Category: For Writers (Page 1 of 12)

How to Study Fiction, Part 23: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

The Paragraphs of the House of Usher

You can find a copy of “The Fall of the House of Usher” here, on Project Gutenberg.

Today, we’re going to look at paragraph lengths.  A note of caution here:  as with his sentence lengths, Poe’s paragraph lengths are extremely long for modern sensibilitites to cope with.  I would seriously think twice about writing paragraphs this long unless you feel a sort of calling for it, deep in your soul.  (I, myself, sometimes do.)

How long should a modern paragraph be?  I mean, the honest answer is, “As long as it needs to be,” but how does that even help, if you’re not at the point where you have a good feel for pacing?

I’m going to say that you should be able to fit five medium-length paragraphs on a standard book page.  Most book pages will have about 25 lines or so–a reasonable amount before your brain goes, “Hurrrr” and needs a tiny break when you look to the next page.  If you check most paperback and most hardcover books, they will have about 25 lines per page.  Mostly.  I have an edition of “Seven Gothic Tales” by Isak Dineson that I’m trying to read right now, and my print copy has 34 brutal lines per page.  I’m thinking about giving up on it and switching to digital.  It is sooo hard to read.

But, if I were to skim down any normally formatted page with about 25 lines of text, and I saw five paragraphs of about the same size, I wouldn’t think they were long or short, just kind of medium.

Okay, let me just completely derail this week’s post for a short discussion on book formatting, now that I think about it:

  • Physical books are formatted to certain dimensions because they help readers pay attention better.
  • Most physical books are formatted to be about 25 lines per page.
  • Most lines are formatted to have approximately 65-70 characters per line, which works out to about 10 words per line.
  • Most pages have about 250 words per page, barring chapter art and such.
  • Standard manuscript format will leave you with about 250 words per page so that a manuscript will have approximately the same page count as a formatted book.
  • All formats of book, from mass market paperback to hardcover, tend to have these same rules of thumb, even though they don’t have to.

Your brain needs a brief reset in order to process information.  In a print book, those resets occur invisibly:  the ends of lines, every point of punctuation, every page turn, every scene break, every chapter break.

In a properly formatted print book, that is.

It is 100% a benefit if you, as a writer, find out what basic book design looks like.  You don’t have to keep it in mind as you write, but once you know it, you can’t not know it.  Readers can’t really read as fast as they seem to read.  The time they spend reading is packed with little invisible pauses.

Honoring that can only help you be a better writer.

Wikibooks’ Basic Book Design is a good starting reference on basic book design.  I’m not joking.  I go back to it all the time.  If you are an indie publisher, reading this will make your books, both ebook and print, easier to read (and classier looking) as well.

Back to our regularly scheduled post.

Five paragraphs per page works out to about five lines of ten words each, or fifty words per paragraph.

One paragraph that takes up the whole page would be a very long paragraph, at 250 words.

A paragraph that took only one line would be a very short paragraph, at 10 words or fewer.

So let’s say:

  • One line: a very short paragraph.
  • 2-3 lines: a short paragraph.
  • 4-6 lines: a medium paragraph.
  • 7-10 lines: a long paragraph.
  • 10+ lines: a very long paragraph.
  • 25+ lines: a wall of text (as in, there are no indents or paragraph breaks in the black marks on the page).

Now, I personally would say paragraph lengths should be determined, at heart, by the content of the paragraphs, but again, that doesn’t really help if you don’t have a sense of how to match up form and content yet.

So let’s rephrase that:

One paragraph = one element gets described or one action taken.

Now, paragraphing is more complex than that, but that’s the essence.  You get to do one thing in that paragraph, and then you have to hit the return key.

But…!

Yes.  Some authors put more than one thing in a paragraph.  But mostly, in modern fiction, they don’t unless they’re lying to you about something.

One of the best ways to fool a reader is to put something in plain view, but don’t put it as the first or last sentence in a paragraph with more than three sentences.  Our brains are like, “Um.  This too many things, la la la,” and drifts a bit, because it needs to be reset.

The reader’s brain gets reset at the ends of lines.  It gets reset at every punctuation mark.  That’s still not enough.  It needs to be reset at the end of a paragraph, too.

So:  If you see a long paragraph in modern fiction, you can assume that the author, either deliberately or accidentally, is now lying to the reader or has some other mysterious purpose.  They’re letting the reader’s attention span strain a little farther than it should, and hoping that the reader will miss important points among all the other little distractions going on.

It’s just like a magic trick, really.

As we established, Poe likes to deceive the reader, and, in fact, he does so in the first paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Here’s the first paragraph, once again, for your perusal:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

This is a 400-word paragraph that, in a print book, would occupy 40 lines, or about 1.5 pages.  It is a “wall of text.”

We established last week that Poe misleads the reader by focusing on the details about the house, when really the narrator is really in denial about what he expects to find when he  sees his friend again.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Ostensibly, this paragraph is a description of how unsettling the House of Usher is.  It covers one thing.  It describes one thing.  The narrator doesn’t really take much of an action here; he arrives and looks at stuff.  (He doesn’t, say, engage in a sword fight.)  So we’ll ignore the extremely minor action he takes and focus on the house.

The reason that Poe goes on and on about the house here is to screw with your brain and put it slightly to sleep.  Your brain goes, “Blah blah blah, house, blah blah.”

But tucked in that is the narrator going, “By the way?  I’m not actually reliable.”  He doth protest a little too much.

And please note that the major points of the paragraph–and its major deceptions–are not in the beginning, or at the end, of this massive wall of text.

And that’s enough for today, I think.

Next time: We’re going to look at other paragraphs.  Zowie!

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

How to Study Fiction, Part 22: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Usher’s house keeps falling down, falling down, falling down!

Today’s adventure in wrecking Poe-etic houses is about content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of the sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order that they are?

Here’s the opening paragraph from “The Fall of the House of Usher” again:

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Now, if you’re a beginning writer, one of the pieces of advice you receive is to not make every sentence the same length.  Yay!  Good advice.

But why?

The explanation you get is that it sounds weird and kind of boring/monotonous if your sentences are all the same length.  Fair enough; they do.

But that’s not the only reason.  Now that you’re an intermediate writer, it’s time to dig a little deeper, because going, “You should always have sentences of different lengths” doesn’t tell anyone what lengths of sentences to have, or why.  Should you have a range of long (20+ words) to super-long sentences (sky’s the limit), or a range of super-short (under five words, for example) to medium-length (fifteenish word) sentences?

And why?

Different sentence length do different things for a sentence, so it’s not like you can go, “I use longer sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security.”  Hemingway used short sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security; Agatha Christie used a variety of lengths to do the same.  This false sense of security, it’s everywhere!

So how do you decide?

Let’s look at the first sentence again:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

The bare minimum content of this sentence is:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.

Next sentence:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

Bare minimum content:

It was depressing.

Third sentence:

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Bare minimum:

Not even poetically depressing.

Fourth sentence:

I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Bare minimum:

Bleah.

Sixth sentence:

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Bare minimum:

Why did I even feel that way?

Seventh sentence:

It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

Bare minimum:

No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.

Eighth sentence:

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Bare minimum:

Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel.

Ninth sentence:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Bare minimum:

But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

To put the bare minimum interpretation together, here is the basic content of the first paragraph:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.  It was depressing.  Not even poetically depressing.  Just depressing.  Bleah.  Why did I even feel that way? No idea, but I couldn’t shake it. Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel. But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

If you haven’t taken a moment to reread (or type in!) “The Fall of the House of Usher” lately, please do.

Throughout the story, the narrator sees–but doesn’t seem to understand–that the Usher family, and his friend in particular, have been engaging in self-destructive, irrational behavior, which probably includes incest.  The whole story, or at least one aspect of it, might be said to be an exercize in providing clues to the reader without ever resolving the mystery per se.  Why did the House of Usher fall?  What ruined it?  It’s a mystery, says the narrator.  Uh-huh.

But then again, I’ve been working a lot on how to add clues to a mystery; thequestion, “How can I hide something in plain sight?,” has been much on my mind.  So that is the aspect I’m going to address here, because it’s what’s obsessing me, not because it’s the One True Answer.

What you find, if you choose to do an independent analysis, will likely be different.

When I look at the content of the paragraph, I see a clue that’s hiding in plain sight.  The unnamed narrator sees what he sees, but, because he can’t explain it logically or doesn’t like what it implies about his feelings, tries to explain it away.  “Shut up, intuition!” says the narrator.

As I continued studying the story, I then kept an eye out for that kind of pattern and saw it everywhere.  Usher gives a hint and the narrator explains it away.  Over and over again.

I did not pick up on this the first time I read this story, or the fifth.  I typed it in, was therefore forced to slow down, and, when I started looking for patterns, had dragged up what I had understood subconsciously the first time to a conscious level so I could actually see it.

The way the sentences are written are readable, but not simple.  At some level, I suspect Poe wanted the reader to be able to read his story, but be at least a little distracted.

His sentence-by-sentence description focuses on the house.  The visuals of what he describes are the house.  But that really isn’t what the content is about–the content is about the narrator’s feelings.

Why doesn’t Poe focus on the narrator’s feelings?  Why does he uses his style to distract from his content?

From my perspective (which isn’t objective, but is in answer to the question of “how to hide things in plain sight” that I brought with me to this study), this story is about distracting oneself from unpleasant truths.

The content of the first paragraph is about distracting oneself from an unpleasant truth; the style distracts the reader from the unpleasant truth that sometimes we distract ourselves from unpleasant truths.

The lengths of the sentences are used as a tool to help accomplish the content of the story.  The two shortest, clearest sentences say, “Why did I feel this way?” and “Dunno.”  That which is clearest is also the most misleading.

So, to sum up what I learned about sentence lengths in this paragraph:

  • Poe may be using super-long sentences to screw with his readers.
  • Watch out if a sentence looks relatively straightforward.

Do you need to write this way?

No!

But you may want to steal the technique once in a while.  Studying like this is not about learning “the right way” to write, or even to analyze.  It’s about learning different techniques that you can then steal, period, end of story.  If your subconscious is like, “Ugh, I don’t even care,” then you won’t end up with the same analysis.  Your subconscious–your muse, if you will–will take you elsewhere.

The important part of studying any work at this level is to follow your muse, not mine.  Some authors will align their content and their sentence style so that their sentences make their content obvious.  Other authors, like Poe, will set up unreliable narrators (as in this story–who can trust a guy who lies to himself?).

What I want you to take away here is that asking, “Why are the sentences in this work the way they are?” is a question that can lead to all sorts of unexpected techniques which you can then steal.  Don’t limit yourself to saying, “Because they’re easy to read” or “Because you should vary the lengths of your sentences.”  That is often not the whole story.

And, as a reminder, don’t even think about this stuff while you’re writing.  It’s for analysis only.  Your muse will steal what it wants and use it when it wants.  Mostly where you’ll actually be conscious of this is when you’re editing and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t screw with that long sentence…I need it to lie to the reader” or whatever.

The more you know, the less you’ll screw up your work during edits.

Next time:  Let’s look at some paragraphs.  What are Poe’s paragraphs like in Usher?  How long are they? Do they vary?  I’m going to say they’re super-long off the cuff, because when I was typing them in, I kept going, “UGH JUST KILL ME I WANT TO STOP FOR THE DAY BUT I SWORE I WOULD FINISH TYPING IN THIS PARAGRAPH AND THAT WAS LIKE THREE KINDLE PAGES AGO.”

But let’s look at them anyway.  Who knows what we’ll find?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 21: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Today, in “Let’s pull The Fall of the House of Usher to pieces,” we’re going to work on sentences.

  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?

Last time, we discovered the Poe uses a lot of different, medium-length words, but none are super-long or complex (which wasn’t what I’d expected, personally).

I’m expecting a lot of super-long, super-complex sentences.

You can find a link to the Project Gutenberg version of The Fall of the House of Usher here.

I’m going to use the first paragraph as our example again, but I’m doing to insert  a line break after every sentence.  “Punct.” is short for punctuation marks; I’m not counting apostrophes and hyphens.

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

That first paragraph is 403 words, 9 sentences, or about 45 words per sentence.  I used to be a technical writer and editor.  Our sentence-length guideline was to stay at 20 words or fewer; 20 words was considered a long sentence at the outside edge of what a reader could pay attention to without losing the train of thought.

It would be easy to accuse people of being poorer readers or just less intelligent in general these days.  Let’s not.  There are plenty of texts from the same time period that have long sentences and which make my head hurt, and I’ve studied philosophy from that era with relative ease.  Something about how Poe wrote made his long sentences easy to read.  Not as easy as a short sentence, but easy enough.

First, let’s take the lengths of the sentences:  they vary.  The longest sentences are separated from each other as well.  So it’s not a constant stream of super-long sentences.  No, it’s super-long sentences interrupted by merely long ones 🙂

Next, let’s look at how much punctuation there is, as being an indication of how complex a sentence is.  The longer sentences have more punctuation.  There are 55 punctuation marks (not including apostrophes and hyphens), or about 6 marks per sentence.

Here’s what I did on the paragraphs above, from “That first paragraph…” to “…about 6 marks per sentence”:

  • 212 words total.
  • 4 paragraphs, or about 50 words a paragraph.
  • 15 sentences, or about 14 words a sentence (the longest is 36 words; shortest, 2).
  • 28 punctuation marks, or about 2 per sentence.

I would consider my ordinary blogging style pretty complex, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Poe.

Please note that in the last paragraph of the original tale, while the narrator is staring into a tarn (a small mountain lake) and looking at the reflection of the House of Usher, he stops to say, “I reflected,” because apparently Poe couldn’t leave a good pun alone.

In the above paragraph, from “Please note…” to “…couldn’t leave a good pun alone,” there is one sentence of 48 words.  There are 9 punctuation marks, much higher than for my natural writing style.  And yet it’s not impossible to read.

  • My best guess here is that Poe used a lot of punctuation marks to help keep his sentences readable.
  • My best guess, which unfortunately may not be accurate, is that Poe’s punctuation marks, much like the sections of a plastic pillbox, helped keep his words organized.

In modern times, we tend to use shorter sentences with less punctuation.  Because we’re more direct?  Or because we tend to break down more complex sentences, starting with the same words we would have used, had we packed everything into a single sentence?

Maybe punctuation density is important!  Poe’s, for that first paragraph, is ~7 words per punctuation mark. Mine, for my more natural writing selection, is about one per 10 words.  Maybe Poe’s denser punctuation makes his long sentences easier to read–and it’s punctuation density, not sentence length, that we should be measuring.

(If I haven’t recommended it lately, a lot of the discussion here points back to what I learned in Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.  Why is one writer’s style different than another’s? Why choose one pattern of writing over another?  The book has the answers.)

To conclude, Poe’s sentences are super-long and super-complex, as anticipated.  But they’re written with sufficient clarity to still be readable today.  This may be due to his skillful use of punctuation.

Next time:  Content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of those sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order they are?

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 20: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

So let’s start breaking down “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Please note that I realize that you didn’t actually type it in, despite all the times that I’ve advised you to do so.  This series of increasingly-complex posts is at least partially about convincing you to try!

As beginning writers, we tend to accept writing advice from an actual, working writer (or even just someone who speaks with authority) as being from on high, not to be questioned.

As intermediate writers, that’s a big no-no.  A lot of good writing advice will not work for you.  If you listen to it, it can wreck your career.  You can find out whether it’s good or not by testing the advice in your own writing, or testing the advice against the work of writers you love.

If you think typing stuff in is laborious…it is.  But it’s less laborious than trying to write several novels using someone’s technique to see if it works for you.

Maybe that should be a side note: of all the things that you can do to support your career long-term, listening to other people’s advice without questioning and testing it isn’t it.  Critique group giving you advice that doesn’t make sense?  Type in some of your favorite writers’ work and see whether that advice applies to what you want to write.  If it doesn’t, that advice may not be for you.

Let’s go down the list from last week on basic-level analysis:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?

Here’s the first paragraph:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

In order to study the lengths of the words here and what kind of vocabulary that Poe uses, you could use one of several different techniques.  You might make a general impression after typing in a passage.  Or you might run the paragraph through an analysis program that counts word lengths and how many unique words there are.

For this example, I’m going to go with a middle route.  Here, I removed the words that make the sentence make sense–words mostly there for grammar purposes.  We need those words to help analyze the sentence structure, but, because they’re pretty common to every sentence, we don’t need to look at them as indicators of vocabulary. For example, “the” isn’t the world’s most exciting vocabulary word, and it doesn’t tell us much at this level.  Let’s leave it out.

So, removing the “grammar” words that stick the sentences together but have no real personality of their own, we’re left with the following:

whole dull dark soundless day autumn year clouds hung oppressively low heavens passing alone horseback singularly dreary tract country length found shades  evening drew view melancholy house Usher know first glimpse building sense insufferable gloom pervaded spirit feeling unrelieved half pleasurable poetic sentiment mind receives sternest natural images desolate terrible scene mere simple landscape features domain bleak walls vacant eye windows rank sedges white trunks decayed trees utter depression soul compare earthly sensation properly dream reveller opium bitter lapse life hideous dropping veil iciness sinking sickening heart unredeemed dreariness thought goading imagination torture sublime paused think unnerved contemplation mystery insoluble grapple shadowy fancies crowded pondered forced fall unsatisfactory conclusion doubt combinations simple natural objects power affecting analysis lies considerations depth possible  reflected mere different arrangement particulars scene details picture sufficient modify annihilate capacity sorrowful impression acting idea reined horse precipitous brink black lurid tarn lay unruffled lustre dwelling gazed shudder thrilling remodelled inverted images gray sedge ghastly stems

I tried to remove duplicate words, but I may have missed a few.

When I thought about Poe’s writing before typing it in or analyzing it, I would have guessed that he used big vocabulary words to the point of being confusing and annoying.  I had this impression of Poe as pretentious.

When I looked at the actual words he used, however, I found that, while the vocabulary he used wasn’t simple, none of the words he used were so sesquipidalian as to be frustrating to read.  My impression is that the vocabulary is in line with Gothic novels of that era.  Another impression is that Poe uses polysyllabic words because they sound right.

I’m going to call this a medium to medium-high vocabulary, thoughtfully used.

  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?

The narrator seems like a generic “Gothic” narrator, a fellow from some anonymous but well-bred place in Britain.  Poe was from the United States.  I suspect Poe removed as many U.S.-sounding regionalisms as he could, but didn’t really understand U.K. accents.  He may have also “aged” the language a little to make the 1840 story sound like it happened even earlier.

Jane Austen was writing satires of Gothic novels in 1816, with the original Gothic The Castle of Otranto being written in the 1700s and purporting to be a “discovered” manuscript from the 1500s.  Trying to sound old-fashioned and mysterious was an accepted mode of writing, one that readers liked.

Another side note: What you notice will differ.  That’s just part of your fingerprint as a writer.  What you notice about a work reflects the way you see the world and how you write about it.  Don’t take my word for what’s in Poe’s work:  it should be different for you.  Your high school English teacher may have been authoratative about what books meant, but I’m not!  This example of analysis is more to show you that you can connect your subconscious to your conscious understanding of a story, and of writing in general, than to tell you what to do.

In addition, please note that you do not need to follow the same process every time:  when you type things in, you do not need to analyze the individual words.  When you feel confident that you have a feel for the kinds of words that an author is using, then you can stop thinking about the individual words–until you find an author who uses words in a way that doesn’t make sense. Then take a deeper look.

Next time, more on sentence analysis.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 19: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Today is my first post exploring some analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”!  I’m going to focus on structural analysis, because that seems to be both the hardest type of analysis to find (at the moment I’m writing this) and involves some of the most interesting aspects about the story.  A link to the Project Gutenberg version of the story is here.

(I picked that version because a) it’s free, and b) because we’re looking mostly at structural level stuff, any typos aren’t going to be hugely relevant, so pointing back to an authoratative version that you have to pay for isn’t going to be all that important.)

BRIEFLY:  Structure, for our purposes here, isn’t going to be about plot structure.  There are a million books that will walk you through plot structure, and you should have read some of them as a beginning writer (and will likely have to continue to read them as an intermediate writer).  What we’re talking about is how the events of the story are put together and why.

A lot of people can tell you vaguely what “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about:  some dude, the narrator, goes to his friend’s house; the friend may or may not be nuts; the friend has a sister; she dies; the friend might have been having sex with her; the house falls down; the narrator escapes.

But how are those events (the plot) unfolded?  Which events are told in backstory and which in real time?  Which events are not told at all, but implied?  Are there any tricks to how the story is told that themselves reflect the content of the story?

Let’s find out!

(A note:  I’m super nervous about how this is going to pull off.)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Step one:  Reread the story!

Step two:  Type it in!  It is approximately 7,000 words long.  Don’t do this all at once.  Type in about one to two thousand words a day.  Don’t “fix” anything; just type it in the way you see it.  Note: you may want to adjust the width of the lines in the story so they’re about twenty to twenty-five words long, which is about the width of a modern book and is about as many words as a normal reader can comprehend without some sort of break.

Step three: Understand that Poe was a) writing for another time, and b) a genius.  You may not understand all the things at first glance.  I often found myself at the end of a day’s typing telling myself that I was never going to get this.

Step four:  Make some notes about what you observe about the story.  Whatever you observe about the story.  This will help clear your head so you can observe new things.

Step five:  When you’re done with that, let’s begin some structural analysis, starting with the pacing:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?
  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?
  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?
  • How long are the paragraphs?
  • How long is the story?
  • Do word lengths change?  Where?  Do they change back?
  • Does anything about the “accent” change?
  • Do sentence lengths change?  Do they change back?
  • Do sentence complexities change at all?
  • Do paragraph lengths change?
  • Is there anything that fundamentally breaks a pattern within the story?

After that, we’ll start asking bigger questions about the story, but when you first start doing structural analysis, it’s easier to start with the pacing.  Once you’re intimately familiar with pacing, the structural-level patterns start popping out.

Something to note: 

I’ve found that typing things in hasn’t lost its usefulness yet.  I expected to be able to take in everything I was studying without having to keep typing things in after a few months.

Five years later, I’m still typing things in, but I no longer need to stop and ask myself whether the sentences are long or whether there’s a change in paragraph length.  I look for other, more interesting patterns. But I had to start with the pacing; it’s hard to learn how to think this way, but it’s harder not to, if you’re trying to become a long-term professional writer, a master of the art.

As you become comfortable with a technique, you’ll be able to note when an author uses it without having to analyze it specifically.   But until you look at low-level structural questions in detail, it may be difficult to notice the higher-level techniques that I’m going to point out later.

“Where does she get this stuff?” may cross your mind a time or two.  The answer is, “She’s been typing things in for five-plus years now, and a thing or two sank in.”

A friend of mine once said that being a black belt in a martial art was where the learning really begins.  It’s also where you start studying masters instead of studying moves.

Same thing with writing.  We’re shifting from following rules to studying technique.  Beginning writers expect to have the rules and explanations handed to them on a platter; intermediate writers have to start becoming the people who can make the rules and explanations for the beginners.

Next time, I’ll go over the points above on pacing in the story, pointing out some things that I think might help give a sense of what to look for.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

Current Marketing Strategies

I didn’t have the time or energy to write a long post this week, but yesterday I ended up checking in with myself about what I know about marketing.  Admittedly, this isn’t much.  But when I started trying to bootstrap myself out of complete lack of sales, it was less, so I’m gonna count it a win.

Current marketing strategies, in order:

  1. Keep writing.  You can’t sell what you don’t produce.
  2. Keep studying.  It’s easier to sell a good book than a bad one.
  3. Don’t let the money fall out (keep it easy for people to find what they need and buy it).  MAKE SURE YOUR FANS & POTENTIAL FANS CAN GET IT.
  4. Keep networking.  A lot of my recent opportunities have come directly or indirectly from people I met ten years ago.
  5. Don’t sell plots, sell reader feelings.  People won’t remember your plots unless you make them feel the way they want to feel.

There’s a possible sixth but I’m still testing it out:

Don’t waste time on assholes.  They aren’t actually networking with you, helping your career, or providing any kind of support, even when there’s money involved; they’re using you and will, over the long haul, screw you over.  Make time and room for people who, when you do nice things for them, don’t make feel like you’re pouring your time down a gaping pit or that they’re blowing smoke up your ass.

I mean, obviously it’s a good idea–but is it a good marketing idea?

Pondering…

Want to get a list of plot ideas for stories within stories?  Sign up for my newsletter or Patreon and wait for January’s issue of the Wonderland Press-Herald, which is really just my newsletter but this morning I went, I COULD CALL THIS A NEWSPAPER WHICH WOULD BE FAR MORE AMUSING.  Anyway, click here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 18: Intro to some case studies on Poe

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is such a nerd when it comes to structure.  I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately.  I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now.  Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh?  But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind:  long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!

But of course I found more than that.  I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went.  (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously.  Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)

In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening.  It is that smooth.  But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it.  Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.

Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim.  I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.

When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored.  With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.

Things I start looking for, more or less in order:

  • The feel of the sentences:  length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
  • The feel of the paragraphs:  length, content, structure.
  • The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
  • The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
  • How the scene wraps up, how long it is.

At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed.  I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general.  Why were all the elements of the scene in that scene and not another one?  That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.

Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book.  I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT?  HOW EVEN.”  Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth.  There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all.  It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.

A note about novels:  I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them.  So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.

When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”

I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing.  It’s always tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that.  Type it in.  Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first.  No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!

As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in.  Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple:  they wanted to meet reader expectations.  They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel!  The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though:  it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off.  Sometimes both.

Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 17: Structure, Part 5

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

What order should you tell your events in?

We’re back to talking about szuchet and fabula (see this post).  You have a choice between presenting the events of the story in different ways.  Here are just a few of your options:

  • In strict chronological order, with no summaries or flashbacks, and with no foreshadowing.
  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.
  • With part of the novel split between the present and part between the past (parallel stories).
  • With a small part of the novel in the present and a larger part in the past (or in another world, for that matter), a.k.a. a “frame story” or “story within a story.”
  • With the prologue out of order, as in one scene that foreshadows most of the events of the book (a few scenes might follow the point where the book catches up to the prologue).  “It all started when…”
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at very nearly the same time.
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at different times.
  • A story told in reverse order.
  • A story told with most events in order, but in clusters that are not in order (Pulp Fiction).
  • A story told through several completely separate episodes, with or without a frame story (variations on a theme).

There are more possibilities.  Most popular fiction books will follow the same structure, though:

  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.

Most books present the setting, characters, and problems of the plot, move the plot forward a bit, stop to bring a few things into perspective via a flashback or a summary (and repeating the pattern of moving the plot forward, then explaining the important bits of What Has Gone Before), then increasingly shift to no more backstory while layering in some foreshadowing as we approach the climax of the book.

There is nothing wrong with that as a structure.  It’s like the structure of a modern pop song:  we all know it, even if we never really think about it, and intellectually we know that a lot of pop songs “sound the same,” but we will vehemently protest if anyone claims that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is very nearly the same thing as anything by The Rolling Stones.  There’s an intro…some verses…a chorus…a musical interlude somewhere in the middle…more verses and the chorus…and some kind of ending.

Pop songs all follow kind of the same template. It’s all about how you use it.

Most fiction, most of the time, needs to have a real reason to deviate from the usual sort of structure.  Some deviations, like having multiple plots running at the same time across multiple characters, are so common in certain genres that they’re taken for normal.  For example:

  • The structure of many modern romances is to have a his-and-her plot, two main plots running in parallel part of the time and together part of the time.
  • The structure of many high fantasy novels is to have multiple plots running at the same time, with characters who start out together, split apart, check in with each other/get news of each other periodically, but all come together for the climax of the book, which is some huge battle.

Those structures aren’t requirements, but they can become expectations.  And most of the time, you want to meet the readers’ expectations…because then they’re ready for you to knock their socks off with something surprising.

Which is to say that what order you tell your events in:

  • Depends on your story.
  • But should be pretty normal most of the time, unless you have a major reason to do so.

Find out in what order events are usually played out in the books in your genre and subgenre.  Copy that.  If and when that doesn’t work for you, try something else.  Some experimentation may be called for.

You will know when you’re on the right track because, when you’re done with the draft, you can step back and go, “The content of the story fits the weird order I put the events in.   Huh.”

The biggest part of making this kind of structural decision is knowing what your options are–and that requires a lot of reading.  It can require some really challenging reading, too, if you want to wander off the beaten path.

I’ll probably repeat this again later:

The more original you are, the more studying you have to do.

You have to know what most readers expect most of the time, and you have to know it as well as any hack writer knows its ins and outs.

And, if you’re trying something the reader doesn’t expect, you have to have far more tricks up your sleeve than you will ever actually use in order to be able to select a good one.

If you want to build something new, you have to know even more:  you have to know every trick in the book.

And that means reading–and comprehending on a structural level–a huge number of books.

This is probably a good place to remind you that reading at least the top 100 books in your genre is probably a good idea–if you want to write books to fit reader expectations.  And that reading the top 100 books in another genre is a good idea if you want to write a book that surprises your reader.  If you want to be truly innovative…good luck!

Next time, I think I may work on a few case studies on structure.  I’ve been typing up a lot of Edgar Allen Poe lately because he has such interesting structures, and the stories are out of copyright–so it should be okay to quote them extensively here.

Free book and other curiosities here.

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?

 

*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 15: Structure, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Structure: Headhopping & Tenses

Since these are two relatively minor elements, I’m going to cover them both here.

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

Headhopping

“Headhopping” is a pejorative term for shifting POVs while still in the same scene.  You’re an intermediate writer now; you’re allowed.  Master writers shift POVs a fair amount, I’ve discovered, and do it so smoothly that most readers (and yours truly) won’t notice it on a first read.

How is it done?  You have to understand POV as being from a specific character’s perspective in order to do so, and it’s for third-person POVs only (as far as I know):

  • You’re writing from character A’s point of view.
  • You need to get something from character B’s point of view, either information or an opinion.
  • You make character A’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • You swap over to character B’s point of view and make it as “objective” as possible.
  • You get whatever you need out of character B, going deeper into the opinions and attitudes of the character as necessary.
  • If you need to go back to character A, make character B’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • Swap over to character A, with their point of view as “objective” as possible.

I have “objective” in quotes because the shift doesn’t have to be truly objective, just not anchored directly, obviously, and solely in one character’s point of view.

Here’s an example.  The POV of this scene is a character named Dodger who is walking through Victorian London with his dog, Onan (who smells bad).

The one thing you could say about this dirty old city, Dodger thought as he headed out of the attic, strutting along in his new suit with Onan at his heels, was that no matter how careful you were, somebody would see anything. The streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left; and the place to do a bit of rubbing now would be the Baron of Beef, or the Goat and Sixpence, or any of the less salubrious drinking establishments around the docks where you could get drunk for sixpence, dead drunk for a shilling, and possibly just dead for being so stupid as to step inside in the first place.

In those kinds of places you found the toshers and the mudlarks, hanging out with the girls, and that was really hanging out because half of them would have worn the arse of of their trousers by now. Those places were where you spent your time and your money so that you could forget about the rats and the mud that stuck to everything, and the smells.  Although eventually you got used to them, corpses that had been in the river for a while tended to have a fragrance of their very own, and you never forgot the smell of corruption, because it clung, heavy and solid, and you never wanted to smell it again, even though you knew it would.

Oddly enough, the smell of death was a smell with a strange life of its own, and it would find its way in anywhere and it was damn hard to get rid of—rather, in some respects, like the smell of Onan, who was faithfully walking just behind him, his passage indicated by people in the throng looking around to see wherever the dreadful smell was coming from and hoping it wasn’t from them.

(Terry Pratchett, Dodger.)

In the first paragraph, the character is thinking to himself; we’re inside his head.  But the POV slides over to a vague sort of “you,” a generic “you” that doesn’t sound like an objective third-person POV, but it really is–it’s not clearly coming from Dodger himself, but kind of vaguely from “you.”

You probably didn’t notice that by the end of the third paragraph, you’re in the POV of the people behind Dodger and Onan, looking around to see where the smell is coming from.  It’s not Dodger’s perspective; he can’t even see them.

A good POV jump shouldn’t be obvious, and it should only drift as far from the main POV of the chapter as necessary to accomplish the point.  The technique isn’t supposed to be clear cut; if it were, it wouldn’t be effective.

Tenses

Your two basic tenses are present and past tense.  Because this is English, however, you can use all sorts of other tenses!  One of the strengths of English is in how freaking specific it can get about time:

The experiences he had had had been bad.

The time travel machine would have existed, except that it hadn’t.

We will have been there for an hour by then.

At this level, however, your main question is probably “Should I use present or past tense in my writing?”

Currently, fiction written in past tense is more common, and readers will tend to disappear into it more, because they have more familiarity with it.  Writing in present tense is less common, and you’ll have to work harder with sense and opinion details to keep readers buried in the character–but it also gives the tale a more modern/YA feel.

What tense you use should be more influenced by whether you like writing in it and whether your readers like reading in it than anything else–which is another reason to keep up with reading current work in your genre, so you know whether present- or past-tense books are more popular.

Anybody who says you must/must not write in a certain tense is talking to beginners!

Next time:  Scenes vs. Summaries:  When to show…when to tell!

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