Learning from Welty

“She stayed and read. Nicholas Nickleby had seemed as endless to her as time must seem to him, and it had now been arranged between them, without words, that she was to sit there beside him and read – but silently, to herself. He too was completely silent while she read.”

from The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

I think these sentences provide enough context, but my memory suggests (though I’m not perfectly sure) that they describe a daughter reading to an aged father.

Here are some quick thoughts.

  • Character’s reactions characterize them, including, here, the narrator’s reaction to Nicholas Nickleby. How your characters react to just about anything reveals them to readers.
  • Characters that “read the minds” of other characters can be fascinating, both in the mind reading itself, but also in what characters assume is in the minds of other characters. The narrator thinks the book is endless; she thinks he must think of time as endless. Contrasts or harmony between what a character “reads” in another character’s mind and what is actually there (as shown through the second character’s actions or dialogue), can also characterize the characters and their relationship.
  • What arrangements might your characters make without words? What might those arrangements and how they are made suggest about them?
  • When are pairs of your characters silent? When do they speak? What are the implications of those silences? Anger? Comfort? Safety?
    • I think when we talk about sentence lengths, what ends up actually happening is a short sentence after an extremely long one. The short sentence, especially if it contrasts with the long one can be funny. Length isn’t the only factor in this, obviously, but consider this from Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt: “Tova Sullivan preparers for battle. A yellow rubber glove sticks up from her back pocket like a canary’s plume as she bends over to size up her enemy. Chewing gum.” The contrast between “battle,” “enemy,” and “chewing gum” and the paragraph break between “enemy” and “chewing” also helps make this chapter opening funny.
      • Both Van Pelt and Welty, rather than a short sentence after an extremely long one, give readers a short sentence followed by a longer one and then another short sentence.
        • I’ve mention long/short sentence patterns and provided examples of short/long/short patterns. Can you find interesting examples of short/long or long/short/long sentences? How might those patterns influence readers experiences?
        • What, if anything, besides the content of the sentences and the paragraph break makes the two sets of three sentences (one set from Welty and one from Van Pelt) so different from each other?

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