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How To Write Mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

– Ken Kesey

Mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.

Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.

Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books

how to write mystery

What Is A Mystery Story?

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Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is often used as an insult but, used properly, has its place in good storytelling. Here are some tips for writing melodrama.

What Is Melodrama?

Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle: the remarkable rather than the ordinary.

Melodrama is about extremes of any kind. Melodrama is designed to:

  1. rouse strong emotions
  2. invoke implicit shared attitudes
melodrama from pretty little liars

A take-the-piss commentary of how melodrama is used (to great effect, I might add) in Pretty Little Liars

Why Use Melodrama In Your Writing?

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is continued into the character building:
Riverdale beauty darkness light

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling.

melodrama film noir

Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Mayer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

I feel writers underestimate readers sometimes, though. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

No waking up and it was all a dream. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing its existence. These parts must be shown in scenes. Dialogue is more believable than summary. 

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let it become commonplace. The amount of reality versus magic has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.

If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see.

 

Notes above are largely from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.

opponent fiction john le carre

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Purple Adjectives, Plain Adjectives; Every adjective has a home

ON PURPLE PROSE

Apart from the fact that certain types of writing demand flowery language — a subset of the romance genre being a case in point — there are other uses for the sort of prose which otherwise reads so beautifully that it draws attention to itself. Sometimes such language has the unintended effect of drawing the reader out of the story. At other times there is a reason for it.

The Idea Of Perfection cover

 

This is the opening of Chapter 12 from Kate Grenville’s The Idea Of Perfection:

Out at The Bent Bridge, the men were having their smoko. They had got the fire going, twigs crackling under the billy, the flames invisible in the brilliant morning light. Smoke drifted away blue under the trees and turned the slanting sunlight into great organ-pipes of powdery light.

In a story set in the Australian bush, this paragraph almost seems out of place, with its excess adjectives (brilliant, blue, great) and alliteration (slanting sunlight) and its grandiose metaphor (organ-pipes) and original but tenuous use of ‘powdery’ rather than ‘dusty’. But the prose continues like this, with an abrupt change in tone:

The red-headed one they all called Blue opened his sandwich up, showing the flap of grainy grey devon inside. He had caught the sun across his bare freckled back and his eyes were bloodshot.

Er, yuk, he said, and peeled it off the bread.

It was stuck like wallpaper.

He flung it into the fire where it lay across a stick, curling, darkening, starting to sizzle. He stuck the two slices of bread back against each other.

It now becomes clear why the first paragraph had been so beautifully written: To contrast with the earthiness of the men working on the bridge.

The ‘red-headed one they all called Blue’ is an example of typically Australian irony, in which case colour is mentioned now for a different effect — to bring us back to the reality of ‘Australia’. The Australian-ness of this man is continued with the colour red — his freckles, his bloodshot eyes. There is no longer any glamour associated with adjectives of colour.

The devon sausage sounds even more disgusting than it is when contrasted against the ‘organ pipes of powdery light’, especially since ‘powdery’ is a word that could equally be used to describe devon, albeit with a completely different emotional outcome.

The dialogue, too, of ‘Er, yuk’ portrays unembellished laconic disgust, with its harsh ‘k’ sound.

‘It was stuck like wallpaper’ is another kind of imagery — a simile this time — but it has a quite different ring to it, because wallpaper is such an ordinary thing found in old houses, whereas ‘organ-pipes’ conjures up a cathedral with its high ceilings, spirituality and melodious sounds.

Next we have the colloquial verbs of ‘flung’ and ‘stuck’; Germanic-derived words which emphasise the harshness of the environs.

All of this works much better, of course, because it occurs in opposition to a flowery opening paragraph, which shows off the author’s flair for language, but with an end in mind… other than showing off.

ON PLAIN PROSE

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle cover

Critique groups will often advise beginning writers to avoid meaningless adjectives such as ‘nice’ and ‘good. But again, sometimes these adjectives are used for a reason. Take the following introduction to the heroes of The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson:

The children lived in a ground-floor flat in a pleasant part of South London. Their parents were funny and clever and nice, but they were apt to be a little bit frantic because of their jobs. Mrs Hamilton ran an experimental theatre which put on interesting plays but kept on running out of money, and Mr Hamilton was a designer and had to have good ideas about what people should do with their houses.

  1. The parents are not important to the story. The author’s job at the beginning of the story is simply to get them out of the way. If the author were to give examples of ‘funny’ and ‘clever’ and ‘nice’ then the story would be about the parents and the action would be suspended.
  2. The repetition of these fairly meaningless adjectives underscores the fairly meaningless lives our protagonists lead at the beginning of the story. Since their lives are uneventful and their home is sheltered, the only way they will grow as people is by leaving their secure and uneventful environment to go on an adventure elsewhere.

The Reflection Character In Storytelling

You may have heard of the ‘shadow in the hero’ when creating a character web for a story. Shadow in the hero describes a relationship between opponents. But what if two very different characters bring out the best in each other? What do you call that?

reflection characters

What Is A Reflection Character?

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.
— David Hauge

The reflection character is an ally.

(The reflection itself is often called the ‘Shadow In The Hero’ when a hero’s weaknesses and strengths are mirrored in a nemesis rather than in an ally.)

Mentors As Reflection Characters

A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve his goal.

On the subject of mentors, mentors often die in films. It’s only when we get rid of the mentor that the hero is given the opportunity to show what they have learnt. A common trick is to put a young innocent person between two mentors and making them pick between them. This is a test of character.

In film, reflections who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time.

Raison d’etre

To make it credible that your hero can achieve both what they want and what they need, you want to give them some help in the form of a reflection character.

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

Tips For Creating A Good Reflection Character

These initial exchanges illustrate a critical element of creating an effective reflection character: There must be lots of conflict between hero and reflection. Even though the reflection is the hero’s ally, teacher and friend, it is the reflection’s role to push the hero beyond his limits, challenge the hero’s poor decisions or weak actions, and repeatedly criticize and cajole the hero toward doing what is necessary to achieve his or her goal.

At some point in the story, the hero MUST reject the reflection character completely; and ultimately the reflection must remain loyal to the hero in spite of this hurtful rejection until the hero returns and aligns with the reflection once again. (This corresponds to Truby’s step: ATTACK BY ALLY.)

Examples

The King’s Speech — Speech therapist Lionel Logue embodies all the characteristics of an effective reflection to the film’s hero Bertie (later King George VI).

The Matrix — Morpheus

Good Will Hunting — Sean (mentor)

My Best Friend’s Wedding — George

True Grit — Rooster Cogburn is a reluctant mentor

 

Dirty Dancing — Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle (dance teacher mentor)

Silence Of The Lambs — Clarice and Hannibal (mentor)

An Officer And A Gentleman — Zack Mayo and Sgt. Foley (mentor)

Scarlett and Rayner

Nashville — Rayna James is mentor to Scarlett due to her greater experience in the country music scene. Rayna is much taller than Scarlett, which is interesting because in film mother figures are often taller than daughter figures even though in real life daughters tend to be the same height or even a little taller than their mothers. Their common nemesis is Juliette Barnes, and the character web is interesting physiologically because from behind at least, Scarlett and Juliette go by the same description — they are both small with long, blonde hair. Juliette is the fierce, conniving and much more successful version of Scarlett in the first few seasons.

Jennifer Melfi

The Sopranos — Tony has a therapist, who eventually works out that he’s playing with her, and that you can’t fix a sociopath with therapy but you can enable one.

Reflection Characters In Children’s Stories

Matilda — Miss Honey. If Matilda keeps reading and studying, she’s likely to become a Miss Honey herself one day.

Miss Stacey — to Anne of Green Gables. Actual teachers as reflection characters are common in children’s literature, probably because this is the period of people’s lives where teachers are important.

The Witches — Grandmama to the first person narrator. Grandmama is the original witch hunter, but the job of exterminating them all is left to the grandson.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a mirror character to a morose boy who needs to be drawn out of himself, into some kind of adventure, romantic or otherwise. We see this pairing in adult stories as well as in stories for younger readers, e.g. In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier.

Shrek — Donkey is always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. Donkey is well known for acting annoyingly and irritatingly towards other characters, especially Shrek. One night, during camp, Donkey asks Shrek why he hates everyone so much, and Shrek angrily reveals that everyone judges him a scary monster before getting to actually know him, and Donkey acknowledges that he already knew that there was more to Shrek’s character when they met. Donkey begins to notice a romance between Fiona and Shrek, despite their denials. So Donkey is that upbeat friend who brings Shrek out of a fug and counsels him romantically.

Up — Russell to the old man is similar to the relationship between Donkey and Shrek. (Not so different from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, except for genre and gender.)

Mary Ingalls — to sister Laura. Mary’s level-headedness and later, her blindness, goes some way towards ‘taming’ Laura, turning her into a caring, kind person as well as someone who loves an outdoors adventure.

Gilbert Blythe — to Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.

Karate Kid — Mr Miyagi (and later Mr Han). Mr Miyagi is also a trickster (mentor + trickster) because he gets Daniel-san to basically do all his most annoying and time-consuming tasks so he can sit back and tend to his bonsai.

Not Really Related

Your Dog Is Your Mirror cover

This is a non-fiction book cover that scares the hell out of me.

Aerial Perspective In Picture Books

Aerial perspective refers to distance. When looking at an image, how does the viewer get a sense of depth? The artist can add depth to an image using various tricks.

There are various ways of depicting aerial perspective.

Change the colour

Background scenery such as distant mountains tend to look more blue.

Love le renard by Frederic Brremaud & Federico Bertolucci

Buildings can be blued out:

blue aerial perspective

In this image the general real life rule of ‘blue for distance’ is exaggerated.

People can also be blued out:

Or a blue outline may suffice.

The Wheel On The School

Whereas aerial perspective is more noticeable across vistas covering large distances, artists can also use it to create depth in very intimate settings, for instance when foreshortening:

by Claire Elan

 

At sunset, or in the city, the blue is often swapped out for orange hues:

aerial perspective orange

Warms in the background, blues in the foreground definitely convey the feeling of a place cooling down after a hot day.

by Jamey Christoph

But not always. I feel the image below aims to convey atmosphere rather than time of day.

by Chuck Groenink

The general rule of cools in the background, warms in the foreground can also be inverted for a surreal, pop-art kind of look.

by Guy Shield

In a utopian setting where you don’t want any desaturation, you can change the palette. Often it will be cool colours for the background palette, warm for the foreground, but the cools are as bright as the warms.

aerial perspective change palette

Desaturate Colours

The further away, the less vivid the colours. Or even if there are no colours at all, the background will seem more see-through. In digital illustration, this can be achieved by lowering the opacity of the background images.

aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen

aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen

Fantasy illustrators tend to make heavy use of this technique as it creates a highly atmospheric image — often dystopian.

fantasy aerial perspective

In a Near Future by Francesco Lorenzetti

Make use of blur

Background scenery might be more blurry if you want to draw attention to your foreground image. This is a natural consequence of taking a photograph using an SLR camera and can also be applied to art. (It’s also a natural consequence of being short-sighted…)

by Elly MacKay

aerial perspective blur

Or, you might blur out the foreground and leave the background layer in focus.

by Mike Bear

Frame With Very Dark Foreground

In this image of Beauty and the Beast’s castle, artist Petur Antonsson has used four distinct perspective layers, starting with almost black in the foreground, brightest for the focal point (the house), an ochre layer of trees and a misty, blue castle behind.

aerial perspective foreground silhouette

Darken foreground lines

thick lines

Here’s a rather extreme example of line thickening in the foreground.

Change the amount of detail

 

Use white lines as background scenery

Heidi aerial perspective

white lines forming a gesture of mountains in the background

The Snow Queen

thin white lines for the background building, thicker lines for the trees in the middle ground, full colour for the children in the foreground

Use unfilled objects (with dark lines) as background scenery

In Drahos Zac’s illustrations for The Pied Piper, there may be ominous reasons for avoiding the sepia fill on background buildings: The inhabitants of those particular buildings may have already died. This theory holds up when you consider some of the foreground characters are also left unfilled. This feels reminiscent of ghosts.

Pied Piper Drahos Zak drahos zak2

aerial perspective lines

Silhouettes As Background Objects

by Erwin Madrid

Or the silhouette might have a bit of detail. You can be as silhouette-y as you like.

Rootabaga Stories

Silhouettes don’t have to be relegated to the background, as proven by this photograph:

Winterwonderland by Sabine Thöle

Levels of Detail In Literature

NOVELS

Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail.[…] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood then goes on to explain that although all this surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

In the end it doesn’t really matter about any distinction between what is real and what is signified, because “realism can be an effect and still be true”. Wood describes Barthes’s attitude towards realism as “sensitive, murderous hostility” and that’s the only reason why he insisted on this “false division”.

SHORT STORIES

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver explains that even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

PICTURE BOOKS

Modern picture books convey all of their detail in the illustrations and none in the text. The text is for conveying the story structure. There are few exceptions to this. Once the text starts to describe the picture, what you now have is an ‘illustrated story’.

Tips and Tricks from Muriel Spark

The Finishing School

In this novel, Muriel Spark takes a swipe at hack writers and aspiring novelists. All of the characters are cliches and stereotypes, working well as a comedic ensemble to convey Spark’s own ideas on writing. We are to read most of this book as irony. Failure to do so would render it dry.

Rowland marvelled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were… How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly ‘dansed’ with her friend from ‘Nipall’. Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.

A common but inaccurate perception that editors exist solely to copyedit the genius of writers, who do not need to learn the basic tools of writing, but whose talent is glowing enough to shine through their basic errors.

‘Watch for details,’ Rowland had often said. ‘Observe. Think about your observations. Think hard. They do not need to be literally true. Literal truth is arid. Analyse your subject. Get at the Freudian reality, the inner kernel. Everything means something other than it seems. The cat means the mother.’

A poke at writers who dress plain things up with figurative language which gets in the way of the story.

‘I’ve changed my mind, you know, about the book I’m writing. It won’t be a novel. It will eventually be a life-study of a real person, Chris. At present I am accumulating the notes.’

True writers just get on with finishing what they’ve started. Rowland will never finish his novel because he can’t decide on what he wants to write about.

‘He hasn’t got a publisher yet,’ said Rowland. ‘That’s the sine qua non of a book.’

Characterisation

Rowland’s pompous side is underscored by his use of Latin. He could have said ‘prerequisite’, a perfectly acceptable English term but he must show off his classical education, as many hi-falutin writers tend to do.

Muriel Spark also manages to have a go at publishers who seize the opportunity to publish work by very young authors who have a platform because of their age; talented writers who nevertheless get carried away too soon, wanting their first draft made into a movie; authors who rework the plot of an existing classic; writers who use big words like ‘antiguous’, causing others to look it up; and close-readings of Thomas Hardy.

The Humour

Muriel Spark has a wonderful, acerbic tone and I enjoy her humour because it is not the kind that slaps you in the face.

Nina is conducting her comme il faut class (a class about social etiquette – the French only making it seem more pretentious than it already is). Like Miss Jean Brodie, Nina has firm but very biased ideas about such things, and embarks upon a lecture:

‘Be careful who takes you to Ascot,’ she said, ‘because unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.’ (As if rich husbands couldn’t possibly be crooks.) … Your man is bound to be a crook, bound to be. It teems with crooks…’

‘My dad doesn’t go to Ascot,’ said Pallas. (Meaning to point out that his father is therefore, proudly NOT a crook)

‘Oh I didn’t say all crooks went to Ascot, only that there are plenty of them at that function.’ (Implying in a most pragmatic way that even though Pallas’ father IS a crook, that doesn’t mean he has to go to Ascot – wonderfully twisted logic.)

But much of the humour comes from the setting – the most pretentious setting anyone could dream up – a finishing school in Switzerland. The formal language echoes the formal, pompous setting. Spark even hyphenates ‘to-day’ in the old-fashioned way.

Narration

The novel begins with Rowland opining about how to set the scene in a novel. The novel is written in omniscient POV, zooming in and out from the mind of Rowland, the 29-year-old principal of the finishing school, and aspiring novelist.

Spark makes good use of free indirect style:

It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water.

Here, it is not the narrator speaking, but obviously Rowland. Muriel Spark knows that such an image will provoke laughter and she directs our laughter towards her pompous character. This is exactly how Rowland would see the sky, in his melodramatic, overwritten way.

Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

Some screenwriters refer to these as the ‘third track’ of dialogue (with the first two tracks being ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds are the third track of dialogue. These are words with the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

A variant on the arc phrases also occurs in a lot of middle grade fiction.

Key Words and Phrases In The Narrative Voice

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which explains the significance of the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Likewise, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce was written concurrently with the screenplay. Both the screenplay and the book came to fruition, my point being that the book was the first written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In this book, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

 

An Unusual Phrase Associated With A Character

Sometimes the main character has a distinctive phrase rather than, as in the above examples, the (first person) narrative voice.

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

 

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

Still, writers are often warned against word echo, which means writers shouldn’t use a particular ‘word with personality’ more than, say, once in any novel length work otherwise the word calls attention to itself. As Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates though, even (possibly) unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.

 

A metaphor is like a simile

Metaphors are privileged areas for lying: by granting authors these limited flights of fancy, readers kid themselves into believing that what is not figurative in a text is somehow ‘truer’.

– Jason K. Friedman in Goth: Undead Subculture

Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor.

Some good metaphors

From Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly (by Dave Eggers), set in Tanzania:

A woman on the tour bus has ‘leonine hair, frayed and thick, blond and white’.

Tanzania = lions = good metaphor because it reflects the setting.

Here’s another from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), describing Frank’s place of work:

At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a bit open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, others treading water, some seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.

There are several different metaphors in the paragraph above (fire and mazes included), though those first metaphors don’t really jump out because they have become a part of the language. (‘A maze of corridors’ has become cliche – though we shouldn’t despise the cliche too much – it gets its meaning across.)

The extended metaphor of the sea of swimmers is particularly well done, because, although I’ve seen similar open-plan offices in my life, I had never made the connection that the workers in such an office are like swimmers. When Yates describes how each is at a different stage of submersion, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it looks’.

But the true brilliance of this extended metaphor is how it relates to the theme. Frank Wheeler’s mediocre suburban life is itself a form of slow drowning, even though at first glance, this cruisy job feels like a day at the beach.

The Sea = Frank Wheeler’s Workplace = A slow drowning disguised as a harmless environment = A very good metaphor because it echoes the theme.

A Bad Metaphor

Perpetrator: me.

My story is set in contemporary New Zealand. High school students are in a car, making their way to a school ball. Comment below comes courtesy of a writing group critter:

Streetlamps flash-danced by, [1] and neon signs and traffic lights and ordinary people making their way to ordinary places. Why couldn’t everyone have this much fun, every night, everywhere?


[l1]Nice echo of Katherine Mansfield here, but I’m not sure of the purpose of it.

Exactly. There was no good reason  to include ‘flashdance’ in a contemporary story for young adults. Not when the setting is New Zealand. Not when flash-dancing should get the reader humming ‘What a feeling!’, if anything at all.

Flashdance = America = 1980s = bad metaphor. I took it out.

Related

Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect from Lit Reactor

Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors at Patheos

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