Posts Tagged Thomas Harris

Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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Literary versus genre fiction – what’s the difference?

How do you define literary fiction?

Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.

Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?

Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?

With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.

If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.

If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).

If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.

Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.

With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.

So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.

Thanks for the pic pedrosimoes7

What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?

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If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.

Being killed or falling in love

In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.

But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.

Finding the murderer

In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.

When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.

In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)

Fight scenes

Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.

What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.

Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)

Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.

A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.

Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity

Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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Let your MC succeed while they’re failing – the power of reward

Hmmm... is there an upside to being upside down?

I’ve been chatting with Jonathan Moore about plots and he asked this very good question: Do you think the idea of worsening failures needs to be applied comprehensively for a plot to be compelling?  What happens if you give the MC a break now and then?

Most plots feature struggles – things go from bad to worse. The hero tries to do something (or stops something happening), and that kicks off a series of events that escalate. But Jonathan has identified an important point here.

Before the MC finally gets what they want (or doesn’t), you have to give them a break.

There are two reasons.

1 Predictability

A plot can seem too predictable if all we see is failure after failure. The reader can get bored, not to mention punch-drunk. And for a story to have momentum, the reader needs the feeling that things are changing – a story of novel length needs to, as I said a few weeks ago, move the goalposts. So unless you specifically intend to bludgeon the reader with misfortune (which I find Thomas Hardy’s novels do), the MC needs some rewards before the end.

But variety isn’t the only reason to cut the MC some slack.

2 Giving rewards makes a story more compelling

Often, giving the MC rewards can kick off an even better story. He wants something, he seems to get it. He gets more embroiled and that leads him into deeper do-do.

In Andrea Newman’s An Evil Streak,  a lonely single man has a creepy, obsessive relationship with his niece. When she was a child she was his angel. She bursts into puberty and starts dating, and he’s abandoned and jealous – the first blow. But then she falls in love and needs a place to sleep with her boyfriend. Kind, creepy uncle offers her his flat – a triumph as she is in his power like never before. Even better, he puts up a two-way mirror and watches. The rest of the story is a seesaw of successes that ensnare him more and scrapes that make the failures worse.

A perhaps less amoral example is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. The Unit features a futuristic world where childless single people are given at age 50 to medical science. They live in the lap of luxury while undergoing medical experiments, and will eventually make the ultimate sacrifice as organ donors. The story follows a woman who goes into such a clinic… and falls in love. Suddenly she has found what she has missed all her life – but is it too late? She is given hope, has those hopes dashed, is given more hope again… and the reader is right with her on the rollercoaster, heart leaping and stomach lurching.

This early success – where the character seems to get what they want, makes what unfolds so much more powerful. By involving us in the successes, the failures become more devastating.

Who else might you give a break to?

Giving a character a break is used to very interesting effect in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which became the first Hannibal Lecter film. For much of the novel we have watched the murderer Francis Dolarhide as an appalling monster. Then, unexpectedly, he strikes up a relationship of genuine tenderness with a blind girl. This goes to the very root of what he needs in life and lets us see a human side to him (while also making us afraid for the poor girlfriend as we’re sure she’s going to trigger his vicious instincts at any moment). Just as we wonder if this will redeem him, he sees her talk to a colleague and gets jealous – and then we know that as far as he is concerned, the universe has betrayed him and nothing will stop him. And that makes him even more formidable.

Rollercoasters need ups as well as downs. So when you’re making things worse for your characters, don’t have them fail all the time.  Explore what happens if you give them what they want – and snatch it away. Maybe do it several times. Thanks, Jonathan, for a provocative question as always!

Share your favourite examples of characters being rewarded!

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