David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Storytelling as a Fine Art, Part 3
In storytelling, I often point out that in order to engage a reader’s interest, we need to offer something strange. In other words, people become fascinated when they visit a strange new world or fantastic setting. They can also become engrossed in a character who thinks, speaks, or behaves in an unpredictable fashion. An unusual conflict can also grip your reader.
Yet if you study many an author in the mainstream, you’ll find that they strive to engage the reader primarily by offering up surprising language. In other words, if you’re writing about a guy named Joe who lives down the street in Everytown, U.S.A., he’s not going to be engaging as a person, nor is the reader likely to be riveted by the bizarre new Wal-Mart down the street. If his main conflict in life is that he’s squabbling with his wife over whether she should invest their savings on getting a hair extension, that’s probably not going to blow a reader’s mind. So what’s left in your arsenal?
Language—your own personal style and treatment of the tale.
If you pay close attention to certain writers, you’ll find that they use language in surprising ways in order to engage an audience. Let’s take J.K. Rowling, for example. Her Harry Potter novels have become a global sensation. Ostensibly, her first novel was a middle-grade book. But have you studied her language? It isn’t written at a third-grade level. Her sentences are a bit too long and convoluted. Her use of archaic words, and frequent use of multisyllabic words add further difficulty to the reading, as does her made-up words like “Muggles.” In fact, years ago I ran her work through various programs to see what level she was really writing at, and I found that she scored at a ninth-grade level.
So her work would actually be quite challenging for a younger child. In fact, when you’re writing for an adult audience, the rule of thumb is that you should be writing at a sixth-grade level, not a ninth-grade level. So Rowling writes in a surprisingly adult style for someone who is supposedly aiming her novels at children that have just graduated from reading picture books.
In fact, I believe that her work succeeds so well precisely because she does not “write down” to a child’s level. The strangeness and difficulty that her language evokes is actually rather enticing to both children and casual readers. Little kids will pick up her novels and proudly show their parents and teachers, “Look what I’m reading.” I know that they do it because when I appear at book signings I’ve had literally hundreds of parents tell me, “Oh, my son is a very advanced reader. He’s only nine, but he’s read all of the Harry Potter books!” For a child to read Rowling is a badge of honor.
There are dozens of other ways to surprise your readers, of course. One method is to use neologisms, modern slang, or regional dialects in your stories. If you have a character on the streets of New York who speaks with a thick Haitian accent, for example, it can give him that aura of uniqueness that you might be searching for. Just make sure that you’re fluent in the dialect that you’re trying to reproduce.
One of my mentors, the poet Leslie Norris, used to say, “Try to avoid using modifiers on nouns or verbs unless they’re surprising in some way.” In other words, if you had two people meet at the office in the morning, and a secretary smiles at her boss, you would probably not put the words “joyful smile” together. Smiles are usually joyful or mirthful. But what if you say, “A brief, desolate smile flashed like summer lightning across Serena’s lips,” you’ll attract our attention. Smiles aren’t often desolate. In fact, we create a sense of depth to the story that otherwise wouldn’t be there. By doing this, we infuse the tale with layer upon layer of underlying meaning. We create something of a mystery. Why is her smile so desolate?
Another popular method for surprising the reader is through the use of inventive similes or metaphors. You have to take care though. The metaphors need to be both surprising and accurate. “The air on the tarmac at Las Vegas was hotter than a bee sting, drier than yesterday’s biscuit.” That works for me. But it’s easy to go over the top and come off sounding silly. I read a story once for a contest in which a man had a headache so bad that “It felt like a herd of giraffes were stomping on his temple.” Now, I had to stop and try to clear my mind of the image of an entire herd of giraffes stomping on someone’s head. I just couldn’t do it, and so of course rejected the tale posthaste.
There are of course other ways to surprise readers with language. Combining high language and low language is one way to do it. Yogi Berra was a master at saying something intelligent one second and sounding like an idiot the next. “This is like déjà vu all over again!” “You’d better just cut that pizza into four pieces, cause I can’t eat six.” “Baseball is 90% physical, and the other half is mental!”
Perhaps the greatest author to study in this regard is Shakespeare. His contemporaries complained that between his use of neologisms, archaisms, twisted word orders, and invented language he was practically indecipherable to the common man of his day. All of that is true. Yet after 400 years he remains one of the most oft-quoted men alive.
So as an author, learn how to keep your reader entertained with surprising language. It will become one of your most valuable writing tools.
Less is More
At times you will want your prose to be as spare as possible. For example, when you’re writing a fight scene, it’s no time to slow down your pacing with long descriptions, or to ramble on about the vicissitudes of life. Can you imagine how a badly written scene might read?
“Trayvor’s sword flicked forward with a burst, like the tongue of an asp as it tastes the air. Only this time it tasted the orc’s blood.
“Oh. how Trayvor wearied of this. Orcs again, attacking in his favorite inn. He’d only come for a nice stout ale, dark and cold from the Innkeeper Gormath’s cellars! It had been three days since he’d had a fine brew, and now this!”
“The orc fell away, its red eyes bulging in its squinty green face. There was terror in its eyes. Even a hog knows when it’s doing to die, and orcs are far cleverer than hogs. This one had a black iron nose ring in its left nostril, and it gaped its mouth wide as it staggered backward, clutching a stool for support, its steaming breath hissing out in a cry, its yellow fangs slicing the air. The creature was surprisingly well dressed for an orc, all in black leather, like a movie producer.
“'Grissshta!' it called. Whether it was the name of the orc’s lover or a child, Trayvor did not know, but he suddenly grieved for his mortal enemy.
“Trayvor glanced up into the corner of the room, there above the firepit where a spinnerdog tread a weary circle, still roasting a ham above the hot coals even with the battle going on. There where the ceiling met the walls a yellow garden spider harvested a bluebottle fly.
"We are all caught in death’s web, Trayvor mused. Today I am the spider, but my time is coming soon. Someday, I shall be the fly.”
Oy, I think you see what I mean. I’ve read scenes like that a hundred times as new authors struggle to bring a fight scene to life. You don’t need all of that. It just gets in the way.
Similarly, I’ve seen those moments where a young woman suddenly gushes with newly discovered love, and the author will seek ways to convince us that her love is purer, larger, and nobler than any love that has ever blossomed within a woman’s breast.
That’s nice, but it doesn’t work. Your goal is not to describe how your character feels, but to create an experience that makes the reader feel the desired emotion. Your goal isn’t to describe how your heroine feels, it’s to make the reader fall in love.
Very often, it is not the overwrought description of an incident that arouses the emotion, but a nice spare depiction that simply makes the reader feel as he or she should feel.
Sometimes, less is more.
I'm going to make some changes to the format for the WRITING FOR YOUNG ADULTS workshop. This is in response to some of the good things that I saw happening earlier this year as I began applying some new teaching techniques. The first news is that I am going to limit the class size to 10 students.
I will also be adding a few new assignments to the class, and we will be doing more brainstorming in class. (The new limit on class size will help facilitate the brainstorming by allowing us to focus on each student.)
As a result of the smaller class size, the class is going to fill up quickly. The deadline to register for class will be May 20.