Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘E.B. White

Quote of the Day

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A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer; he approaches lucid ground warily, like a mariner who is determined not to scrape his bottom on anything solid…There is also the obscurity which is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad. This is rather common and rather dreadful. I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife.

E.B. White, One Man’s Meat

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The allure of unknowing

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Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

—E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Last night, while watching the new X-Files episode “Ghouli,” which I actually sort of liked, I found myself pondering the ageless question of why this series is so uneven. It isn’t as if I haven’t wondered about this before. Even during the show’s golden years, which I’d roughly describe as its first five seasons, it was hard not to be struck by how often a classic installment was followed a week later by one that was insultingly bad. (This might explain the otherwise inexplicable reference in last week’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” to “Teso dos Bichos,” a terrible episode memorable mostly for interrupting the strongest run that the series ever had. As Reggie says: “Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.”) Part of this may be due to the fact that I’ve watched so many episodes of this show, which had me tuning in every week for years, but I don’t think that it’s just my imagination. Most series operate within a fairly narrow range of quality, with occasional outliers in both sides, but the worst episodes of The X-Files are bad in ways that don’t apply to your average procedural. They aren’t simply boring or routine, but confusing, filled with illogical behavior by the main characters, ugly, and incoherent. There are also wild swings within individual episodes, like “Ghouli” itself, which goes so quickly from decent to awful to inexplicable to weirdly satisfying that it made me tired to watch it. And while last season proved that there are worse things than mere unevenness—with one big exception, it consisted of nothing but low points—I think it’s still worth asking why this series in particular has always seemed intent on punishing its fans with its sheer inconsistency.

One possible explanation is that The X-Files, despite its two regular leads, was basically an anthology show, which meant that every episode had to start from scratch in establishing a setting, a supporting cast, and even a basic tone. This ability to change the rules from one week to the next was a big part of what made the show exciting, but it also deprived it of the standard safety net—a narrative home base, a few familiar faces in the background—on which most shows unthinkingly rely. It’s a testament to the clarity and flexibility of Chris Carter’s original premise that it ever worked at all, usually thanks to a line or two from Scully, leafing through a folder in the passenger seat of a rental car, to explain why they were driving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. (In fact, this stock opening became less common as the show went on, and it never really found a way to improve on it.) It was also a science fiction and fantasy series, which meant that even the rules of reality tended to change from one installment to another. As a result, much of the first act of every episode was spent in orienting the audience, which represented a loss of valuable screen time that otherwise could have been put to other narrative ends. Watching it reminds us of how much other shows can take for granted. In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet writes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?” That’s true of most dramas, but not necessarily of The X-Files, in which you could sit through an episode from the beginning and still be lost halfway through. You could make a case that this disorientation was part of its appeal, but it wasn’t a feature. It was a bug.

And the most damning criticism that you can advance against The X-Files is that its narrative sins were routinely overlooked or forgiven by its creators because it was supposedly “about” confusion and paranoia. Early on, the myth arose that this was a series that deliberately left its stories unresolved, in contrast to the tidy conclusions of most procedurals. As the critic Rob Tannenbaum wrote in Details back in the late nineties:

What defines The X-Files is the allure of unknowing: Instead of declaring a mystery and solving it by the end of the show, as Columbo and Father Dowling did, Carter has spent five year showing us everything except the truth. He is a high-concept tease who understands an essential psychological dynamic: The less you give, the more people want. Watching The X-Files is almost an interactive venture. It’s incomplete enough to compel viewers to complete the blank parts of the narrative.

This might be true enough of many of the conspiracy episodes, but in the best casefiles, and most of the mediocre ones, there’s really no doubt about what happened. Mulder and Scully might not end up with all of the information, but the viewers usually do, and an episode like “Pusher” or “Ice” is an elegant puzzle without any missing pieces. (Even “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which is explicitly about the failure of definitive explanations, offers a reading of itself that more or less makes sense.) Unfortunately, the blank spaces in the show’s mytharc were also used to excuse errors of clarity and resolution, which in turn encouraged the show to remain messy and unsatisfying for no good reason.

In other words, The X-Files began every episode at an inherent disadvantage, with all of the handicaps of a science fiction anthology show that had to start from nothing each week, as well as a premise that allowed it to explain away its narrative shortcomings as stylistic choices, which wasn’t true of shows like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. All too often, this was a deadly combination. In an academic study that was published when the show was still on the air, the scholar Jan Delasara writes:

When apprehended consciously, narrative gaps may seem random accidents or continuity errors. Who substitutes the dead dog for Private McAlpin’s corpse in the episode “Fresh Bones?” And why? What did the demon’s first wife remember but not tell her husband in “Terms of Endearment?” Who is conducting the experiment in subliminal suggestion along with chemical phobia enhancement in “Blood?” Is Mulder’s explanation really what’s going on?

Delasara argues that such flaws are the “disturbing gaps and unresolved questions” typical of supernatural horror, but it’s fair to say that in most of these cases, if the writers could have come up with something better, they would have. The X-Files had a brilliant aesthetic that also led to the filming of scripts that never would have been approved on a show that wasn’t expressly about dislocation and the unknown. The result often left me alienated, but probably not in the way that the creators intended. Mulder and Scully might never discover the full truth—but that doesn’t excuse their writers.

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

The elements of negation

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In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White provide the useful precept: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid timid, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” After offering a few illustrations for the sake of comparison, such as “He was not very often on time” as opposed to “He usually came late,” they conclude:

All [these] examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what it is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

Along with all the other benefits that come with preferring positives over negatives, there’s the subtle point, which Strunk and White don’t mention explicitly, that it forces the writer to think just a little harder at a time when he or she would probably prefer otherwise. The sentence “Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works” is both longer and less interesting than “Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca significant,” but it’s also easier to write. It’s in that one additional pass, as the writer has to figure out what something is, rather than what it isn’t, that insight tends to happen. All else being equal, the best writing rules are the ones that oblige us to move beyond the obvious answer.

The other problem with negation is that it carries its positive form along with it, like an unwanted ghost or a double exposure. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, with my emphasis: “The feeling is as if the negation of a proposition had to make it true in a certain sense, in order to negate it.” Wittgenstein continues, in an oddly beautiful passage:

“If I say I did not dream last night, still I must know where to look for a dream; that is, the proposition ‘I dreamt,’ applied to this actual situation, may be false, but mustn’t be senseless.”—Does that mean, then, that you did after all feel something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?

Again: if I say “I have no pain in my arm,” does that mean that I have a shadow of the sensation of pain, which as it were indicates where the pain might be? In what sense does my present painless state contain the possibility of pain?

Or as he puts it a few paragraphs earlier: “A red patch looks different from when it is there from when it isn’t there—but language abstracts from this difference, for it speaks of a red patch whether it is there or not.”

When it comes to conveying meaning, this fact has real practical consequences. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “Not only are negative statements (e.g., ‘Paris isn’t the capital of Spain’) generally less informative than affirmatives (‘Paris is the capital of France’), they are morphosyntactically more marked (all languages have negative markers while few have affirmative markers) and psychologically more complex and harder to process.” In a footnote, it adds:

One consequence of the formal markedness asymmetry is that a negative statement embeds its affirmative counterpart within it; when Nixon famously insisted “I am not a crook” or Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman,” the concealed affirmation was more significant than the surface denial. The same asymmetry is exploited in non-denial denials, such as Republican campaign operative Mary Matalin’s disingenuous protest “We’ve never said to the press that Clinton’s a philandering, pot-smoking draft-dodger.”

Politics is the arena where literary style, like sociology, is tested in the real world, which makes it all the more striking to see how often politicians turn to the negative form when forced to issue denials. Like the phrase “Mistakes were made,” the “I am not a crook” statement has become such a cliché that you’d think that they would avoid it, but it still appears regularly—which implies that it fulfills some deep psychological need.

So what kind of need is it? The philosopher Henri Bergson gets close to the heart of the matter, I think, in a very evocative passage in Creative Evolution, which I’ve highlighted in a few places for emphasis:

Negation is not the work of pure mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something: we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then, simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warms—the person warned and set straight being, possibly by a kind of doubling, the very person who speaks.

Politicians are an unusual species because so many of their private utterances become public, and their verbal slips, as on the analyst’s couch, are where they reveal the most. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve overheard them talking to themselves. When Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he was introducing a word into the conversation that hadn’t been there before, because it had already been rattling around in his brain. And when a politician speaks in the negative, it offers us a peek into the secret conversation that he has been having in his head all along: “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “I did not collude.”

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

“If she was going to run, it had to be now…”

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"Maddy only nodded..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 55. You can read the previous installments here.

In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:

The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.

And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.

"If she was going to run, it had to be now..."

Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:

So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)

So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…

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