How to write a book

Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness

blindnessI’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.

A typical spread looks like this

blin2 001

Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.

It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.

The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.

The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.

Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.

41L5A0POlkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.

He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.

There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.

The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.

I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.

This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.

No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?


27 thoughts on “Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness

  1. I must confess that as a reader I often get lost in a book to the point where I don’t really focus on or notice the style. I sometimes think that if I don’t notice the style, then the author has done their job exceptionally well because I have become absorbed.

    However, as a writer, there are cases where I notice how brilliantly an author has used a particular style. One example that stands out for me is World War Z by Max Brooks. He uses a technique whereby the story unfolds as if one were a historian, reading a dossier, trying to re-assemble the past. There is no real protagonist and the antagonists (zombies) remain largely vague, unknown and unknowable. To me it would seem impossible to write an engaging novel without having a character to clearly root for but here, it seems, Brooks does so to great effect.

    I read blindness several years ago and the same thing seems to apply. Discarding stylistic convention in order to project a feeling – a sense of time or place. For me at least, I believe it is an olympic feat for a writer to attempt but when it works, it can be sensational.

    1. Hi! Good point about getting pleasurably lost in the style. I had to rouse myself into a specially critical state in order to write this post. I hadn’t been consciously noticing these things as I read.
      Thanks for the example of World War Z. I didn’t know it did that – and shall have to look it up.

  2. Like Saramago, I’m from Portugal, and while we got accustomed to his peculiar writing style years ago, it still remains as one of the major issues on our literary debate, so I can only imagine what a ‘newcomer’ to his novels will feel like just by staring into one of his typical spreads.

    In the end, some will inevitably find him offputting and put him aside, while others will learn to appreciate his ways, as they really enhance the kind of ideas he liked to work on. The latter may want to search for some of his other works, as he left quite a bibliography.

    Also, have you noticed that he doesn’t give names to most of his characters?

    1. Tiago – great to hear your viewpoint, both as a native of Saramago’s Portugal and as a connoisseur of his works. I’ll certainly be looking for more of his books – and I may well be persuading Dave to too. I’ve had The Double on my shelves for a while.

      I noticed the nameless characters. I wondered if it was confined just to this novel or if it was a widespread habit. I thought it was interesting. It made them seem like roles, and curiously defined and changed by what we saw happening to them. I liked it. I did something like that myself in Lifeform Three. I have characters who are numbers, and until things start happening to them they have no names. They become familiar by their defining moments.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Thank you for the reply. I must say Lifeform Three seems pretty cool for the synopsis alone. By the way, I’m actually a “regular client” of this website. It’s amazingly helpful. I just don’t usually comment the articles, as English is not my native tongue, but you truly have my respect and admiration.

        Regarding Saramago’s no-name policy, he only developed it midway through his career. I guess he wanted his books to reflect society as a whole, as if the issues they tackled – even those portrayed in works less appealing to non-Iberian readers – could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world. Cautionary tales, if you will. He had a very cynical view of the world.

        1. Ah, a secret watcher – I’m glad you stepped out of the shadows, Tiago. Thank you for those lovely comments.
          In some ways, Saramago seems to be writing fables.
          Certainly Blindness has the quality of a disturbing fairy tale, where reality is given a strong and extreme twist while never leaving the bounds of our own laws of physics. The cause of the blindness isn’t explored (at least it isn’t at the point in the book I’ve got to). It simply is.
          And the characters are almost everymen. Many of them aren’t rounded personalities, just ordinary people caught up in this awful situation. There are strong people, dishonest people and frightened people – and that seems to be about it. It’s very lean.

  3. So, no mention of Ivy Compton-Burnett? In a sense she uses the opposite approach to Saramago – clearly delineated dialogue but almost nothing in the way of omniscient insight.

  4. I’m going to have to read that book.
    I remember being affected by a book that way years ago when I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I found myself becoming more and more upset, as though I were separating from life, even falling into a bit of a depression as the days went by. Then I realized this was happening because of the book. I was reading it constantly without seeing my friends or experiencing anything else. The main character was “losing it,” and I was going right along with him. Wow. That’s writing.

  5. Reblogged this on agora digo eu and commented:
    Hoje a autora de um dis blogs que sigo escreveu um post sobre o livro “a cegueira” de Saramago. É interessante ler o que uma pessoa de nacionalidade diferente pensa do Nobel português! Partilho o post…

  6. I watched the movie before I ever even learned that it was a book (unfortunately). It still remains one of the most powerful films I have seen on the baseness of humanity. I would love to venture into the novel for the sense of blindness that you’re experiencing (I liked the herded togetherness that you described.). Another author with unique style, that I’m sure many will bring up, is William Faulkner. While his similar knack for running sentences together without punctuation and the run-on, stream-of-consciousness style his characters speak in may be off-putting to some, it truly does put you in the mind of a character. As you read the story, you begin to not only read it, but experience it from the way that thoughts take shape in the text. This makes you not just an observer, but a participant. Punctuation really doesn’t get enough credit for how it shapes our experience of a text.

    1. Hi Owen! My edition is the one with the movie poster on the cover (not the covers I’ve shown here). As I read, I’m trying to imagine how it would translate to a movie as the prose style creates so much of the world. That’s the magic of prose.
      And thanks for the example of Faulkner. A really interesting point you make there about punctuation. Prose is visual. Although we’re not conscious of it, the shape of a word affects our experience. There are words that look graceful, or funny, or sad, or ominous, or stylish – jsut because of the letters they contain, and separately from the meaning we know. So I suppose by the same token, punctuation must too.

  7. Cormac McCarthy does some things that are similar to this, with flowing descriptions of antelope running across the prairie in the early morning light, then dialogue with no quotation marks. I like it a lot, especially when there is a fair amount of dialogue. For me, the classic punctuation indicating that a character is talking often gets in the way of losing myself in what they are saying, as if the quotation marks call attention to themselves and split my focus (even a little bit), when I don’t need them to know somebody is saying something. The ‘no quotation marks’ style is cleaner, to my brain. It leaves me with a feeling that there is less between me and the characters talking to each other.

    1. I wondered if someone would mention Cormac McCarthy, Mark. And I like your description of how it enhances your experience and increases your connection to the text. Your point about the difference being tiny is important. The more sensitive we are when we read, the more sensitively we edit our own work. Fine editing is often about learning to listen to our hunches, however slight.
      An editing client of mine asked me how I knew when to stop editing. My answer: ‘When nothing about the book is worrying you any more.’ Up until that point, it’s niggle, niggle, niggle.

      1. I love what you said about hunches, even slight ones, helping to direct your own writing as well as reading – especially when it comes to choosing the right word, when there are numerous possibilities. You don’t really have to do much other than relax and focus, and the right one will just be there for you when, as you say, nothing about it bothers you! I think both writing and reading are about natural forces, except that when writing (as you help us learn in Nail Your Novel) it helps tremendously to have a big-picture map of some kind keeping things along the tracks while you allow the forces to do the work.

  8. No spoilers? All right, I won’t talk about that one scene … but you’ll know it when you get to it! Be prepared.

    I think a lot about writing — no surprise, as I’m a writer, too. I think about the conventions of writing, and how artificial and manufactured they are. At the beginning of time, at the beginning of the alphabet, at the beginning of writing, there were no rules about how to write a book. The rules we have are completely arbitrary. Sure, they exist for a reason; over time, for example, people decided that using quotation marks is how we’ll all know that someone is talking. It helps us better communicate and better understand.


    Let’s look at houses. There’s a general look to a house. A roof, a foundation, exterior walls, interior walls, windows. But if I say to you, “Draw a house,” and you draw a treehouse, that’s not wrong. If you look to Coober Pedy in Australia, or to the Hobbit’s Shire, and draw an underground home, that’s not wrong. If you draw a house on stilts, that’s not wrong. If you draw a log cabin, that’s not wrong. So long as the house you build is able to do the things a house needs to do, withstand the forces a house needs to withstand, then who’s to say that my Cape Cod is a house and your yurt is not?

    Blindness is the book I return to time and again as a reminder that the point of a story is the story — not the internal structure. If we get caught up in three sentences to a paragraph, five paragraphs to an essay, all the structural rules that have been arbitrarily created over time, then we might not tell the story in the way it was meant to be told. Blindness, told in the style of a conventional book, would lose its impact. It wouldn’t be the same book. It wouldn’t stand out. It would just be another home on the street in A Wrinkle In Time, you know the street, I can’t remember the name of the planet, but it’s the one where no one is different, where “It” rules and where conformity is the law.

    Blindness was a risk, certainly; deviating from the norm is always a risk. But the risk-takers, the people willing to stand outside the crowd and tell the stories they need to tell in the ways the stories demand to be told, these are the ones who move the craft forward and challenge us to innovate and see the world, and writing, in new ways.

    1. ‘That one scene’, Pam? I’m shutting my computer down and going immediately to read!

      I love what you say here, and the example of the houses. I’m currently writing the third Nail Your Novel book, which is about plot and story, and in order to make the book genuinely useful to as many writers as possible I’ve been quarrying away at these fundamentals. For instance, if there are a lot of ways to put a story together, are there any elements they have in common? Yes there are. Rather like your houses, which can be made in many shapes and forms, there are a few constants that seem ever present. And – again as you point out – it leads us to reappraise the rules.
      Thanks for a terrific comment, Pam.

  9. I’ve heard that Saramago always writes like this in terms of dialogue (although I haven’t read any of this other novels). Its worth bearing in mind that Blindness won him the Nobel Prize. Other examples of this sort of technique (re dialogue) that I know of are E L Doctorow’s Edgemont Drive in the New Yorker What I found more impressive was that there no names in Blindness. All characters are recognised by there relational status to other characters. That’s a tough call and he makes it easy to follow in the book. I think the standard form of the book helps – the form and structure are tight and use the expected and conventional scenes for the type of novel, although the ending is arguably out of sync with the type (ie. post-apocalyptic but the apocalypse is temporary and there is an emerging return to organized society – an interesting assumption resonant with Animal Farm; also, anybody else noticed Robinson Crusoe scene in the The Road, given somebody mentioned McCarthy?)

    1. Hi Bill! I’d noticed that detail about the names and I loved it. It defined the people by the events we have witnessed, and was another technique that removed the normal rules of civilisation. As you say, this could have added an extra difficulty, but he made it absolutely as straightforward as he could. I had a similar situation in Lifeform Three, with characters who acquire their names by landmark events. I had to be extremely careful not to confuse readers.
      And as you say, Saramago leans heavily on form to make sure we can follow what’s going on. We know the conventional apocalypse situations so he explores them and nudges them into new use – for instance, the man dying of an infected wound. And I loved the ending!

      1. I was bit worried after I’d posted that I might have included a spoiler in the post so glad to note you’ve finished it. I was interested in extending the dialogue technique. So, throughout switch between ‘You can’t be serious,’ he said, to you can’t be serious, he said and she said,…, to you can’t be serious. Why not?. Because if you are… and so on and make use also of line breaks and punctuation to separate dialogue but don’t have one single mode of conveying the dialogue. While on the one hand this may seem like creating problems for the reader I think for even the semi-sophisticated reader and/or the modern reader this will not be a problem. Martin Amis sort of did this in Yellow Dog – which I found unreadable and incredibly boring BTW – but we see this sort of technique is stream of consciousness and similar types. I’m reading Celine, Death on Credit at the moment and in this respect it is quite an eye opener the way he blends ‘styles’ and ‘approaches’ and so on. But, again, he has perfect (or as near as dammit) classic form and structure to the novel.

        1. I haven’t read Yellow Dog, but I tend to struggle with Amis too. He’s very clever, and adept with language, but I also find I can’t get through his novels. I’ve never analysed why – probably because he bored me or lost me. Also, I find there’s a certain lack of empathy in his prose, a superior attitude that puts me off. Saramago, by contrast, shines with humanity.
          I shall look up that Celine.

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