Tag Archives: Stephen Schwartz

#amwriting: the struggle is the story

A point that was raised on another blog I follow is something many authors struggle with: devising the complicating events that raise levels of risk for the protagonist, and also for the antagonist. A compelling story evolves when the antagonist is strong, but not omnipotent. The protagonist must also be stronger than she thought she was, but still not omnipotent.

Small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating the journey. These things delay the protagonist, and sometimes send them down the wrong path, but as each is overcome the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.

If you have a story of any length, short or long, you can’t have people sitting around idly chit-chatting. Conversations must have a purpose, and be designed to advance the plot. Information emerges that the protagonist (or antagonist) must know. The reader discovers this at the same time as the characters.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollIn the literary novel Better You Go Home by Scott Driscoll, Chico Lenoch, a Seattle attorney, is desperately ill and needs a family member to donate a kidney. None of his family members here locally are suitable donors. He has always wondered about his family in the Czech Republic, which his father won’t discuss, and has recently discovered he has a half-sister still living there. He journeys there to find his sister, and in the process, he unearths the secrets his father and mother left behind. As each terrible secret is revealed, hindrances arise. Danger, political fallout, personal vendettas, and a growing concern for his sister conspire with Chico’s failing health to keep him from achieving his goal.

If the path had been easy, Chico’s story would have been an exploration of a man with a problem, but not real exciting. Because of the roadblocks, it’s a taut thriller, and his journey comes to an unexpected and electrifying conclusion.

TA patch of Dry Skin, Stephen Swartzhis notion of making the path difficult is explored well in  Stephen Swartz’s literary fantasy, A Dry Patch of Skin. The story opens in Croatia but moves to Oklahoma. This tale is a fantasy in the sense it’s an exploration of vampirism, but is literary and gripping in its plausibility. Two of my favorite lines of all time are in the opening chapters of this novel:

Mirrors are such odd devices, and whoever invented them should have been killed. They purport to show us the true state of affairs and yet everything is distorted.

The protagonist, a man of Hungarian descent, named Stefan Székely, has a disturbing genetic skin condition and embarks on a quest to find a cure, desperate to somehow salvage his relationship with Penny. He has a job as a phlebotomist, which allows him to conceal his ailment, but eventually he is unable to hide it. Many roadblocks arise, interfering with Stefan’s success, forcing him to seek a cure in Budapest, but even that trip is fraught with frustrations. Because of those hindrances, the tension builds toward the end, making for a gripping read. The novel ends in an unexpected fashion and is one that stayed with me for a long time after.

Both these novels detail a seemingly ordinary thing—a person dealing with a life-threatening illness, both seeking a cure that seems like it should be easy but which becomes virtually impossible. In both novels, the roadblocks and detours along the journey create compelling narratives I found impossible to put down.

e.m. forster plot memeBoth are set in a contemporary setting, and both have surprising endings that could only have been arrived at because of the roadblocks and hindrances placed in the paths of the protagonists.

This is why we can’t make it easy for our characters. The struggle is the story.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under writer, writing

Purple Prose

purple velvet blazerMmmm…everyone loves the lush feel of velvet, the way the texture imparts a depth to any color.

Black velvet feels cool, sophisticated and sexy, a little black dress and a vampire kind of cool.

Purple velvet, can feel royal, rich, but is frequently a bit too over-the-top for me.

Red velvet signifies something daring, just a bit risqué. This opulent fabric evokes emotion in us when we see and touch it.

In my mind, words are like velvet.  They evoke feelings and memories, and can alter our mood just by the way they are used. When we craft our narrative we aim to please our readers, to make them want to read it again.  To convey the atmosphere of our setting,  we use descriptors. We also use descriptors to show our characters, to indicate they are long-haired, dark-eyed, or bearded.

Good prose contains a certain amount of  descriptors, and like Goldilocks, we want to make it just right–not too little and not too much.

Too little, and the narrative is flat, uninvolving. To much and the reader finds themselves gagging.  This heavy, cloying style of writing is called “Purple Prose.”

Like purple velvet, a little goes a LONG way. “But wait, ” you’re saying, “aren’t you being a little hypocritical? What about your love of all things Dickens?  His work is rife with overblown, hyperdramatic descriptions.”  Cool your jets, kids–that was the style when he was alive and rocking out the paranormal fiction. People wanted to spend an entire day savoring the well-crafted poem. That style of writing has a place, but not in the current culture of commercially viable novels.

If you want to sell books, you must walk the fine line between overblown prose and its antitheses, eviscerated, flat narrative

The Elements of Style calls “Purple Prose” “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”  To be fair, purple prose is subjective and each reader has a different level of tolerance for it, but it is something we definitely don’t want.

Plain: He set the mug down. (my choice)
Somewhere in the middle: He eased the tankard onto the table.
Bleah: Without haste, the tall, blond barbarian set the immense, pewter, ale-filled cup with a wooden handle onto the stained surface of the rough, wooden table.

Spare me the ‘creamy-blue eyes as deep a shade of amethyst as the lush, purple, velvet drapes.”

There is a tipping point where good, descriptive prose becomes distracting and cloying to the modern reader. I opt for a lean style in the majority of my own work, because, while I adore Charles Dickens,most readers just want a good novel that will provide a small diversion from the everyday grind.

Purple Prose done wrong bullies the reader into seeing only what the author tells them to see, and leaves no room for imagination. Telling the reader what to think forces her to walk away rather than suffer a moment longer. That book goes into the recycling bin, or gets deleted from my Kindle.

What I, as the author, think is good and beautiful may be ugly to you, as the reader.

Author Stephen Swartz recently posted a great blogpost on this very subject–available at Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire.  He loves the nuances of the english language as much as I do, but understands how to create lean narrative that allows a reader to see the scene, but leaves room for the imagination to fill in the gaps.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of many authors who manage to walk the line between purple and eviscerated prose, among them Ross M. Kitson, Shaun Allan, Neil Gaiman, and yes, you too, Stephen Swartz.

black velvet dressThese authors give you the framework around which your imagination builds the image, and they place that framework in well-crafted sentences that tease you, inviting you to read more. Like that  little black dress made of velvet, their work is lush, sleek, and sophisticated.

My advice is to read, read, read. If you like a certain style, write in such a way to evoke the feeling the author of that work raised in you. But never , never force the minute details of your vision on your readers. When you bludgeon your reader with the minutiae of your vision, you lose the beauty of story, and you lose your reader.

I think Neil Gaiman nails that fine distinction in this quote from “The Ocean at the End of the Lane:”

Neil Gaiman Quote

Creepy and to the point–and allows us to envision the shock the main character feels at the realization he knows nothing of his past, without beating us over the head with it.

My goal is to write with an economy of words, yet give enough description that my readers can build the environment in their own minds.

10 Comments

Filed under blogging, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, vampires, writer, writing