Author: DeAnna Knippling (Page 2 of 48)

Think Like a Librarian: True Grit, by Charles Portis

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

True Grit is a Western adventure story first published in 1968.  Readers who are looking for a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys should look elsewhere–this is a story about the quality of stubbornness, and its benefits and drawbacks.

I would highly recommend the story for reluctant teen readers and reluctant adult readers.  The writing is plain and direct.  The characters aren’t symbols or themes so much as they are flaws with legs.  Not much is romanticized or idealized:  it is what it is, and what happens, happens.  You don’t have to question the text much; not much is implied at a subtextual level.

On a more sophisticated level, the book works as a satire of other, more idealistic books in the Western genre and in fiction in general.  “Don’t try to tell the reader what to think,” this books seems to say.  “Don’t tell them that the past was anything other than dirty, deadly, and full of snakes.”  This level of the storytelling isn’t intrusive, and if a read misses it completely, they’ll still enjoy the book–but this aspect of the book would also make it a refreshing choice for someone who reads literary fiction as well.  And the two main characters are both examples of the best characters in fiction.

Not quite a sly wink at the reader, and not quite the most straightforward novel of all time, it’s the kind of book that can be enjoyed by readers across a broad spectrum.  I would not recommend the book for readers who don’t like gritty details that they’ll remember long after putting the book down.  There is some violence, but more importantly, there are a few scenes that might give a few readers some nightmares (especially regarding snakes).

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Pacing, Part 16: Wrapping up!

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

There’s still a lot more to cover on pacing, but now you’ve been introduced to the idea that pacing can work on pretty much every level (even high levels, as in the beginnings examples), so I’ll wrap things up here.

Pacing is about connecting form to content.  Any element of form or content can have a corresponding element on the other side of the equation.

When you find a short story idea that’s turning into a novel, it’s because your subconscious is trying to match the content of your idea (too complex to be a short story) with its proper form.  And vice versa.

When you struggle to make your characters do what you want them to do, it may be that the pacing of the characters is such that they want to act sooner, or later, or completely differently, than you want them to.

When you find yourself locked in the grip of writer’s block, it may be that you’re trying to fight a struggle between an outline that you’ve written, and the combination of form and content that you’ve set out on the page.

When you write a scene whose paragraphs and low-level pacing don’t resemble the content that you think you’re writing, don’t be surprised if a plot twist appears out of nowhere:  sometimes writing a discrepancy between form and content is the subconscious’s way of telling you that all is not what it seems.

I won’t get into it much here, but:

You don’t need to plan this all out, when it comes to pacing.

In fact, avoid planning as much as possible.  Give your subconscious as little as possible, and get out of the way.

Your subconscious is a drama queen, and it will handle the logistics of pacing for you, if you trust it.  Just step back, admire the work, and resist the urge to rewrite.  Fix the commas and let your subconscious get on with it 🙂

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Pacing, Part 15: Prologues (with Agatha Christie)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Do you need a prologue?  Are you allowed to have one?

Beginning writers are often advised to avoid prologues.  In fact, they’re often advised to avoid a lot of things that annoy editors and agents when handled badly.

But if you’re studying pacing…you’re probably no longer a beginner.  You can throw that advice out.  More on that later.

So can you get away with a prologue or not?

Two issues here:

  • Prologues slow down pacing, a lot more than it might seem at first glance.
  • Prologues require their own internal structure.

A story with a prologue implies that there is going to be a lot more plot than a story without a prologue.  This will be no straightforward story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem, makes one big push to resolve the problem, and voila! Problem solved.

If there is a prologue, this implies that there are at least two plots–the plot the main character thinks they’re addressing, and something else (a murder, a crime, a twist).

The Cask of Amontillado can’t have a prologue.  The structure of the story is just too simple to support it.

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a prologue.  The story starts with the rich dude moving into the neighborhood.  No further past details need to be explained in order for the reader to be entertained.  And no other plot is needed, either.

PROLOGUE

IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.

“I beg your pardon.”

A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.

She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!

“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.

He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.

“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”

“Yes.”

“A patriotic one?”

The girl flushed.

“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”

“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”

“Why?”

“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”

The girl held out her hand.

“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”

The girl smiled.

“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”

“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear.”

“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.

Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.

The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.

This is the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary.  Chapter 1 starts with two completely different characters, in a different time frame, with a completely different tone.

“Aha,” we say, “eventually the events in the prologue will become relevant.”  There is an open browser tab of the mind, as it were, that is continuously watching for the main plot to catch up to the prologue.

The prologue has a beginning, a demonstration that emphasizes the beginning (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), a climax, and an ending/wrapup that points its way out of the prologue and toward the main body of the book.  It makes us care enough to keep reading…but not enough to throw the book against the wall, in knowing that one of the characters, at least, is about to die.

If your prologue exists mere to tell the reader that the bad guys are going to do something nasty, well, you’ve wasted the reader’s time.  That’s what bad guys do.  You have to imply something unexpected will happen, and it must happen.  It’s kind of like a prophecy in a high fantasy novel.  It has to happen, it can’t be something that you already expected to happen, and it has to happen in a way you didn’t expect (but still in line with expectations).

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Pacing, Part 14: Beginnings (with Oscar Wilde)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Beginnings don’t have to start with summary; they can start with demonstration.  The demonstration should involve the setting more than it does anything else.  You might pull off extremely minor actions or dialogue, but try just using setting first.  It’s easier.

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

This is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s rich with detail, but doesn’t have as much of an attitude as Pride & Prejudice.  This isn’t a book about gently laughing at one’s neighbors and one’s self, but a book about image versus reality, and the contusions that living a false image can force upon oneself.

Note the longer sentences, longer paragraphs, more complex sentence structure, and the veneer of polysyllabic words.

This is going to be an involved kind of story with a lot of atmosphere, ripe with self-destruction.  Just look at the words:

  • smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes
  • hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs
  • sullen murmur of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass
  • circling with monotonous insistence
  • the stillness more oppressive

One of the tricks of pacing is that you can, by matching up form and content, foreshadow the events to come.  If you lay down the same pattern in the beginning that you do in the end, the reader will get a hint of the structure to come–even if you use elements with a different content.  The ostensible content of this beginning is about a garden, but the pacing shows a pattern of decay and oppression.

The content and form at the end are openly about decay and oppression, and the reader feels like it “must” be that way, because they have been observing the same pattern throughout the work.

Not every work uses foreshadowing, but a lot of masterpieces do.  Go back to the Pride and Prejudice example.  In the end, the main character gets married to a wealthy single man.  The pattern of the ending is set up in the beginning, in an even more obvious fashion than it is here.

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Pacing, Part 13: Beginnings (with Jane Austen)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

In the beginning of every story is a beginning.

This seems obvious, but it’s one of the hallmarks of an early writer to leave it off entirely and to start in what the writer thinks is in media res, or “in the middle.”

Without a proper beginning, the reader doesn’t have a chance to care about the story.  It’s still possible that they’ll enjoy and read the story–but only if the cover and plot description promise exactly what they want, or because they owe the writer a favor that makes them read past the beginning.

A beginning gives the reader whatever information they need in order to care about the story.

The most usual type of beginning involves a character in a setting with a situation they must deal with.  These three elements must be either summarized in an interesting fashion, or demonstrated in an interesting fashion.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This is the opening of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.  It begins with a short summary, well pervaded with snark.

Change the attitude even slightly, and the opening becomes that of a completely different book:

Everyone knows that rich single men are prey.  Too bad for them.  Every rich man has a woman’s name all over him, but hidden, as if it were under the silver scratch-off paint on a lottery ticket.

Please note the way the change in attitude (similar but not identical) is reflected in the change in pacing, on the paragraph, sentence, and word levels.

More on how to demonstrate, rather than summarize, in a bit.

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Think Like a Librarian: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Hope Prisoner of Zenda cover.jpg

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story from 1894.  Unlike a lot of the fiction written in that time period and earlier, the language isn’t laborious to read, and in fact is quite witty.

The book is most famous for its plot setup:  two men who resemble each other meet.  One of the men is a commoner.  The other is the heir apparent of the country in which they find themselves, and about to be crowned.

Something happens to the heir, preventing him from being crowned.  But being crowned is essential; otherwise, the king might lose his throne entirely.

So the second man, who really does closely resemble him, pretends to be the heir and gets crowned in his place, while trying to untangle the politics threatening the true king.

The action is fast and exciting; there is, as in The Princess Bride, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…no giants, though.

In fact, an entire tradition of fiction arose out of The Prisoner of Zenda, called “Ruritanian fiction” after the country of Ruritania out of the book.  Ruritanian fiction involves a fictional, nostalgic European country playing host to a tale of adventure fiction, often involving royalty and inheritance.

I would recommend this book for early teen and up.  The language isn’t simple, but it’s not difficult either, and most of the concepts are presented very smoothly.  The action happens quickly.  There is violence, but nothing is described in graphic detail.  Look to The Prisoner of Zenda for a catchy adventure that doesn’t need a lot of context to enjoy.

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Pacing, Part 12: If not the Hero’s Journey, Then What?

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I just spent the previous post in the series ripping apart the Hero’s Journey, or at least the fact that it’s not the end-all, be-all that some writers make it out to be.

But if you’ve spent the last umpteen years memorizing and internalizing the Hero’s Journey and it’s not all that’s out there, what is?

I’m going to skip over the content of various plots so we can focus on just the form for now.

We touched on this in the Amontadillo posts: you can add different elements to a plot in order to fill it out or strip it down, as the story demands.

What are these elements, if they’re not things like “the mentor” or “moment of death”?

  • Beginning/Setup.
  • Setting.
  • Character/Character arcs.
  • Try/fail cycles.
  • Backstory.
  • Demonstration.
  • Summary.
  • Reversals/plot twists.
  • Subplots.
  • Spinning wheels.
  • Climaxes.
  • Endings/Wrapups.

A lot of these are somewhat arbitrary; you can always rename them, remove them, or add more.  You get to build the structure that you want to build–and you can build new tools, consciously or otherwise, in order to get that done.

Which ones do you use for any given plot, though?

This is something that goes beyond the scope of the series.  I will talk a little bit about beginnings, so you can see an example.  And then I’m going to need to start wrapping up.

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Pacing, Part 11: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Here are the stages of the Hero’s Journey:

  •  Departure.
    • Call to Adventure.
    • Refusal of the Call.
    • Supernatural Aid.
    • Crossing the First Threshold.
    • Belly of the Whale.
  • Initiation.
    • The Road of Trials.
    • The Meeting with the Goddess.
    • The Woman as Temptress.
    • Atonement with the Father.
    • Apotheosis.
    • The Ultimate Boon.
  • Return.
    • Refusal of the Return.
    • The Magic Flight.
    • Rescue from Without.
    • The Crossing of the Return Threshold.
    • Master of Two Worlds
    • Freedom to Live

Wait…aren’t those the stages you’re familiar with?  That’s because what’s being taught as “The Hero’s Journey” or the monomyth currently…isn’t.

The Hero’s Journey doesn’t apply to every story; it doesn’t really even apply to the ones that people say it’s being used on–a bajillion Hollywood movies, for example. What most people use is an adaptation by Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.  His structure in its earliest format became commonish knowledge in 1992.

The point being here is that the plot events impose a certain pacing on a story.  The same number of events, in the same order (more or less), the same trials, the same resolutions.

Whether that’s the most appropriate pacing or not.

You can struggle to push that template onto “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it would screw up the story if you tried to write the same revenge story using the Hero’s Journey plot.

I’m making a big deal of this because continuously using the Hero’s Journey is something that will leave you blind to pacing at the plot level.

Stories shouldn’t be built the same way, even at the plot level.  Every story has an appropriate plot that fits it.

And that plot is not consistently the Hero’s Journey.

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Pacing, Part 10: The Cask of Amontillado, Part 3

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Now that we’ve looked at words, sentences, dialogue, and paragraphs…let’s look at plot.

Plot has pacing, just like everything else in writing.  The number and type of events in a plot add another layer to the pacing, beyond words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and scenes.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) has multiple characters and plot lines in every book.  Some of the characters have an arc throughout the book; some of them have arcs that span across books.  Some of the POVs don’t last very long; their arcs are interrupted and end in death.

“The Cask of Amontillado” has one POV character, no more than a handful of words of backstory, simple characterizations, and few, if any, of the usual structures that you’d find in a Joseph Campbell plot.  It’s under 3,000 words.

Here’s the plot:

  • SETUP:
    • My friend finally crossed the line, and I determined to have my revenge.
    • I never responded to his insults; he didn’t realize that my emotions had turned.
    • He was a genuine conoisseur of wine.
  • HERE’S HOW IT WENT DOWN:
    • I met my friend at Carnivale while he was drunk.
    • And told him that I had some exotic damn wine that only he could really be entrusted to drink.
    • His greed got the better of him, despite his cold.
    • Greed and buffoonery drove him forward.  I tried to make him go back, see?
    • Forgive me my little jokes, hints to my victim as to what was to come.  It amused me.
    • He just stood there while I locked him up.
  • THE CLIMAX:
    • Even after I locked him up, I asked him one last time if he wanted to leave.
    • No, no, he wouldn’t have it; he’d rather have the Amontillado.
    • I started bricking him up.
    • Then he started to sober up.  First he was silent.  Then he tried to escape.  Could not the man apologize for what he had done?
    • I continued.  He screamed, either at me or for help.  I was frightened, and may have poked around a bit with my rapier.
    • He kept shouting; I tested the wall, and it was secure all right.  I started yelling back.
    • With one stone left, he tried to convince me that it was all a joke.
    • I never joke.
    • He demanded that I free him for the love of God.
    • He never once apologized, I’ll have you know.
  • THE WRAPUP:
    • I finished walling him up.  I felt kind of bad, but here I am, fifty years later, a free man.  RIP, my friend.

No try/fail cycles, no twists and turns, no real wordcount.

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Pacing, Part 9: A Cask of Amontillado, Part 2

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

That damned cask of Amontillado.  Does it even exist?  Is it what Montressor toasted Fortunato with, at the very end of the story?

No matter.  We only ask ourselves questions of pacing today.  All your questions shall be answered.  (Spoilers!  Do Part 8’s exercise first for best results.)

  • The story is 2371 words long, just shorter than a normal short story.
  • The paragraphs vary, from one to 161 words.
  • The paragraphs cluster together, with groups of long with long or medium, very short with short, a bunch of mediums together.  A change from long to short tends to have a medium paragraph as a kind of buffer.  Contrast this to a lot of other writers’ pacing at the time, with unrelieved stretches of long paragraphs.
  • The longer paragraphs happen at the setup and in the climax.
  • The opening starts with longer paragraphs summarizing the situation and the narrator’s outlook and determination, then gets shorter as we move into the present action.  The ending has several long paragraphs as the narrator gives the friend every last chance to apologize, but he does not.  Then the ending speeds up as the last options as exhausted.  The final paragraph is medium long as the narrator contemplates his return to normalcy.
  • The sentences in the long paragraphs have about 20 words each, or the long end of medium length, with lots of commas to make the structure “feel” weightier and longer than it is.  There is a mix, however, of some shorter 10-wordish sentences, especially toward the ends of the longer paragraphs.
  • The dialogue sentences are quite different than the narrative ones–showing the gap between the narrator’s thoughts and words as he sets up his trap.
  • Of the two characters, the narrator has the longer dialogue sentences.  Fortunato is generally one or two words.  A drunk buffoon.
  • Of the two characters, the narrator has the more complex sentences.  “My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi–” This bit of dialog has a comma, periods, a semicolon, and an em-dash. A good, at-a-glance judgment of how complex a sentence is, is in how much, and how varied, is its punctuation. (See what I did there?)
  • Fortunato’s complex words:  Amontillado (repeated from narrator), impossible, Luchresi (repeated from narrator), engagement (repeated from narrator), nevertheless, distinguish, extensive, brotherhood, masons, ignoramus, excellent, palazzo.  The narrator’s are too numerous to mention.

The quality of the words, the length and structure of the dialogue, the length and structure of the sentences, the length and arrangement of the paragraphs all contribute to the content of the story.  The story could not be told as well in another way–this story isn’t just well built or assembled at every level, but it’s well designed at every level, with the right materials used at every level as well.

For the most part, as readers, we aren’t aware of this level of writing.  If we have any awareness of it, it’s noticing a particularly apt sentence here and there.

And yet we know when a story hits on all cylinders–as long as it’s a type of story that we’re able to enjoy.

Is this a technique used mainly by literary writers?

Hell no.  Take a look at any given bestselling romance novel by a long-term pro.  You’ll find exactly the same tricks being used.

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