Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (intro part two)
The Sword Decides!
Introduction: part two
A Different Kind of Translation, continued:
Most of what you want to achieve contradicts itself to a degree, the writing of a story or novel being like every other enterprise…all things in their rightful places, nothing either over or underdone. We really shouldn’t talk about “a writer’s secrets”—why would we keep something helpful we’ve discovered a secret?
All the tips and tricks for making your writing grip, and boom, and catch the reader’s breath, are learnable and shareable. Drama, melodrama, cheese even, can’t be usefully looked at as “never dos”. They have their places. One of which suits the thriller genre well; also dystopias, where the past might be rediscovered, or any plot enhanced by the verisimilitude of “evidence”. You will at some point create what I call supporting materials: an attic trunk of letters from another century, a scientific report that exposes some ugly truth, etc. Your hero wants to be a star and is being held back by a pretender? What does that pretender’s work amount to? Better to let the reader see the proof—your assignment: to craft some mannered poetry, some fiery-desirey song lyrics…
For supporting materials, then, you’ll want to verse yourself in styles and types.
- Be a better storyteller than you are a technician.
- But, know that storytelling depends more on logic and truth-feeling than on invention. (And if it sounds like there ought to be an academic-sounding German word for truth-feeling, yes: for fun, it’s Wahrheitsgefühl.)
To the first point—don’t fail to engage. Let’s look at some examples:
The Veiled Doctor
Well out of the course of the present lines of travel there stands a sleepy old town, where the brooding quiet muffles every pulse of modern life. No latter-day institutions profane the antiquity of its streets; no steam whistles disturb its dreams of former grandeur. Years ago, when this had been a centre of the trade which found transportation in the heavy-bodied, ungraceful schooners and barks that lie rotting now in the grass-grown docks, there had been some talk of bringing the railroad this way.
Novel, Varina Anne Jefferson Davis, 1895
In the 19th century, when the novel form was decade by decade coming into its own, the standard beginning came to be the setting-of-the-stage. Someone—we will find out who—is observing a scene; the scene is described. Staging is what we generally have to do with pesky transition paragraphs, where a plot point has just played itself out and the next needs establishing. At passes like this, as you probably know, figuring out how to get started is at its most challenging.
Whatever else the author represents (she was the daughter of confederacy president Jefferson Davis; she lived from 1864-1898, dying at age 34, and her parents, for the sake of political considerations, had forced her break an engagement), a woman writer of this era who wanted to be taken seriously felt she had to work harder at it.
Davis’s beginning is not interesting. She tells us specifically that this is not an interesting place. The rhetorical present tense of the first lines places the narrator’s view high in the sky…and the remainder gives us no clue as to whose head we’ll land in eventually.
Setting the stage is an acceptable beginning, but first paragraphs can easily break into a trot…
The Affair of The Man Who Called Himself Hamilton Cleek
The thing wouldn’t have happened if any other constable than Collins had been put on point duty at Blackfriars Bridge that morning. For Collins was young, good looking—and knew it. Nature had gifted him with a susceptible heart and a fond eye for the beauties of femininity. So when he looked round and saw the woman threading her way through the maze of vehicles at “Dead Man’s Corner,” with her skirt held up just enough to show two twinkling little feet in French shoes, and over them a graceful, willowy figure, and over that an enchanting, if rather too highly tinted, face, with almond eyes and a fluff of shining hair under the screen of a big Parisian hat—that did for him on the spot.
Story, Thomas W. Hanshew, 1910
Some beginnings put us inside a character right off the bat. The thing wouldn’t have happened foreshadows an event, one mysterious and better avoided—
But pay attention not only to the immediacy of the opening but also to the rhythm: strong emphasis on thing, negligible stress on wouldn’t (choice of contraction counts*); strong emphasis again on happened. Collins is a good-looking policeman with a weakness for women. Hamartia (the writing-about-writing term for character flaw) is the classic plot-driver, even in less-than-Greek opuses. A femme fatale appears to enter the scene at once, and near to a spot, no less, called Dead Man’s Corner. Hanshew, to the degree he has any reputation in the 21st century, is considered a hack. All the better to illustrate that tricks of the trade matter; that creating drama actually…creates drama.
(Hanshew (1857-1914) was an actor born in New York, who retired to England and began writing detective stories, featuring his sleuth Hamilton Cleek. He also wrote under the pseudonym Charlotte May Kingsley, and co-wrote some of his books with his wife Mary E. Hanshew.)
*Native accent of writer is worth accounting for, too. A British speaker is more likely to enunciate the terminal t of wouldn’t, and the leading h of have (some words, like armchair and weekend are stressed opposite of the American way, which may change the reading of poetic lines); while an American would make a single word of them: wouldn’ve. And for your supporting materials database, note the punctuation of the era: face offset with two commas, while these days we would skip the one between tinted and face.
(more to come)
The Sword Decides!
(2020, Stephanie Foster)