Love your language

Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the original story first. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)

Special Collections

Kurt Fawver

Fantasy and Science Fiction. November 2016

There is a long strain in fiction to build a story through slow tension and turning the ordinary strange. H.P. Lovecraft is our historical touchstone for this style. Fun sentences that clearly enjoy themselves as they decorate the landscape and presage something terrible. If not around the next corner then the one after that, but maybe not. The trick is making the reader for the other shoe to drop and keep them waiting just long enough so they don’t forget what it is they are waiting for but have forgotten enough they fear they mad encounter it without recognizing it. If it is true that the average memory can hold on to about seven things, then the introduction of one thesis should be followed not by its antithesis but three of four other theses before it’s own conclusion, which will have been flavored not only by the intervening ideas but the expectation of how those new ideas could conclude. I think what’s really happening here is the reader is in a castle of sand. There’s enough going on, enough potential to turn the story any in any number of ways, that the reader is searching for a bit of certainty as teo what happens next and there’s a fear that they’ll get it wrong, that they’ll fail to outguess the writer. I think reader’s long for that moment of figuring something out about two sentences before the narrative confirms the idea.
What does any of that have to do with Special Collections? I’m not sure. I felt all or these things as I read the story, remembering the vague uneasiness building, knowing I was supposed to be afraid but not knowing what of. Something, definitely. The unknown can be scary.
The overall structure is a confessional piece, a narrator giving an account of some okay people turning terrible in terrible circumstances. To realize just how cruel the narrators had become just before they defended their actions against the accusation is one of the joys of reading. Normally you don’t want the.reader to be aware of the emotional manipulation you are putting them through, but I for one love it. It’s like watching a solid illusionist. You know it’s impossible so you can appreciate the artistry.
The best lesson I pulled from this story is the freedom of the sentence and the pure joy of language. Frequently while writing I fall into the trap of countless workshop critiques that declare from unpublished authority that short sentences work better while my tendency is to write long with sub-clauses. The voice must always match the story tone. I think the longer sentences and academic language of Special Collections helps build a distant tone, which provides the advantage of slowing down the creeping horrors. If we were following one person entering the Special Collections and fully in their head, it would be completely different.

Language and Tone

The best lesson I pulled from this story is the freedom of the sentence and the pure joy of language. Frequently while writing I fall into the trap of countless workshop critiques that declare from unpublished authority that short sentences work better while my tendency is to write long with sub-clauses. The voice must always match the story tone. I think the longer sentences and academic language of Special Collections helps build a distant tone, which provides the advantage of slowing down the creeping horrors. If we were following one person entering the Special Collections and fully in their head, it would be completely different.

Exercise: Vary the language to find the tone

If something seems wrong, cast your narrator into a different frame of mind. Try telling the story with a laconic narrator, and then one with a more loquacious tone. Try telling the story from someone who would use words like “laconic” and “loquacious” in everyday speech and then from someone who wouldn’t. There’s an opportunity to try these voices in the next exercise.

More on backstory breaks

As we saw with The Love We Bear Fair Maidens, the story is told with large, self-contained flashback scenes. There isn’t one single causal thread here, so the parallel is not exact, but the narrative structure serves to explore a situation. That is a function of the genre. It’s a report with minichapters:

  • The First Rule
  • The Legends: 1
  • Our Record
  • Those Who Enter
  • The Legends: 2
  • We Who Remain
  • Our Supervisors
  • The Legends: 3
  • Theories
  • The Second Rule

Each chapter helps this story feel longer than it really is, as new characters are introduced and then killed off, one by one. No one with a name survives the story.

Exercise: Find the mini-stories

They exist in your story, somewhere. Minor characters who have their own interactions with the  main story that can be treated as stories in themselves. These mini stories don’t even need background information (that is in the main narrative), they just need a brief intro and the beat from their perspective.

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I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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Posted in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Kurt Fawver, Short Story, Uncategorized

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