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Archive for the ‘literary techniques’ Category

The poet and novelist Robert Graves once said, that, if asked on his death bed, he would say that the secret to writing poetry is to control your “s” sounds. I’m not in his league, but if I were to give any death-bed secrets about writing prose, mine would be to learn all you can about structure.

Turns of phrases are easy. From my years of teaching first year composition at university, I’m convinced that most people of average intelligence can learn to write a literate sentence. With a little extra effort, many can produce wit. If they’re stuck, reading their favorite writer – or, better yet, typing out a page or two from their favorite work – will influence them into efforts beyond their usual range.

Structure, though, is another matter. The typical high school model of an essay with an introduction and conclusion and three points in between isn’t nearly enough. Then, just to make matters worse, we don’t have a vocabulary that describes different ways to open or conclude a story or to deal with opposing views in an essay. As a result, most writers begin to work almost blind to structure, and without the words to think about it consciously.

For some writers, these conditions aren’t a problem. They learn about structure on an unconscious level through trial and error – that is, many drafts – and are happy. However, for most writers, these conditions mean uncertainty and wasted effort, especially when they are just learning their trade.

If you are one of the majority, you have only two ways to move beyond such uncertainty and waste: Constant practice, and at least a temporary obsession with structure.

The practice part is easy enough if you’re disciplined. Write every day and after a few hundred thousand words or seventy or eighty pieces of prose, and you are likely to arrive at a point where the necessary structure becomes clear to you as soon as you have your main idea or plot.

Meanwhile, though, you are apt to become frustrated. What’s worse, if you miss a few days of writing, you may lose your sense of structure to a degree and need to build it up again.

A more solid approach is to study structure consciously, so you get in the habit of thinking about it. That means, whenever you read a novel or an essay, spending some time thinking about the structure. You may even want to create a diagram, summarizing not only the main plot developments or points, but how they relate to the rest of the work.

Works that you especially like or dislike are especially useful, because you have the motivation of trying to understand why you have the reaction that you do. However, you can also work with stories that leave you relatively unmoved one way or the other, trying to create a new or alternative structure for them.

For any work that you spend time on, you can also experiment with how reordering them affects the result. If the work is really successful, you’ll find that you can’t change the structure without changing the plot or the argument. If you can rearrange the parts, then the work is likely flawed (or, possibly, you’ve misunderstood it).

This sort of study is difficult. You have to do it without support and very few resources outside of your own powers of observation. Moreover, for a time, you may be uneasily aware of reading everything you encounter on two levels: First, as a reader, and second as a writer-in-training who wants to dissect the structure. But keep on with the study, and you’ll soon start to build a repertoire of structural strategies you can apply to your own work. You’ll start to have the sense of the different ways you can put a work together, and even, at times, of when there’s a gap in the structure of what you have written.

Difficult? Of course. But if you really want to write well, you have little choice. Either you discover structure on your own, or you learn the craft from other writers – there are really no other choices.

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I first caught a glimpse of the power of allusions when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in Grade Six. As much as I loved the characters and was swept along by Tolkien’s sense of timing, what really struck me was all the passing references to thousands of miles of geography and thousands of miles of history. I didn’t know, then, that Tolkien had built up this material over decades. What mattered to me was the illusion of added depth created by the allusions. You didn’t need to know all the details — in fact, as subsequent Tolkien publications of the back story showed, you were usually better off if you didn’t, because what seemed magically suggestive in passing became unavoidably disappointing in detail. But, even at that age, I recognized an effective literary technique when I saw one.

Later, I saw it in a number of other books, including The Worm Ourboros by E. R. Eddison, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (when unsolved cases are mentioned), and in the Dark Border series by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. So it’s not a new device, even if you won’t find it taught along the memorized definitions of metaphor and metonymy that they teach in high school.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that, despite the enduring popularity of writers like Tolkien or Conan Doyle, it’s a device used most often in fantasy, which literary critics still distrust because of the whiff of popular culture that rise from them. Moreover, it requires a deft hand, and is harder to observe objectively than something as straightforward as a simile.

Basicallly, however, the art of creating depth through allusions lies in striking the exact balance between suggestiveness and mystery. The allusion has to be comprehensible enough that readers can get some dim understanding of it, but no more.

That lack of detail may seem lazy, yet it’s essential. Because the allusion is incomplete, readers have to fill in the gap themselves with guesswork. By doing so, they are drawn into the story-telling, and become participants in the development of the background.

The idea is the same, I suppose, as Stephen King’s observation that a horror writer has to use the appearance of the monster sparingly. The monster may be scary, King says, but its actual appearance will never match what the reader imagined. The writer may show a ten foot monster, but what the reader imagined was a sixty foot monster, and the reality will disappoint.

In the same way, an allusion explained is an allusion lost. When Tolkien mentions Lúthien and Beren, you know that it’s an unhappy love story and somehow applies to Aragorn. The tale in the appendices or in The Simarillion may be interesting in its own right, but it’s not nearly as poignant as the tale you imagine when you first read the allusion.

In the same way, has anyone ever read one of the pastiches that explains the giant rat of Sumatra that is half as interesting as the passing mention of the unwritten story that Dr. Watson makes in passing?

The technique is used mainly in fantasy, but it can be used more conventionally, too. For example, in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal, the title character explains that he is late for an event because he was attending the birthday party of a friend’s young daughter. As Zelazny himself observes, the line of explanation is technically unnecessary. All the same, he kept it in because it suggests that the character has a life beyond what is being told in the page, and that he’s the kind of person who, for all his toughness, would do such a thing. At the cost of maybe fifteen words, Zelazny gets an illusion of depth that enriches his effort. That illusion makes the allusion worth having, always.

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