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 it wasn’t revealing a character’s thoughts. Or, the dialogue lacked context in the form of setting or actions 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. This is the number of words you lack.
  3. Divide that lack 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 in words to each page.

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 and 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

Creatures of narrative

Memory, according to Bergson, occupies the space between mind and body. It conveys mind to body and body to mind. It gives us our quality of life—makes possible, in other words, the narrative that keeps our lives going forward to the next thing. If the thing is not next it loses its richness—isolated and unlinked to a history, it becomes meaningless, even ridiculous. Biologically and neurologically, we are creatures of context, of narrative. . . . By nature, then, the activity of the neuron is narrative, metonymic, associative.

–Karen Brennan

Toward one hundred words

I’ve been obsessing with 100-word stories lately. I might try to publish a manuscript of 100 100-word stories someday. This has led to editing and cutting many of the fragments, already very short, I’ve been able to find among my unfinished work. Keeping many of the drafts shows some of the decisions made as I’ve revised. One example is below. Word totals follow the title.

Looking for Honey 254

Honey lived two places while I knew her. Sort of remember wanting to offer to help her move, but I’m almost certain I never did.

One was this beautiful big green house. It was big enough to have its own parking lot. Three stories, surrounded by venerable fifty-foot oaks. A wide, thick lawn. She had at least two roommates there, but I think her bed was a thin twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She would roll it up and hide it away during the day, I imagine. Their kitchen was tiny, but you could stand in the fireplace. The rest of the house was full of similar apartments.

The other house was much smaller, one story, two bedrooms. The kitchen was bigger and she had her own room, but to get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Must have made some awkward moments. I house sat there for a few days while she went to the Grand Canyon, house sat and tried to squirt antibiotics down a tube in the throat of her cat. The cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Almost five years later, the big house is still easy to find, but the other house has gone missing. I drive the streets of this town I never wanted to come back to, wandering where I think the house used to be, but I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 171

Honey lived two places while I knew her.

One was this beautiful green house. Big enough to have its own parking lot, three stories, venerable fifty-foot oaks. She had two roommates there, but her bed was a twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She hid it in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we could stand in the fireplace.

The other house was much smaller, one story, two bedrooms. She had her own room, but to get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Once I housesat for a few days, trying to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat. That cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Five years later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. I drive the streets of a town I never wanted to come back to, wandering where I think her house used to be. I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 146

Honey lived two places while I knew her.

One, a beautiful green house. Big enough to have its own parking lot, three stories, venerable fifty-foot oaks. She had two roommates there, but her bed was a twin mattress against a wall of the living room. She hid it in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we could stand in the fireplace.

The other was much smaller. Her own room. To get to it you had to walk through the only bathroom in the house. Once I housesat, trying to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat. That cat did not like me. But the bathroom had a tub and my baths there were a luxury.

Five years later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. I drive the streets, wandering where I think her house was. I never find it.

 

Looking for Honey 123

Honey lived two places when I knew her.

One, a beautiful green house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during the day. Tiny kitchen, but we stood in the fireplace.

The other was much smaller. You had to walk through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, tried to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat did not like me. The tub made baths there a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Honey Lived Two Places When I Knew Her 106

One, a beautiful green house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during the day.

The other place was much smaller. You walked through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, assigned to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat did not like me. The tub made baths there a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found, but the other house is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Honey Lived Two Places When I Knew Her 100

One, a beautiful olive house. Three stories, fifty-foot oaks, big enough for its own parking lot. Three roommates. Her bed a twin mattress against a living room wall, hidden in a closet during daylight.

The other place was much smaller. You walked through the only bathroom in the house to get to her room. Once I housesat, assigned to squirt antibiotics down her cat’s throat each day. That cat hated me. The tub made baths a luxury.

Decades later, the big house is easily found. The other is missing. Wandering where I think her house was, I never find it.

 

Defining story

Four quick paraphrases:

 

Algis Budrys:

  1. A character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve the problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what readers saw was, in fact, the final result.

 

Geoffrey A. Landis:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice through actions, and
  3. let those actions have consequences.

 

Jim Shooter:

Introduce the character (“Little Miss Muffett . . .”), introduce the status quo (“sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey”). Establish the antagonist and conflict (“Along came a spider”), build suspense (“and sat down beside her”), increase the conflict (“and frightened Miss Muffet”), and resolve the conflict and provide a denouement all at once (“away”).

 

Steve Barthelme:

A story follows an active character through emotionally charged experiences which change him or her.