This is the fourth in a series of articles in which author Steven Erikson deconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, an excerpt from his most recent novel, Forge of Darkness.
It was midday. He rode through a forest, where on all sides the sun’s light fought its way down to the ground, touching faint here, bold there. Its gifts were brush-strokes of colour. He had a habit of subtly painting with the fingers of his right hand, making small caresses in the air – he needed no brush; he needed only his eyes and his mind and the imagination conjured in the space between them. He made shapes with deft twitches of those fingers, and then filled them with sweet colour – and each one was a prayer, an offering to his gods, proof of his love, his loyalty. If others saw the motions at the end of his right hand, they likely thought them twitches, some locked-in pattern of confused nerves. But the truth was, those fingers painted reality and for all Kadaspala knew, they gave proof to all that he saw and all that existed to be seen.
A whole lot happens in this paragraph. Finally, we get clean exposition, describing the setting, placing K. and all his thoughts into a recognizable reality. This is the ninth paragraph in this section. I took my time getting here: this is all down to trusting in the reader, and hopefully having already established in the reader their trust in me. The first sentence is short and blunt. It serves as a sharp transition from the preceding internal world with all its complexities: it does so not just in its content, its fixing in time, but also in its brevity. Both work together to make the reader amenable and ready (with relief) to shift gears.
Let’s pause on this for a moment: I said “with relief,” and this is important. Much of what drives a narrative is the creation of pressure in the reader’s mind. You write to create pressure: this is the core of storytelling; it is, in fact, what storytelling is all about. If one thinks of story as question leading to answer (or no answer, or an ambiguous or ambivalent answer) the longer it takes for that answer to arrive, the greater the pressure, and it’s this pressure that drives a reader forward (the old “page-turner” thing). “I couldn’t put the book down!” Ever heard that? Ever said that? Why? Why couldn’t you put the book down? You might answer: “The story! I wanted to know what was going to happen next!” But … why? Why did you want to know? Because of the pressure built into the narrative. We are inquisitive creatures, but also ones needing instances of “cause and effect.” Watch toddlers and babies as they throw something on the floor, watch as it’s picked up and returned to them. This is the most basic learning process we all go through: do something, see what happens. It stays with us like a hidden narrative in our minds, a very hungry narrative, which is why we love stories: books, films, sitcoms, you name it. So, at this point, fiction both appeases that hunger and deviates from reality, but in a comforting way (often in the real world we cannot make that cause-and-effect linkage, or even when we do, the comfort it can give can be bitter). A story invites one into a world where connections can be made. As a writer, as a storyteller, it’s your job to set up those connections. The most successful examples apply this with both great subtlety and with a more direct, more obvious approach. Interestingly, it’s often the subtle stuff that really drives narrative, and that pressure. When it is too obvious, or exclusively obvious, it comes across as trite, camp, melodramatic. So, consider this a pitch for subtlety.
Back to that question-and-answer thing for a moment. If you have one question and one answer for your tale, it’s probably a short story. If you have many, it’s a novel.
Now, back to the paragraph. K. is a painter. Simile and metaphor will all serve that notion. We have seen how colours dominate his soul. Now, in the description of the forest, we see it from a painter’s eye. This is an example of using the language itself, in terms of exposition and setting, to reinforce the point-of-view’s perspective. That may seem simple, or obvious, but often when description arrives in a body of text (in fiction) the author makes a kind of mental switch, away from the POV, driven by the need to accurately describe said setting to the imagined audience, and at this point, that “switch” drops the POV and imposes the author’s own voice and style – after all, in your description you are drawing from memory either directly or only slightly transformed. So, the point here is: take a hammer to that switch. Smash it into pieces. Always tie your descriptions to your POV: the tighter the better. This does a number of things to the reader (and the writer, but I’ll get to that in a second): first, it unifies the sense that we’re with that character, inside and out, and we’re seeing all of reality through that character’s eyes. Second, it affirms to the reader that we, as authors, know what we’re doing. Third, it invites the reader to read more carefully, and hopefully appreciate that unity of language and intent. Now, what does it do for the writer? One: it maintains your tightness to that POV; in effect, you keep seeing the world through that character’s eyes (mindfulness). Two: it frees you to work with metaphor but in a tight, constrained fashion, which is where it works best. This is useful, as usage of metaphor can run away on you and end up sounding ridiculous, simply because once it runs away on you it is no longer anchored to any POV. Characters can use metaphors in their thoughts, even in their dialogue, but unless it’s a deliberate affectation or cultural trait, it can seem clunky and absurd: but in the creation of characters, you as author can use metaphors as much as you like; or rather, as much as the narrative can bear. It’s one of the great pleasures of creative writing, and one of the most extraordinary gifts of language, this happy interplay between the denotative and the connotative.
Here we have the world described as if K was painting it. Given all that came before, this makes perfect sense. I then add a physical habit to K. Specifically, his “painting” with his fingers. It’s an odd little habit and I present it without judgment. It’s just something he does, well-suited to his notions of his relationship with the world, including seeing himself as witness and participant to the act of creation. Where did that detail come from? I stole it. Yes, a terrible thing to do. But then, when I think about the real-world context to that habit, I can hear my wife’s voice: “Steve, stop drawing with your fingers!” So, detail plucked, added to K. But it’s too good a detail to leave alone. And I don’t.
How does a writer’s radar work? How do you know when you’ve stumbled on something that’s going to prove immensely useful and (hopefully) effective? Hard to say. But remember, in creating a character you want to establish memorable details from their behaviour, their gestures and habits, their clothes, and so on. Any one of those details could prove useful for other reasons, and it helps if that detail is unusual in and of itself. So, I use it here to reinforce the strange notion that K. creates all that he sees. If one chooses to view that as the kind of delusion of godhood that could lead to madness … well (and no, now’s not the time to bring my wife back into this discussion).
So, for all that I finally provided details of setting, they weren’t much. He’s in a forest. It’s midday. He’s riding. Riding what? It’s coming, but I’m in no hurry, because almost immediately I return to K’s internal world. Was it enough to settle the reader? I think so.
In the game of creating pressure, a long narrative must set up many of these pressure points, and ease the reader with minor answers along the way: but never offer up such relief as to undermine the plot’s narrative build-up. When you loosen that valve in the midst of your story, don’t open it all the way. It’s not time yet, and you don’t want to kill momentum. And even more interesting (for the writer), even the dramatic or fraught conclusion to a minor event can end up just turning the screws higher on that pressure. Funny, that.
Photograph published with permission of author
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (8)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (7)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (6)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (5)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (4)