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.

Toward a conclusion

Here is an excerpt from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The excerpt is from late in the book, in the last few pages of the edition I have. I like the way it models a conclusion, and I’ll try and do something similar with the project I’m working on.

Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End. No better plan had occurred to her. The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.

So, here are some obvious fiction writing strategies, just in this excerpt, that bring readers toward the conclusion. The passage of time is stated directly and connected to a specific place and character in the first sentence. The second sentence restates that connection to the character. The third sentence suggests the past and present in an ongoing natural process associated with the environment: “The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.” The fourth sentence strengthens these connections, repeating them with minor and more specific differences. The fifth sentence is shorter than those around it, more general, but also connects the natural repeating processes with the character. The sixth sentence is one of the longest, is specific about the place and how it influences the character. A short seventh sentence contrasts with the previous one both in terms of length and its content: “. . .  a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now.” The last sentence focuses readers back on the characters’ present moment, using setting, and prepares for, creates an expectation of, one of the final scenes.

Below is a rough attempt to use some of the same strategies. I’m not moving toward another scene, and though I’ve got a smaller cast of characters, more of them are present as I try to wrap things up.

Eighteen months later, after Reynolds remarried, just the three of them still lived in the townhouse. Asking Elizabeth to move out was as strange an idea as asking her to stop using her feet and walk on her hands all day instead. The tiny garden they shared still needed replanting; the compost pile needed turning, little as it was. October would arrive and they would have to clean the gutters and downspouts. In December, they had to keep the walk and deck free of snow and ice. Billy would post photos of them working. The routines they set for themselves were part of how they stayed together. Every summer they would consider new air conditioning, every winter a new furnace. As Billy lost more hair he wore one cap to keep him warm and another to stop sunburn. As Cassandra got older she wrapped blankets tight to stay warm and drank ice water to stay cool, all within the same five minutes.

When Elizabeth finally moved in with one of her boyfriends, the townhouse became too tranquil, too quiet. Together they finally discovered the peace of an empty nest, but without ever having had children.




Reading craft online

Poets & Writers has a series of online craft essays. They take just moments to read and are usually useful. Here is a representative example.

Brain Pickings has collected the advice on writing that they’ve shared over the years. This advice always has excellent authors as its sources.

Finally, Literary Hub lists short excerpts from 25 books on writing by famous authors. If nothing else, the list acts as a possible shopping list for books on the craft of writing. The excerpts can help in deciding from among all the books.

Characters and information

I read Cryptonomicon probably ten years ago. An excellent novel. One I obviously still think about. It ends with a system for encoding information. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, if I remember correctly, includes in its narrative instructions for creating spy networks. What information might one of your characters teach another (and perhaps incidentally the reader)? How might that “teaching moment” characterize the teacher and the student? How informally could it happen?

Controlling point of view

I’ve been reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. It is the third of the Neapolitan Novels series. I’ve found them all compelling. The book is narrated in a distant remembering first-person. Notice how completely and naturally this narrating character moves within the inner lives of other characters/people in her life:

He wasn’t in a good mood, in fact he seemed emptied of energy, as if the practice of violence had swallowed up his craving for action. . . . Certainly he was bothered by the critical tone she had used in alluding to the morning’s expedition. He’s convinced, Lila thought, that I don’t understand why he hit Gino like that, why he wanted to beat up the guard. Good or bad, all men believe that after every one of their undertakings you have to put them on an altar as if they were St. George slaying the dragon. He considers me ungrateful, he did it to avenge me, he would like me to at least say thank you.

The quotation begins and ends one paragraph, though I haven’t quoted the paragraph in its entirety.

Context lets readers know that this paragraph begins with the narrator’s female friend interpreting a male they both know. We’re reminded that we’re inside Lila’s head by the attribution “Lila thought” which also creates an opportunity for an “I” (in “that I don’t understand why”) besides the “I” of the first-person narrator (who rarely uses the first-person pronoun, probably strategically, making room for others’ use of it). The next sentence is unattributed, but it seems likely that readers will see it as another of Lila’s thoughts. The sentence after that comes from deep within Lila’s consciousness, deep enough that it includes “me.” This sentence reveals the most about her, her perception of the guy she’s thinking about, and significantly the first-person narrator. That first-person narrator’s interpretation of her friend and their mutual friend also characterizes the narrator. It allows her to write in first-person and move deeply within another character’s inner life in compelling, but not confusing, ways.

So, to characterize, consider the following technique: a minimal, distant remembering first-person that uses an explicit attribution of feeling or thought (“Lila thought”), followed by an “I” referencing that other character (Lila), at least a sentence that can be considered more of that other character’s thoughts (the “St. George” sentence), and then a sentence deep within the other character, one that references that character explicitly, with “me,” in this case.

Lessons from a sentence

I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel. It’s an excellent text book on novel writing. Allow me to demonstrative (hopefully) with just one sentence, written as three of the characters cope with the death of another:

“Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.”

First this sentence is a reminder of one of Donald Barthelme’s exercises, called, I think, “Assignment: Write a sentence with some attention to the notes below.” To summarize, Barthelme asks what should readers demand from sentences in fiction? He mentions four things: sentences should surprise, be true, be beautiful, and turn “the mind toward original questions, first principles, the deepest sort of search for meaning.” Barthelme’s exercise encourages those performing it to consider possible examples in the light of each of these criteria. As high as these expectations are, Hamid’s sentence meets them.

His sentence also illustrates two other principles. The first is that setting reveals the characters. Readers come to know and understand these characters because they are seen in this particular place. The objects that they have chosen to surround themselves with helps identify the characters.  Saeed’s father, having kept objects that belonged to his wife, is jolted from the present as he encounters them. Nadia, encountering objects from Saeed’s past, is reminded of her own. Saeed experiences nostalgia as he rediscovers a childhood room. In all of these cases, characterization and setting blur.

Secondarily and similarly, characterization and plot blur. The characters in this sentence are all responding differently to the death of Saeed’s mother. Their responses involve tiny changes in how they see and are in the world. What has happened to these characters has changed their way of being in the world. Their encounters with the objects and the place around them, the sentence clearly suggests, is different than it had been. Saeed’s father’s consciousness is swept from its current moment, Nadia finds connections between her past and Saeed’s, and the setting conjures up memories of a better era for Saeed. Characters acting or being acted upon, even in these subtle ways, are forms of plot.

And it would be easy to go on by considering how characters can mesh in thematically significant ways like they do here, or how the sentence is organized, or this sentence and Charles Baxter’s counterpointed characterization from his book Burning Down the House.

If you want to do any of these things, Hamid provides a model.

Humor and what readers know

“For example, let’s say you have a main character whose feelings can be hurt if he’s spoken to sharply—unlike you, ha-ha-ha. Say he is also a little like you in the sense that when he gets a bit depressed or tense, he heads for a rib joint to eat a pound of burned, fatty meat. So he is perhaps also a little overweight—not that you are overweight. I’m sure your weight is just fine. Anyway, let’s make him someone who works in an office, someone who’s been pampered—what could he say that lets us see this?”

from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott

Lots of interesting things going on in these sentences. Humor is one of them. The suddenness, the surprising transitions might be part of this: “spoken to sharply–unlike you, ha-ha-ha,” for example, but also the end of the sentence after the next one: “not that your are overweight.” The sentence after that, “I’m sure your weight is just fine,” protests too much, as Shakespeare might say.

The use of second person and the distancing effect (“This ‘you’ is not me. Oh, no, no, no. Not me”) associated with it gives readers room to laugh, a bit, at how autobiographical a main character might be. At the same time, the persona doubles-down on the connection between the reader and the main character: “Say he is also a little like you . . . .” Readers can laugh at the autobiographical connection while knowing, to an extent, of its connection to them, humans generally, and Lamott’s persona.

The last phrase of the last sentence is a question, but one that the example before it answers. The persona is saying things that let the reader know the hypothetical main character is pampered, overweight, eats when depressed, and sensitive. Subtle and effective.

Lessons from reading

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson contains endless lessons for writers. Here are four:

  • Don’t be afraid to expand and explore. Rather than Netherland, which demonstrates the virtues of a tight focus, Cryptonomiconexplores widely and wildly. For example, I imagine a simple comparison like “The Vickers cut through the roadblock like a bandsaw cuts cheap wood” in a rough draft.  Stephenson seems to have revised by expanding both the tenor and vehicle of the comparison into long detailed paragraphs. The vehicle (a bandsaw) becomes a several page flashback from the narrating character’s past and the tenor (the Vickers) becomes a several page scene in the character’s present.
  • Stephenson seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the main subjects of his book: WWII, cryptography, information theory.
  • The novel consists of several long narratives that I expect to interconnect as the novel continues. Stephenson connects them thematically, obviously, but also by simply having the characters be related. The narratives take place years apart, but the characters are generally part of two families.
  • The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (a composition textbook) suggests what it calls the “Old/New Contract.” Old information, information readers either have already been told or can reasonably be expected to know, is presented before new information. The effectiveness of this for some forms of writing is obvious. But Stephenson builds many of the sections within his chapters (and the chapters themselves) in a “New/Old/New” pattern. This pattern seems likely to increase reader engagement because it offers at least some degree of surprise consistently. For example, characters often begin sections in new, relatively unexplained situations. The next paragraphs in the section explain some backstory, explain how the character got into that situation. Then the section or chapter ends with more new information, usually shown in a scene, pushing the narrative forward. This new information creates a new hook or “cliff hanger” to varying degrees, but always propelling readers on.

Opening (and continuing) with desire

Two quotations from “Silent Movie” by Charles Baxter in his collection A Relative Stranger:

She was tired of men’s voices, of their volume and implacability. She had the idea that she would spend the day not listening to any of them. She would just shut them off. She would try to spend the day inside images, instead. She wasn’t sure it was possible.


“Loretta,” she asked, back at the florist’s, “how do I get rid of this guy?”

“Darling,” Loretta shouted, “first ignore him and then just move out.”

What she wanted was a vacation from words spoken by voices below middle C.

The first quotation starts the story; the second is taken from about the middle of the story. In both, the character’s desire is articulated directly, very directly in the second. A plan is also implied, as is the question of how well it can be followed.

Characters with desires that readers are aware of and can relate to are often characters that readers find engaging and interesting. The central question of the story becomes whether or not the character will satisfy his or her desire. This question and the character’s reaction to dangers that would prevent satisfaction can create drama in the way Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, for example, outlines. The directness of the articulation of desire and the character’s own awareness of that desire also characterize effectively.

So, where and how will readers of the fiction you are currently working on become aware of the main character’s desire? What dangers to the satisfaction of that desire are there in your story? Obviously, these dangers don’t have to be dangers to physical well-being or health to be dangerous. And what a character desires doesn’t have to be exotic, shouldn’t be, really, to interest readers.