The Invisible Hand Dilemma

By

Two years ago I had a chance to sit under the instruction of one of my favorite fictional authors, Orson Scott Card. Well, he isn’t fictional, his books are. Except the non-fiction ones –which is pretty self-explanatory. (Now exiting the vehicle is My Brevity -wave to the camera.) OSC is the author of Ender’s Game, an outstanding book in the speculative fiction genre. While his religious views are far from orthodox (he is a Mormon) his angle on the art of writing is compelling. Among the myriad of helpful impartations about the craft of writing he shared, I’d like to share one which challenged my thinking about the author and his work. OK, here I go…sharing.

Card made the case that the writer should be invisible. He explained that when we are reading a story the last thing we want is to be distracted by superfluous prose, or convoluted description. If you have read Ender’s Game you’ll notice that very few scenes are described in detail, but a significant depth of penetration in the mind of the point-of-view character, along with dialogue and action, carries the story. He wants the plot, the story itself, to be the focus of the reader -without the reader stopping every few sentences to utter breathless praise for the style and prowess of the writer. The story is the thing.

He spoke about how many authors write scenes cinematically. That is, they see the scene like a movie, and then describe the scene from the outside, trying to help the reader see what the author sees. In contrast, Card’s view is that the novelist has a few advantages over the filmmaker and one of them is the chance to go into a character’s mind, in deep penetration, and let us see the story from the inside. Movies don’t often do that very well. Consequently many modern authors, raised on cinema, try to duplicate that cinematic feel, nullifying one of the few advantages of a novelist. I, for one, tire quickly of extravagant language in a novel. I want to be given enough to stir my imagination, but not overrun it. Let me participate as a reader, I want my mind to fill in the images based on clues, not be busy trying to get the details of the author’s endless description just right.

I balance this thinking (of the invisible author) against my experience of books where the writer is very much apparent, and almost a character in the story. One example is the great P.G. Wodehouse, creator of guffaw-inducing yarns about the declining British aristocracy (with his Bertie Wooster and Jeeves characters) and the golden age of Hollywood. Brilliant stuff. In those stories, Wodehouse’s voice and descriptive genius are probably the principle draw of the books. The plot is interesting, but mostly as an avenue for comedy. The stories become a way for Wodehouse to express his irrepressible humor. But they are not great stories -at least not as stories alone.

So, I’m not sure what the conclusion of the matter is. I have a working hypothesis that when the story is the thing, the writer’s gifts are used best when he is more or less invisible and the story isn’t interrupted by frequent, insistent demonstrations of his great use of language that ultimately is distracting. However, in comedic stories, the writer has more opportunity to “show himself,” especially since it’s not just about the plot, but about a comedic flow. After all, we mostly notice authors when something is written poorly, it stands out when standing out is not desired. It distracts.

So I call this the Invisible Hand Dilemma. How much do we want to be aware of the author’s presence – and I mean actively? The author is always there, of course, but how visible is his hand?

Some authors in some books seem to straddle the line amazingly well. One is a book none of you have ever heard of called On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by the popular, European, petty-coat and scarf tycoon Andrew Peterson. When I began the book, I thought it was very funny, but was pretty convinced that it would have no room for gravity, or a compelling story. I was wrong. Andrew’s voice was there all along, with his signature humor aplenty, but somehow I still managed to get lost in the story.

on-the-edge-cover.jpgTo me, great stories are like a dream –you awaken afterwards and only then realize it wasn’t real. It was that captivating.

As for the Invisible Hand Dilemma, I don’t know the answer. I am a very inexperienced writer and my own first novel is certain to fail most tests of excellence, even my own. So I write this partly to steal advice from wiser writers -and readers. Help me out. It seems like the tastes for books from the Rabbit Room crowd is more toward literary fiction than my own tastes are inclined. Maybe that signals a lack of refinement on my part (I actually did grow up in a “holler” in West Virginia). More likely it’s just that these people are a bunch of snobs. They wouldn’t know a good book if’n a polecat come up and bit ’em on their high horses.

Snobs or not, any thoughts are welcome. Help me out here.


26 Comments

  1. Loren Eaton

    Card made the case that the writer should be invisible. He explained that when we are reading a story the last thing we want is to be distracted by superfluous prose, or convoluted description.

    Gold. Ursula LeGuin makes a similar point in Steering the Craft regarding style. She writes, “I would recommed to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.”

  2. Loren Eaton

    Okay, it’s bad form to leave one post right after another, but I was listening to an interview with fantasy author Terry Goodkind while opening mail at the office, and he hits on this exact point — clarity and authorial invisibility are preferred. You can listen to or download the interview at Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing. The relevant portion is from 22:15 to 25:00.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Bringing up Goodkind made me think of this:

    http://sandstormreviews.blogspot.com/2006/08/goodkind-parodies.html

    Hilarious stuff.

    Good post, Sam. The balance that a writer achieves between his voice and his narrative is what I’d call his style. It’s going to be different for everyone and finding the right balance between the two is sometimes tough.

    I have a tendency to overwrite almost everything and have to go back an edit out large portions because it’s not essential to the story or scene. It took me a long time to learn that though.

    Btw, Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I’ve never read anything else of Card’s because that one was so good that I don’t want to spoil it with the sequels.

  4. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    S.D.

    Isn’t this idea of transparency true as well in music and in being a sound engineer (especially!). Think of the many times you’ve heard the national anthem. The ones who did it best are those who had the minimum of vocal acrobatics and the maximum of putting the words across. It’s the difference between watching a guitar player who is “amazing” and another who is soul-wrenchingly soulful; the latter is more humbly used as a vehicle for putting the song across than the former.

    Art of any kind takes a sort of humility. I don’t mean necessarily that the artist is humble all the time; he may be an arrogant jerk. But when he is art-ing he becomes self-forgetful, caught up in the moment, living in the Now, and becomes a vehicle for something beyond himself. I see this in Jaco Pastorious – he did an instructional video. In his speaking he sometimes seems quite arrogant. But when he plays his eyes change and he goes to another place. He becomes self-forgetful and is living in Now (self-consciousness is so overly focused on the past – “what others have thought of me” – and future – “what others will think of me”). Lewis said (paraphrase from memory, the book is out in my van), “God would rather a man thought himself a great poet or artist or musician and forgot about it than spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one.”

    The other type of musician, singer, writer, well, I don’t listen to or read for very long. “Amazing” may be ok for a few minutes, just as an admiration of technique, but if it just dazzles and sparkles without any depth I suddenly have the desire to be somewhere else.

    The real deal is when technique becomes a vehicle for taking the audience into a whole world. Certain records do this – Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” (really all of her records do that for me, but some of her worlds, especially later ones, I don’t like to spend a lot of time in); Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” and of course many others. A sonic and lyric world is created whereby we are sucked in and forget ourselves. Only an artist who is self-forgetting himself (when playing, or writing, etc) can do this to us.

    I think that’s why artists are sometimes held up on a pedestal. They do something for us that often we can’t do for ourselves – they get us out of ourselves and into the Moment, out of our restless thought-patterns and into another world where such patterns as ours don’t exist. That’s what a great movie, or book, or music, does for me.

    So – technique is good. Having an able handle on words and how to work them is good. Scales and chords and theory – all good. But they are mere vehicles, and if seen as ends in themselves we’ll miss that transcendent Now of creation – and so will the listener or reader.

    How much of the artist’s personality should come through? All of it – but only in self-forgetfulness. Often what we think is “my personality” really isn’t.

    This reply isn’t really so much an answer as a thought-stream.

  5. Chris

    Another good example of the necessarily-present writer is comedy is Douglas Adams in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Adam’s commentary on just about everything in the universe is what makes this book a classic – and why the sequels and the movie just couldn’t touch it. As you said, the story just acts as a vehicle for the author’s comedy.

  6. elijah

    Card makes a good point when he says that modern authors are tempted to try to write movies instead of writing novels. After all, film is the story telling form we are most inundated with (at least in the West).

    Film, by nature, is a visual medium – films show action and suggest character motivation and emotion. Novels and short stories are literary – they tell character motivation and emotion and suggest action. For example, in the novel The Return of the King, we are told of Sam’s great love for Frodo which compels him to carry Frodo up Mt. Doom; we imagine what that looks like. In the film version, we infer his love as we are shown Frodo on Sam’s back as he struggles up the steep mountainside.

    The difference between the two is not in language – the quantity of adjectives and adverbs used – but in the purpose of that language. Tolkien’s prose is rife with description, but his adjectives create the world of Middle Earth, and he never lets his character development suffer.

    Good screenplays, on the other hand, are adjective starved. As Robert McKee wrote, “Pity the poor screenwriter for he cannot be a poet.” Movies, because they show and don’t tell, are plot centric. If nothing is happening on the screen, nothing is happening for the audience, but while a good screenplay is obsessed with action, once the screenplay is translated to the cineplex, adjectives and adverbs leap off the screen. A film is language in motion. A film is poetry observed.

    I think the heart of the problem is not in how we write but in what we write. I think as writers we need to be true to our stories and their forms. If a story is best told as a novel, write a novel. Don’t try to put a movie on a page. If a story is primarily visual, make a film. I think if we are true to our stories and give them their proper form, the problem of being “invisible” will, um, disappear.

    And I like what Ron said about forgetting ourselves. Serve the story, eh?

  7. Jason

    OSC is awesome. I have read every one of the Ender books. I usually don’t do that but you just explained to me why I did with him – I know the characters from the inside. I think the stories themselves got a bit weak but I wanted to find out what happened to the characters.

  8. whipple

    In films, the scenery becomes a character in itself, acting upon the other characters and being acted upon by them. Why do I desire to visit Scotland? Because of Braveheart. The cinematography at the beginning and also in the scenes where William Wallace returns to his childhood home present the landscape as a romantic and dangerous friend, calling you to come and smell the smells and feel the rain and sky. Why do the imaginary Tatooine and Arrakis call out to me? Why does Hogwarts capture my imagination in the movies while the characters and their struggles capture my imagination in the books?

    The scenery in movies is well-defined (as is the look of the characters) and not much is left up to the imagination. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not. Walter Wangerin’s “The Book of the Dun Cow” has been mentioned on here. That’s one book where I feel that the setting took a more active role in the narrative. I suppose that the setting comes to the forefront more in fantastical works because it must be made familiar to us.

  9. s.d. smith

    Loren -I liked that Ursula LeGuin quotation as well. Thanks for the link to the Goodkind of audio. (Did you notice how clever that last sentence was? Notice me! Please.)

    Pete- Love Ender. The new one (Ender in Exile) is a pretty good direct sequel, though Speaker for the Dead was good as well. I really enjoyed the Homecoming series. Check that out. OSC says that most college courses teach and teach “style” and that in reality it’s the only thing you really can’t teach. He says work on Character and Viewpoint, the things you can work at. The style is just you. That’s him. Pretty sharp, I guess.

    Ron- Quit being so freaking brilliant. I keep noticing. Really, that is exactly what I was after with my question. Thanks for the insight. Self-forgetfulness is key, and that whole idea has such application in the spiritual life as well (not that there is a grand separation of lives, of course). But in worship that is an enormous blessing (and a seemingly impossible, for humans, accomplishment). Accomplishment may be a bad way to say it. Better: When it is accomplished. Thanks.

    Chris- I had Adams on the brain as well. Brilliant (and sad as well, considering the end of many of his conclusions) writer.

    Elijah- I am with you. Film has so many advantages over novels, so much can be described with just a look of the eye, or with the combination of music and even the simplest scene. I think that’s why OSC argued that novelists not try to compete with that, but just do what we can do in our medium. I liked this:
    “Don’t try to put a movie on a page. If a story is primarily visual, make a film. I think if we are true to our stories and give them their proper form, the problem of being “invisible” will, um, disappear.”

    Jason- Agreed. I have read all but two of the Shadow ones, but the Ender series, while falling off somewhat, is still worth the read. Everyone feels like Ender. OSC really does do it in that character.

    Whipple- Yeah, Tolkien’s use of description feels so appropriate to me. I think he did so much of the work in making speculative fiction (particularly fantasy) believable, that now, because of him, we have cliches (not always bad) to work from that everyone understands and therefore writers don’t have to do as much description. Does that make sense? Cliches are a useful tool if used appropriately. We can focus on world creation as well, but by blending it in and keeping it short, as many suggest.

  10. david

    i have always loved the relational aspect of the Ender books – Ender’s relationships in general, and particularly in Speaker for the Dead when he interacts with a dysfunctional family, learning how to touch each of them deeply.

    it’s very telling that Ender’s Game has yet again failed on the screenplay level (i just read that it’s been dropped by the studio). i doubt that Card, who was writing the screenplay, would ever be content with a truncated, action-focused Ender’s Game. it’s a novel, not a movie, for a reason.

    this may be a tangent for another day, but i’ve been thinking a lot about Card’s worldview/philosophy/theology with regard to his writings. Ender’s Game is such a phenomenal work, but it does have a pretty a-religious worldview. i’m usually a “why?” person, but i’ve been stuck on a “how?” – how does a Mormon, clearly an intelligent person, write novels that espouse a worldview and deal with topics that aren’t kosher Mormon issues? since we were talking about reason and Christianity just a few posts ago… shouldn’t Card’s ability to reason, and his obvious grasp of the human psyche, and his interaction with the Gospel (surely SOMEone has shared the true Gospel with him at this point in his life) lead him to consider Christ…?

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    David,

    Although reason is a factor in accepting the Gospel, the real deciding factor (on the human side) is the will – that’s why Romans states that “they are without excuse…” It’s a will-choice, not merely reason, that even considers Christ. Of course God’s revelation to the man of Himself is a big factor in his reason and will seeing the Truth – as Norman Grubb said, “How can we conceive of God changing a person’s will if he is free? The answer is that God changes our ‘want,’ and the will follows spontaneously.” But there is still a human will at stake which may or may not have been illuminated. So it isn’t just the reason that is involved – otherwise everyone would believe – “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

    That’s why sometimes love will win the day where reason can’t. When we love people by faith in Christ within us – when they see Christ in us – it moves mountains, especially the mountain of a deluded will.

  12. whipple

    Sam~

    True. We all know what elves and orcs are and how they tend to operate. It’s a strange parallel, that we should have stereotypes there that slip under the radar most of the time.

  13. Jason Gray

    I just read Ender’s Game for the first time last week because a friend gave it to me for Christmas. I was skeptical because I’m not a typical fan of sci-fi reading, but loved it. In fact, I initiated a discussion of the book on message boards on my site if anyone is interested in joining in: http://www.jasongraymusic.com.

    Pete – after I read it, I found a copy of Ender’s Shadow in a used bookstore. It’s the same story as Ender’s Game but told through Bean. It’s great, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised. In fact, in some ways I like it even more. It has a little more of a theological dimension that I kept longing for in Ender’s Game, and it was written several years later so OSC’s writing feels surer to me. I’m a third of the way through and so far am really into it.

    About the invisible hand. I TOTALLY get this and think it’s a valid and valuable viewpoint. That being said, some of my favorite writers aren’t necessarily invisible. Buechner comes to mind, and Mark Helprin is always getting busted for being a bit gratuitous in his prose. However, this is exactly what I love about these guys, and though I really like OSC’s work, it is a different beast. I couldn’t put it down while I was reading it and I’m a fan, but I can’t imagine returning to it as I have the works of Buechner & Helprin, savoring it. In terms of music, Paul Simon might be an example of someone whose craft isn’t necessarily invisible.

    My point is that I don’t think it has to be eithor/or, but rather both/and (and of course I’m only speaking in terms of the positive aspect of “visible” writing. Clearly, there is an abundance of negative examples).

    I think Ron’s pithy little summary says it all: “How much of the artist’s personality should come through? All of it – but only in self-forgetfulness. Often what we think is “my personality” really isn’t.”

    Darn you Ron…

  14. Benjamin Wolaver

    I’ve grown up reading historical novels, and love the old style of Scott, Hugo, Dickens, and Conrad. I agree that there is a certain kind of novel that is better told with the Invisible Hand, but I think modern authors have overemphasized minimalism at the expense of our rich English heritage.

    Not too long ago, I read an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro who I think is probably one of our best modern writers. He related how he had once written a passage in English that he realized afterward would be difficult to translate. So he changed it. I can’t disagree with that position more. English is a special language with particular strengths. Today’s writers are throwing out punctuation (Cormac McCarthy), adverbs (Stephen King), and other treasures.

    In my mind, we need to return to a love of the English language. Alliteration, rhyme, powerful description (just read a little Joseph Conrad and you’ll understand), and the full sweep of expression should be our ally at arms. The best style, in my own opinion, is like Shakespeare: poetry prose.

    Minimalism is sometimes appropriate, but the books that will remain on my shelf for all time are those that reveled in the full measure of expression. Kafka will be forgotten, but Tolkien never will.

  15. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Benjamin, I hear you. Both Godric and Saint Julian are books that could not exist and without the colorful, vibrant and inimitable fingerprint of their authors. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is another great example.

    Part of the reason that I think such works are so few and far between is that writing in that high style is very difficult to do well and even more difficult to sustain for a novel length work. It’s far easier I think to edit a mediocre writer down to the minimalist prose you dislike than it is to train him up to alliterate without insult.

    Personally, I very nearly despise novels that open with any sort of ‘hook’. The rule of thumb in the writing world is to open on action, pull the reader in from the first paragraph, the first sentence even. While there is a certain pedestrian wisdom in that, it is also true that very few great books are written that way. In my mind, stooping to that sort of formulaic nonsense without a grain of salt is like an admission of mediocrity, a refusal to aim high, a relinquishing of the possibility of greatness.

    The downside is that I personally tend to overwrite things and end up editing them down to make them palatable. My first drafts are truly eye-rolling affairs.

  16. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    When a master writer chooses to not use punctuation, for example, the results can be stunning. I would agree that it could be a crutch, an easy gimmick, but I don’t that you could apply those terms to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

  17. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    This is a great discussion.

    Benjamin–If you’re a lover of language, you might just do a cartwheel when you read Mark Helprin. Jason Gray introduced me to him through a fifteen-pound epic called A Soldier of the Great War. I loved all eight million pages of it. Now, I’m about ninety pages away from finishing Winter’s Tale, which I love even more. His imagination and language is described by the reviewers on the back cover as “exuberant” more than once, and it’s the perfect word for it.

    Everyone Else–I’m in the revision stage of my book North! Or Be Eaten, which means I’m accepting or rejecting about twenty of my editor’s changes per page. The book is about 400 pages long, so it takes a lot of time. Most of the fixes are matters of sentence structure and inexperience on my part. For example, It wasn’t until this revision that I realized how much I overuse the word “that”. From here on out I’m going to search and destroy as many “thats” as possible before I post anything, anywhere.

    My point is, there were many times my editor suggested I delete whole paragraphs wherein my voice interfered with the story itself. I thought I was being charming, or funny, or poignant, but what I was really doing was cluttering up the page and reducing tension. She said the story was strong enough on its own without my having to tell the reader that something Very Important was happening. I agree with her completely. I read the chapter with her passages deleted and, sure enough, it was stronger.

    That doesn’t mean it’s always a bad idea to defy convention. Kate DiCamillo (one of my favorites) pulls it off. She speaks directly to the Reader in The Tale of Desperaux, and it works like a charm, especially if you’re reading the story aloud to your kids. Mark Helprin strings together 100 word sentences chock full of adjectives and adverbs and glorious exaggeration–and it works. But they’re masters. There’s a subtle, elusive deftness to their writing that allows the rules to be broken. Somehow, it works. Just tonight I heard David Wilcox open his speaking engagement with an eight minute, chorus-less song. This is a Bad Idea. I wouldn’t advise any young songwriter do something like that. But it was AWESOME. It does the rest of us good to learn the rules before we throw them out the window–and that, I suspect, can take a lifetime.

  18. Benjamin Wolaver

    Andrew – Thanks for the recommendation. I always love to find a new author who is continuing in the vein of the ones I mentioned. I haven’t read DiCamillo, but another great example of a very “author present” writer is E. Nesbit. Her children’s stories are probably the best ever written.

    Pete – I agree with you about the “hook”. Modern writers tend to have a problem. Their minimalist style necessarily creates forward momentum. There is simply less material to wade through. At the same time, many of their plots have a post modern ethic, meaning that their resolutions are often no resolution at all. Often their characters simply end up coming to terms with their problems rather than actually resolving them. So what you have is a train-wreck, a novel that starts off at breathtaking pace, falters in the development, and crashes in a morally relativistic climax.

    The old writers did it differently. They would begin slow and develop for hundreds of pages, ultimately to hit a climax that delivered like no other. David Copperfield is a great example. It starts off with the chapter, I Am Born, and ends with Uriah Heep’s demise and the fulfillment of one of the great love stories in literature.

    Stephen – Cormac McCarthy does some very interesting and effective work. I don’t have a problem with a few great authors ditching punctuation, but ultimately no punctuation is simply a one trick pony. Throw out the rules and you may do something different, but you haven’t created a new paradigm. McCarthy’s impressionistic style is really the only kind of writing that could work with no punctuation. Any other would be a train wreck. Considering todays educational standards (and texting), we need all the punctuation we can get. Generally, however, my point is that many novels (A River Runs Through It for instance) take “less is more” as a new ethic of English.

    One terrible example of this is the general abandonment of passive verbs. This is partly to do with the New Minimalism, and partly based on current reader attention spans. But if you look at Les Miserables, for instance, you would see a book deeply settled into a thoughtful and often passive mood. This enables Hugo to take us on a deep and broad philosophical journey, one that is far more rewarding than many fast paced modern novels.

    Of course, there is a balance to everything. But postmodernity is on the brink of losing the novel because it has abandoned the things that made the novel great.

  19. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Great discussion. Thanks, Sam, for mentioning Wodehouse. He’s crazy funny.

    One wonders why authors make such sweeping pronouncements about what books should be or do. I take that back. I do know why authors make sweeping pronouncements: it’s because sweeping pronouncements make one feel important and wise. I love making them. I feel one coming on even now: Every adventure story should include a trip into or out of a swamp. Wow, that felt good. And it was so easy!

    The real mystery isn’t that authors make sweeping pronouncements about what makes a story good. The real mystery is that we take them seriously when they do.

    I digress. The point I set out to make is simply this: I like oysters, and I like pie. Two very different things, yet I like them both. I like good stories in which the author’s hand is invisible, and I like good stories in which the author keeps butting in. If there’s another P.G. Wodehouse out there, it would be a shame if a sweeping pronouncement discouraged him (or her) from writing according to his (or her) genius.

  20. S.D. Smith

    This really has become a great discussion. Thanks to all you people who are smarter than me and you real authors (like AP and JR) for chiming in. I have read your words with great interest.

    Andrew really summarized Card’s view, much better than I did. He talked about “the rules,” or “convention” exactly as Andrew did, then he said…now, of course you can break those rules. There’s just usually a price. Tolkien did -his story breaks many rules (like how the whole beginning has little to do with the big story of LOTR, the long and separate story-lines) but he is a master and his story is masterful. I guess if you are interested in breaking a lot of conventions, then you better be good at it. I tend to agree with those who are saying you can do both/either and it’s not hard and fast. But maybe it’s a helpful guide for a novice (like myself).

    Also, I was informed of the “that” problem as well, AP, and removed thousands of the buggers from my novel manuscript, along with many other similar issues that have little to do with “my style” and everything to do with easy rules that help serve my readers (if there ever are any).

    I think the idea of serving the reader is what changed my thinking from belief that only high language was valuable and lasting to one where doing what serves the story best (like blending in detail and keeping it short) has some merit.

    I agree that there are some who can, and this goes to Jason’s point about thinking of positive examples only, sweep us up in a majesty of prose which truly transports, and feel coherent at the same time.

    I am also a fan of Scott, Shakespeare, and many other old stories, and I get what you’re saying, Benjamin. I normally rebel against modernism in its many romance-stealing dimensions (along with post-modernity’s lack of resolve and meaning). However, I think the advice to blend in details and keep them short is over-all a very helpful way to serve readers. Do we lose something? Yes. But we also lose a lot when our prose is overwrought and ancillary to the story and just a way of showing off. It sometimes seems to smack of insecurity, or pride, in a writer -as Ron said, it’s anything but self-forgetful. Also, it takes a long time to read for slow readers -like me!

    Pete, I agree that action is key early on, but I think the first sentence, the first paragraph is “free.” I think I picked that up from OSC as well. I do like a little flash at the beginning, myself. Maybe it’s an over-reaction to the thriller. For some reason I strongly dislike many “thrillers.” They are always described as “adrenaline-something…crackling intense….blah blah…” I am not usually a fan. I don’t like to be taken “for a thrill-ride” like I’m a passenger on a “rollercoaster of excitement.” I guess there’s a place for that, but those books which are so popular that way just carry little-to-no attraction for me. So I’m all for action, and for getting the reader’s attention, but I also want a story to be laid out carefully. I don’t read for vicarious excitement really, but to swept up into a story, not for thrills alone, but to care –to care with my will, not with my reflexes and nerves alone. I’m not looking to form an addiction here, just to find a kind of joyful escape. And when the book is truly great, to find truth that goes down deep and helps me long for a world which my heart knows in ways that only a story can relate to.

    As Tolkien argued that his LOTR would be infinitely more religious for having the religion be part of the very fabric of the story, and not something that some of the characters observed, he made a tale that was deeply truthful about the ordinate nature of the world.

    But I also like to laugh at Wodehouse and Adams, see inside Ender Wiggen’s mind, and to eat oysters and pies with Jonathan Rogers. It’s all good. That’s right, I said it. Next I’ll try to say something and then add…”Not!”

  21. Sally Lloyd-Jones

    Love this discussion! Talking about cutting anything superfluous…

    Every word needs to count, of course. But nowhere is this more true perhaps than in poems–and children’s picture books (the good ones at least) which to my mind should are poems–the text pared down to the point where if you were move or change one word it would throw the whole thing off.

    At one point, as far as I could tell, to have hardly any words at all was The Thing in children’s picture books. And I would joke (half way believing it) with my friend Todd, and wonder (as I cut and slashed as much as I could without killing the book) if the best book might not be the one with no words at all… so lean, spare, perfect.

    The thing that always brings me back and gives me courage is Dickens and his delicious language and abundant, generous, glorious use of adjectives… Take this one for instance. Of Scrooge “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old Sinner!”

    Wonderful!

  22. Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    This really is an excellent discussion. Much of what I would have said has been covered already.

    I’ll add one method of very-visible writing that I think is effective in the hands of geniuses like C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit – the sort of very-intentional narrator who occasionally peeks his or her head out to remind us that s/he is telling the story, makes one or two brilliant comments that only add to the story, and then rush us right back into the story. Lewis does this occasionally in Narnia. Nesbit does it in her stories as well. Here’s an example, from The Enchanted Castle. In chapter 2, as she’s introducing her readers to the idea that the kids are about to encounter something magical, she adds this editorial comment:

    “When you are young so many things are difficult to believe, yet the dullest people will tell you that they are true – such things, for instance, as that the earth goes around the sun, and that it is not flat but round. But the things that seem really likely, like fairy-tales and magic, are, so say the grown-ups, not true at all. Yet they are so easy to believe, especially when you see them happening. And, as I am always telling you, the most wonderful things happen to all sorts of people, only you never hear about them because the people think that no one will believe their stories, and so they don’t tell them to any one except me. And they tell me, because they know I can believe anything.”

    That, to me, isn’t very intrusive on the story, and in fact, creates something of a solidarity with her readers who also want to believe in the magic we’re about to encounter.

  23. Benjamin Wolaver

    Travis,

    I’ve been reading Nesbit’s The Carpet and the Phoenix (not sure if thats the right title or not) and have been loving it. Nesbit’s humor is so winsome. Her books weave a happy spell that I think few (Lewis is one) can really match.

  24. Tony Scialdone

    While all great stories are timeless, I don’t think that all great stories are told in the same way. As in all artistic endeavors, the artist conveys as they feel they should. In some cases (like Ender’s Game) the Hand is invisible. In other cases (like The Princess Bride) the Hand guides you through the story. Neither is more wronger than the other, of course…they’re just different.

    I’m a Card fan (I give away copies of Ender’s Game every year) and believe he’s one of the best writers of the 20th and 21st centuries…but his Invisible Hand technique alone isn’t what makes his stories great. It’s a tool, not a secret.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *