Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Quote of the Day

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It might have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe: but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image…To invent a message, and then with open eye to perish for its self-made image—that was greater.

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

Maybe backstory isn’t so bad after all

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally lost it. For most of the last two years, I’ve used this blog to rail against the use of excessive backstory, advising writers to kill it whenever it occurs, preferably with fire. I’ve pointed out that characters in a novel are interesting because of their words, deeds, and decisions over the course of the narrative, not because of whatever they might have been doing or thinking before the story began. I’ve argued that backstory violates the principle that a good story should consist of a series of objectives, and that character is best revealed through action. I’ve pointed out, stealing an observation from the great William Goldman, that heroes must have mystery, and that to explain away a character through digressions into his past or psychology—at least in most forms of popular fiction—only serves to diminish him. And I’ve often referred to examples of characters who become more interesting the less we know about them, like Forsyth’s Jackal, and those who have been progressively ruined by excessive backstory, like Hannibal Lecter.

I still believe all these things. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing reams of backstory for two different projects. One, Eternal Empire, is the concluding novel of a series that can’t be entirely understood without additional information about the earlier installments, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until reading over the most recent draft. The other is a long, self-contained novel I’ve been working on for years, and whose protagonist’s actions make somewhat more sense with a slightly more detailed backstory. In both cases, I added backstory after both novels were finished, in an attempt to address specific narrative problems, namely a lack of clarity that was preventing readers from getting lost in the story. And although I’ve begun to tactically incorporate backstory where it seems advisable, my earlier convictions haven’t changed. For most writers, I’m convinced that less backstory is preferable to the alternative, and that implication and suggestion are more powerful tools than extended passages of introspection. But there are times, looking back at a story that is otherwise complete, when I’ve found that a few scraps of backstory have their place.

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs

If this seems inconsistent, it’s only because the rules of writing, like most laws, operate under an informal hierarchy, and it’s often worth stretching a minor rule so as to preserve a major one. (Or, as the rabbis say, it’s better to break one sabbath in order to keep many sabbaths.) You can debate which rules are more important than others, but it’s hard to argue with John Gardner’s observation that for most writers, the primary objective is to preserve the fictional dream: the illusion, in the reader’s mind, that these events are actually happening. Anything that tears the reader out of the dream without good reason needs to be examined and, usually, corrected. And one issue that can break the illusion is unintended ambiguity. If the reader puts down the book to wonder about a detail in a character’s past that the author didn’t mean to leave unresolved, it’s probably worth introducing this information, solely for the sake of maintaining momentum. And my reluctance to spell things out has occasionally confused readers in ways I didn’t intend. This led to some trouble with my recent Analog story “The Voices,” and also seems to be an issue in The Icon Thief. (Given the chance, I think I’d insert a few more paragraphs about Duchamp and his place in art history to avoid sending readers to Wikipedia.)

That said, backstory needs to be introduced judiciously, and at the proper point. In particular, it’s often best to save it for a moment when the story can afford to slow down. Such flat moments, which serve as a breather between points of high action, provide a convenient place for filling in the background, as long as it makes sense within the structure of the novel as a whole. The two projects I’m writing now both happen to have a convenient opening in the exact same spot: at the beginning of the second section, which currently picks up immediately from a cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. Inserting a flashback here, with the tension of the previous scene unresolved, both extends the suspense and allows me to fill in necessary background in reasonable security that the reader will read on to see what happens next. This sort of thing can be taken too far, of course: I keep such departures as short as possible, afraid that I might conclude what T.E. Lawrence did after rereading a chapter intended as a “flat” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “On reflection I agreed…that it was perhaps too successful.” So most of my earlier points still stand—even, or especially, when I’m forced to break them.

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

Making an end

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Yesterday, I wrote briefly about movies with great closing lines, of which there are surprisingly few. The last lines of books present the opposite problem: there are almost too many to choose from. The last line of a novel is almost always of interest, and just a glance at the American Book Review’s list of the hundred best closing lines (available as a PDF here) is a reminder of how many great ones there are, and how hard it is to reach any kind of consensus.

I hope you don’t mind, then, if my own choices are pointedly personal and idiosyncratic. My favorite closing line from any novel—which, oddly enough, didn’t even make the longer list of the American Book Review’s nominees—is probably from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, in which Harry Angstrom, after a few bewildering months on his own, finds himself back in bed with his estranged wife:

He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?

It’s a little hard to appreciate out of context, but that final “O.K.?”—with its strangely moving terminal question mark—sometimes strikes me as the best thing Updike ever wrote. It rather astonishingly manages to evoke the radio transmissions of the moon landing (whose repeated uses of a taciturn “O.K.” run throughout the novel), the ending of Ulysses, and the rhythm of the final lines of Updike’s own Rabbit, Run: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

And here are a few more personal favorites, from works of nonfiction as well as novels, that didn’t make the American Book Review’s list. From The Phantom Tollbooth:

“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”

From The Corrections:

She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.

From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself—leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.

From Walden:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Of course, even the greatest closing line loses much of its power when taken out of context. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about the endings of novels, and how it feels, at least for one novelist, to approach that final moment.

My fifty essential books

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Just over a year and a half ago, I moved from New York to Chicago, forcing me to figure out what to do with seven years’ worth of books. The prospect of shipping them all to my new apartment was daunting: after years of living a temptingly short train ride from the Strand, all of my shelves were stacked at least two books deep, and additional piles were everywhere. In the end, I ultimately decided to radically downsize my library, going from something like thirty boxes of books down to six. And the experience taught me a lot about which books really mattered to me.

But what if I only had room for fifty books? Or twenty? Or five? Such drastic reduction, real or imaginary, is the most ruthless way I know of building a personal canon—which, really, is nothing more than a series of choices. Do I care more about Borges or Conan Doyle? Shakespeare or Proust? Life rarely demands such stark decisions, but it’s a useful way of creating a self-portrait in books, as if a library were a block of raw stone that had to be carved away, piece by piece, until what remained was something like an image of myself. With that in mind, then, here’s as true a portrait of my inner life as I know how to provide:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William S. Baring-Gould
2. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
4. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth
5. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
6. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
7. The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher
8. The Next Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand (editor)
9. The White Goddess by Robert Graves
10. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by William Shakespeare and Ted Hughes

11. Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike
12. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
13. The Complete Peanuts (1969-1970) by Charles M. Schulz
14. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
15. Immortal Poems of the English Language by Oscar Williams
16. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
18. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
19. Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
20. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

21. Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter
22. It by Stephen King
23. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
24. Napoleon by Emil Ludwig
25. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
26. The I Ching by Richard Wilhelm (translator)
27. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
28. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
29. The Writer’s Chapbook by George Plimpton (editor)
30. Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman

31. The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson
32. Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
33. On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
34. World Tales by Idries Shah
35. On Directing Film by David Mamet
36. The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
37. Cain x 3 by James M. Cain
38. Atonement by Ian McEwan
39. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
40. The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner

41. The Codebreakers by David Kahn
42. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
43. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
44. The Magus by John Fowles
45. For Keeps by Pauline Kael
46. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
47. Ulysses by James Joyce
48. The Apology by Plato
49. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
50. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A few notes: Borges and Conan Doyle switched places at the last second. Dropped at the final minute were the Iliad and Antigone (the last remaining vestiges of a classical education). I’ve limited myself to one book per author, which resulted in surprisingly few omissions. If pressed, I might want to take a few extra volumes of The Complete Peanuts instead of the last several authors. And, obviously, this isn’t meant as a list of the best books of all time, or even necessarily of my own favorites—just the books without which I would find it very inconvenient to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll be doing the same thing for movies.

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