot–Piper watches “without moving a muscle,” the guard goes “right back to chatting with his friend,” and the driver who did nothing but “not wait around.” These muted reactions serve as a counter balance to the descriptions of gore and to the narrator’s response. Paragraph 4 continues the muted response, allowing it to spread to the rest of the car. Meanwhile, Paragraph 5 does little to manage the drama–how does the scene’s final line have such a strong impact? 

While Paragraph 1 is the touchstone paragraph for controlling melodrama, Paragraph 3 is its counterpart, a keystone in developing impact. It does this in a large number of ways. Firstly, we have the more dramatic character reactions: the narrator, who retches, and Major M, who reacts with nothing short of anguish, not to mention Joe himself, twitching on the ground. There is also the natural drama of further escalation of the conflict (going from Joe, a minor nobody, dying to the death of Major M, who we’ve come to know and who was a central figure of this chapter, and the imagery usage (like tears that transformed into blood). Beyond those things, there is also the massive and sudden stretching of sentence length (so long it’s almost beyond comprehension) using polysyndeton (lots of “ands”) that makes each sentence feel like a constant barrage of horrors. 

The other paragraphs build upon this one, adding minor touches of drama to increase the impact. In Paragraph 2, drama comes from the conflict escalation and the use of face-explosion imagery. In Paragraph 4, emotions are driven home by revealing the delayed anger of the driver (This is a War) and focusing on who is hurt (Major M’s wife). Finally, in Paragraph 5, the tragic punch line, a single, lonely line, a structure that serves to emphasize how alone the narrator feels, further hitting home the imagery of falling. 

Finally:

It’s the delicate balance of this passage that makes it work so well. Just look, for instance, at the “sandwich” created by the first paragraph, which only works to reduce melodrama, and the fifth paragraph, which only works to increase impact. And the sparseness of Paragraph 2 contrasts with the extravagance of Paragraph 3 to create a similar sense of balance.

Ultimately, what I take from this scene is that, while there are consistent strategies worth knowing for reducing melodrama and increasing impact, the brilliance of this scene comes from structure–how those methods are designed to balance each other. 

Is there anything you’d add? Are there any scenes that you’ve read that should have been melodramatic but ended up deeply moving you without going over the edge? I’d love to hear about this or anything else you have to say. 







 

 

Written by 
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.

Written by 

king-ratClicking 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. 


Written by 
fsf-maraprClicking 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” (7).

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?

Written by 


anchor-bookClicking the image to the left will take you to NPR’s website for the story “The Old Dictionary” by Lydia Davis, which I read in an anthology called The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. I highly recommend this collection if you’re interested in literary fiction at all–one reviewer criticized it for trying “too hard” to entertain, generally a sign that it’s from the “light side” of lit fiction. We’re going to be talking today about character change, tightly compressed into flash. Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Challenge: 

In short fiction, finding believable space for character change can be a challenge, yet often a story feels empty without it. So how can you pull this off–how have other people pulled this off? That’s what I aim to find out.

To get as nitty-gritty as possible, let’s look at a really impressive flash fiction story. 


The Story:

Who better than Lydia Davis for this exploration? Her work can get unbelievably short (and sure, some of it might just be poetry) and is also entertaining, believable, and moving. The last bit, the “moving” part, always impresses me, and is one of the things that made “The Old Dictionary” stand out to me. 

It’s the story of a researcher and her realization about how she treats her son. By the end of the story she decides to change. How does Davis pull this off? In ways both complex and simple. 

Give it a read. It’s quick, and beautiful. 

The Solution:

Ultimately, for a character to experience believable change, they must struggle through and survive an Odyssey. Their current status needs to be challenged and questioned, and they must allow their experiences to shift their beliefs or actions toward change. 

In short stories, there often just isn’t time for such a long journey. My copy of The Odyssey stands a solid 560 pages thick. But I’d argue that Lydia Davis pulls off a character change in her 1000 word flash fiction tale. In fact, I’d argue she went into it specifically to test the assumption that character arcs are impossible in flash fiction. All of her decisions, narratively and stylistically, limit her space and push her toward focusing on character change. 

Stylistically, she keeps her sentences short, even clipped at times. This forces her to always push forward, digging deeper into her character. She also chose first person, which allows you to trim significant framing and description, and allows an almost-exclusively internal story to feel much more natural. The “telling” nature of the story allows for an insane amount of compression, and allows the narrator to struggle with her own actions. 

Narratively, almost all of the actual story has happened in the past. The character thinks about her typical treatment of her son, and struggles through the why. And it’s important to note that Davis makes this struggle feel very concrete, very real, by including specific real-world details about the plants, the dog, her son, etc. She tires to explain her (brutish?) actions one way, then corrects herself, then tries another way. She examines other specimens, too, in trying to puzzle through her motivations. The narrator’s struggle with this moral issue is visceral to the point that you can feel the tension building. It’s the details that do that. 

The last 2 elements I’ll mention are perhaps the most important moments in the story: the beginning and the end. 

1. The beginning includes an inciting incident, in lifting the old dictionary carefully from its case. With its detailed description and present-day time, this is easily the largest moment of external conflict in the story, and that’s important. It gives this journey a real-world catalyst and a touchstone to return to so that it never rambles too far. It also really sets the reader in-scene in a compelling way. But also, this beginning ends with a specific intention in mind: the character asks herself WHY (about 225 words in). This gives the story it’s shape and sets up our expectations that, in the end, the narrator will answer this question somehow. 

2. In the end, the question is answered and the narrator has acknowledged, to some level, her failure. She goes on, as a follow through, a third act of sorts, to reaffirm the ways in which she treats the old dictionary with care and, through implication, the ways in which she will treat her son better: “I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” 

This ending drives home the character change and is perhaps the most moving part of the entire tale. 


Finally: 

While I realize these methods might not be useable in every story, there are lessons to be taken from it none the less. For one, maybe in a 5000 word story, a writer could deliberately set aside 1000 words for character change, and that these words would be distinctly internal and focused, but spread out throughout the tale. 

Also, there is a lesson in the directness with which the narrator handles her character change. To save space, it may be necessary to “tell” as much of the change as possible, to forgo “showing” some things you might have in favor of a different goal. It’s important to note, also, that so much of this story works through implication, and that is, to me at least, an interesting form of compression, requiring a deft hand. 

What do you think? Does a short story occur to you that shows a compelling (and complete) change of character? Are there other ways of compressing a character arc to fit into 5000 words or less?

Written by 

Tremblay Bourbon carbideToday we’ll be discussing disaster plots in short stories, comparing two stories for answers. Each image to the left links to one of the stories. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Ultimately, I want to understand this: how do I write a successful story in which the end implies that we all die? And a couple of restrictions are useful. First, I want it to be short. Second, I want it to be deeply personal and in a close POV. Finally, I want the ending to pack a wallop, rather than feel anticlimactic or unresolved in some way. 

Why this kind of story? Why these restrictions? Because I’ve read not 1 but 2 stories recently that blew me away and did both of these things. 

The Stories:

First, I read Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn. Then I read “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, which appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, although I read it in Best American SFF 2015. These stories both got to me. In some ways, these stories are quite different: “Swim…” works better on a metaphorical level with the natural disasters of the MC’s life and the disaster is introduced almost immediately, although we never fully understand it; “The Blue…” comes to tell us exactly what is going on (in fact our MC is one of only a handful who fully understand it) and so the end is far less open. 

But what strikes me more, looking back, is just how much they have in common.

Both have distant narrators that dominate the voice of the story, one is distant because of drug addiction, the other because of his highly-analytical scientific language and through processes. Both involve a single parent and their one child. Both have 4 scenes. Both end in lyrically-described disaster.

For the first step in the solution, I’ll break down these stories a little further. 

The Solution:

A little outline for “Swim…”: (1–124 words) A micro scene implying past trouble of mom with law (through her daughter); (2–2025 words) A scene of MC at work, where we learn about her troubles and normal life; (3–686 words) A sort of “bridge” scene that becomes progressively more distant, the character at her most high/destructive; (4–2410 words) MC interacts with daughter in a house and soon destruction rains down around them. 

A little outline for “The Blue…”: (1–529 words) A scene of MC with his daughter in which we learn about his problems and normal life; (2–602 words) A flashback scene in which we learn about how things went between MC and his ex-wife; (3–920 words) A scene in which we learn, scientifically, analytically, about the danger occurring, and at the end the mystery of it is finally revealed, all in context with our MC’s research and life; (4–1749 words) MC returns in time to maximize time with his daughter, interact a little, and then the end comes. 

Both of these stories are SO SIMPLE. And they keep it pretty short, for the whole world ending. They each have a single central character, with a young child as a secondary character. “Swim” has a few other, very minor characters. Both have a relate-able conflict: the parents feel in some way distant from their children, one because of drugs and actual no-custody style distance, and the other because his daughter is changing, growing up.

So this must be how the authors are keeping it short. 

1 scene to introduce the character’s problem– Scene 2 in “Swim…” and Scene 1 in “The Blue…”
1 scene to deepen that personal issue– Scene 3 in “Swim” and Scene 2 in “The Blue” 
1 scene to bring personal and universal destruction together– Scene 4 in both stories.

The scenes that are outside of the pattern are also interesting, though. In “Swim…” it’s a micro-scene at the start that seems mostly about setting tone–it has this distant, lyrical tone of the end of the story, which is very different from the mundanity of the first scene. Meanwhile in “The Blue…” the extra scene is scene 3, and this seems mostly a function of genre. It’s hard scifi, thus we need a scene that tells us, scientifically, what is happening–Wilson puts it all here, so that it won’t bog down his ending. 

It also seems, based upon this outline, that the stories remain personal and impactful (while gaining distance) by devoting about half of the space of the story, and most of the scenes, to the character’s workaday world. To their conflicts at home. Only in the final scene do we really get to a novum. 

So on to the final question. What about the ending? This seems, to me, the hardest part to pull off, but to some extent, they are easy to pick apart. Some reasons the endings have such an enormous impact: 

(1) They are endings: endings get automatic emphasis, and that is boosted if the endings come along with conflict resolutions and a uniting of disparate story elements (creating a sudden release of potential energy). 
(2) The principal players of the stories (parent and child) are super secluded in the endings, and so the ends are sooo focused on them. It’s what really allows the disaster to take on a more personal meaning–it HAS to be about them, because they are all we’re seeing. In “The Blue…” the MC and his daughter are chained to a pipe. In “Swim…” the MC and her daughter are in an unfinished mansion. 
(3) The stories grow progressively more distant as they go along (“Swim…” gets more drug-infused, “The Blue…” more science-infused, with every scene that passes) until the tippy-end, the final paragraph, when the destruction and the MC’s struggle come together. 
(4) It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the level of impact made by variations in sentence length and style in these stories. The final few paragraphs of these stories have sentences notably longer than the rest of the story (especially evident in “The Blue…” which has pretty typical hard-scifi short sentences for most of the story) and the styles lean distinctly more lyrical/less practical at the end, which certainly fits with destruction that really is poetic and absurd at its heart. 

Two other things I’d like to note about the ends, specific to each story. 

In “Swim…” the final scene is split into 3 distinct sections, each doing something different–each shows the relationship between the MC and her daughter differently, each has a different level of distance, each ends with a sort of cliff-hangar propelling you into the next scene. This gives the final scene an very deliberate sense of pace, structure, and drive.

In “The Blue…” you can almost argue for a happy ending. This is spoilery, but in the end, the MC basically gets what he wants: he’s frustrated by his daughter growing up, and in they will be frozen in this moment for eternity. She’ll never grow up. Also, unlike in “Swim…” (where the end really seems disastrously pointless for the MC), the MC of “The Blue…” has an epiphany at the end. His conflict gets a positive resolution and he gets a moment of change. It’s particularly striking. 

Finally:

I’ve gotten out of hand with length! But I feel like I’ve barreled through these stories, tearing them up and canning them–they’re tuna now. Go read them, because this post doesn’t do them justice! 

Nevertheless, I find myself amazed by how similar these stories are. In my readings, I don’t think I’ve read any other short, personal disaster narratives, but I wonder if these have some kind of classic-scifi antecedent. It is, relatively, plausible that Wilson’s story was inspired by Tremblay’s but that seems to me too coincidental, and they came out so close that it would have meant an incredibly quick turnaround for Wilson to outline, write, and sell the story. 

Have you read any other disaster narratives like these? What do you think of the uniquely late introduction of the novum?

Written by 
escape-pod-logoMy story “The Hungers of Refugees” just emerged at Escape Pod! Click the picture to check it out. 

It’s far-future scifi about refugees and it is available in both text and audio. The latter is wonderfully narrated by Joe Williams!

Written by 
Monstrous Affections Tin House 61The Catapult











Another story I absolutely love is Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters, Because They Are Terrifying” which first appeared in Tin House 61 (which is where I read it) and then appeared in Monstrous Affections and IS available online in Audio form on The Catapult (linked above in the image) and starts at about 5:40. It’s even read by Alice Sola Kim, which is super cool. It’s an incredible and super creepy story, and everyone should read it. I’m going to talk about one of the elements that really got my attention: the style. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can. 

The Challenge: 

Confession time: I have a bad habit. What! Another one? 

Yes. Since I took a class on syntax in college, I have been obsessed with long sentences. This only grew worse after I read 100 Years of Solitude, of which I have a beautiful, forest green, hardcover, gold-leaf-paged copy. But what I found in writing long sentences was that, despite how incredible they seemed in other people’s stories, when I wrote them, they mucked up my prose. Sometimes they made my prose a challenge to read, or they unnecessarily obfuscated my purpose. They buried important details. 

Another problem they gave me was that a long sentence often just whisked away the authority of my prose. Long sentences felt wordy and flaccid. No punch. 

That’s two problems.

But then, I whined, how do other authors do it?


The Story: 

People. Folks. Go listen to this story. It is terrifying. But not gory–so no worries there. But just viscerally unnerving in the best way. Also, while you’re at it, subscribe to Tin House, because they publish some amazing stuff in such a huge range, plus it only comes out 4 times a year, so totally low commitment. 

Alice Sola Kim has outdone herself with this story. She was already incredible but this story is denser, more vivid, and more heartfelt than anything I’ve ever read by her. It’s about a group of four adopted Korean girls who miss their birth mothers, and decide to do something about it. That simple. Each character is so vivid on the page. It’s a really great study of how people who have a lot in common can still react differently to their lives. Nature? Nurture? 

This is not the place for that debate. 

But beyond a doubt this story boasts one of the finest styles of prose I’ve encountered. It has voice, authority, density, depth–all of this despite it’s long sentences. 

The Solution: 

Reading the story through a couple of times, a pattern becomes clear that I’m sure I’ve seen in other stories, and pertains to the issue of long sentences that obfuscate purpose and make prose confusing.

Each time Kim switches to a new scene and sets the mood, she does it using short sentences. This starts with the very first sentence, and is used throughout at every line break. Simple sentences like “There are so many ways to miss your mother” and “Mom skipped around” and “At first we found mom highly scary” give level of clarity. From there, each section seems to allow the length of sentences to grow, to build almost naturally until they become more complex, but then also each paragraph winds back down into short sentences for a punchy final moment to each ‘graph. Another key point is that the long sentences are usually in regards to things we basically understand on a human level: the lives of the girls, how they communicate with each other, etc. Paragraphs whose topics are hard to understand are written exclusively in short sentences: the explanation of the novum, the girls fears. 

Long sentences allow us to glean information subconsciously–subtle foreshadowing can be worked into a complex sentence, as well as characterization tidbits that are important to pick up on some level, but not hyper important to the story. But important bits, story mechanics, fear are all brought to the forefront with short sentences. 

So on to problem #2: how do authors use long sentences that have authority

Here’s an 88-word sentence: “You could even say that Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness if you counted the fact that she was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline–Mini for being the kind of girl who tries to look ugly on purpose and thinks it looks great (ooh, except it did look kinda great), her torn sneakers and one thousand silver earrings and chewed-up hair, and Caroline of the sweetly titled eyes and cashmere sweater dress and ballet flats like she was some pampered cat turned human” (Tin House 61, p. 17). 

Personally, I think this is a great sentence. A couple things are helping it along: First, the sentence is actually set up by the sentence before it, which introduces, in a more controlled way, the idea of “split consciousness.” Also, it’s good to note that the sentence largely serves to build and evoke the characters which is suitable for this long sentence because while the evocation is important to the story, the individual details are not so necessary to have ready. If it were written in shorter sentences, these details would take on strange emphasis. (“Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness. She was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline.) This is, of course, because each period serves as a point where the reader stops to recollect, to bring the sentence’s information into their understanding of the story, putting special emphasis on the final few words. 

But what makes this sentence authoritative? What makes it gripping? 

The main technique I take away from this is that the first part of the sentence before the em-dash actually structures the second half of the sentence. “…both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline” creates this sense of a long sentence because the second half has 4 things to expand upon, 4 activities. Because of this setup, we can follow the sentence even though it’s pretty dense with colloquialisms and compound adjectives. 

And that leads in to what I think really gives the sentence its authority: word density. 

So many details are crammed into this 88 word sentence. It gives us a full sense of two of the major characters in the story using a bunch of adjectives all clumped together in a way that wouldn’t make sense unless we were clued into the structure before hand.

Another thing that helps the sentence retain density is that while the sentence is long, the clauses/phrases are often short. Of the 88 words, 11 of them are conjunctions. This splits the sentence up into mini moments that allow us to pick up the material in little doses, in a kind of rushed way. 

Finally: 

Density of verbs and adjectives along with the short length of the clauses and phrases really sells this sentence. It’s important to take care to keep your clauses manageably short, and to build to your long sentences, rather than jumping into them right away.

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read. 

Written by 
BASFF SAMATAR forestClicking the illustration to the left will take you to “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in the Mar. 2014 issue of Lightspeed. Clicking the cover will take you to the amazon page for JJA’s first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is where I read the story. 

I highly recommend the Best American. Quite a few of the stories were excellent. 

The Challenge:

Writing compelling characters can be majorly tough. Especially in short fiction, how do you find the room to really bring the character to life while also advancing a plot in some reasonable fashion? 

In a lot of stories, the answer seems to be to shovel exposition at the reader: tell us their whole life story, and pray it feels relevant. Or describe the character in minute detail, or give one key piece of backstory and hope it serves to flesh out the character so that we buy in. 

But those methods never really appealed to me. The former bores. The latter strikes me as reductive. Both hammer the pace until it completely gives in. 

So what’s a writer to do?

The Story:

There’s a lot to this story. A LOT. So much worth looking at. For one, it handles a lot of exposition in a complex way and makes it interesting. Also, it reads so smoothly, despite having really complex syntax and a musical prose quality. 

Also, twisty. At first its seems like this is set in a camp for wayward teens (it isn’t) in a world exactly like ours (it’s not) and that the girls are beginning a journey to heal emotionally and will ultimately lead fulfilling lives (nope). 

But the thing I wanted to talk about most, I found, was characterization.

We are introduced to a bunch of characters and they all felt so physically and emotionally separate and that fascinated me. 


The Solution:

In this story, Samatar seems to use 3 techniques to characterize. Firstly, the “expositional” type I mentioned earlier, although it is used just for one character and has a very gentle touch. Secondly, she offers precise and vivid descriptions of characters, usually invigorated with mood and voice–these are also used sparingly and are provided in sharp, short bursts. Not every character gets these treatments. 

Most of the characters, especially the campers, are characterized in a third way that I would call “reactionary.” 

Perhaps obviously, what I mean by this is that we get a huge glimpse into the characters simply in how they react to a core element of the story: puke. Okay, to spoil the first scene for you a tad: Cee jams a toothbrush down her throat to force herself to puke. Her friends watch on, and Cee encourages them to join her–she offers them her reasoning, although it’s suspect. 

Here are the reactions we get from the characters:

  1. Elle: At first says “Oh my God, that is disgusting.” But then she forces herself to puke “all of the sudden” (and with uncommon skill) in the sink beside Cee.
  2. Kate: “We have to stop her!” She grabs Cee and pulls her into a stall, frantically switching between “help me you guys!” and “Ew, ew, ew.”
  3. Max: “She’d believe anything”–Max responds at first with curiosity, and then with disbelief and disgust, screaming. Eventually, while trying to help Kate end this insanity, she gets so disgusted that she also pukes.
  4. Tisha (the narrator): The story is in first person, so we get a lot of her reaction. The key thing is “God, Cee. You were such an idiot.” But also, she starts laughing, apparently because she’s dizzy and afraid she’ll puke too. Then, of course, she gets so disgusted that she involuntarily pukes.
  5. Cee: When Elle begins puking, she nods her approval and says, “Good job, Elle!”
  6. 5 or 6 “other girls”: Many of these girls laugh at Katie’s antics trying to pull Cee into a stall, and say various things such as “Are you nuts?” and “Oh my God” and clutched each other. 
This isn’t the only episode of reactionary characterization we get in the story, but this one I think is the most useful and deals with more of the characters than the handful of others. 

Do you, reading this out of context, get as powerful a sense of these characters as I did? 

Two things that I think make this really genius-level material: 
  1. It’s puke. Even though the world she’s building is a little strange, just about any reader knows how they feel about puke and will probably have a visceral reaction. So this scene, these reactions, create a range that we can place our own reactions in. It’s a perfect barometer that allows us to compare ourselves to the other characters, almost getting to know them through analogy. 
  2. The “5 or 6 other girls” shows us what “normal” is in this world, which may be up for debate. It gives us a sort of control group to which we can gauge our own reactions and the reactions of the other characters. How does Max’s reaction reveal her idiosyncratic personality compared with the vaguer reactions of the other characters?
Finally:

One way to characterize (even in a strange world) is to create an event that readers can understand and allow the central characters to have specific reactions to them across a wide range. Spend time brainstorming a list of possible reactions.

But also, especially if the situation is strange, or the world is different than ours, make sure there is a control group that can show us “normal.”

Not only does this allow us to understand the characters better, it can allow us to engage further with the story, because we have to place ourselves on the scale. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? If  you have any other strong examples of reactionary characterization, I’d love to hear about them.