Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Twist: From Gimmick to Method

Few techniques in fiction are more dangerous than a twist ending.

All too often, writers lean on the twist to make a story interesting, but in doing this, can shift essential focus away from those other, more important elements of the story.

Writers might also hope to surprise readers, but readers are almost impossible to catch off-guard; instead, they predict the writer's ending long before the writer can spring any surprise. A writer out-guessed can seem unimaginative at best, foolish at worst.

On the other hand, a twist can be useful, not at the end of a story, but right at the centre. Putting a twist at the heart of a story allows a writer to maintain interest, while offering enough time to explore the implications of the twist: implications that transform the twist from a mere gimmick into a major component of plot, character, theme.

Another method is often effective. William Sansom provides my favourite example in "A Wedding," but Eric Frank Russell takes the same approach here. The idea is to present the story in retrospect, long after events have taken place, and then, in the final sentence, to provide one piece of information that shifts the entire story into a new perspective. This information is not a twist, but a fact -- a small detail -- that was not revealed in the course of the story, because the narrator was too engrossed in telling the tale to consider this one small detail important. The narrator takes it for granted, but for the reader, it becomes not a twist, but a bluntly dramatic explanation, an insight into context, a lens that puts the entire story into focus. It does not change the story; it justifies the story.

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Illustration by Matt Fox. Weird Tales, July 1950.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Monster Movie Vibe

David Longhorn, the editor of Supernatural Tales:

Many moons ago I wrote a review of a collection of stories by Mark Fuller Dillon. These stories are still excellent, and they're still out there, available as an ebook. In a Season of Dead Weather is well worth your time. The same can be said for his unusual 'alien invasion' novella All Roads Lead to Winter. Oh, and they're both free! So, if you've got an e-reader, there's no excuse.

Mark has now produced another story, and it's just as good as those 2013 publications... If you want an entertaining read with a slight Twilight Zone/Fifties monster movie vibe, this is for you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Multiplicity of Suggestions

Lytton Strachey makes an interesting point, here, about the tools needed to convey a sense of strangeness and remoteness in writing, but I think he might have overlooked something:

There is, of course, no doubt that [Thomas] Browne's vocabulary is extraordinarily classical. Why is this? The reason is not far to seek. In his most characteristic moments he was almost entirely occupied with thoughts and emotions which can, owing to their very nature, only be expressed in Latinistic language. The state of mind which he wished to produce in his readers was nearly always a complicated one: they were to be impressed and elevated by a multiplicity of suggestions and a sense of mystery and awe. "Let thy thoughts," he says himself, "be of things which have not entered into the hearts of beasts: think of things long past, and long to come: acquaint thyself with the choragium of the stars, and consider the vast expanse beyond them. Let intellectual tubes give thee a glance of things which visive organs reach not. Have a glimpse of incomprehensibles; and thoughts of things, which thoughts but tenderly touch." Browne had, in fact, as Dr. Johnson puts it, "uncommon sentiments"; and how was he to express them unless by a language of pomp, of allusion, and of elaborate rhythm? Not only is the Saxon form of speech devoid of splendour and suggestiveness; its simplicity is still further emphasised by a spondaic rhythm which seems to produce (by some mysterious rhythmic law) an atmosphere of ordinary life, where, though the pathetic may be present, there is no place for the complex or the remote. To understand how unsuitable such conditions would be for the highly subtle and rarefied art of Sir Thomas Browne, it is only necessary to compare one of his periods with a typical passage of Saxon prose.

"Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Doctor Ridley's feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'"

Nothing could be better adapted to the meaning and sentiment of this passage than the limpid, even flow of its rhythm. But who could conceive of such a rhythm being ever applicable to the meaning and sentiment of these sentences from the Hydriotaphia?

"To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations; and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment."

Here the long, rolling, almost turgid clauses, with their enormous Latin substantives, seem to carry the reader forward through an immense succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm, the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes. The entire effect depends upon the employment of a rhythmical complexity and subtlety which is utterly alien to Saxon prose. It would be foolish to claim a superiority for either of the two styles; it would be still more foolish to suppose that the effects of one might be produced by means of the other.

-- From Books and Characters French & English, by Lytton Strachey. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1922.

But is it foolish? I think a similar effect can be achieved through metaphor, through imagery, through the unexpected juxtaposition of everyday things. Some of the passages I want to quote are more "latinate" than others, but they all rely on definite, ordinary details to suggest something beyond the ordinary:

Before getting into bed I drew my curtains wide and opened all the windows to the warm tide of the sea air that flowed softly in. Looking out into the garden I could see in the moonlight the roof of the shelter, in which for three years I had lived, gleaming with dew. That, as much as anything, brought back the old days to which I had now returned, and they seemed of one piece with the present, as if no gap of more than twenty years sundered them. The two flowed into one like globules of mercury uniting into a softly shining globe, of mysterious lights and reflections.
-- E. F. Benson, "Negotium Perambulans."

His brain pounded with hate for the sea. The blue sea! The devouring shapeless sea with its evil swell, its monstrous depth, its wintry breakage of wooden boats, its cruel rocks, its drawing of bodies in such cold and nerveless draught, its vertiginous flatness sparkling and deceiving, its roots of oil and the furred and shelled beasts that preyed slowly on its bed, all of its wrack and wreck and rotting cold embrace and the tides that day after day, age after age, crawled up the beaches and then left them, desiring all but never needing, breaking uselessly and ceaselessly at the earth and at man.
-- William Sansom, "The Cliff."

Leonora Chanel stepped from the limousine and strolled into the desert. Her white-haired figure in its cobra-skin coat wandered among the dunes. Sand-rays lifted around her, disturbed by the random movements of this sauntering phantasm of the burnt afternoon. Ignoring their open stings around her legs, she was gazing up at the aerial bestiary dissolving in the sky, and at the white skull a mile away over Lagoon West that had smeared itself across the sky.
-- J. G. Ballard, "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D."

It was a singularly sharp night, and clear as the heart of a diamond.  Clear nights have a trick of being keen.  In darkness you may be cold and not know it; when you see, you suffer.  This night was bright enough to bite like a serpent.  The moon was moving mysteriously along behind the giant pines crowning the South Mountain, striking a cold sparkle from the crusted snow, and bringing out against the black west the ghostly outlines of the Coast Range, beyond which lay the invisible Pacific.  The snow had piled itself, in the open spaces along the bottom of the gulch, into long ridges that seemed to heave, and into hills that appeared to toss and scatter spray.  The spray was sunlight, twice reflected: dashed once from the moon, once from the snow.
-- Ambrose Bierce, "The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'".

Then he straightened himself up, and walked over to the fireplace, and stood there, looking at the burning logs with their frost-like ashes and their throbbing cores of flame. [...] The wind had blown the fog away, and the sky was like a monstrous peacock's tail, starred with myriads of golden eyes. He looked down, and saw the policeman going his rounds and flashing the long beam of his lantern on the doors of the silent houses. The crimson spot of a prowling hansom gleamed at the corner, and then vanished. A woman in a fluttering shawl was creeping slowly by the railings, staggering as she went. Now and then she stopped, and peered back. Once, she began to sing in a hoarse voice. The policeman strolled over and said something to her. She stumbled away, laughing. A bitter blast swept across the Square. The gas-lamps flickered, and became blue, and the leafless trees shook their black iron branches to and fro.
-- Oscar Wilde, The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

The Smiler With the Knife

Jorge Luis Borges: "From Allegories to Novels." 

Nominalism, once the novelty of a few, today encompasses everyone; its victory is so vast and fundamental that its name is useless. No one declares himself a nominalist because no one is anything else. Let us try to understand, nevertheless, that for the men of the Middle Ages the fundamental thing was not men but humanity, not individuals but the species, not the species but the genus, not the genera but God. From such concepts... allegorical literature, as I understand it, derived. Allegory is a fable of abstractions, as the novel is a fable of individuals....
The passage from allegory to novel, from species to individual, from realism to nominalism, required several centuries, but I shall have the temerity to suggest an ideal date: the day in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer, who may not have believed himself to be a nominalist, set out to translate into English a line by Boccaccio -- "E con gli occulti Jerri i Tradimenti" (And Betrayal with hidden weapons) -- and repeated it as "The smyler with the knyf under the cloke."

-- From Other Inquisitions. Washington Square Press, New York, 1966.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

At First, You Hear The Silence

My latest ebook is now available from Smashwords.

Jeffrey Thomas, author of Punktown, calls it:

An enthralling encounter with mysteries from beyond... tearing at the veil between worlds one minute, scratching at our very windows the next. Filled with breathless suspense and cosmic strangeness, it's a story sure to put the reader in the shoes of the sharply-drawn young protagonist, as his human strengths are put to the test.

David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, writes:

A new twist on what used to be called science fantasy, it strikes a great balance between horror, sf, and action writing. This is a modern, intelligent story with its roots firmly in the Golden Age pulp tradition.

Cover designed by Tragelaphus.

Engage My Interest

Francine Prose:

Not long ago, a young writer told me a story about being taken to dinner by his successful, high-powered agent. The agent asked him what he wanted to write about, what subjects engaged his interest. To which the young writer replied that, to tell the truth, subject matter wasn't all that important to him. What he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write... really great sentences.

The agent sighed. His eyelids fluttered. After a moment he said, "Promise me that you will never, ever in your life say that to an American publisher."

-- From Reading Like A Writer. HarperCollins, 2006.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Running Out Of Time

Late in her life, almost overnight, my mother became a piano student. She made rapid progress with classical conservatory lessons, and just before she died, she had moved up to a third teacher and a new level of skill; but despite her achievements and steady resolve, she never felt confident in what she could play.

I think she felt this way because we do not celebrate practice in our society. We see concerts, but not the lifetimes of training that make the music seem effortless. We see Olympic events, but not the decades of work to create an athlete. We see books, but not the woodstoves that were fed for years and years and years with lousy attempts to find the words.

Yet even though we never celebrate practice, people have long accepted its necessity. But what happens when a culture hits a point where it might not survive long enough to make practice worthwhile? After 1945, we had to face the constant fear of nuclear war; nowadays, we have to face climate change, neoliberal austerity, political collapse, and the real possibility that our civilization might be killed off not by disaster, but by business as usual.

When a lifetime is no longer likely, why should young people commit themselves to decades of practice? How can we show them the value of craftsmanship, when they might not have the necessary years needed to develop their craft?

This question matters to me, because I would love to celebrate the arts of today; but more and more often, I find myself going back to enjoy the achievements of yesterday, because yesterday valued craftsmanship, and yesterday offered lifetimes for practice.