Real Time Short Stories

An A-Z of Short Fiction Shorthand: L-R

Posted on: October 28, 2011

< A-D E-K

L is for C.S. Lewis’ 5 Tips for Clear Writing

I was reminded of this list when it was posted on a Facebook page for creative writing students at Liverpool John Moores University, where I’ve been luxuriating in short story pursuits since the end of September. The notable thing is not just how much good sense there is in each of these tips, but that Lewis was directing his advice at children, the assumption being that writers will then reach adulthood having dispensed with the bad habits counterposed here. Either they’re starting adulthood a lot later these days or the message needs to get louder:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

M is for Mr Benn

On holiday in Madrid and Toledo in 1996, only the second time I’d been abroad since moving to Liverpool over ten years earlier, my writing brain started finding points of connection with David McKee’s fancy dress time-travelling adventurer. I was writing predominantly about cultural identity at the time, for performance poetry and for an MA, and the pivotal narrative mechanism in each Mr Benn story – he changes his clothes; steps through a doorway and becomes embroiled in the dramas of a strange foreign environment; changes their lives; then he gets reminded who he really is and he returns with only a memory – seemed to offer a loose parable for the co-mingling of ‘otherness’ and belonging experienced when a second generation immigrant becomes a British tourist abroad. The thoughts found concrete expression when I introduced a Mr Benn twist to the story of San Miguel de los Helados, written after going for an ice cream in Toledo and representing the first time my increasingly prose-shaped poetry took off its bowler hat and donned the apparel of a short story.

Aside from the delightful stories, brilliant illustrations, the iconic cartoon it spawned with Ray Brooks’ narration and a soundtrack by some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians of the time, Mr Benn provides handy shorthand for a number of narrative tropes and archetypes. Festive Road is a terraced row of pathetic fallacy, in which the mood of the street and its inhabitants echoes something in the fantasy world Mr Benn will find. Our hero may as well be carrying a loaf of bread in his briefcase, sitting in the park all day feeding the ducks, and then going home at 5 o’clock to tell his wife (if we’re allowed to speculate that he has a wife) he’s been hard at work, when in reality he was laid off months ago: what does he do in his bowler hat, suit and tie other than take it off in the fancy dress shop? But this sense of him being as escapee from office and suburban humdrum is a huge part of his appeal. The device of the shopkeeper popping up “as if from nowhere” is, at first glance, textbook deus ex machina but this is a text in which Mr Benn too steps out of a machine to resolve the crises he encounters. His role is typically that of a Dr Who bringer of knowledge from other worlds or a mellower version of the ghostly inspector in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, forcing the community to examine itself. The shopkeeper’s intervention, then, is not to impose an artificial or divine solution but to represent reality’s yoke, leading Mr Benn back to that terraced treadmill.
Don’t get me started on the psychosexual undertones in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea!

N is for Pablo Neruda

from I’m Explaining A Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

[…full poem here…]

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!

O is for Osiris
Because when you’re in the world of words and stories and ideas about words and stories, you sometimes need a purgative, a palate-cleanser, and joining in the chorus of this funk monster should do the trick:

P is for Periphery
What’s everybody looking at? That’s not where your story is.

Q is for Quite
Or fairly, a number of, several, a few…

The trouble with omniscient narrators is that they think they know it all. No, actually, we think they know it all, we depend on that – it’s what we trade our hard-earned suspension of disbelief for. So when the narrative tells us that a place is “quite far away” or that there were “a few” people in the bar, there’s got to be a pretty good reason why we’re not being told the precise distance or number of customers. There was a pretty good reason for me using “pretty” to modify good in that last sentence – two, in fact: one, because it gives the tone of the blog the sense of motivational speaker urgency that seems to go down well; and two, because it sets off a little Larry David in my head, saying “Pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay good!” and that makes me smile. All these weak adjectives have their place, of course, when you need an adjective to express a personal attitude towards a quality or quantity being described, but if you want to give your reader information, and you want them to pay attention to that information, then if it’s quite important that it’s quite accurate, you’re diminishing your intended impact.

R is for Rainy Day In The Park

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 film, Withnail and I, ends with this, the moment Richard E. Grant will carry with him as evidence when he’s claiming a comfortable seat with which to see out the afterlife. Forget everything you know and have ever quoted from this film. Go to that park, stand in that rain, see that man with the umbrella, hear him shouting, and then listen to what he’s saying – your story starts where this one stops.

S-Z >

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10 Responses to "An A-Z of Short Fiction Shorthand: L-R"

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I’m enjoying these posts, thanks Dinesh. I keep the CS Lewis advice, as a cutting from The Guardian, by my desk at work. Points 1 to 3 are perfect advice for people writing reports as well as creative writers; point 4 is the really hard one, at least if, like me, one is a good report writer, but overwhelmed by the Evil Axis of Overcooked Adverb, Adjective and Cliché trying to write one line of anything creative.

I hadn’t thought about Mr Benn for ages, and it made me smile to do so, with your drawing in Dr Who and the laid-off worker who puts on his suit every morning because he can’t tell his wife. And to round off, Withnail’s I have of late lost all my mirth.

Quite nice in a few ways.

Fairly nice of you to say so, DP.

Yes, R could have stood for Rowlingly, the adverb representing the overcooking of adverbs in pursuit of language that sounds intense but whose meaning withers under close scrutiny. And in fairness, if you’re constructing a page-turner, close scrutiny isn’t the name of the game. But then you look at that list and ask yourself, “Who was writing the page-turning children’s adventure stories playing out in epic scale over several novels, in CS Lewis’ day?”

I’m inclined to like adverbs in children’s books, maybe if they’re used in a playful way they’re like new toys ? My first thought was A Bear Called Paddington which appeared in 1958, I think two years after CS Lewis wrote that advice, and five years before he died. I happen to have the second book, More About Paddington to hand, and within the opening paragraph we know that the house is “unusually quiet” because Paddington has “mysteriously disappeared”. But I wouldn’t change a thing about Michael Bond’s style. The two adverbs seem to mirror each other, and the second phrase points back to and explains the first in an economical way, that one doesn’t associate with Rowling’s adverbs.

Not quite the “epic page-turner” though, did you have one in mind ?

Agree entirely about the Paddington, bearing in mind also that these are very likely to be books written for the purposes of oral storytelling, whereby the phrase does go past in a moment and it’s enough to draw the listener in (Rowling’s motivation too , no doubt, since she was initially aiming at a reader not much older than those hearing stories like the Paddington – or, more likely in our times, Dahl, who can also lay on the adjectives and adverbs). The type of prose we use here in the conversational atmosphere of a blog is also exempt, I would think, from the strictures Lewis lays down and I endorse. Heartily. Like that means anything.

The epic page-turner question was a wee bit rhetorical – I was thinking of Lewis himself! There are many reasons I wouldn’t be bothered with the Narnia books now but I don’t reckon inattention to good prose technique would be one of them (and, in fairness, he also anticipated Mr Benn’s stepping-through-a-doorway schtick).

Yes, it popped into my head at some point this morning that of course you meant Narnia. Silly me. I think I found the Narnia books a bit dense to be ‘page-turners’ exactly. My reading was well ahead of my ’emotional literacy’ when I was growing up, and I was caught between books which seemed to simple in their language, and books I could read but couldn’t ‘grasp’. Cheers for a good natter.

[…] Comments (RSS) Blog Catalog An A-Z of Short Fiction Shorthand: L-R […]

[…] when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with […]

[…] he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was […]

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