A couple of sobering thoughts this week along with home truths and lessons from the mouths of pre-teen upstarts. So, why wasn’t my son able to finish that manuscript I was testing on him… Story not quite exciting enough? Characters not believable enough? I thought I had put serious craft into this one.. Well, says my eleven year old, who’s just been through some pretty in-depth literary analysis of A Christmas Carol at school, the thing about really brilliant authors is that the emotional value is underpinned linguistically at every stage.
Well, he didn’t use exactly those words, but that was the gist I took away from the conversation. Could this be shaped into a valuable lesson or should I just bury myself along with my badly clobbered pride?
Staring into space over the heads of those engrossed in the Xmas X-box (will any writing get done in a home with such an addictive narrative engagement toy?), I did nurse a thought or two about the things that perhaps I was beginning to neglect, things that are first base-camp technique, ‘the basics’, yes, but those many essentials which, if we’re not careful, we begin to leave out.
What is it about the Basics? It seems to be the first thing to disappear for those of us who drift and dream and remain mediocre. It’s easy to become sloppy drivers who no longer check the mirrors and take corners in third gear. Really though, these basics should be so engrained that they can never be forgotten, like Ronnie O’Sullivan’s cue action or Nijinsky’s plié.
Those who are at the very top end of their game also seem to keep revisiting those basics again and again to see if they can claw an extra 0.002% advantage over similarly matched top-end opponents. Concert pianists don’t stop practising scales as they get among the big audiences. They don’t decide they can get away with a couple of bum notes in the andante as long as they’ve got a stack of big guns for the tortuous bit. No, the best musicians do more scales as they get better. They make sure every note has every possible chance of being perfect, just as Heston Blumental takes burgers to new heights by getting every element from bun to cheese to work its hardest, just as Brendan Rogers coaches perfection into each element of… well some analogies are better than others but you get the point. The last slow steep climb towards perfection may well require some more of what the beginners have to do – but better.
So, perhaps, for those who’ve improved a lot but are wondering where their next development is coming from, there’s some chance to improve a few elements by looking back at the writing basics. My chance this winter was to look at what kids are expected to deal with when faced with a page of prose in class, kids whose teachers are reading Dickens or Poe with them and asking ” so what words does the author use to make the mood more sad/scary/jublillant etc?”
Young literature students, those who are just beginning to recognise how textual features operate, are asking why the writer has used particular words in particular combinations; they will be looking at whether the word choices are commonplace or unusal, whether the sentence length makes us ponder or skip, what the combined run of images builds up to en masse; they will be looking at how all these things contribute to the emotional impact of the character, setting and point of narrative development.
For anyone who writes regularly these things tend to be as natural as adding decent punctuation. Yet if we stop every so often and try to become newly conscious of these things, our writing must surely improve. What effect does that comma have? What added value does that adverb bring? What stray connotations does that noun have?
Imagery into emotion
It’s a fact of basic literary intuition that, when given a choice between “shout”, “bellow” or “roar”, the last of these has intimations of power and ferocity that the two others do not. Lions roar. This could develop into a ham-fisted paragraph grunting with bestial allusions, of course, but it could also be a quick hint that is developed later, something that triggers a momentary recognition of leonine capacity in a character who will be rounded and filled later in the work.
Ask any school student. A whole literacy lesson can be spent spotting such things and grasping the subconscious impact on a reader whose concentration is elsewhere. Wordsworth doesn’t just have yellow daffodils, they are “golden”. This gives a sense of value as well as colour, so the effect can then be reinforced at the point of the “wealth to me” in a later line. A few literary classes later and the poem can be broken up into its ideas of relative value systems and the individual building blocks of the work can be brought under the microscope.
As a experienced writer keen to improve you may find you’re not always fully conscious of these techniques as you employ them, some will come automatically or fortuitously. If however they are coming randomly, then perhaps this is an area to improve your craft. We could all get better just by homing in occasionally on an odd piece of text to check whether all our words are worth writing and that we are wringing maximum value out of each. [Or rather not “wringing” as we don’t want connotations of damp laundry – one to go back to… maybe “mining” or “extracting” or “sucking” or maybe this is one for just plain “getting”].
Dickens has examples on pretty much every page. Here’s a favourite of mine at the meeting between Mr Toodle and Mr Dombey over the fate of the infant Paul.
Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths. Dombey and Son, Chapter 2
Our emotions towards these characters are set in this scene and take us onward through the book. Our contempt for Dombey’s arrogance and his ignorance of human feeling through the pursuit of power and money are given in an elegant paragraph here towards the end of that scene. Dombey is money. His clean crispness is artifice and even his cleanliness is associated with non-functional, decorative gold furnishings. Dickens plays this against the natural state of Toodle, whose oaken strength comes through above his grubbiness and for all his shortcomings owns an earthy honesty.
It’s stretching it to say a page of Dickens is a tight construct where no word could be changed without the structure collapsing, but there’s plenty of master craftsmanship going on and with a bit of observant reading even pretty reluctant school kids can see him building towards great moments and interesting characters through subtle stylistic choices. The emotional connectivity in the passage above is done entirely through the choice of imagery. Like all masters of the craft Dickens exploits the complementary function of word, tone and the actual goings on of character and environment. The emotion we feel towards his characters in their situations is underpinned throughout by meaningful linguistic choices.
Alexander Pope was eloquent on sound and sense working in tandem and the necessity of craftspersonly awareness. Each element of the page should be a rhetorical gift:
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse should like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)
So, with a page of your own prose, what rhetorical gifts are you giving? What would a school class be able to point to if asked how the author has created the mood or the character or the setting? Would each word become delightful when brought under the microscope of close scrutiny? Would there be a delicacy of development, finely wrought through clever stylistic choices? Would there be emotional range and weight and elegant nuancing throughout?
It is in these details that the emotional range can be properly crafted, either bringing some extra force to a single high emotive factor or tempering the primary emotion with some delicate balance. A keen reader might be able to track an image of animal ferocity through from early sneak references such as a growl into something that is more key to an interaction or narrative turn. Or they might take an emotionally rough-riding page apart to discover the disconcerting swing of one image to its opposite.
While looking at the minutiae of your word choices, what about focussing on the way a well chosen word or two can act like seasoning in a stew, adding the lemon zing to cut into overly rich sauce. Well used, a phrase might be repeated but gain new weight and new meaning from what surrounds it.
On any powerful page the elements that bring the emotion out have been built carefully in through many earlier words, lines and scenes. Again and again, we see how a writer has the chance, through consciously excellent choices of word in one direction or another, to create something that is far more fulfilling than, say, a straightforward stab at woe. If you are fully in control of your linguistic choices you get the best chance to profit from complex elements in the emotional palette shifting one degree here and there to suggest what will come or develop what lingers in the memory. Every word can contribute.
Tips for writing: check your emotional range
Heighten your awareness
Written fiction allows that particular blend of explanatory depth and emotional connectivity that makes it still attractive and valuable despite the distractions for the Xbox generation. Whether as a writer you like a meticulous planning session or something a bit more suck-and-see, it’s worth training yourself to judge the emotional weight of what you’re building. Test slabs of prose occasionally and investigate whether each word is giving its best effort.
While you’re reading try making notes on the emotions that are being pulled from you as you read. Can you give them all names: love, delight, hate, fear, gratitude? Or is there something more tacit, something that is in-between single adjectives or even something better understood with a diacricital nuance such as Bartok used to show quarter tones when jotting down rural songs. Whatever your own system [“love/regret +7§”] give the emotional value a tally of intensity and then look at what language effects have heightened that emotion. Look beyond the plot structure – this is important but part of other aspects of development. Look at what a prose work gives that would not be used by, for example, a screenwriter (and of course read Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact for those elements that are).
For a bit of an awareness-heightening drill on a Sunday morning, try checking through what you’ve written on two different pages from separate sections. How similar is the prose, how great the emotional range? Are these sections connecting, if so what language signals this? What have you done to establish the tone in each? How does this complement and enhance the action, activity, character and dialogue.
Plan towards emotional range and impact
Make yourself a column in your scene planner that can take a few notes on the emotion you wish to create and the intensity you want to build it to. Another column for some word groups. Intensities will probably mirror the action, activity, conflict and character development stages you are using for your story arc. The emotional intensity can complement or counterbalance these plot and scenic points.
Be conscious of what emotion you are trying to draw from the reader, whether or not you think of your prose as a fundamentally emotional experience. Know what emotion you need to bring out. Start effects early. Imagery of warmth or coolness can, for example, give hints as to where readers’ sympathies might be drawn and can be subtly increased over large sections.
Challenge yourself and test as often as you dare
Keep testing on your own sensibilities – it’s likely to be too late by the time you get an audience. Again, are all the possible elements being used to advantage? Would a Year 7 class have something to spot and work with? Has anything being overused? There’s only so much fog and rain to be used in reflecting low moods. Yes it works, but we need to be careful to adjust for everything that has gone beyond cliche into some awful postmodernist parody of itself. It’s one thing if readers don’t quite get the emotional force, but if they want to laugh when they should be crying then you’ve done your job badly.
“Gladly wolde we learn and gladly teach“*
So what did I learn from my conversation with disappointed young manuscript reader:
Firstly, something in the exchange reinforced for me the commitment to what it is to be a craftsperson. Consciousness of each element and patient dedication to perfecting it is vital, but at expert levels the consciousness transforms into something else, a flow of sorts, something that perpetuates through skilled decision making. It is to reach this master-state that we dedicate our apprenticeship in early career.
Secondly, there is never a craftsperson that can forget the basics. It may become largely subconscious but its still worth checking that everything is running smoothly. Never allow one element of the craft to escape while others are being developed. If cunning plot points are the current main aim don’t allow that to be at the expense of characterisation or style.
Thirdly, always test your material, be prepared to take criticism and realise that there’s always more to be learned and the learning can come in all sort of shapes and sizes.
What my son actually said was that school taught him that the best writers used not just a good trick or two here and there but every good method when it came to establishing and building the emotions on the page.
As he’d been doing in class, and as every reader knows, each word each element of style, each choice of word, each rebalance of sentence length, everything works towards an emotional connectivity and the real expert will use these to establish an emotional range that builds a journey and underpins a powerful premise. This is rhetoric.
It’s good to be reminded of how much goes into a marvellous novel or written story, all of which should be there in perfect proportion: meaningful ideas, believable characters, tight plot structures, pacy dialogue, primal values, subtle psychologies, delicate developments, recondite references, elegant phrasing, cunning vocab…
There is a lot to remember, so it’s not surprising that we occasionally let a few things slip. Don’t beat yourself up for errors or shortcomings. This is a craft that takes a lifetime of inching towards mastery, and it doesn’t hurt to go back sometimes to the basics.
* Motto of the Victorian Old Mortality club at Oxford