The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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

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

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

So how do you do this the right way? 

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

She didShe did. She did. 

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 

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

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

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. 

We meant it, which is the bad part. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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

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

THE CHALLENGE:

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

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


How do you resolve these seeming contradictions?

THE STORY:

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

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

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

THE SOLUTION:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINALLY:

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

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

Thanks for reading! 

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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.