April 3, 2016

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: How Do Writers Get Us To Slip Into An Alternate Reality? (Part 1)

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/OnWqxg34rC4/hqdefault.jpgUsing the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, August 2015, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #3678. The link is provided below…

Narrative Structure and Expectation

How do we enter stories? By what techniques do narratives pull us in? How do the expectations we have influence how we respond? I’ll break down some narrative techniques used in openings, and then go on to discuss how openings that match expectations can encourage us to keep reading while expectations that aren’t fulfilled can sometimes cause us to stop reading. How big a part does familiarity play in how well we can understand and adjust to a story? Finally, how do the things that we think we know but may be wrong about (as in history) make it easier or harder to be drawn into a book if our beliefs aren’t met? Kate Elliott

Author of plenty of books – though they all appear to be fantasy, which most of you know isn’t one of my favorite genres (I HAVE read the requisite classics by Lewis, Tolkien, LeGuin, Brooks, Card, Donaldson, Stroud, Clarke, Bull, Wynne Jones, and Nix)  – it’s clear that Elliot must have a clear grasp of writing technique. In fact, looking at the questions above, I can’t imagine that she would have been able to cover more than ONE of them in the time apparently allotted for the session.

In another fact, I don’t know if you could ever definitively answer these…

As I’m approaching the end of the Sasquan Program Book, I think I’ll stretch it out a bit and jump off from each one of the questions posed by the programmers and look at what it means to me and possibly how I would answer it.

So: How do we enter stories?

First and foremost, my initial response is “voluntarily”.

That being baldly stated, I suddenly realized that this isn’t entirely true. Take Susanna Clarke’s master work JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL for example. I’d never have read it on my own. Working at Barnes & Noble, I’d seen it numerous, sold a few copies – and was totally unimpressed by the bland cover and sheer weight of the thing. Clearly, it would be no fast read and would require an investment of time I rarely gave to ANY book, let alone a fantasy novel by an author I’d never hear of.

My daughter gave it to me to read because she’d fallen in love with it.

So I read it and quite involuntarily, I entered the story. The same thing happened when I picked up Stephen R. Donaldson’s first book, LORD FOUL’S BANE. Of course, the impetus there was to avoid studying for finals at Moorhead State University…

At any rate, both books drew me into their worlds and I read them to the end with complete satisfaction.

Be that as it may, HOW did I enter these stories?

How about “by reading the first sentence”?

“She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict.” – Chapter 1, LORD FOUL’S BANE

“It is January and I am arriving at an English country house in Yorkshire./Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” Preface/Chapter 1, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL

The first must have drawn me into the story by itself (though the impetus of my avoidance reaction to undergraduate finals was hard at work!) – the second, because I love my daughter and wanted to please her, I allowed myself to be drawn into the story.

But HOW?

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s more complicated than having an intriguing first sentence. Intent and external forces also have something to do with a reader’s response to a book. Even so, the first sentence of Donaldson’s book has some key points. The first is normalcy overlain by strangeness.

Actually, the dual sentences of Clarke’s books do the same thing: normalcy overlain by strangeness.

Let’s see if this works with my favorite science fiction books.

“The last gleaming sliver of Komarr’s true-sun melted out of sight beyond the low hills on the western horizon.” Chapter 1, KOMARR

“Streaker is limping like a dog on three legs./Fins had been making wisecracks about humans for thousands of years.” Prologue/Chapter 1, STARTIDE RISING

Strangely enough, it does.

In fact, STARTLINGLY comparable…


  1. Intent and external forces affect whether or not you enter a story.
  2. Juxtaposition of “normal” and “strange” in the first sentence(s) work to usher us into stories.

Whew. THAT was unexpected. Your thoughts?

No comments: