How To Beef Up Your Nanowrimo Word Count, Featuring Literary Techniques From Some Of Your Favorite Classic Authors

There are only a few days left in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), and I suspect that many of my fellow writers are going to have to hustle to reach their 50 Thousand word goal. If you find yourself behind, fear not. There are many of tried and true techniques you can use to beef up your word count, even at this late juncture. So, shelve your inner Hemmingway, fight off the tryptophan, and consider these strategies which were favored by some of history’s greatest writers:

Homer—Stock Epithets: Homer’s famous epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey were originally sung or recited orally long before they were written down. As such, they feature certain techniques that allowed the bard to recite them more easily. One of these techniques is the use of stock epithets and phrases. Characters, as well as certain other personified phenomena were described using stock phrases that were easy to remember and that bard could recite without thinking, allowing them to focus on remembering the upcoming lines.

Odysseus, the main character of The Odyssey, is often described as “man of misery” or “the man of twists and turns” (Fagles, trans.) How many times do you mention your main character in your novel? Multiply that by 3 to 5 depending on the stock epithet you choose, and, bam! That’s hundreds of words you can gain through a simple find and replace.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Homer uses stock epithets for many of his supporting characters as well, “wise old Nestor”, “Zeus who marshals the thunderbolts”, “Red-haired Menaleus, lord of the war cry.” The possibilities are limited only by your Dramatis Personae.

William Shakespeare—Hendiadys: As mentioned in last week’s blog post, Polonius, a character in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is prone to Hendiadys, or using two words connected by “and” to describe a single idea. Check out these examples:

Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous: (1.3)

But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty. (2.1)

That’s three words for the price of one, every single time.

Charles Dickens–Anaphora: Nanowrimo can be the best of times or the worst of times, the age of wisdom, or the age of foolishness, the epoch of creativity, or the epoch of crap, an era of productivity, or an era of procrastination, so who better to look toward to beef up your word count to the man who was, famously, paid by the word early in his career? Dickens style tended toward verbosity, he often used multiple similes and metaphors to describe the same object, and, as in the example parodied above, he would, from time to time, use three or four sentences or phrases, layered on top of each other, to describe what most writers would describe in one. That style worked for him, and became his trademark. While your own narrative style may not be Dickensian, you can still steal some of his techniques to push you over that final word count hump.

One technique to consider is Anaphora, or the repetition of a word or a phrase at eh beginning of a sentence. Dickens uses it, expertly, in the following excerpt from Book 1, Chapter 5 of A Tale of Two Cities:

The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

That’s eight repetitions of the word “hunger” in one paragraph, seven more that you probably would have written. Additionally, the Anaphoric repetition gives a framework for the type of repeated descriptions delimitated above. Moreover, while Dickens style is considered antiquated in today’s literary circles, anaphora is still a commonly used device in modern parlance. Because it emphasizes an idea through the repetition, it is considered a powerful rhetorical technique, and it’s often used (along with its sister device epistrophe, which is the same type of repetition at the end of a sentence) in political speeches to this day. (Martin Luther King’s I have a dream for Anaphora; Barack Obama’s Yes, we can for epistrophe).

So don’t despair. Get to it. Bang out those words, and achieve your Nanowrimo goals.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Everything I Needed To Know About Writing Character, I Learned From Sesame Street

Everything I needed to know about characterization, I learned from Sesame Street. I just didn’t know it at the time. Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but watching the show as an adult—and as a writer—I am consistently amazed by how well the muppets are characterized.

Sesame Street celebrated its 50th birthday last week, and with that milestone, this seems as good of a time as any for me to write about what authors can learn from the show. While there are, of course, many aspects of writing in which the show excels, the one stands out most is the characterization of the beloved muppets, which is orders of magnitude better than any other children’s program on tv today.

Most other kids’ shows (and as a stay at home dad on childcare leave, I watch a lot of children’s’ television) feature flat,  one-dimensional characters who are known for a single character trait: the smart one, the leader, the clumsy one, the shy one, etc., and a catch phrase. The simplicity of the characterization and the repetition of the catch phrase drives home the characterization for young viewers, and informs the way the character interacts with the both the plot and the message of each episode. The shy one has to speak up in order to save the day; the leader has to learn to accept help from his team; the clumsy one learns gymnastics or karate, etc. The young viewer recognizes these traits in themselves and understands the lesson each episode teaches. That characterization is driven home by the catch phrase, which repeats throughout the episode and provides a shorthand for children to identify – and identify with—the character. Ultimately, though, these characters are flat, and adult viewers and older children find these over-simplified characters –and especially their loud, repetitive catch phrases annoying (just ask any parent forced to sit through multiple episodes of Paw Patrol).

Sesame Street, on the other hand, provides much rounder, more realistic characterization. While it is true that many of the characters, especially in recent years, are associated with specific traits (Grover and Abby are prone to mistakes, Bert is fastidious, Telly is a worrier), and while there are characters with catch phrases (Oscar the Grouch, “Scram” and The Count, “They call me the count because I love to count things, ah, ah, ah.”), the characterization does not end there. Generally, the muppets have fully-formed personalities that fit E. M. Forsters’ definition of round characters, they seem like they could walk out of the screen and exist in our world.

There are many factors that contribute to this complex characterization, and, of course, a large portion of the credit goes to the muppeteers, from Jim Henson and Carol Spinney on down to the contemporary artists whose performance gives the characters life, but there are also techniques inherent in writing that contribute to each character’s unique personality. I would like to focus on just one for this post: the way language gives each character his or her own unique voice.

Let’s examine Cookie Monster, who is one of the most beloved recognizable of the muppets. While Cookie Monster does have a strong primary trait (he loves to eat cookies, duh!) and some catch phrases (Cowabunga! And Cooookies om nom nom), he feels more round than characters on other kids programs. He has a sense of humor; he is impulsive; he is emotional; and he has an active imagination. He also has a very unique way of talking.

If you have not seen the show in a while, watch this brilliant spoof of Jurassic Park to remind yourself about the way Cookie Monster Talks:

In the first minute or so of the video, all of Cookie Monster’s major speech quirks manifest:

–He consistently uses the objective pronoun, “me” in place of the subjective case “I” ex: 0:22—“me take little piece of cookie found in zillion year old rock”

–He uses “no” or “not” in the place of contracted negatives, like “don’t or “won’t” ex: 0:48—“Me not know; me no see it yet.”

— He often, though not always drops (doesn’t use) “to be” verbs (is, are, etc.) ex: 053 “Ok, that one big cookie.

–He drops the article (a, the) from his sentences most of the time, except when clarity would be sacrificed, ex: 1:01 “Is giant prehistoric cookie chasing us?”

Cookie monster repeats these speech quirks many times throughout the video. Notice how these speech patterns appear consistently throughout the five minute sketch. Notice as well, that the famous Cookie Monster catch phrases don’t appear until the final minute. The scene runs 4:50 before the first “cowabunga”, yet, throughout, it feels and sounds exactly like Cookie Monster should.

Here is another, older, sketch which features Cookie Monster. Watch it to see how remarkably consistent these speech quirks have been over the program’s 50 year run.

Cookie Monster is not the only character on Sesame Street who features syntactical quirks as a major part of his or her characterization. Elmo never uses personal pronouns to describe himself. Grover never uses contractions. Less obviously, Big Bird, at least when he was played by Spinney, punctuated his speech with “Oh” (Oh boy, Oh dear). The common, maybe even the official explanation of these speech patterns, is that these characters mimic children’s speech patterns at various ages and in various stages of development, but these syntactical signatures also mimic the way real people speak. 

In Neil Gaiman’s Master Class, he suggests that an author’s voice is what happens when they don’t do things perfectly. These quirks of style, he says, make the writing unique and identifiable. They comprise a key element of the author’s voice. Narrative voice, however, is only one kind of voice. Individual characters also should have their own voices, distinct from that of the narrator. Unfortunately, many authors struggle with this aspect of writing. Giving your characters unique syntactical quirks in a great way to address this issue. Going back to E. M. Forster’s definition of round characters—one that can come off the page and exist in real life—real people have their own specific syntactical quirks. No one speaks perfectly all of the time (and if they did, that, in and of itself, is a differentiating quirk), and, as Gaiman said about author voices, these mistakes make us who we are.

The writers of Sesame Street are not the only ones who use this technique. No less of a writer than William Shakespeare used it brilliantly in his most famous play, Hamlet. In that play, Polonius’ speech is marked by the literary technique, Hendiadys, the expression of a single idea using two words, connected by “and”. Hamlet, himself is prone to apostrophe (address to an inanimate object or concept as if it is a real person), and comparisons using Greek mythology in which he comes up short next to the person or god with whom he compares himself.

The modern paradigm for this technique is Yoda, from the Star Wars universe, who, famously, inverts his sentences (though there is way more to his syntax than most people realize—Look out for a future blog post analyzing his speech patterns).

There are many examples from which to choose. If you want to practice this technique choose a character from a book, movie, or show who has a distinctive manner of speaking and try to write a speech for that character. Read the speech out loud, and analyze the extent to which your speech sounds like the person whom you are trying to emulate. Repeat the exercise with a different character whose speech pattern is more subtle, or with someone whom you know in real life.

Another way that you can work on this in your own writing is to add a character’s syntactical signatures and speech quirks into your character profiles. Instead of just describing the character’s physical appearance and background information, sketch out their speech patterns as well. You learn a lot more about a person by listening to them speak than by knowing how tall they are or what color eyes they have.

Using syntactical quirks as a method of characterization is a technique that I’ve encountered throughout my reading, writing, and teaching life. It is, like many things, however, something that I first learned from Sesame Street.

Happy 50th Birthday, Sesame Street!

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.