Intensify Your Reader’s Experience
As promised, here is Part Two of our examination of the merits of using “grace notes” in writing for teens, and once again, we’ll look to award-winning SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher for examples. For those of you just joining us, see Lee Wyndam’s argument for the use of figurative language here.
Readers like to be grounded in a story. At least, I know I do. I want to know whose skin I’ve slipped into and what the environment is like. I want to forget the chair I’m sitting in, the cup I’m drinking from, the way the light falls across the page. I want to fall into the story’s landscape, and walk around as though I am the MC.
Fletcher makes this easy for her readers. She uses common figures of speech – Simile and Metaphor, both to relay her protagonist’s feelings and paint vivid pictures of the setting.
Look first at how word pictures containing Similes make Marjan’s feelings more concrete:
· When the Khatun questions Marjan about the reason Shahrazad has brought Marjan to the harem, she says, “I felt as if I were blindfolded, groping my way through a maze full of hidden traps” (37).
· Marjan later feels powerless against those in authority and says, “they played with our lives as if we were tiles on a game board. As if our lives were only of value if we were serving them” (41).
· When she first arrives at the harem, Marjan observes that she has “no one even to sit in the same room with me, to stir the stagnant perfumed air with breath” (53).
· Perhaps the most stirring simile occurs towards the end of the book: “My life - what was left of it - seemed to shrink and harden, like the dry, brittle husk of a rosebud starved for water” (163).
Fletcher also paints Marjan’s surroundings using figurative language. Consider how these images of setting are intensified by the addition of Simile:
· “Columns of sunlight streamed through round holes in the high, vaulted dome. Light mingled with the smoke from burning censers and puddled on the marble floors like liquid gold” (31)
· “The whole city lay before us - beige flat-roofed buildings, studded with bright domes and spindly minarets....To the east, like a deep blue silk scarf, lay the river” (64).
In the bazaar, Fletcher uses Metaphor to describe the crowd:
· “The crowd flowed in a great, strong river to the left, with only a few trickles moving right” (81).
Active Verbs also contribute to Fletcher’s image making:
· “mule drivers cursing, women haggling, caged birds screeching; brass workers’ mallets pinging and clanging and bonging” (82).
Now if you are the sort of writer who believes that grace notes don’t just make for beautiful reading – that they serve the story on a practical level by clarifying the reader’s understanding of secondary characters and intensifying the reader’s experience, I have a challenge for you.
Leave a comment below in which you either
a.) share a type of grace note NOT mentioned here
b.) share an example of figurative language from your own work or a current book crush.
Won’t this be fun?
One of my all-time favorite books for teens is SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher. This is no one-time fling – it holds a secure place on the shelves of Literary Crush, and I’ll tell you why. Fletcher is a master at using figurative language with precise effect. In the craft book, Writing for Children and Teenagers, Lee Wyndham says that figurative language, figures of speech, and word images are the “grace notes” of quality writing. In other words, he says “Your ability to compose word images is a measure of your skill.”
“Figures of speech sharpen the picture, spotlight a character or a scene so that it becomes more vivid and real. They make the reader feel things much more intensely, heightening his or her emotional reaction to your story. They serve another purpose by eliminating the dozens of less colorful words it takes to get the same idea across.”-Writing for Children and Teenagers, 124
According to Wyndham, figurative language involves the “ability to see similarities between one thing and another.”
Fletcher certainly knows just how to do this. The plot of SHADOW SPINNER is such a humdinger of suspense you don’t notice how much of it is due to an effective use of figurative language. Grace notes appear in many forms throughout the book, but for this post, and the one to follow, I’d like to examine how they are used for two distinct purposes relating to characters. Next time I will examine how Fletcher uses grace notes to intensify the reader’s experience as filtered through the protagonist, Marjan. But today, let’s look at secondary characters and how Fletcher utilizes specific grace notes to:
a.) distinguish one character from another – especially important when you have a double-digit cast
b.) highlight important secondary characters by painting pictures the reader can “see.”
Fletcher makes use of a different figurative techinque for each of the above goals. To distinguish one character from another, Fletcher employs a subtle and progressively layered Character Tag.
Character Tag, Layer One:
· A Quick, Brief Description (QBD) as seen through the protagonist, 13 year-old Marjan.
For example, when Marjan first arrives at the harem, she meets
1.) a “bony, beak-nosed woman of middle years” who takes Marjan to the baths,
2.) a “beautiful woman with pale skin and coppery hair,” standing behind the Sultana,
3.) a girl of “six or seven years old” with a pet gazelle.
However, because Marjan is new to the harem and considered a servant, these characters have no reason to introduce themselves by name. A lack of a name could be confusing to the reader the next time these characters come on the scene, but Fletcher avoids this by moving us to the second layer of clarity…
Character Tag, Layer Two:
· Descriptive Tag based on Marjan’s first impression (QBD) – a tag which becomes a substitute for the unknown proper name. For example:
1.) the woman at the baths becomes “the beak-nosed woman”
2.) the beautiful woman becomes “the copper-haired girl”
3.) the little girl becomes “the gazelle girl.”
Eventually, Marjan discovers these characters’ proper names, but instead of immediately dropping their tags, Fletcher eases us through the transition by using…
Character Tag, Layer Three:
· Proper name + Tag = “Soraya, the copper-haired girl.”
The result of this layered approach is a reader who has so memorized each secondary character that by time a character is identified by Name-Only, the name itself is loaded with meaning. In other words, when we read the name “Soraya,” we know exactly who she is and how she looks in the environment of the story.
Now. To help the reader “see” important secondary characters in detail, Fletcher uses more lengthy descriptions – a technique I call the Verbal Portrait.
Fletcher focuses primarily on what these characters look like and how they move, but she occasionally draws attention to other senses, such as sound and smell.
Here are some examples of the Verbal Portrait:
1. Soraya, the copper-haired girl, is described as having a “showy walk, with a lot of hip in it. Her ankle bracelets jingled, and her long, unbound hair swished from side to side.”
2. Another character, Zaynab is painted as a “crinkle-faced woman” with a “high, rich, warbling voice,” who moves like “a plump, round cat - gliding along the flat parts [of the roof], leaping across gaps, scaling rickety ladders...mincing along ledges.”
3. However, the most colorfully drawn secondary character is the Khatun. Here, Fletcher paints a picture that warrants fear and revulsion. Marjan describes the Khatun as “hugely fat:”
“She seemed to spill over the edges of the massive cushion she was sitting on. Her neck fell in folds over her pearls and I could see the shapes of billowing mounds of flesh beneath her robes. Though her face was bloated, misshapen, it held traces of lost beauty...Between pouches of soft, fleshy skin, her dark eyes gleamed.”- Shadow Spinner
The Khatun also exudes a “rotten, sickly sweet” smell that horrifies Marjan and accompanies the woman wherever she goes. Marjan likens the Khatun to a spider in the middle of a “vast web that spanned the whole harem. Any disturbance - anything unusual that happened - would jerk the web...And she would know it.”
Now, if you can see each of these characters out of context, just imagine how effective these portraits are within the scope of the narrative!
For next time…. grace notes that ground the reader in Marjan’s emotions and setting, and a challenge for you, my fellow writers.
See you then!
Thanks to fellow SCBWI-Carolina member Joy Acey, I just learned that the modern sculpture artist Henry Moore once shared a bit of silver wisdom in an interview he granted poet Donald Hall when he was 80 years old. He said,
"You must have something you want to do more than anything else, that's at the center of your being, the center of your life, the one thing you really want. The most important thing about this desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment." *
This seems to me a pretty good definition of the most important quality we writers must give our characters if they are to grow and change and be as fully dimensional as you or me. The core desire.
This is the thing your main character wants. That she will not be satisfied living without unless she at least makes the attempt to attain it. This is, as Les Edgerton puts it in HOOKED, “the story-worthy problem.”
My trick is to ask my MC “why?” As in an interview. Hang with me a moment here, while I do a bit of excavating.
Me: So, _______, why do you want to win the championship?
MC: Because I want to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious soccer program.
Me: Why do you want to be part of a prestigious soccer program?
MC: Because I want to play at the professional level.
Me: Why do you want to play at the professional level?
MC: Oh. Honestly?
Me: Please. The more honest you are, the better I will know how to write you. How to properly give you voice.
MC: Okay. Um…well, I want to play pro because I want to be famous.
Me: Why do you want to be famous?
Me: Do you want to be wealthy? (An understandable reason). Do you want to use your fame and money to find a cure for cancer?
MC: Nothing so noble as that. *sigh* I want to be famous because I want to be known. I want to be noticed.
Me: Okay. So why do you want to be noticed?
MC: Because…I don’t know, I mean, maybe…finally…somehow my sister, the one who went off the deep end and disappeared when she was 17, will notice and come back.
Me: I’m sorry, I have to ask this, but why do you want your sister to come back?
MC: Because it will make my parents happy again.
Me: *wincing* Why do you want your parents to be happy again?
MC: Because I can’t stand it when people aren’t happy and I’ve lived everyday for the last three years with parents who ache every minute for their lost daughter. I want them to be happy so that I can be happy. So that they will have answers, and I will have more than what is left over. So we can all stop wanting and be at peace.
Me: Okay. So, just one more question. Why do you want to be happy?
MC: Who doesn’t? I mean, come on….
So, from this little exercise, I’ve found my main character’s core desire – to be happy and to make others happy. Pretty basic, actually. But if this is what she lives for, it will be the reason for every action, every decision, everything she says or doesn’t say.
Because if she believes she will only be happy if her parents are happy, she will do whatever it takes, day to day, to achieve that goal. Winning the championship in order to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious sports program…in order to play professional soccer…in order to become famous and use her fame to bring her sister out of anonymity is simply the “Grand Scheme.” But everything else she does will also align with the goal of making her parents happy.
So what happens when she meets someone or something that tempts her to do things she knows will not make her parents happy?
And that, my friends, is Story.
What are your tricks for digging and sifting through your MC’s wants? Please share!
*Found in the May/June issue of THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW