Sorry about the late post today. I’ve had tons going on this week, including out of town relatives to entertain. Don’t feel sorry for me. It’s been plenty of fun, but I wanted to share my thoughts on beautiful writing. I’ve been enjoying Looking for Alaska by John Green and had to write about it. Thanks to Morgan Hubbard, my fellow blogmate here, for reminding me that I’ve always wanted to read this book.
Developing a strong author “voice” to make your work stand out in an editor’s or agent’s slush pile can be a challenge. It’s important to be so entrenched in your character’s head that you hear their voice in yours and can write it down without thinking too much, or editing yourself. I call this “free association.” As a reader, you can also experience a scene through the senses of the POV narrator and give that character an opinion of his/her surroundings to add setting description color as well as insight into the narrator to reflect on him or her. By making each word choice serve more than one purpose (to add color as well as insight into the character) can keep the pace moving without bogging down the narrative.
James Patterson talked about this at a Romance Writers of America conference in Reno in 2004 to a packed house of writers that filled two ballrooms. He said on the edge of his computer monitor, he has words that inspire him to remember the basics. BE THERE were the words he posted to remind him to put the reader into the scene by using their senses to trigger images from the words on the page.
When writing any scene, get the words down, but then go back and layer in other elements to enhance the voice of your narrator and make the reading experience more vivid for the reader. Ask yourself what your character would be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and how something would feel when they touch it. Adding these elements can bring depth to the scene and draw the reader into the world you are creating, by triggering the “familiar” with them.
Below is an excerpt from John Green’s Looking for Alaska:
(Main character Pudge crushing on the beautiful yet enigmatic Alaska Young after he first meets her at boarding school.)
And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light. But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tight tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip-flops dangling from her electric-blue-painted toes. It was right then, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d noticed curves before, of course, but I had never quite apprehended their significance.
I loved this prose when I first read it and had to read it again. It captures a glimpse of the beautiful Alaska, as seen through Pudge’s eyes, in a lyrical voice that uses imagery very effectively. The pace doesn’t slow, but the reader gets snippets of pictures in their mind of a woman’s body in a sensual yet innocent way. You can smell the sweat of sunshine and vanilla, see the burning cherry of the cigarette wash across her face, and get glimpses of her flip-flopped electric blue painted toes and curve across her body as his eyes trail them. It's like he's seeing her, studying her, as a work of art. The way he looks at her gives insight into his nature, as well as share what he sees with the reader about Alaska. This paragraph is beautifully done without overdoing it.
Having given these examples, it’s important not to overwrite the setting/scene. In this excerpt, there is a laser focus on Alaska’s body without going into too much literal description. It’s presented in a way that gives the essence of her, to allow the reader to build their own image. You can picture the student she is with glimpses of her flip flops and tank top, her painted toes, and the way she smokes, without having to endure a complete description of everything he sees. He's capturing her essence in a unique way that gives him a lyrical/literary voice.
Recently I read a book where the metaphors and similes stood out because they were not only unrelated to the other examples on the first few pages, but these comparisons did nothing to enhance the mood or give insight into the character or setting. It made the author appear like a student trying to impress the teacher, with not much thought going into the word choices and how they pertained to the story.
We are Visual Learners
Many people are visual learners, so using the senses (and/or metaphors and analogies) can bring in the visual using something familiar. These ideas can quickly suggest a setting without slowing the pace with too much word description. They give a quick snapshot of the scene in a way to trigger the reader’s mind and delve into their own experiences to make things more vivid. These images can also trigger emotions, such as comfort or fear, at the same time. In this excerpt from John Green, the words trigger memories of attraction and first loves. Adding these elements can not only bring color and distinction to the voice, but they can also layer in elements of emotion and visual triggers to enhance the voice. So let’s talk about metaphors and analogies.
A metaphor is an implied comparison that brings two dissimilar things together and implies that the two things are alike or comparable. Metaphors can be used to describe a complicated concept or setting, to make it more easily understood or relatable. They can enhance the imagery by adding a familiar feeling, such as the lightness of taking flight when you describe being in love, or describing death as a candle that is snuffed out.
- Ideas can mushroom
- Love has wings
- A brave man has the heart of a lion
Just like a metaphor, an analogy makes a link between two dissimilar things, but implies there is a difference between the two things, while a metaphor treats them as the same.
- A fish is to water, what a bird is to air
- A CEO is to a company, what a General is to an Army
- A mother giving birth to a child, is what an author would be to the creation of a novel
I wanted to include other excerpts that use a visual imagery well in terms of metaphors and similes. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. The New York Times called The Book Thief life changing. They did not exaggerate. I hope you enjoy these:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
“Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wire-like shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
If you are a reader - what are some of your favorite and memorable lines from books you’ve read that enhanced the mood, setting, or characters? If you are a writer – do you have any tricks to share on adding layers of a unique voice to your work?