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.
  • Character 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 so different from each other?

Learning from Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once.

from Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

This is the first sentence of a novel written in 1952. The novel is good and this sentence is excellent.

First sentences should include at least one implied question, a compelling question that leads readers into the text in search of an answer. The sentence quoted above includes an implied question about at least the life of the old queen’s baby daughter. It is easily read as including questions about the relationships between the queens and the king. Most compelling is the question of what the king does next. What happens to the baby? The rest of the novel answers that question.

The strategy of implied questions can and should be used at the beginning of chapters as well. Before answering any one implied question, be sure at least one other has been asked. A story or novel might be organized or outlined as a long series of related implied questions and answers.

Characterization and the 36 questions

Perhaps I should start an “Exercises” category for posts? I’ll think about it. While this post is much closer to an exercise than the sort of thing usually found in “Reading Like a Writer,” I hope it is useful in the same way.

The questions below are a revision of Arthur Aron’s research into creating emotional intimacy between individuals. His work suggests 36 questions. They are best asked and answered in the order below. After you have answered them, consider which answers might be expanded into engaging scenes for readers.

Answer these questions to help create a character or characters.

SET I

  1. Given the choice of anyone in any world, whom would this character want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would this character like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call (or communicating in general), would this character ever rehearse what they are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for this character?
  5. When did this character last sing to themself? To someone else?
  6. If this character were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of their life, which would they want?
  7. Does this character have a secret hunch about how they will die?
  8. Name three things this character and you or another character appear to have in common.
  9. For what in this character’s life do they feel most grateful?
  10. If this character could change anything about the way they were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and free write this character’s life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If this character could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

SET II

  1. If a crystal ball could tell this character the truth about themself, their life, the future or anything else, what would they want to know?
  2. Is there something that this character has dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t they done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of this character’s life so far?
  4. What does this character value most in a friendship?
  5. What is this character’s most treasured memory?
  6. What is this character’s most terrible memory?
  7. If this character knew that in one year they would die suddenly, would they change anything about the way they are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to this character?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in this character’s life?
  10. Draft a brief exchange in which this character describes a positive characteristic of another character while listening to themselves described positively. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is this character’s family? Does this character feel their childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How does this character feel about their relationship with their mother? Their father?

SET III

  1. Make three true “we” statements for your character and one other character. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence for your character: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If this character were going to become a close friend with another character, what would be important for the second character to know.
  4. What might this character like about another character? What might this character like about another character they have been friends with for decades?
  5. What has been the most embarrassing moment in this character’s life.
  6. When did this character last cry in front of another person? By themself?
  7. If this character were to die with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would they most regret not having told another character? Why haven’t they told them yet?
  8. This character’s house, containing everything they own, catches fire. After saving loved ones, they have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  9. Of all the people in this character’s family, whose death would they find most disturbing? Why?

Learning from Pynchon

“They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator, scrambled inside, and begun to plunge earpoppingly hellward, aged fluorescent bulbs buzzing and flickering till the brakes caught just when it seems too late, and they bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground, which led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile, where they exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain where they could hear in the distance the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters, merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up.”

from Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

  • This sentence is a summary of a journey. Summary, creative writers rightly worry, can be uninteresting. What makes this walk after an elevator ride engaging?
    • The context is one answer. The sentences before this suggest a chase is beginning. The characters are in danger, but even without that context I think this summary holds readers’ attention. Context alone is not enough.
    • While it is a summary, the sentence uses particular sensory details. It is specific and evokes sight and sound and perhaps a sense of movement.  
    • Word choice matters. “Oversized,” “scrambled,” “plunge earpoppingly hellward,” “bloomed,” for example. Almost every word manages to be interesting or a small surprise.
    • Finally, figurative language helps make the sentence interesting. After all, according to the first few pages, the elevator is a mouth and characters are inside.
  • The sentence begins at the beginning of the journey and ends at the end of the journey.
  • The length or structure or shape of this sentence is part of what is interesting about it. To illustrate, what would it be like as a series of shorter sentences? Would it be less or more engaging?
    • They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator. Scrambling inside, they began to plunge earpoppingly hellward. Aged fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered till the brakes caught just when it seems too late. They bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground. It led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile. They exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain. In the distance they could hear the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters. The sounds merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up
    • Obviously, rendered in shorter sentences, the reading experience has changed. Is it more or less likely to interest readers?
  • As the sentence ends, it returns to a larger theme, in this case the environment.

Consider trying something like this.

Learning from King

“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.

Learning from Kingston

“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?

On characters alone

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?

Learning from Katherine Heiny

“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.

Learning from Chekhov

“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?

Reading Like a Writer: T. Kingfisher

“If you have ever tried to stay afloat on a pair of magic bread slices, then you know what it’s like.”

from A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

The equally delightful sentences before this one provide some context. Basically, the main character is trying to escape pursuers and persuades two pieces of bread to act as tiny pontoons (one for each foot) so she can cross a river.

Here are some thoughts about this sentence:

  • This is an excellent example of incidental, non-infodump worldbuilding. It appears organically in the text. It is not boring or long. It does not impede the narrative’s momentum. The best worldbuilding happens similarly.
  • An impossibility for readers is not one for characters. This creates surprise for readers out of the mundane for a character. The subtext, or the character’s assumption, is something like “You might have done this. What? No?” That assumption of the possibility of common experience–even this experience–helps create a closeness between readers and this character.
  • The cliche “you know what it’s like” does at least two things. The first is a surprise as readers realize that no, they can’t know what it is like. The second is an appealing gesture of good faith: What’s possible for me might be possible for you. The characterization in the gesture of good faith outweighed any distancing caused by the realization that the character and I are in different worlds. I was instead charmed by it.

Consider an mundane possibility for a character of yours that is probably impossible for readers. How might it be casually, incidentally presented in a way that indicates good faith and community?