oh, please

Browsing through novels while I waited in line at a local store, I happened on this line:

Her eyes exploded with merriment.

Now where do we even start with a sentence like that? The author wants to … what? Show us this woman is in a playful mood, I suppose. The author (this is an author; the book is in print) chooses to focus on the expression in the character’s eyes to establish her mood.

I put the book down immediately, but now I wonder, who in the heck had the point of view? Who was watching her eyes explode? The man she was talking to? Is this an omnicient narrator, seeing and knowing all things?

Eyes are hard. My advice? Stay away from them. Faces in themselves are hard — every face is basically the same, and eternally different — but eyes are the hardest. Mouths do contort, but eyes? None I have ever seen, thank dog. Eyebrows, wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, yes. But not the eyes themselves.

Now I have this urge to go look for prose about eyes that works. I wonder if I’ll find any.

PS There are other things wrong with this sentence, but I don’t think I can go on.

give your readers some credit

I like to think of this as a basic commandment: never underestimate your readers; treat them with respect, and they’ll hang with you.

That means, in part, that you don’t shove things in their faces. Let them watch the characters act and interact, and if you’ve done your job right, they will figure the important stuff out for themselves.

Maria Capstone was 87 but she was still sharp as a tack.

Boring, and a cliche, too. Try this:

In the ten seconds the Maguires spent wondering if they should offer to help the dignified old lady with her groceries, Mrs. Capstone had already hatched a plan to separate the newlyweds from their savings.


She liked to gamble.

Maria Capstone could get a craps game going in a nunnery.

As you may well have figured out by now, this is the same old “show don’t tell” thing you’ll hear every writing teacher spout. Because like most cliches, it’s true. So you give it a try with this boring, empty sentence.

Mr. Mahoney was very rich.

Empty words, wasted words. Let the reader see Mahoney being his priviledged, clueless self. Try it here:

first person narratives

There are fads in storytelling just as there are fads in clothes. A visit to any bookstore makes that clear; if you pick up a dozen new novels in a row a couple of things will ump out at you right away.

First person narratives are very popular just now, and have been for a while. The narrator tells the story to the reader, and thus we live in the narrator’s head and see the story only from the narrator’s limited point of view. I don’t particularly like first person narration, for exactly that reason. I think of it as the Charlotte Brontë approach, or the Reader, I Married Him school. In addition to writing first person narration, Charlotte Brontë was quite nasty about Jane Austen‘s work. Thus my scorn. Sniff. Scowl. (Quotes from Miss B about Miss A in the extended entry below.)

Okay, so I’ll admit there are many excellent first person novels out there. I just can’t think of a single one at this moment.

Now here’s the rub: the one place where first person narration works for me (in a limited way) is in epistolary form. If Character X writes a letter to Character Z, then I get to hear X’s voice, and I learn a lot about the relationship between the two of them. I am very fond of doing this for my own characters. It helps me figure them out in a way nothing else can. If Curiosity sits down to write a letter her voice sounds very clear to me, more so than at any other time. If the character wants to write a letter, I am very pleased to take dictation.

In general I love novels that mix up forms. Third person narration interspersed with letters, newspaper reports and advertisements (there’s another topic to write about here, old newspapers), legal documents. In my own work I don’t often use poetry as I’m not very good at it, though once in a while I have made a small exception.

Possession: A RomanceA.S. (Antonia) Byatt is a superior novelist and she also writes some of the very best literary criticism and analysis. For people interested in thoughtful, intense discussions about storytelling, her collected lectures are really worth reading. Otherwise I love her Possession: A Romance. Byatt is a former academic, and she dissects academia with laser-like precision in this novel. It’s everything in one: a well-plotted mystery, an intriguing love story (times two), an academic satire, a wonderfully done historical, a clear and striking picture of the lot of women (and especially women artists and writers) in Victorian England, and an ode to the poetry of that period. How this book didn’t get onto the lists of the century’s best is beyond me. Stunning prose, and first class storytelling. Possession is a demanding novel, one that has to be read closely and re-read many times to get all the complexities, but it’s so worth it. (I have also listened to it on tape, which was another wonderful experience).

Unfortunately, I can recommend the movie, which was a terrible disappointment.

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