The ‘strange’ art of writing unforgettably

Orwell's clock.

Consider the opening: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (1984 by George Orwell.) What makes the sentence grip a reader is that most striking clocks (at least when the book was written) only went up to twelve. By twisting that one thought, this masterful writer twists the world, and gives us the assurance of a striking story to come.

However it’s not only a story’s world that can be twisted and made surprising by a writer’s word-use. Think of how the best ideas cause the mind to linger, going over and over what was written, either because it was unexpected in its phrasing or because its ideas felt surprisingly new.

Your eyes can glaze over a cliché, but they definitely have to take time with this: ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here’ (Sylvia Plath: Tulips); or: ‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’ (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

While poetry and comedy don’t have to use sensible imagery, think how a perfectly familiar idea such as seasons passing can startle the reader simply by being unfamiliarly put within ordinary prose:

She looked out of her window and, in autumn, she saw a blazing hill of corn and orchards where the trees creaked with crimson apples; in spring, the fields unfurled like various flags, first brown, then green.

— Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains

With a single eloquent image — ‘unfurled like various flags’ — Carter makes us see the change in seasons freshly, and with startling clarity. Such imagery helps build the theme, because in her novel individuals as well as tribes are constantly warring under an empty symbology.

Of course the above are mainly literary works. Would thematically-drawn imagery written in a startling way feel right in a book about heroes fighting one another on a colossal battlefield? Or in a novel about divorce? Or in a children’s book? Hell, yes. I can’t think of a single kind of literature that couldn’t use startling imagery or surprising turns of phrase. And yet in terms of modern writing, the art of making us see things freshly is perhaps the least consciously applied technique of all.

The father of the notion of ‘defamiliarisation’ (making things seem strange) is Viktor Shklovsky, whose essay ‘Art as Technique’ suggested that familiar things are only perceived automatically, so the job of art is to interrupt this process by making the familiar seem strange. In artistic terms, such ‘defamiliarisation’ slows down sense-making and draws attention to meanings that might otherwise be overlooked. However if making us see things freshly is the mark of a great writer, it’s also a mainstay of general prose. Aren’t we all told to avoid cliché? In essence Shklovsky’s technique is about resisting the ‘dead’ feel of clichéd representation.

Another writer who provides striking (indeed at times bizarre) description is Mervyn Peake (the Gormenghast trilogy). Here’s Peake’s description of a man’s head: ‘His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet and his eyes behind the gleaming of his glasses were the twin miniatures of his head.’ Or firelight: ‘When Titus awoke the walls of the cave were leaping to and fro in a red light, their outcrops and shelves of stone flinging out their disproportionate shadows and withdrawing them with a concertina motion.’ In the case of the firelight Peake takes pains to slow the description down, only at the end of the long sentence showing that his comparison is to a concertina, by which time our brains are highly primed for recognition. Peake might well have been channelling Shklovsky in this slowing-down effect, because it certainly makes us dwell on the comparison involved.

Within the constraints of a novel’s style, defamiliarisation can be either overt and lavish or understated and subtle. Clearly Peake falls in the ‘overt’ class, particularly in his descriptions of elderly character Flay, whose arrival in a scene is often presaged by the present characters overhearing ricochet sounds (which are his old knees popping as he walks). But any time a phrase rings in mind, it’s worth asking yourself: ‘Why does this phrase work so well?’ You may find it’s not because the ideas are new or striking in themselves, but because the phrasing makes them seem sharper than expected.

We write and work in a world in which styles, characterisations and indeed entire storylines can quickly become gallingly clichéd. Whether you wish to attempt a feat of novel-length defamiliarisation or write a fantasy adventure novel, understanding how to twist an idea or concept just enough to make it seem new is in a very real way the art of all fiction. To that end, techniques like delaying meaning, increasing sentence length at an unfamiliar time (e.g. during a supposedly fast scene), or searching for fresher imagery at strategic points can help underscore a mood, tone or theme, and are always worth the effort if you want your work to rise above the morass of everyday writing.

Meanwhile one of the greatest pleasures in reading is surely the sense of discovery when a familiar meaning is newly and aptly put. It’s like a bolt of lightning that strikes the whole brain. If so, call me Frankenstein’s monster, but I want more!

Adding style with language and syntax

There are few better places to start when discussing language and syntax than William Gibson’s first line in Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Here the writer uses short, punchy syntax and flat — almost atonal — language. This is cool, deadpan, economical storytelling that tells in one line all you need to know about place, so the author can cut immediately to action. You could easily feel reminded of the way a detective might describe a crime scene.

At first glance there’s a similiar flatness to Angela Carter’s opening line in Heroes and Villains, using the ‘hook’ of contrasted emotional extremes:

Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful but her father loved her.

However the language and syntax swiftly become longer and more complex, with few pauses and strong reliance on metaphor:

Marianne sat at table, eating; she watched dispassionately as the hands of the clock went round but she never felt that time was passing for time was frozen around her in this secluded place where a pastoral quiet possessed everything and the busy clock carved the hours into sculptures of ice.

As you’ve probably realised, the lack of commas or pauses actively embodies the monontony being described. Time is apparently slowed down for the reader, just as it is for the character.

This altered syntax also, as it happens, draws attention to the constructedness of the narrative. For some readers this comes at the expense of immersion. However for Carter’s intended audience, there’s an extra pleasure in unpacking the levels at which the writing works.

While Angela Carter pays lurid attention to the workings of language as such, Gibson, no less aware of meaning, prefers to shock and move on. Rather than using extended description and underpunctuation to make single moments linger for a long time, Gibson delivers information like body blows. Yet in both cases each writer uses language and syntax extremely effectively to deliver setting and mood.

It goes without saying, questions of syntax and language are strongly tethered to audience; you’d hardly employ multisyllabic words and complicated syntax for a young readership. But you can certainly work magic within such boundaries, and it’s always a pleasure for any reader to know the writer has constructed meticulously.

There are many ways to use syntax strategically. For instance, can you deliver a fight scene more powerfully if you use shorter words and cut more swiftly between moments or ideas? Or does such brevity itself become a sort of stylistic cliché?

Perhaps you could render something that happens quickly in a slowed-down, jellified way. What would this say about the situation, the characterisation and the narrative? For instance, it might hint at your character’s extremely methodical, planned way of fighting, in which we have time to see him or her measuring each action and reaction before the next blow. Alternatively, slowed-down description might hint at a character for whom fighting is utterly alien and therefore every moment seems preternaturally heightened.

Whatever you do, varying syntax is as vital to reader engagement as any other single device (even characterisation). If Carter’s underpunctuated floridity continued for page after page, even the most dedicated literary believer would start to drift away. If Gibson never departed from clipped, staccato language in favour of more intricate description he’d have driven readers away too. If you find a scene is flatter than it should be, consider how varying sentence length and structure (e.g. adding or deleting punctuation points) can help increase the writing’s energy.

In the end, writing that ignores the ways syntax and language affect mood, setting and reader engagment might as well be tuned to a ‘dead channel’. But when these devices are used consciously to create an effect — and especially when they draw links to ideas or themes — the writing can live both on and off the page.

When is telling really showing?

An old adage of fiction writing, oft-quoted, is ‘show, don’t tell’. But what, then, to make of this novel opening:

I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.

I’m totally pissed at my old man who’s somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don’t know where. The check wasn’t in the mailbox today which means I can’t go to school Monday morning. I’m on the monthly program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything […]

It’s Story of my Life by Jay McInerney, and it’s pure telling. But notice how full it is of devices: figures of speech (‘this shit’, ‘totally pissed’); tone (aggrieved); rhythm (punchy, fast, with sentences lengthening and punctuation reducing to suggest increasing hostility)? Can’t you just see the character in her late 80s pre-slacker nightshirt and leggings, fiddling with the phone because her Dad’s secretary has put her on hold?

It channels Holden Caulfield, of course (‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’) and sounds like a conversation overheard on a bus, but isn’t that the point? The work is telling, but inside the telling is so much characterisation, it doesn’t just narrate the story, it embodies it.

Of course, the novel itself is full of incident and irony — it’s hardly a work that could be accused of using voice to paper over shortfalls in story. The narrator’s moods change, events affect her, she alters inflection and swaps anecdotes midstream; but underneath it all is a tale of urban self-destruction propped up by the nostalgic wish for myths of true love and happily-ever-after to prove real. This same thematic content could have been delivered in myriad other ways, such as through the arm’s-length third-person story of a young woman living at the edge of wealth with no real means to keep herself afloat and surrounded by a peer group bent on drug abuse and sexual uninhibition, something like:

Alison thought: ‘I don’t believe this shit.’ She studied the phone before pressing redial again and waiting, tapping a foot against the skirting board. One of her flatmate’s Givenchy heels stuck out under the bed next to a condom wrapper.

…but it wouldn’t have had the same feel, immediacy or freshness as it did (at least in 1988), and probably wouldn’t have seemed as real back then, either.

McInerney’s work shows us the value of enhancing ‘voice’ in narration, particularly when delivering details of characterisation and situation that might have seemed over-told and static if delivered in any other way. It shows that you can reveal as much or more about character simply through the expressions they use. Meanwhile one of the drawbacks of first person narration (that it’s harder to plant irony) falls by the wayside: of course there are ironies when a character is so caught up in the vicissitudes of a subculture and in staying ahead of the moment that she doesn’t notice her own self-destruction.

Thus it’s true that, in this case, telling is showing. That is, we learn as much about the character’s life from the way she speaks as by the content of her narration. Can you employ any of these tactics without a first-person narrator? Are any of the above devices useful inside other forms of exposition? That’s something for another article.

But for now, when using first person narration, remember that voice can turn ordinary telling into unbeatable showing.