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Invisible vs. Conspicuous Prose with Octavia Butler and Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 


What does it mean to write invisible prose? Why might we want to write “visible” prose instead? Here, I’m taking a look at two excerpts that hopefully exemplify each method. 

THE CHALLENGE
Might as well come out right away and say that I’ve always felt skeptical about the advice that good prose is invisible prose. 

At its most shallow, that skepticism stems from my love of prose that leaps and surprises, that sings, that draws attention to itself. Some books, I only read because I love the strange way the sentences progress. 

But on a deeper level, my skeptical mind wonders “invisible for who?” and “to what end?” How can prose be invisible when the reader is still just reading words on a page? Is this drive toward invisibility giving up some powerful experiences that can only be gained through reading, experiences that set reading a book apart from watching a film? Maybe invisible prose is impossible, or highly contextual, or maybe it’s just short-hand for prose that meets every expectation of the reader, never surprising, the reading equivalent of the traditional three-camera shot through the fourth wall in a sitcom. Even then, the invisibility of the prose will rely on the readers just as much as the writers. 

I want to look at two examples, just to see.

THE STORIES
What really got me going on the topic of invisible vs. visible prose was reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, with it’s wonderful, challenging, endlessly complex prose. I started thinking about the common idiom in writing circles that “good prose is invisible prose” which I’ve never really agreed with, but I also began to wonder what exactly “invisible” meant when it came to prose, as I suggested above. 

So I returned to a page in Vandermeer’s WONDERBOOK that I’ve often referred to, a diagram on “Approaches to Style” on pages 62 and 63. He separates prose into 4 vague styles listed in order from simplest to most complex, with example authors and examples of authors who wedge in between these styles. The first is Minimal / Stark (think Raymond Carver or Brian Evenson). The second is Invisible, paired with the even more cringey word “Normal” (at least the book puts it in quotes, but at that point why not have the good sense to instead use the word “lean”) which lists Daphne Du Maurier, Joe Haldeman, Mary Doria Russel, Karin Tidbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut. I own books by three of those writers, but I did not find Tidbeck’s prose at all invisible, and I had no interest in looking at Vonnegut. But Butler, I thought, was an interesting option, so I’m going to take a look at my copy of PARABLE OF THE SOWER. The third style is called Muscular / Conspicuous with examples of Kelly Link and Ursula Le’guin, and I think that Bouanani likely fits well in this category, although THE HOSPITAL probably does jump into the fourth category in places. The fourth is called Lush / Ornate and includes Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, with China Mieville as a clear transition writer from Muscular to Lush.

Both THE HOSPITAL and PARABLE OF THE SOWER are excellent, and you should read them.  

That said, we don’t need to know much about the stories themselves to jump into looking at their prose, so let’s just move along. 

Here are two short excerpts, first Bulter and then Bouanani. 

From THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Bulter — Chapter 2 near Opening
     Crazy to live without a wall to protect you. Even in Robledo, most of the street poor–squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general–are dangerous. They’re desperate or crazy or both. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous. 
     Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them. They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds. They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores. They don’t get enough to eat so they’re malnourished–or they eat bad food and poison themselves. As I rode, I tried not to look around at them, but I couldn’t help seeing–collecting–some of their general misery. 
     I can take a lot of pain without falling apart. I’ve had to learn to do that. But it was hard, today, to keep pedaling and keep up with the others when just about everyone I saw made me feel worse and worse. 
     My father glanced back at me every now and then. He tells me, “You can beat this thing. You don’t have to give in to it.” He has always pretended, or perhaps believed, that my hyperempathy syndrome was something I could shake off and forget about. The sharing isn’t real, after all. It isn’t some magic or ESP that allows me to share the pain or the pleasure of other people. It’s delusional. Even I admit that. My brother Keith used to pretend to be hurt just to trick me into sharing his supposed pain. Once he used red ink as fake blood to make me bleed. I was eleven then, and I still bled through the skin when I saw someone else bleeding. I couldn’t help doing it, and I always worried that it would give me away to people outside the family. 

From THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani — Page 48
I didn’t leave my bed this morning. While the bottle of serum emptied drop by drop into my veins, instead of gazing at the ceiling–and imagining living, elusive figures in the stains that bear witness to past winters, or taking an interest in the carousel of flies whirling without end around the naked light bulb that’s shut off inexorably every night at nine o’clock, plunging us into a semi-darkness that illuminates sorrowful landscapes along which my body drifts in search of a merciful memory that will protect me from dissolution–I reread these pages without recognizing my handwriting, and then understand that my hope of remaining intact was like that of a drop of salt in the ocean. The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination. At all hours I am caught between vertigo and delerium. Every day I feel my memory heal over its scabs; I am reduced to a skeletal being, unappetizing even to the crows and vultures that I sense circling around me in my nightmares. I’m going to have to get used to living with my companions of misfortune in this world no stranger than any other, where, on occasion, despite my best efforts, the silence resuscitates painful seasons. And my companions? Mostly they no longer have any reason to leave, lost as they are in the density of their dreams. Whereas, I feel as if I came here for the day, two weeks, or a century ago, and forgot to leave. Where would I go? To another time, beyond the hospital walls, somewhere that I had a name, an occupation, a reason to exist. Today, my name is a number, I occupy rumpled blue pajamas, a member of a melancholic and joyful brotherhood that hasn’t asked any questions for a long time. I’m not confessing, and I don’t claim to describe things that I know nothing about. I’m not trying to relieve my conscience the way you relieve your bowels or your bladder, I don’t flatter myself, for the most part I don’t pretend that my shit doesn’t stink, so, if you’re waiting for me to start whining, to spin infantile flights of fancy about my people and our dark ages, then hurry up and pawn me off on your usual middlemen and let’s be done with it.

THE SOLUTION
First, because I’m still not totally sure what either of these things mean, let’s start with a definition of invisible prose and visible (conspicuous) prose. These are the definitions given in WONDERBOOK. 

Invisible prose: “The ‘baseline’ approach common to much fiction, especially in commercial modes, picks its spots with balance in scene/summary and judicious use of sensory detail. Immersive reading is usually the goal. Few long sentences. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ “

Let’s go through the first definition little by little with Butler’s prose in mind. Invisible prose is called the “baseline” approach in “commercial modes,” but it’s hard to know what is meant by commercial modes. Certainly, Butler is trying to write in a more-or-less commercial genre, Science Fiction, and the book does have some structural similarities to other popular works of the day. When it comes to “balance in scene/summary,” I’m not sure we’re seeing that here, and I would say that PARABLE, at least, has just as much summary (if not more) as THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, even though Le’Guin is categorized as a Conspicuous stylist. There is, in the Butler excerpt, certainly a judicious use of sensory detail–the details or specific and spread throughout very well. The sentences are also of a fairly average length. So maybe we’ll say 3 out of 4? 

The last bit gets me: “Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ ” 

Maybe I have trouble thinking of Butler’s prose as “invisible” because she’s clearly a talented stylist. Maybe my biases are making me think that “good” writing can’t be “invisible” writing.  

I want to say more about this excerpt, but let’s take a look at the definition of Conspicuous prose, first. 

Conspicuous prose: “Sentence structures tend to be more complex and summary/half-scene is employed in a more layered way, with time perhaps more easily manipulated as a result. Character POVs may be differentiated as much by style as content. Ample use of extended metaphor and sensory detail. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘too clever’ or ‘lost the thread.’ “

Is this an impartial definition or a personal attack? Historically, I have often received the “lost the thread” feedback, as a writer who waffles between Stark, Evenson-like prose and Conspicuous, Le’Guin like prose. Even at its worst, I don’t think Bouanani’s prose ever loses the thread. 

Also, all throughout the book, he uses summary and half-scene to speed through or slow down time, and he just lathers on the juicy sensory details and extended metaphors like no one I’ve ever read before. THE HOSPITAL never changes POV, but the characters all have quite different voices in dialogue (although clearly you can’t see that in this moment). 

So much for definitions. 

There’s one obvious feature of what we might call “invisible” prose that seems to be missing from the WONDERBOOK definition, and that’s a general use of short words and common vocabulary. Butler certainly has that over Bouanani, especially if we compare the Butler’s line, “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you” with the functionally similar line by Bouanani, “The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination.” Both of these lines serve to explain the state of the contemporary world of the novel, and they do so in a relatively pithy way. But there is a much grander diction in the Bouanani line, whereas Butler’s line feels almost colloquial with its use of “Crazy.” 

Even beyond the grander diction, Bouanani is clearly intentional in his use of conspicuous prose. His prose is very complex, using compound phrases, participial phrases, even a few gerunds. But what makes Bouanani’s intentions so clear is the interruption smacked into the middle of the second sentence. It’s long and windy (and wonderful) but definitely makes the sentence harder to follow. It seems to be trying to stretch your mind thin and mush you up, evoking the feeling of the character. The sentence structures in THE HOSPITAL, even in this one excerpt, are not just more complex than Butler’s, they’re doing a lot of weird stuff trying to evoke the story physically.

But that brings me to another point: Butler’s prose seems to go out of its way to achieve a certain level of predictability. The paragraphing intentionally groups sentences that are directly and obviously related to each other, almost to the point of having an introductory and concluding sentence in each one. Interruptions are short and the first interruption seems to setup and emphasize the final words of the sentence “are dangerous.” This prose, it seems, is intended to read easily. And it does read far easier than Bouanani’s massive pillar of a paragraph. 

So one of two things must be true so far: 

Either 1) It’s much harder to identify Invisible prose than it is to identify Conspicuous prose. 
Or 2) Butler is not an excellent example of Invisible prose. 

Or, well, 3) Maybe “invisible” really is in the eyes of the beholder and doesn’t actually exist at all, in any generalize-able sense. 

At this point, I have to resist running to my bookshelf for more examples. My blog post will balloon, will strangle itself in a web of whiplash sentences that tangle. I will never find the thread. 

Maybe one more example of invisible prose. NO. 
Maybe an example of Stark or of Lush prose, just to round out the categories. 

NO NO. 

But where do we go from here? I think I’ve gone as far as I can into what “invisible” means and what “visible” prose looks like. While I’m still a little unclear on “invisible,” I can admit that Butler’s prose is simpler, easier to read, certainly calls less attention to itself than Bouanani’s. But is it really invisibility she’s after? 

Maybe it is. 

That’s a good segue into why. WHY. 

FINALLY
Why even attempt to write “invisible” prose? I want to find something Butler’s own words as explanation, but my searching has turned up little–except that she believed in good stories, compellingly told. Perhaps that lines up with part of the definition of “invisible” prose in WONDERBOOK, particularly that “Immersive reading is usually the goal.” She wanted readers to be immersed in her world, and to be able to easily understand her works. 

That’s a laudable goal, I’d say, whether or not I think prose can actually be invisible in any sense. 

There’s not much more I can say than that. 

But let me ask you. What is invisible prose? Do you have any of your own favorite examples you turn to? Or any favorite examples of what you’d consider Conspicuous prose? Why do you write either of the two? 

 

Relating Hallucinatory Imagery with Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 


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

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

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

And then there’s Bouanani. 

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

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

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

Damn. 

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

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

Here’s an example of what I mean, from page 69:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now, down to brass tacks. 

There’s one really key insight in this nugget of story for me. This hallucinatory scene is a complete scene, and it begins with the character setting a goal, or at least a plan, a way to “amuse” himself until he falls asleep. We can even, to a certain degree, outline it using Swain’s methodology for scenes. 

Goal: to get to sleep
Conflict: he’s in too much pain, so he labels all the pain with colors; but then he dissociates and has to fight to return to his bed; finally, either he hallucinates an argument, or dreams it, or his friends are in the room (and are only peppered with hallucinations). Either way, it’s keeping him from restful sleep. 
Resolution: his friends go, and based on evidence from the next segment, he appears to sleep. 

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

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

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

How deceptively, wonderfully simple.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Containing Flashbacks with Margaret Atwood

Written by  mglyde in 

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.

Contextualizing Dialogue with Michael Wehunt

Written by  mglyde in 

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! 

Long Sentences with Alice Sola Kim

Written by  mglyde in 

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.