Tag Archives: Style

Say what’cha need to say (tension, part one)

Do you ever notice our conversations? Real life, normal conversations?

We don’t push buttons. We play nice and say good things and generally avoid conflict. At least I do. I really don’t like tension-filled conversations — they make my palms sweaty and they twist up my tongue.

In novels, however, conversations have to snap with tension. There’s no other way. Characters can’t talk about the weather or ramble about their days; they must say things that make other people uncomfortable or angry, they must bare their souls (or hide their souls), argue and gossip and lie.

Take, for example, this excerpt from FELL. Birch, having just gotten on the bus, sees Harley, this kid who doesn’t seem to have a home and also always appears on her bus routes. She sits down next to him. The scene doesn’t have much momentum yet, and it makes total sense for Birch and Harley to say hello. I mean, I would say hello. But “hello” doesn’t establish tension, start things off with a bang, or make me want to read (or write) any further. Instead:

“You’re early,” he says.

“Do you have my schedule memorized?” I choose not to be creeped out by it.

“It’s an easy schedule.” He rolls his head to one side so we’re almost nose to nose. He looks exhausted, shivery. His hair’s greasier and his eyes are darker, sadder, smudged with circles.

“Were you waiting for me?”

Now that is interesting (I hope). When your characters say unexpected things, push buttons, and dive into taboo subjects, your readers will get glued to your scenes.

But don’t try this at home — save it for the books.

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The Prose Test Kitchen (1)

I’m interested in startling prose.

Nobody likes prose that tastes like last night’s pizza. Or pizza in general. We’ve had it before. What we haven’t had, what we haven’t had is ginger and pepper and cumin and squash, sausage with apples and cranberries and maple syrup, garlic and roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions and basil and fresh mozzarella cheese. We want spices to singe our tongues. We want prose to explode in our mouths like some spectacular new dish that’s fresher than a farmer’s market.

table

This epic meal in Korea was definitely not pizza. But it definitely ranks among the best meals I've ever had: kimchi, vegetables, noodles, a pancake-thing, and Coke in glass bottles for dessert

How?

I just read Holy the Firm for my rhetoric class. It’s by Annie Dillard. I found myself underlining almost every sentence in the book — inhaling the strange and startling tastes of her writing.

Sample this:

“The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire.” (12)

And this:

“How may tons of sky can I see from the window? It is morning: morning! and the water clobbered with light.” (61)

Then there’s her account of the moth:

“One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. […] A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. […] All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax, a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.” (17)

Aren’t your taste buds twitching? Mine are. I think Dillard does a few things just perfectly to accomplish this, and the thing that I am trying hardest to work on right now is:

Using unexpected verbs

Personal favorite: “the water clobbered with light”. I can just picture it: sunlight dancing hard and bright on the ocean. And Dillard captures it all in one word.

From the moth passage: Dillard uses an endless string of verbs to describe fire. “Frazzled”, “clawed,” “ceased”, “crisped”, “crackled”.

I feel like I’m writing an English paper on style. But really, what I’m trying to say is, don’t stick to same-old, same-old. I think we so often get lost in the masses of boring verbs that are lying around in the dictionary and forget about all the exciting ones. Or we forget about sticking boring verbs where they might not belong — to make them exciting.

Example from Dillard again: “the cat poured from her arms and ran” (40). I think the verb “pour” is boring. Sunshine pours, lemonade pours, rain pours. But cats? They don’t pour. Until they do — and we want to applaud from the joy of it.

Try using unexpected verbs

I think of this as a lab experiment: make explosions. Mix things together that shouldn’t mix. Fold a piece of paper in half — and keep it folded so you can’t see the other side. First make a list of ten nouns… Then flip over the paper and make a list of ten verbs… Now throw them together. Make sure they wouldn’t normally fit. For example:

rose/stir

boots/shout

pencil/cut

Make ten sentences out of these combinations. Sometimes they might be goofy; that’s okay. I came up with:

The roses stirred perfume into the air

The boots shouted a designer label

The pencil cut squares, shadows, shapes into the sketchbook.

Don’t stick with the usual (sunsets painting color across the sky, rain dumping from the clouds, etc.) Go for bold — go for explosions — go for new tastes.

(Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.)

Tomorrow: Prose Text Kitchen (2) pulls apart Dillard a little more

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