Here is a truth in writing that I think we need to take more to heart. You make the rules.
Say what we want about rules of grammar and punctuation; rules of story construction and basic plotting; rules of characterization—all of these are only applicable on the broad level. At the specific level, the level of your novel, you control them all. But as Spiderman learned, Mary Jane is smoking hot. Hold on…I mean, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So let me give you some suggestions about breaking the rules. Or making them up on the fly.
– For the most part, don’t. The standard rules work most of the time. Punctuation works. You can tweak grammar, particularly in dialogue, but don’t run rampant over it. There aren’t true rules for plotting, characterization, etc., but trust most of the things you know about those areas of writing.
– Do so only with a point. Like we talked about a few days ago about narrative thread. Have there be a reason, and a fairly straightforward reason, for switching things around on people.
– When you do make up a “rule” for reading your book, expect the reader to catch on only with repetition. The first time you try something, they may not get it or understand. Don’t have that first time be of vital importance to the story. Consistency is key.
– Be creative. Creativity, ingenuity, vitality. These, like good writing and love, cover over a multitude of sins.
Alright, so turning to our book for some substantive examples.
We already talked about one “rule” Salzman broke. He didn’t tell his story chronologically. Not a huge deal. Instead he gave us years and dates to help us place ourselves. And he chose his new narrative structure based on the fact that he needed his character’s past to echo her present. Straightforward. Not a problem.
The second thing I want to look at today is his “creation” of a rule. When I say this, I mean it’s something that happens in the text that readers must “learn” to understand the novel. In Russian novels, it’s often the shifting use of character names—characters can be called a few things. In some books, it’s different points-of-view. Do you have three narrators taking turns? (Poisonwood Bible
) Is it a random assortment of narrators? (As I Lay Dying
) What do readers have to know to get us through the story.
In Lying Awake
I want to look at the use of italics.
Italics are used for quoted passages. Emphasis in dialogue. For book titles. We recognize those standard uses. As well, Salzman uses italics for Sister John of the Cross’s interior monologues. The book begins:
Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, offered her day to God.
Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.
The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself….
It’s not uncommon to place thoughts in italics. That’s a rule we know. His last use however is for sustained passages of thought that aren’t in the first person. These are, essentially, interior monologues filtered through the sustained narrative voice of the book. The first comes on page 42. Sister John waits in the hospital for her first doctor’s appointment. She wants to tune out an awful television program so she stares at the ceiling and lets her mind wander off.
The ceiling in the attic bedroom slanted in one direction, following the line of the roof. The asymmetry of it nauseated her if she stared up at it for too long.
The window faced east. In the mornings she lay in bed and watched specks of dust flash into being, drift without reaching anywhere, then blink off….
You see the slight difference, right? The first example is a direct quote from Sister John’s mind. The second is a narrative translation. And it’s used for the sake of flashback.
Flashback is killer for writers. How often do characters in novels drift into some very deep, very detailed flashback solely for the sake of helping the author out. Trust me, it happens a lot. Salzman must find that unnatural, so instead he makes the transition more subtle by giving us the flashback in narrative. It’s a little choice, but one that adds to the tone and voice of the piece.
I’m sure you all picked up on the rule, whether you noticed it or not. Thinking more closely on it, did you like his decision? Were those flashbacks—and there were quite a few in the middle chunk of the book—important enough to set apart? Should he have simply gone further back in time with his sections?
No matter your opinion, we must admit that Salzman got us to follow him. He created a rule for this novel and we learned it. That’s the interaction between reader-and-author that’s part of the magic of this business. Sure the more complex you get the more chance you have to lose folks, but I think it helps forge a bond between reader and write. The rule implies trust. It implies that we’re smart enough to get it. It’s one more tool for you to use.
Day 5 of Lying Awake.