Real Time Short Stories

The power of invisibility

Posted on: April 9, 2011


Writers love words, don’t they? And the short story is a medium for writers: less governed by the market and by readers’ expectations than the novel; a singular creation, as opposed to the collaborations required for drama; with fewer formal impositions and distractions as in poetry. In the short story, we can witness the craft of the writer in its most natural state. We see the rises and falls in the text and know that this is keeping time with the writer’s own breathing.

To which I believe the accepted response is: yeah, whatever!

One truth I’ve encountered when teaching creative writing is that writers like to produce brilliant writing and that to deny a writer the freedom to be brilliant would be as if that nightingale had swooped down, pecked the eyeballs right out of John Keats’ sockets, crapped on his notebook and said, “Now, sunshine – now you can talk about being forlorn!”

Of course, style, individuality and lyricism contribute to the appeal of a piece of short fiction. In many ways, it’s poetry by other means. Of course, we love the sentences that hang in the air just above our heads, even after the story is finished, like fireflies when the porch lights have been turned off. The immortal phrase or metaphor that causes our heads to swivel completely around – like Everest, it’s there. Sometimes, though, you want your characters to have a drink of water. Let them turn the tap, fill the glass and drink the damn water. But no, not the “damn water” – there wasn’t a need for any adjective in there. Even when critiquing over-writing, it’s easy to over-write. It’s not the habit of a bad writer, but a bad habit any writer would do well to keep in check.

Mr Overwright is a popinjay who finds many ways to dress too extravagantly for any given occasion but among his more frequent vices are the Rowling Adverb and the M&S Adjective. To write rowlingly, to use adverbs in the manner of J.K. Rowling, has been picked apart both pickingly and apartfully by critics and bloggers so I’ll just direct you to this M.J. Ryan piece for evidence. As for the M&S Adjective, this refers to the adverts a few years ago for Marksies’ food stores, in which Dervla Kirwan breathed, in premium rate chatline tones, over images of moist, inviting food being penetrated by streams of piping hot gravy or custard as appropriate, “This is not just food. This is M&S food.” Chocolate could never be chocolate. It had to be Belgian milk chocolate, harvested, by hand, by singing nuns and strapped to the backs of gently braying choco-donkeys freed from donkey-torturing farms in the Basque region of Spain. That was a fun sentence to write: if I saw I had room to add another word, I did. It was lovely banter between me and the language. But that conspicuous tango between the writer and the language is highly unlikely to be what your story needs.

A key skill for the short story writer is to try to make the language invisible. By this, I mean that the reader is aware, not of the work that has gone into the words, but of the story; not the description, but the setting; not the characterisation, but the character. It’s not a question of writing without style. Take a look at this paragraph by Jean-Claude Izzo in The End Of The Quays (in Hinks, J. ed, ReBerth – Stories from Cities on the Edge, Comma 2008):

He crossed the road and climbed calmly back to la Joliette station. At the access point he waved a little greeting to the man on duty. And he went into the port. His home. They were getting to know Gérard. He often came wandering along the wharves of an evening or at night. Especially in summer. He didn’t like sleeping with the window shut. And when the windows were open it was as if the cars came in one ear and out the other.

There’s very little to this, and we can be confident that Helen Constantine’s translation hasn’t made a radical alteration to the tone of the original French. Language this simple can be rendered with equal simplicity in other languages. We get this from Chekhov’s Russian, the Latin of Catullus, or the Danish in Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen. It’s unadorned, low-key, functional. It moves the character along with little fuss. Every single detail adds to our knowledge and understanding of him but he’s never dissected for our inspection. It’s observation leading to a rounded impression, just as we’d make of somebody we’d encounter in our own lives. The language does nothing to draw attention to itself, yet it’s not completely empty. There is rhythm in the shortening of sentences. We have some access to his thoughts and emotions so there’s a palpable lyricism in mentions of “His home” and his preferences around sleep. And there’s the beautiful metaphor about the noise of the cars at the end.

Allowing language to go invisible doesn’t mean you abandon it throughout. It just means you rely on what’s meaningful in your images, what’s real about your characters, and what’s compelling in your story to grab and hold your reader.

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5 Responses to "The power of invisibility"

Did you ever watch “Minder” ? Leon Griffiths, its writer, wrote “Arthur Daley’s Guide To Doing It Right” in 1985, and the M&S adverts remind me of this extract:

“Avoid those restaurants where the waiter has to explain each item of the menu, like: ‘Thinly cut small ribs of west of England spring lamb marinated in wild thyme, hazelnuts, Tuscany currants, two tablespoonfuls of Peter Dominic red wine, diced with New Forest mushrooms and baby Harlow New Town carrots, pine kernels and a liberal dollop of farmhouse Jersey cream, etc etc’.. What you’ve got there is lamb chops.”

Like you and the M&S pastiche, I imagine Leon found that a fun sentence to write.

Ha! Yes, I do have memories of that. I recently gave my undergrads an editing exercise. I ended up composing my own preposterously over-written and ill-judged passage for them to put right (they were quite polite towards it, given the brutality it demanded) but before that I was looking online for examples of bad fiction and found that some writers do it as a hobby. There are Bad Fiction sites to which you can send your snippets of ridiculous purple prose and rejoice in the (deliberate) naffness. Trouble is, I suppose, you can invest in something for its irony value until it gets to be the thing you take seriously (cf. the ‘Miranda’ sitcom), like Stockholm Syndrome for those held hostage by the sense of their own wackiness.

[…] the one side, we have the idea and on the other we have the language. I’ve started on this in an earlier post but it’s one of those principles which, like the names of the parts of the shoe in the […]

[…] The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s […]

[…] that has followed ever since. The “cup of tea exercise” I brought you recently and my earlier strictures against writing “rowlingly” stem from attitudes entwined with Hemingway’s […]

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