Writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I’m a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I’m doing it. There’s a place in my head that I go to when I write and it’s so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull. I first went there when I was seven and I wrote a poem which startled me a bit because it felt like someone else had written it. The adrenaline rush that gave me was incredible and I wanted more. These days, maybe because I can now access that place quite easily, writing feels like something I simply could not live without. It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it, but even if I’d never been published, I think I’d still be writing. I love being read, but the person I’m really always writing for is me.
“John Rainbird thought later that things could not have worked better if they had planned it . . . and if those fancy psychologists had been worth a tin whistle in a high wind, they would have planned it. But as it happened, it was only the lucky happenstance of the blackout’s occurring when it did that allowed him to finally get his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee. Luck, and his own inspired intuition.”
from Fire-starter by Stephen King
This paragraph begins a chapter. Here are some quick thoughts.
- Readers know almost immediately that things worked out for this character but how things worked out is only presented very generally here. At the same time, the general language makes a promise: readers will have details. But the sentences also delay their presentation. The sentences build anticipation, in other words. Readers read on, looking for details.
- The sentences that delay the details characterize both the characters involved in the event that will be described. John Rainbird thinks he has finally got “his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee.” Rainbird’s thoughts let readers know how he thinks of himself and Charlie McGee. Hi goal is clear. Consequences and change (McGee trusts or has opened up to Rainbird) are implied.
- While the event is only described generally, readers have reasons to think it will be interesting: it’s a blackout, there is luck and “inspired intuition” involved, “those fancy psychologists” should have thought of it themselves.
These are a beautiful few sentences that drive readers farther into the chapter.
“I told a woman who plays in the orchestra how uncapturable music is, how I cannot think of organizing the music I hear, but only be its audience. But she said that writing is the most abstract form; the other forms have concomitant human sense organs; music has the ear, and painting the eye, sculpture the hands, and acting and dancing the voice and body. But writing, she said, does not have its organ. She began to cry; I’ve not sure why.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, quoted in Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively
If you know where this anecdote originally appeared, please let me know.
- The stories characters tell are especially effective ways to characterize.
- This story starts with one character (“I told . . .”) describing another (“a woman who plays in the orchestra”) and making an assertion about a form of art. There is a clear connection between one of the characters and the subject of the assertion (orchestra/music). It’s a simple straight-forward beginning.
- The paragraph takes the form of an assertion in the first sentence, a general qualification (“But she said . . .”) in the second, a more specific qualification (“But writing, she said, . . .”) in the third, and a reaction to conclude.
- The story is told and reacted to by the teller and hearer. Their reactions are close to the story and to each other (“She began to cry; I’ve not sure why”). This proximity highlights the contrasts and focuses the characterization.
- As short as this anecdote is, it shows the value of asking big, philosophical questions and capturing insights or close observations about the world.
- Finally, the story shows or lists examples of a word (“concomitant”) it uses (“music has the ear, and painting the eye”) These examples show the meaning of the word with specifics. Those specifics are far more interesting that the abstract definition: “concomitant: naturally accompanying or associated.”
Here’s an effort at some of what I’ve talked about: “I told the blacksmith that I could never make a sword, that I’m not a creator, that I’m afraid to risk the time it takes, that even standing in the heat for hours is beyond me. But he said that once you’ve seen it done, once you’ve followed the steps–they’re the same each time–over and over, you don’t have to think about it much. And once you’ve been rewarded for your work, he said, once you’ve been paid, your days are just repeating the steps over and over as fast as you can. That’s all. He wouldn’t look at me after that and wouldn’t sell me a blade; became too good for me, I guess.”
What do you think? Can you provide an example?
The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers is an excellent introduction to Creative Writing across genres. It includes the following advice: “When you write about one person who is alone, you tend to rely on thoughts. It’s harder to create tension with a character alone on stage, lost in thought – difficult but not impossible . . . As a rule, however, a character alone with their thoughts is boring” (255). This is a good principle. One of the weaknesses in one of my projects lately is time a character spends alone, specifically while driving across much of the country. I’ve been thinking about how to revise to add tension to that journey.
At the same time, I’ve just started rereading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first of her MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood’s Snowman/Jimmy is very alone in a postapocalyptic cli-fi setting. Atwood’s text suggests a character who is alone can spend lots of time thinking about an interesting past that is full of other characters (these include for Snowman/Jimmy, his father, mother, father’s lover, teachers, a male friend, a female friend, at least one crush, and others). He is comfortable commenting on his own time thinking about his past (he generally doesn’t like it) and is comfortable guessing about the thoughts and feelings of people from his past. Most importantly, while much of the book takes place in Snowman/Jimmy’s past, the contrasts between his past, our near future (in which the book is set), and his present gives the narrative real tension.
I’m not sure how that set of three sources of tension could work in my project, but another strategy Atwood uses, that you’ve already probably noticed, is that her character gives himself a different name. He thinks of himself as a different person as a result of an event in the story. Before, he was Jimmy. Now, he is Snowman. Another source of tension or interest for me as a reader is discovering the details of this change. Why the change? Why Snowman?
That’s something I can use as my character drives and it might add tension or at least help characterize him. Before a big event he saw the world one way. After he sees it another. He might rename himself as a result. He’ll definitely think of himself differently in ways I can make explicit.
Are there ways Atwood’s strategies might apply to something your working on?
“The very next day, a woman ahead of Graham in line at the deli order a Reuben sandwich with French dressing instead of Russian, and Graham recalled that his ex-wife had often order that very sandwich, and then he realized the woman was his ex-wife.”
from Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Here are some thoughts about this graceful sentence.
- The surprise in this sentence is a result of its shape, its structure. The information it presents is ordered so that readers move from “a woman ahead of Graham” and the details of a sandwich, to the memory of a woman, to the actual woman in the character’s present moment. In other words, readers move from trigger, to memory, to instance/event.
- The process of recalling a memory takes place within the process of ordering a meal. The character’s mundane becomes a source of possible drama and his reaction to this event characterizes. Graham, in the sentences that follow this one, vacillates between inviting his ex-wife to eat with him and avoiding her by slipping away.
- The italics provide an emphasis that perhaps characterizes but also gives readers an additional clue that while we’re within Graham’s consciousness his ex-wife is also present before him and us.
Consider building a sentence using a similar structure, one that moves from trigger to memory to surprising presence.
“Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flock flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Maria Vasuilyevna, who was sitting in the cart.”
“The Cart” by Anton Chekhov
I really like this sentence.
- The sentence gives readers a landscape and a character and her mindset.
- The semi-colons set the stage. They control broad establishing temporal shots, letting readers know about the time of year without allowing that information to be presented in a static way. We know what winters are like in this world Chekhov is building and we know how this spring has arrived. But the seasons are presented abstractly at first
- For most of the rest of the sentence, a world is presented in images. Those images are built from actual, specific objects (woods, flock, fields, puddles, sky), sensory language (warmth and black, most obviously), and some metaphors.
- The sentence is also structured to present a mystery. The phrase “but neither the” leads readers into the rest of the sentence wondering what the elements implied by it will be. The mystery begins to be answered with a character’s reaction to the world. The images didn’t offer “anything new and interesting to Maria.” We read on, at least partly, to see why and how there could be nothing new or interesting for her here. Chekhov presents a place that is likely to interest readers and then lets them know this character is not interested in it.
- “Joy” appears in the sentence to create engaging contrast with the character’s state of mind.
- Anti-climax is used strategically as the sentence ends with “sitting in the cart.” At the same time, it almost immediately reminds readers of the title of the story.
Chekhov certainly took the advice that “sentences should do more than one thing” seriously.
What might you add to these ideas about the sentence?
Since my last “current projects” post, I’m at 82/100. Some of these are certainly going to be tossed, but I like others. Given teaching and other business, I feel good about what I’ve done so far. Hoping for more revision over the summer and more attention toward submitting work for publication, my biggest weakness.
It’s the experience of writing that I’m addicted to . . . the spying into character’s lives, the living dangerously while always having reality as a safety net, the falling in love, the falling in hate. Writing lets me feel what my life hasn’t. It lets me experience what my life couldn’t.