Learning from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”

Here is a brief quotation from The 2015 Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology, specifically from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” a short story by Neil Gaiman: “In addition to its unusual pockets, it had magnificent sleeves, an imposing collar, and a slit up the back. It was made of some kind of leather, it was the color of a wet street at midnight, and, more important than any of these things, it had style” (134). The metaphor used to describe the coat’s color stands out more than the other details because, even though it is a comparison, it is more specific: the street is wet at midnight. The other details include some information, but not particularizing information. The coat has pockets and those pockets are unusual, for example, but that language isn’t as interesting as the metaphor. It quickly stands in for the coat as a whole.

The coat and the main character’s desire to have it back reveals the marquis to the reader and provides a motivation. Seeking after the coat moves the story forward and provides the character with at least two problems to solve or be helped out of. The coat is useful in the story then, and you might use a similar strategy in one of your stories. But, in addition to this, Gaiman uses that interesting metaphor at least two other times in the story. Once he uses it as its own sentence, which surely highlights it: “The coat was the color of a wet street at midnight” (152). One of the character’s enemies is wearing the coat when that sentence appears. The metaphor appears again once the character has recovered the coat: “. . . the last of the flock wore a most magnificent coat. It fit him perfectly, and it was the color of a wet street at night” (156).

In addition to the ways the coat and the metaphor are useful in the story that have already been mentioned, readers remember it. The triggering of that memory when the metaphor appears again is pleasant in the way knowing or realizing something can be. This use of the metaphor is also similar to what some screenwriters call “superior knowledge,” when readers or viewers know or have information characters lack, but it is different in an important way. Having information characters lack can help us be concerned for them, but it also creates a difference between readers and characters. In the case of Gaiman’s story, because readers know the Marquis knows what his coat looks like—the color of a wet street at midnight—the information connects readers and the main character. The return of the metaphor joins readers and the character in contrast with superior knowledge while allowing them to be concerned for the main character.

Repeating the metaphor also allows Gaiman to mark important plot points. Finally, the metaphor acts as a refrain and repeating that refrain helps close the story.

Consider giving this a try.

Thickening

Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel. It felt thin in spots. It’s hard to describe perfectly, but rereading it, I found myself thinking, “There should be more there” about some pages and scenes. In some cases, I’d written dialogue but wasn’t revealing character’s thoughts. Or, the dialogue lacked context in the form of setting or actions, however minor, that the characters took while they were speaking. The draft was also shorter than I wanted it to be. It was under 50,000 words.

I decided that the main goal of the next draft would be to address both the thin spots and the length. Happy with the plot, adding a subplot or another character seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I think I was influenced by the Oulipo group’s larding exercise.

If you’re facing similar concerns with a complete draft of yours, try this:

  1. Determine the number of words you’d like your final draft to be. This number is your goal.
  2. Subtract the number of words of your current draft from that goal.
  3. Divide the difference between the number of words you have and the number you’d like by the current number of pages of your draft. The resulting number is your target number.
  4. Read through the draft again. Add—in some way that helps your draft—your target number of words.

For example, let’s say you’d like a draft to be 50,000, but it is currently 45,000. The difference between those numbers is 5,000. Your 45,000-word draft is 85 single-spaced pages. Divide 5,000 by 85 and you need to add about 59 words to each page to reach your goal.

The crucial thing is finding ways to add those sixty words that help the draft. For example, I reviewed ways of making setting interesting and my characters’ backstories before I started. The words I added improved characterization or setting as a result.

Vonnegut’s tips

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Epistemological storytelling

There’s something epistemological about storytelling. It’s the way we know each other, the way we know ourselves, the way we know the world. It’s also the way we don’t know: the way the world is kept from us, the way we’re kept from knowledge about ourselves, the way we’re kept from understanding other people.

–Andrea Barrett