Last week, I saw the Matisse’s Red Studio exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The show features the painting after which it is named, but also focusses on the artist’s other works, especially those featured in the Red Studio painting. It is a really good exhibition and I enjoyed it immensely as an art lover. I also learned a lot about Matisse’s creative process, and as I often do when examining another creative’s method, found things I can incorporate into my own writing process.
The MOMA’s gallery cards are exceptional. Instead of just listing the name of the piece, the artist, and the medium like most museum’s do, the labels which accompany the art at the MOMA often include full paragraphs about the work which contextualize the piece and give some insight into both the importance of the work and, when known, the artist’s process or artistic vision.
One can learn a lot by reading the cards. For example, I learned that not only was Matisse a tinkerer, he often left vestiges of the original, or drafting, stages of his work in the final piece when he revised. Take, for example, this painting.
The position of the leg was obviously changed, which can be seen in the extraneous line near the lower half of the extended leg. There is also evidence that Matisse tinkered with the position of the figure’s arm (on the same side of the body), which he attempted to disguise in the shadows.
Here is the same painting with the relevant areas highlighted.
In many of the other paintings, the viewer can see pencil lines, presumably from the sketches he made on the canvass before he started to paint. They are not noticeable at the distance from which one usually photographs a painting, but up close, you can see them clearly. Here is an example:
What struck me most about these pieces was not that Matisse revised so much as part of his process. The world of the writer–and I assume the artist as well–is oversaturated with advice about revising one’s work. Revision is part of the process and it is par for the course. Rather, what stood out to me was that these vestiges remained in the final piece.
Many writers, many artists, many creative people in general, will work on their pieces in a futile pursuit of perfection. I have been guilty of doing so myself, working on a piece right up until the deadline, trying to make it as perfect as possible before submitting it for publication. I make sure to give myself deadlines, to seek out open call with hard deadlines, and rarely self-publish because I often get in my own head about revision.
There is an old saw in the creative world, “Finished, not perfect,” and like most oft-repeated advice it has become cliché and, in doing so, has lost much of its impact. It’s something people say, post about on social media, and hang up on posters in their classroom, and then ignore when it comes to their own practice. Seeing the Matisse pieces on the wall–and reading the gallery cards–is much, much more impactful.
Because, here’s the thing: No one notices the mistakes when looking at the paintings on the wall. Those who did not take the time to read the gallery cards, most likely, did not notice them at all. I certainly did not until I after the labels pointed them out to me. As someone who sees every mistake in everything I write, even–and especially–after its published, there’s a powerful lesson in that.
In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.
While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.
Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.
There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.
Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense, The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.
Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.
One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:
AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling
If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.
The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.
When I wrote my poem, The Widow’s Walk which was recently published, fittingly, in Love Letters to Poe, I attempted to emulate Poe’s alliterative style. The opening line of the poem reads:
She wends her way around her walk And round and round she goes.
Scanning the opening line, we get:
she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK
The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)
Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.
The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.
Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:
But why alliteration? Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables? It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.
Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.
Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.
Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:
Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.
Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.
In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.
Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).
When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!
Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.
I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.
So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.
While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.
The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.
The Knights of the Round Table were considered the paragons of a certain kind of chivalric virtue throughout the Arthurian legends. While martial prowess was a key component in their reputation, and an important qualification to join the august company, the knights were also supposed to follow a moral code and to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their status as members of King Arthur’s court. Failure to abide by the knights code would bring shame, expulsion, or even death. The greatest of the knights, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristam, etc are praised just as often for their gallantry, for the chivalry, and for their refusal to unfairly take advantage of others even when doing so would benefit themselves, as they are for their victories in battles or tournaments.
Fred Rogers is considered a paragon of modern virtue. Throughout his life, he championed kindness, understanding, and education in a way few other have. He is nearly universally revered among Americans of a certain generation, and even after his death, he is often quoted, memed, or cited by those who promote the values he has come to represent.
Beyond their status as role models, however, there seems little that connects Sir Lancelot with Mr Rogers beyond the quasi-medieval setting of the Neighborhood of Make-Beleive…or so I thought.
Recently, I’ve been re-reading Le Morte de Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, which is considered by many to be the authoritative text about the Arthurian legends. Currently, I’m in the middle of the 11th book, which tells the tale of Sir Lancelot. The first 3 chapters of that book tell of how, through deceit and and magic, Dame Brisen fools Lancelot into sleeping with Lady Elaine, King Pelles’ daughter, in order to fulfill the prophecy that the child Lancelot would beget of Elaine would be Sir Galahad, the knight destined to find the Sangreal.
I was not thinking of Mr. Rogers when I read this, even when the phrase “Lady Elaine” appeared, until I came across this passage from chapter 3:
The close mention of “lady Elaine” and the phrase “fair child” recalled the character Lady Elaine Fairchilde, the proprietor of the Museum Go Round, and general thorn in the side of King Friday the 13th from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Did Mr. Rogers have this passage in mind when he named the character? Apparently not. According to the official Mr. Rogers website, Lady Elaine was named after Rogers’ adopted sister, Laney. Still, from now on, in my mind then two will always be connected.
In my own head canon, Lady Elaine, dubbed Fairchilde on account of her famous role in the Arthur Story moves to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to try and start a new life. Her ill-treatment at the hands of her father, King Pelles, has caused he to mistrust all kings, and her role as a pawn of a patriarchal prophecy has caused her to rebel and actively develop her strong, independent, contrarian personality. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse of how my weird mind works. For more silliness of this nature, follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
I write this just hours away from the Doctor Who Flux global premiere. Like many whovians, I eagerly await The Doctor’s return. In preparation, I’ve been watching the Wholloween marathon on BBC America, and, as I writer, I am, once again, amazed at the consistency of The Doctor’s characterization across their many regenerations. This is not a new thought for me. Recently, I presented on two panels about characterization, one which I moderated at Eternal Con, and one online at Inbeon Con, and when asked for an example of strong characterization, I pointed to The Doctor each time.
It doesn’t matter who is playing The Doctor (through we all have our preferences and favorites), The Doctor is always recognizably “The” Doctor. Sure, 9 was darker, 11 was sillier, and so forth, but, at the end of the day, despite the individual quirks of each regeneration, the character is remarkably consistent in most of the ways that matter, and while fans can argue over which version is “their” doctor, few would argue that any incarnation–even the ones whom were not their personal favorite–is not a legitimate, believable version of their favorite Time Lord.
Let’s take a step back and look at what a remarkable achievement that is. Many character descriptions start with the way a character looks. Well, no one is going to mistake Peter Capaldi for David Tennant, much less Jodi Whittaker. Sure their have been other long-running characters who have been played by different actors, but these characters, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Superman, each have a type, and most of the time certain costume elements which link their various incarnations across the years. Batman is going to look like Batman, as long he’s wearing the signature cowl. And yet, despite changes in physical appearance, age, and even gender, each version of The Doctor has remained, quintessentially, The Doctor.
Thus, there is something else that defines the character. In the 50th anniversary episode, The Doctors say, “Same software, different case.” The case, it seems, it unimportant, at least relatively, based on the analysis in the above paragraph. What is it that comprises that software? Is it quirky way the character moves? The way they speechify? The way they go from clueless to terrifying in the blink of an eye? The way they champion kindness and understanding? Their odd mix of arrogance and vulnerability? Their obsession with Victorian England out of all the places in time and space? These all seem like pieces of the puzzle, but not that which makes The Doctor essentially The Doctor.
That is my challenge to you, the writing community: We recognize The Doctor in all their forms as a masterpiece of characterization. Unlike much of what we’re taught about character description, this characterization has little to do with physical appearance, age, or gender. What are the essential traits that define this character? What makes us believe them–any and all of them–the first time they say, “I am the Doctor”?
Obviously, I have my own opinions on the subject, but I don’t want to cloud your analysis with my thoughts. If there is enough interest, I will write a follow-up to this post with my detailed analysis and response to your comments.
Please leave your response to this challenge in the comments. I look forward to reading and responding to your analysis.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden. It was a spectacular art show, at once timeless and original. Her sculptures and installations—unlike many that I have seen—integrated with and enhanced the pleasure of seeing the trees and gardens, and the bright colors, organic colors, and illusions of infinity were perfect for a late summer day spent walking around outside.
And yet, when I think about the name of the show—Cosmic Nature—I can’t help but think about how different it is from that which I normally associate with the word “cosmic.” When I think of the word “cosmic” I think of outer space, of the old Hayden planetarium I used to visit as a kid, and of the feeling of infinite falling I always experienced when the lights went out and the stars came on. I think of great powers, of Thor and Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, of brightly colored comic book pages by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. I don’t think of polka-dotted pumpkins.
Now, please don’t take this a criticism of Kusama, her work, or her title. As mentioned above, I loved the show. It is all part of a larger rhetorical point about the way each person’s experience affects the way they associate with certain words. What point? I’ll get to that in a moment.
I know…I know…
I will. But first…In my time, recently, hanging out with indie comics and horror writers, I’ve encountered a large community whose first association with the word “cosmic” relates to the work of HP Lovecraft. Now, I’ve never, personally been a Lovecraft fan: I prefer my horror gothic to cosmic (and that was before I learned about his racism), but his fans are legion, and, in the circles in which I now travel, it is as likely as not that the word “cosmic” conjures the images of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods as anything else in the mind of the person with whom I’m conversing.
These definitions of “cosmic” all derive from the same source, yet they connote very different things. According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the cosmic means either “Of or pertaining to the universe as an ordered system or totality; universal; immense; infinite.” It can also mean, “belonging to the universe as opposed to earth; extraterrestrial,” and “characteristic of the vast scale of the universe or traveling through space.”
Whether it’s the planetarium, Marvel’s power cosmic, Lovecraftian gods, or Kusama’s artwork (in which many pieces address the infinite through her use of mirrors, and where the polka dot motif is supposed to hint at the ways stars and planets are seen from vast distances) each of these uses of “cosmic” fits the dictionary definition. And yet, the mood and tone—the feeling one gets from each of these interpretations is vastly different, and, therefore, the connotation of the word—especially on first reading it in a new or unfamiliar context—is likely to be different for every reader (or viewer) depending on their own, personal experience.
About a month ago, I wrote about reading the dictionary with an eye for etymology. I suggested following Tolkien’s example and diving deep into word origins to find a subtext that gives a richness to your writing and a consistency to your themes. It is a technique that I still believe in, and I practice I intend to explore further. But, as a counterpoint, each artist must be aware that their audience’s experiences and contexts—and therefore their associations with certain words—may be different from their own. We all bring a piece of ourselves to our engagement with art, and there are a myriad of permutations within the cosmic vastness of the human experience.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about warm up exercises. Athletes warm up before competition, musicians warm up before performance, so it stands to reason that writers should warm up before they write.
There are many warm up exercises for writers, ranging from freewriting to Ray Bradbury’s noun exercise (the subject of a previous blog in this space), but today I would like to focus on an exercise recommended by a number of successful writers, which I’ve come to see in a new light recently: reading the dictionary.
I first heard about reading the dictionary during Chris Bohjalian‘s keynote address at the Rutgers Writers Conference a few years ago. Paraphrasing from my notes, Bohjalian recommended browsing the dictionary to find the “good” words, making a list of those words, and then trying to incorporate those words into your writing that day. I read the same advice in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which is, in my opinion is the best book currently available on the craft of writing. Naturally, I tried incorporating this exercise into my practice, but, admittedly, I was not consistent with it, and it became something I only did sporadically.
That all changed about a month ago when I read an article in the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition guide from the Bodleian Library. I had picked up the book when the exhibit traveled to the Morgan Library in New York, and the guide finally made it to the top of my TBR pile this year.
The exhibition guide contains images from the exhibit and biographical information about Tolkien, as one might expect in a coffee-table book from a museum exhibition, but it includes a number of scholarly articles on Tolkien’s life and work as well.
In the article “Fairie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” Verlyn Flieger discusses the etymology of the words “fairy/fae” and “forest” as they relate to Tolkien’s use of the terms in both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. While I, personally, disagree with some of Flieger’s critique of Tolkien’s treatment of fairy land, I found his discussion of the forest fascinating, not only in relation to Tolkien’s work, but also in its implications for the enchanted forest/woods in fantasy stories generally.
The word “forest” derives, through French, from the Latin word “foris” which means “outside.” The English word “foreign” has the same root. The native English counterpart is “wood” derives from the middle English “wode” which means both “forest” and “mad.” Thus it is not just the freudian symbolism of the shadows and the darkness that make the forest the perfect entry point into the magical realm, but the connotation of the English words “forest” and “wood”–outside/foreign and madness–as well. Tolkien, the consummate linguist surely was aware of these connotations, considering how precise he was in weaving his own magical spell (a word which, as Tolkien reminds us in his non-fiction writings means story in addition to formula for power).
Upon reading the article, I was immediately reminded of Bohjalian’s keynote and the dictionary reading exercise. I have begun to incorporate the exercise into my practice again, except this time I look beyond the words’ definitions, into the etymology section as well. (My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has a robust etymology section relating to each entry.) While I may never achieve the precision of Tolkien, I hope to incorporate some of the deeper magic connoted by the “good” words into my writing in the future.
In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
The Rule: Invisible Dialogue Tags
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to try to make your dialogue tags invisible. Write “said” rather than a more descriptive tag such as “exclaimed,” “lamented,” “cried,” etc. Theoretically, the word “said” is invisible; the reader does not notice it because it is so common. Moreover, the content of the dialogue should be sufficient, along with your descriptions of your characters’ actions and facial expressions, to “show” the emotion inherent in the statement. You should not have to “tell” the reader how your character feels.
Case Study: Timothy Zahn
By any measure, Timothy Zahn is a successful science fiction author. His Stars Wars novels created the Extended Universe, and his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is one of the few characters to survive Disney’s recent retcon. Zahn also won the Hugo award, the most prestigious award in the science fiction field, long before he started writing his Star Wars books. On a personal note, I have read and enjoyed Zahn’s books since high school. I have probably read more pages by him than any author except for Terry Pratchett.
Zahn has achieved this success despite not following the convention of invisible dialogue tags. As you will see from the examples below, he uses descriptive tags regularly, and even—and this so-called rule will be the subject of the next post in this series—the dreaded adverb.
Here is a page from early in his latest book, Greater Good, which is part of the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy. The relevant dialogue tags are highlighted.
The dialogue on this page includes “growled” (twice), “countered” and “said stiffly.” Although it does include a few traditional “said” tags as well. It would seem that Zahn does not always use “said,” and he certainly does not use the extent recommended by the “writing experts.”
Perhaps, you may be thinking, that as a best-selling, famous author, Zahn can get away with things that you or I can’t. I thought that might be the case as well, so I took a look at some of his earlier works. As it turns out, the dialogue tags on the above page are fairly typical of his writing.
Consider this page from Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s first Star Wars book:
If anything, the dialogue tags are more varied. Zahn uses “asked,” “reminded him,” “insisted,” “snorted,” and “agreed.”
You can see the same style in the following page, from Zahn’s 1984 novel Spinneret, which features tags like “frowned,” “groweled” (again), “interrupted suddenly,” and “agreed.”
Clearly, Zahn has been using varied dialogue tags throughout his career, and clearly it has not affected his ability to get published or his book sales.
Why is Zahn able to write successfully despite flouting the conventions of dialogue tags? I think the answer is pretty simple: He writes great characters and great stories. The fact that he created a lasting, memorable character like Thrawn is way more important to his success than whether or not he follows some minor craft convention, such as sing invisible dialogue tags.
As a community, I think we have become too obsessed with the minutiae of craft, fueled by the cottage industry of writing advice. It is much easier to critique someone’s dialogue tags after a superficial read than to get into the weeds and examine why the storytelling and characterization work or don’t work. I also believe that as a community, we discuss craft on a sentence and technique level to a far greater extent than we discuss basic storytelling and characterization. Like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I blame the modernists, but that’s a subject for another blog post.
To this point, I never noticed that Zahn broke convention when I read him in high school. I only began to notice it when I became a “writer” and began to be inundated with advice proclaiming conventional writing rules. It is important to realize that the majority of readers are not writers and do not read with an eye for such things.
Moreover, in doing this analysis, I realized that I tend to notice these breaks in conventions early on in a novel. The first example I chose was page 11 of a 400+ page book. This caused me to think of other unconventional dialogue techniques, such as the decision of certain “literary” writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz not to use quotation marks. Like Zhan’s descriptive dialogue tags, the unconventional use of dialogue trips me up toward the beginning of the novel, but I tend not to notice it as the work goes on.
It is my contentions that, with consistent usage, most styles of writing dialogue become invisible over the course of a longer work.
For the second straight year, I am editing the Comic Book School Flash Fiction Challenge. The challenge just entered step 2 (but it’s not too late to join), and here is the column I posted for this phase of the challenge on the CBS site, which includes my advice for writing Flash Fiction.
I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead—Mark Twain
Writing succinctly is hard. You must say what is essential—and only what is essential, remain laser-focused on what you wish to convey, and avoid digressions. You must drill down to the pure essence of writing, and tell your story in its purest, most distilled form. It is a task that writers like Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Cicero all lament takes time, often more time that writing a longer piece would. For those who are participating in the Comic Book School Flash Fiction challenge, that time is now.
The drafting step of the current challenge begins today on our message boards for Flash Fiction #2, and first drafts are due in fourteen days. Here are three suggestions for how to approach this particular challenge:
1. Consider writing a One-Twist Story:
When writing flash-fiction you don’t have space for complex plots. Eschew all sub-plots, and focus on a single problem in a single dramatic situation. Build suspense around one question, situation, or antagonist. Try to build toward a logical, but unexpected resolution, and hide this resolution from the reader for as long as possible. If you are successful, the reader should be both surprised and satisfied by your story’s conclusion.
The Twilight Zone is the gold standard for this type of writing. Think of the episode, Time Enough At Last, in which Henry Bemis, a bookish man who wants nothing as much as to read finds himself with all the time in the world, surrounded by books. Unfortunately, his glasses are permanently broken. The powerful ending is built on one twist. All of the characterization focuses on Bemis’ love of books and his frustration with a society that won’t let him read. From the opening scene in which Bemis reads David Copperfield at his job, to the scene where Bemis’ wife setting him up for ridicule by first asking him to read poetry to her and then frustrates these attempts and destroys his book, each scene stays laser-focused on the single aspect of Bemis’ characterization that will be important to the resolution. If Bemis had been a character in a novel or a movie, he would need to be characterized more fully, but in the shorter medium, focus is essential.The single twist ending can also be pulled off in comedic form.
In perhaps the most famous episode of The Honeymooners, the 99,000 Dollar Answer, the seeds that hint at the twist ending are sown throughout the early part of the episode. The writers engage in a classic misdirection framing the story around Ralph Kramden’s appearances on the gameshow, partially to hide those seeds, but there is still only one dramatic situation that leads to a perfect surprise twist ending.
In The Duel, my flash piece for the last anthology, I tried to affect a single twist ending. Reader have told me that were surprised by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s only 500 words. Read it and see if you’re surprised, then read it again and try to isolate the techniques I use to affect the suspense and hide the ending.
2. Consider putting your own spin on a traditional trope or cliché.
One of the hardest aspects of writing flash fiction for writers who are used to longer form writing is the lack of space for worldbuilding and backstory. When writing flash fiction, you must build a believable world quickly. Why not let the reader do some of the work for you? By using a trope with which the reader is already familiar, a writer can rely on that reader to do the world building for them. If you write what appears to be a classic fairy tale, a traditional horror, or noir crime story, half the work is done for you. The reader already knows where they are and what is supposed to happen.
The same can be said when using a seemingly cliched or trope-y character. Certain character types are supposed to act in certain ways: Prince Charming, the tragic hero, the undead monster, etc. Moreover, setting your story within a cliched trope allows you to subvert that trope to affect your twist ending. Consider Neil Gaiman’s masterful short story, Nicholas Was. (If you have not read it yet, read it before the next sentence. It’s only 100 words; I’ll wait) At the end of the story, Gaiman relies on the reader’s familiarity with the Santa Claus myth to affect his twist ending. The last three words of the story—”Ho, ho ho”—carry so much weight because the audience is already familiar with Santa Claus before reading the story. Gaiman has used something cliched and familiar to create something surprising and original.
In “The Duel,” I combine two common tropes, the duel at high noon from spaghetti westerns and the traditional high-fantasy wizard archetype, to create a new and different world. Because readers are generally familiar with the Western movie archetype, I could quickly establish the setting with details like the old-west saloon, the tumbleweed rolling across the road, and the townsfolk shuttering their windows. Because readers are familiar with the wizard archetype, I do not have to explain an elaborate magical system that allows the wizards to shoot magic from their staffs. The tropes have done that work for me. But, because I mash-up two unfamiliar genres, the story still feels fresh and new.
3. Consider using an unconventional or experimental narrative technique.
Because flash fiction is so short, it affords the writer the opportunity to experiment with form and language. An unconventional storytelling method can set your story apart and grab the reader’s attention. Readers will stick with an unconventional technique longer in shorter-form fiction, and this gives the flash fiction writer freedom to try out new things.
In her famous short story, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush uses multiple point of view shifts—including the dreaded second person—to affect the dramatic distance of the reader to the story. In “The Duel,” I use present-tense narration to create immediacy and build suspense. These techniques work better in short form writing than in long form writing. They make the reader uncomfortable, which has the contradictory affect of hooking them in the short term (hmm, this is new and interesting, I’ll give it a shot) and alienating them in the long term (This is just weird/difficult; I don’t want to put in the work to deal with it).
Flash fiction offers you the opportunity to experiment with unconventional techniques and forms without alienating the reader. Take advantage of that opportunity and be creative. Surprise yourself by writing in an unfamiliar way, and you will be sure to surprise your reader.
The drafting phase is the perfect time to experiment with these unconventional narrative techniques. If you write your draft in, say second person, and you don’t like it, it is easy to revise your narrative perspective in future drafts.
There are, of course, many more ways to approach Flash Fiction—many more than I have space for here—and I encourage you experiment with them all. If, however, you are having trouble getting started with the challenge—or if this is the first time you are attempting to write flash fiction—I hope you find these suggestions helpful.
Check out my appearance on Coffee With Skullgate in which Skullgate editor in chief, Chris Van Dyke compares my writing to James Joyce. We also talk about genre, science fiction, comics, and the new Skullgate anthology, Under New Suns, which includes my short story “I am I.”.
You’ve got to hook your audience from the beginning, is one of the most common pieces of writing advice out there. Your first paragraph, the first 5 minutes of a show or movie, page one of your comics story, that’s all you get before your audience makes a decision about whether or not to continue to engage with your creative project. For the most part, this is true—except when it isn’t.
There are many lists of great first lines in literature, from Charles Dickens, to Ralph Ellison, to William Gibson, and agents, by and large, ask for the first few pages of a novel—and only the first few pages—as part of the standard pitch packet. It’s a tried and true strategy that’s worked from Homer’s epics through the modern Bond movie formula…
…And then there’s WandaVision.
WandaVison began with a two-episode premier that viewers found confusing and slow. Many of my friends—especially those who were not familiar with the source comics—told me that they were “completely lost” after watching that first hour of the Disney+ television program. And yet, they kept watching. Now, the show’s viewership is so large that it’s threatening The Mandalorian as the most popular show on the streaming service, and reaction to the series—and to the slow-burn build—as been overwhelmingly positive.
Why did the audience stay? According to conventional wisdom with which I opened this blog, they should not have. Sure, some die-hard comics readers would have (they always do, even when they don’t like a program if only to have something about-which to complain), but that doesn’t account for the massive general audience.
I believe that the reason everyone stayed is trust. People stuck with the show because they believed in Marvel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After two-dozen movies, which brought comics characters into the mainstream like never before, the audience was willing to sit through the slow burn of the first few episodes because they trusted that the payoff was going to come. People like my wife, who hadn’t read a comic in over 20 years, liked the Scarlet Witch and wanted to find out what was going on with her, and trusted that, if her story fit into the storytelling universe that they loved, it was bound to be good. They stuck with the show, and they, thus far, have been rewarded.
It would be foolhardy to start a creative universe with a program like WandaVision. Even if it was good, there wouldn’t be enough people who would stick with it if it proved to be difficult to access. It was a smart move to open with a fairly conventional super hero movie like Iron Man. Once trust has been established, however, it frees the creative team to try different storytelling methods.
This concept is not unique to WandaVision. James Joyce’s work, for example follows a similar pattern. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while critically acclaimed, are much more conventional than Ulysses (to say nothing of Finnegan’s Wake).
As writers, we should all hope to, eventually, build the kind of trust with our readers that would free us to try different storytelling styles and to pace the action as we see fit. Until then, we should all continue to search for that perfect first line.