Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Always Read Closely - Fiction Tip #2

Dodger by Terry Pratchett


I always find it amazing how excellent authors keep their narratives tight. Terry Pratchett is no exception. With 80 million books sold, give or take a million or so, he is a master of creating complex narrators that are easy to follow. From sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, there is a deliberate state of being or action that is then followed by a reaction to that state of being. Also, you’ll notice these authors never state the situation or the subsequent chain of reactions explicitly, just like I found in Justin Cronin’s The Passage in this brief fiction tip. Instead, they describe the scene in a way allows the reader to interact with the subtext.

Put simply, good authors know how to get out of the way!

Let’s take a quick look at the beginning of Chapter 3 of Dodger, published in 2012 by +HarperCollins Publishers and see how Pratchett has the subtext swirling in your mind.

It starts with his passage:

It was raining again as Dodger got to the attic, a dreadful somber drizzle. He fretted outside while the old man went through the convoluted process of unlocking the door, then spun Solomon round when he hurtled through. Solomon was old enough and wise enough to let Dodger lie in a smelly heap on the old straw mattress at the back of the attic until he was ready to be alive again, and not just a bundle of grief. Then, Solomon, like his namesake being very wise indeed, boiled up some soup, the smell of which filled the room until Onan, who had been sleeping peacefully beside his master, woke up and whined, a sound like some terrible cork being twisted out of an awful bottle.

This paragraph is dripping with setting.

1st sentence: Dodger arrives and there is a physical description of the London rain – a thread throughout the book. 2nd sentence: Dodger is worried as Solomon unlocks a series of locks and then Solomon is spun around. Interestingly, Pratchett doesn’t write the words, “Dodger knocked on the door.” There is no need for the verb “knock” because it’s implied between the sentences, allowing me to interact with the subtext. Also, the second sentence has Solomon unlocking the door, a reaction to Dodger arriving in the first sentence; it also spins Solomon around, a reaction to the door being unlocked. 3rd sentence: Pratchett achieves a lot, but most importantly, this sentence is a reaction to the second sentence. Namely, Solomon is too wise to immediately harass Dodger, who is very obviously upset; still in the third sentence, Pratchett gives a physical description of Dodger in a smelly heap (setting) and finally gives you Dodger's state of mind (a bundle of grief). That’s a physical description, two states of mind and it’s a reaction to the former sentence! Achieving a lot with few words is right. 4th sentence: As Solomon is wise indeed, he boils soup, a continuation of him not wanting to bother Dodger (but still helping). In the fourth sentence, it’s important to note the narrative moves forward with two different reactions. He boils soup and therefore the smell of it fills the room and therefore the dog wakes up and whines because of the smell.

I’m not going to continue on doing every sentence in the next paragraph or everyone will run screaming for the hills; but you’ll never guess how the 2nd paragraph begins if the 1st paragraph ends with the making of soup. Yes, you guessed it; the reaction of Dodger taking the soup. Action (soup is made) > Reaction (soup is taken): this is how authors construct their entire narrative flow. However, Pratchett does not describe Solomon filling the bowl or walking it over to Dodger or putting the spoon in the bowl. All that detail is between the two sentences and unwritten and the reader does the work of filling it in.

As the chapter goes on, Dodger and Solomon have a conversation but Pratchett, without ever saying so, manages to give the scene a feeling that it takes place over a period of time. It gives the impression of the two characters sitting around with silence between them. Pratchett does it slyly, never stating it explicitly. Instead, the reader fills in the subtext.

After Dodger takes the soup, Solomon goes back to work on a machine that made a “busy little noise…that would have made Dodger think of grasshoppers in a field.” Dodger then tells Solomon the story about why he is upset. Solomon is then given a paragraph to make Dodger feel better that ends with this sentence: “And the grasshoppers continued to dance, sizzling as they did so.”

It’s smart because the grasshoppers are associated with Solomon taking the time to work on a machine. We’re being told that time is passing, but not being told directly; it's in the subtext. It's a feeling the author imparts on the reader. The next paragraph is given to a fight outside and how it is part of Dodger’s life in London. The next paragraph is given to Dodger’s thoughts in close third person. And then the next paragraph starts in an interesting manner. It begins, “Solomon was talking again.” Then dialogue takes over.

The reader can almost see Dodger turning back from the window and coming out of his own thoughts to find Solomon talking again. Pratchett never says these two characters sat around comfortably until Solomon broke the silence. The text implies it. Again, it invites the reader to make judgments about what is happening. And for me, this is reader engagement. And reader engagement is everything.

In conclusion, good writers get out of the way. ‘On the head’ writers leave no room for the reader to engage with what isn't written. When I come across ‘on the head’ writers, sooner or later, while reading, this thought crosses my mind: “Come on, when will you let me do something?”

Readers love to work; you just have to trick them into it.

Happy writing and always read closely.

-- 
Be Good and Be Safe,
Jane

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