Comments on Craft: Awe & Otherworldliness

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverI’ve decided to stop reviewing novels on this blog—the reviews aren’t necessarily helpful for writers. Instead, as I read well-crafted and artful fiction, I’ll excerpt passages or highlight techniques I find particularly skillful, beautiful, or useful.

I’ll start this new series, Comments on Craft, with a book my son recently asked me to read to him, even though he’s two years old and it doesn’t have many illustrations. He even sat still through two thirds of the first chapter!

I mention The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle a lot, but I refuse to apologize for the repetition. It has many facets worth emulating, but today I’ll highlight a paragraph from page 1, when Beagle is introducing his unicorn and setting her up as an awe-inspiring and otherworldly entity.

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. […] She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

After I read that last line, my son said, “That so nice!” He zeroed in on the part he understood: giving food to baby animals. This final line in the paragraph does more than list things the unicorn does: it both elevates caring for less-capable creatures to the same level as dragon slaying and gives a fairytale texture to the novel. New writers sometimes have a hard time making things feel epic or awe-inspiring and try to accomplish that goal by using grandiose, overly extravagant descriptions. Beagle gives his unicorn’s story an awe-filled tone in many ways, but one is right here. He gives her depth and breadth. By showing grand events like a mythical healing next to an everyday one, it keeps the description from becoming overblown, cliché, or monotonous (a grand tone gets boring if it encounters no variety). Also the fact that, for a unicorn, these three tasks all belong together makes the unicorn seem other-than-human, which she is!

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Foil Narratives & Fairy Tales

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of "Vasilisa the Beautiful"

Fairy tales and folktales get handed down, repurposed, and woven into new contexts and patterns every day. We see them in ads and single-panel cartoons, in similes, short stories, and novels. And yet when you ask Western people to tell you the story of, say, Little Red Riding Hood, they’ll probably come up with a lot of the same basic stuff. Some people wonder why stories so well known can continuously find new life; others bemoan the loss of variety folk traditions used to have before they became standardized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney.

But for writers, the fact that there’s a “standard” version of most popular fairy tales is a boon.

The Power of Foil Narratives

When you retell a fairy tale, or when you use a fairytale motif in a scene, chapter, or sentence, you draw on a shared cultural background with your reader. Whatever you say with your fairy tale contrasts with whatever they already know. Initially, that sounds a bit unappealing (if you retell “Beauty and the Beast,” your story gets thrown up next to a golden ball gown and a singing teapot, whether you like it or not). But it really is an immensely powerful tool.

You’ve heard of foil characters, yes? Two characters who share certain things and throw their differences into relief? Using foil characters is a good way to strengthen your characterization and drive interest. With fairy tales, you get an entire foil narrative. Even if your story or scene shares very little with an “original” fairy tale (original is such a messy word when speaking of folklore), if you have a character wearing a red hood, you can evoke an entire parallel plot line that can throw your narrative into relief. Each choice you make gains force and momentum because it contrasts with the story your reader already has in his or her head.

Stories That Rely on Foils

You can use fairy tales as foil narratives in all sorts of ways, and as I said before, you don’t have to write a story that is solely a retold fairy tale to do it. Permit me a few examples.

  • Disney’s Enchanted is only really funny because viewers have a background in Disney fairy tales. Without them, the humor is much weaker.
  • Ditto with Shrek, only it’s much funnier because it contrasts with an entire tradition of animal bridegroom stories (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Frog Prince,” etc.).
  • Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley embedded “Sleeping Beauty” into their novel Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. The portion of the book that is a retold tale follows the standard exactly—prince fights his way through briars, kisses the sleeping princess into wakefulness, marries her, and resolves to live happily ever after—but the frame story of a demon playing puppet master lets the standard make a statement about free will.

Using Foils in Your Stories

You can employ a foil fairytale narrative by retelling a tale or merely evoking the idea of it—your reader already has the story in his or her head, so you don’t necessarily need to lay it out explicitly for them. Whether you’re embedding an abbreviated version of a tale in a scene or chapter, retelling the whole thing, or simply setting up a pleasant metaphor, you need give only the basic motifs because the standard fairy tale can do the rest of the work for you (you can give more, of course, but it isn’t necessary).

Some more examples.

  • To evoke “Little Red Riding Hood” use motifs like a waiting wolf, a journey through the woods, a basket of goodies, a red hood, or an ugly grandmother.
  • To evoke “Cinderella” use a glass slipper, a pumpkin coach, a stroke-of-midnight time limit, or a fairy godmother.
  • To evoke “Jack and the Beanstalk” use magic beans, a giant in the sky, or a singing harp.

I’m sure you can come up with more motifs you could use to evoke a foil narrative in your writing, so share them in the comments. Also share your favorite retold tales, or even your favorite “original” versions (I’m partial to bloody animal bride/bridegroom stories, myself).

Prose Tip: Simultaneous Syntax

Quill-and-ink writingWhen fiction writers come to me and ask me to add some spit shine to their prose, there’s a pair of problematic sentence constructions I’m almost guaranteed to run into (nonfiction writers also use these construction, but not as often). These two constructions are grammatically correct, and sometimes they are appropriate to use, so they’re hard to catch. But once you know what to look for, it’s fairly easy to keep a wary eye out for these sentences when you’re revising your work.

These sentence constructions center around
–ing words and as. Permit me two examples:

  • Pulling out her red pen, she sighed.
  • As her eyes hit another –ing sentence, she reached for a match.

The Problem

As you may have noticed, and as I’ve already pointed out, neither of these two sentences is grammatically incorrect. As far as correctness goes, they’re completely sound. The problem with these two sentence types is twofold: 1) you’re making some of your action subordinate to other action, and 2) you’re making two actions simultaneous.

Subordinate action. The first issue is kind of like the argument against passive voice: these constructions minimize action and weaken the impact. As editors Renni Browne and Dave King* say:

Both these constructions take a bit of action … and tuck it away into a dependent clause. … This tends to place some of your action at one remove from the reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.

If that’s what you intend to do, then you have no problem; using these constructions will be just what you need.

Simultaneous action. The second issue is something you should consider any time you use one of these two constructions. The syntax of these sentences means that both the as or –ing clause and the other clause happen at the same time. In my examples, she pulls out her red pen and sighs at the same time. That’s not a problem. The problem arises when your characters start doing impossible simultaneous things.

  • Pulling on his shoes, he ran out the door. (You can’t run and pull on your shoes at the same time.)
  • She pulled open the door, climbing the stairs. (Unless the staircase is really short, it’s unlikely she can open the door at the top while she’s climbing. Alternately, if the stairs are on the other side of the door, there’s no way she can climb them while she’s opening the door.)
  • Jumping astride the horse, he tucked the trinket into her hair. (I’m not even sure what this guy is doing, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be done all at once.)

Lesser Problems

The other problems with these constructions exist mostly because the constructions are difficult to use properly. The subject of your sentence needs to come immediately after the comma (i.e., Jumping astride the horse, he tucked the trinket into her hair; not Jumping astride the horse, the trinket was tucked into her hair) and you need to punctuate them properly. If you don’t set it up right, then not only are impossible simultaneous things happening, but generally impossible things are happening (how the devil does a trinket jump astride a horse?).

Even if you use them properly, be wary of using these constructions too often. They’re just unconventional enough that they stick out a bit, so if you overuse them your writing starts to draw attention to itself (instead of the story) and it begins to feel false.

The Cure

The cure for these constructions is a pretty simple one: don’t use them. Here are all my examples reworked:

  • She pulled out her red pen and sighed.
  • Her eyes hit another –ing sentence: she reached for a match.
  • He yanked on his shoes and bolted out the door.
  • She pulled open the door and started climbing the stairs.
  • N/A (The last sentence was too messed up for me to fix without knowing what’s going on, and I didn’t think through my example that far. Is the horse a she? Is there another she on the horse?)

If you use one of these constructions, consider whether or not you mean what you’re saying. Is the –ing or as action really subordinate? Do both actions really happen at the same time? If the answer to both questions is yes, then using one of these grammatically correct methods is perfectly all right. But as I mentioned before, be wary of using them too often, even if you use them correctly. If it starts standing between your reader and the story, even the most elegant prose needs to meet either a red pen or a match.

*This quote is taken from Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King. I highly recommend this book to writers who want to do all they can to polish their work before handing it off to an objective eye (whether that’s a reader, a publishing house editor, or a freelance editor).

Image by Simon Howden via

Weekly Roundup: 10/1–10/7

Writing Excuses: Hollywood Formula

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is a gem. Lou Anders, from Pyr joins the regular crew to talk about the Hollywood formula, which centers around three main characters and their relationships. Lou says the formula is a method many screenwriters use to ensure they’re getting the best emotional effect possible from their story’s climax. It’s well worth the listen, I assure you.

Roz Morris: Four tips for writing good prose

Writer Roz Morris gives four great tips on getting your prose right. I especially like her second tip, “Develop an ear.” I’ve edited for writers who have excellent vocabularies and clear ideas, but the sentences they write are like poorly paved roads. Your readers needs to be able to glide through your words, hit the beats you need them to hit, and continue through your story.

Emily Books: An Indi(e) Bookstore

Emily Books is a new indie bookstore that sells a subscription to 12 ebooks a year (the owners hope to sell a larger variety later, but will always keep the subscription model). They embrace ebooks, and they say, “We want there to be a million stores like Emily Books, with dedicated booksellers—not algorithms—deciding which books to recommend. When a monolith is in charge of selecting which books readers get to hear about, everyone loses. We think independent bookselling is good for publishers, authors, and readers!” It’s an interesting idea in the realm of content curation. Not sure Emily Books would be the bookstore for me, but it would be interesting to see more curator-style stores popping up.

Lou Anders: The Tangled Webs We Weave

Lou Anders makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his essay “The Tangled Webs We Weave.” The essay will only be available online for a limited time, but it appears in Webslinger: SF and Comic Writers on Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which is edited by Gerry Conway. Lou aims his essay at how science is becoming less sexy in our culture, and how media both reflects and contributes to that change.

John Scalzi: Writer Beware and “The Write Agenda”

Author and SFWA president John Scalzi discusses a new group called The Write Agenda. This group is determined to discredit resources aspiring authors have used for years to keep tabs on industry scammers. TWA seems to make hefty use of boycott lists and one-star reviews on books written by authors they don’t agree with. Leaving one-star reviews for anything other than the contents of the book is a ridiculous practice regardless. Read Scalzi’s write up and be cautious.

Using Unique Prose Techniques

Unique ProseEvery writer has hundreds of techniques available when he or she sets out to tell a story. There are different flavors of viewpoint, descriptions, dialogue, setting—there are different styles of pretty much every element of writing out there.

Most writing elements have a default or “normal” technique: for example, the present day’s default viewpoint is usually third-person limited. As a writer, you probably want to get creative, flout a few standards, and push the boundaries of these defaults. However, you often hear that you can’t do XYZ innovative technique unless you’re ABC big name author. (Ex. Don’t transcribe heavy accents in your dialogue unless you’re Mark Twain, etc.)

The truth is that you don’t have to be a big name author to use a unique technique. Big name authors didn’t start as big names, and they used their signature techniques anyway. But caution against unique techniques serves a reasonable purpose. Innovation for innovation’s sake is unlikely to serve the main purpose of your writing: telling a great story. Unique prose can kick your reader out of your story. You can flout any standard, but you’d better have a good reason that serves the overall vision of your book, and even then you should pick only a few techniques so the reader still has something familiar to latch onto. I’m going to discuss a few instances in which authors used unique prose techniques to serve their stories and visions.

The Prestige CoverViewpoint: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The first case study is The Prestige by Christopher Priest. I recently read and reviewed this book, and one thing that struck me was the viewpoint. The book is told primarily in first-person journal entries spread over decades. Each individual’s story is told from beginning to end without interruption, with the exception of Andy, whose story bookends the book. This means the reader goes through the same set of events, start to finish, twice. That’s repetitious and bizarre by “normal” standards.

This technique works here because each character is engaging enough to draw a reader into the story, and there are secrets enough to discover that repeated plot points aren’t redundant. Plot points aren’t retold to give you a different set of eyes—they’re retold to give you different stories. The technique also allows a reader to explore each individual separately, and the book is primarily about the ghosts and obsessions that haunt each character. By isolating each account, the reader can fully immerse in each character’s story, and placing the accounts in the same book allows the reader to come to a conclusion bigger than one individual.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkeDescriptions: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

The second case study is another recent read of mine, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The book is set in an alternate England where magicians deal with fairies. Clarke’s descriptions of fairy things are full of synesthesia and mixed metaphors. Synesthesia descriptions describe something, like a color, using sensory details that don’t match how that thing is typically perceived. For example: “[The fairy box] was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. … To be more precise, it was the color of heartache” (emphasis mine). Heartache is not experienced through visual senses, but Clarke uses it to describe a color.

Synesthesia and mixed metaphors are typically used sparingly, if at all, because they stand out so much. But Clarke uses these descriptions deliberately. She restricts them mostly to descriptions of fairy things and of magic, and it works because the fairies are not quite human and live just a sidestep shy of our reality. By using descriptions that are slightly unhinged from strict logic, she communicates and deepens the otherness of the fairies.

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverDialogue & Setting: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Beagle does some interesting things with his dialogue and his setting. The Last Unicorn is set in a pseudo–medieval Europe (there are even explicit references to Anglo-Saxons). However, one character blithely offers another a taco; another casually reads a magazine while lounging outside; King Haggard’s men have armor made of bottle caps sewn to leather. If you’re going for verisimilitude, details like this will break your story.

In his dialogue, Beagle similarly chucks verisimilitude out the window and has a character or two who will spontaneously start rhyming. Although one character is an entertainer, he slips into rhyme even when he isn’t performing.

Why does Beagle’s disregard for factual representations work? Because verisimilitude is not a part of Beagle’s vision. By suspending the normal rules of logic, Beagle invites the reader to enter a timeless, liminal place. Many of the book’s themes center around the interplay between eternity and things bound in time. By disregarding time-bound restrictions (like those on magazines and bottle caps), Beagle enhances this theme. By putting singsong rhymes into his characters’ mouths, he deepens the otherworldliness of his setting.

Your Technique: Your Story

Next time you’re considering flouting a standard of literature, ponder why you’re doing it. Is it just to be different, or does it serve your story and theme? Is your unique technique balanced against normal ones? (The Prestige strives for verisimilitude, even though its story is fragmented; The Last Unicorn ditches verisimilitude but retains a linear storyline.) If you throw every standard out of your story, you might throw your reader out of the story at the same time. But if you select your technique carefully, you can invite the reader deeper.

Speaking about design, David Craib said, “Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.’” The same is true of your prose techniques. Your viewpoint, descriptions, dialogue, and setting should not say, “Look at me.” They should all say, “Look at this great story.” If your innovation isn’t doing that, it’s not very good innovation, is it?

Image by Master isolated images via