Writing

  • Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.

    Story of Your Life is a 1998 Nebula-winning science fiction novella, later adapted as the film Arrival. Written by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life takes a less than exciting idea – variational principles in physics – and transforms it into a moving story about a linguist encountering aliens, intimately woven around her own relationship with her daughter.

    It also addresses linguistics and the question of what we would do if we could see the future.

    Would we still make the same choices?

    Would we still have free will?

    What does it mean to remember the future?

    Structurally, the story plays out as a loop, beginning and ending in the same place. The main plot is a chronological sequence interspersed with future events deliberately shown out of order.

    As a result, the story’s structure represents the language of the aliens, whose perception of time is different from humans.

    WARNING: While this post deals primarily with technique, narrative devices and how they’re used to explore the themes of the story, SPOILERS may be present. I have not described the plot in detail, but read on at your own risk!

    Author Ted Chiang

    Ted Chiang is not a prolific author. And in spite of the success of his science fiction stories, he has never had a novel published, and each story takes a long time to write.

    He’s not concerned with a large body of work. Rather, he dives deep into the subject matter of each story, researching, making notes, before he even begins to write.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, he spent five years immersing himself in the field of linguistics before starting the novella.

    Interestingly, Chiang told one interviewer that he doesn’t start writing a story until he knows how it ends. He writes the ending first.

    Once he knows the final destination of the narrative, he can then build the rest.

    The beginning of a story is usually the second thing he writes. In Story of Your Life this particularly makes sense because the ending and beginning are so intimately connected.

    Chiang also writes key scenes and then fills in other scenes after that. In filling in, he might go back as well as forward in the narrative. It’s not a chronological form of story telling.

    Again, this style is particularly evident in Story of Your Life.

    The novella likely benefits from this approach because it fits with one of the central ideas of the story. The heptapod written language involves the aliens knowing the whole structure of their complicated sentences in advance. This connects to their perception of time, which is not linear or sequential.

    Chiang adopted a similar technique for this and other stories. He has to know his destination before he starts writing.

    Story premise

    A linguist is recruited to help the military and scientists communicate with aliens whose ships have appeared above Earth. The aliens are called heptapods. Communication takes place through the use of ‘looking glasses’ which allow the linguists and scientists to see the aliens.

    The narrator Louise is matched to work with a physicist, Gary. Because for humans to hopefully learn about alien technology and their understanding of physics, they first of all have to establish communication.

    Weaving through the story of learning the heptapod language are ideas about linguistics and how language affects human cognition.

    Additionally, it becomes apparent that the heptapods don’t have a linear understanding of time. Through learning the heptapod language, the main character starts to see the future, including the daughter who is not yet born. This raises questions about free will.

    The Heptapods

    The aliens in the novel are barrel-like with seven lidless eyes circling the body. They don’t need to turn round because with eyes on all sides, they have no front or back in the human sense.

    They have two languages – spoken and written. Initially, Louise tries to deal with their spoken language (Heptapod A). But progress is difficult.

    Realising they likely also have a written language (Heptapod B), she finds more success here, though it will take time to learn even the basics.

    The novella raises the issue of how to communicate in a completely new language, with no common foundations.

    But Heptapod B is also very different from human languages in the way it uses case markers and rotation to denote meaning.

    As time goes on, Louise learns more of the written language, which begins to impact the way she sees the world. Specifically, the way she sees time.

    And it becomes obvious that the heptapods themselves likely see time in a very different way from humans. As less sequential.

    The story explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a person’s thinking and perception are affected by the grammatical and verbal structure of their language.

    An obvious example would be the many Inuit words for different types of snow. Most people in other climates have a more simplified perception of snow, and an easier way to describe it. Either because they don’t encounter snow as often, or their survival doesn’t depend on being able to identify the different types.

    In the story, by learning a non-sequential language, where the end point is already known, Louise starts to see her own life non-sequentially. Hence, she knows her daughter’s life from beginning to end, before she’s even born.

    But because her daughter will die tragically young, this raises the question of whether Louise could or would change the future.

    Does free will exist? Even though she knows the outcome, she is still compelled to move towards it.

    The use of tense and point of view

    The story is told in first-person voice, from the perspective of the central character, Louise. She starts from the point just before her daughter is conceived.

    The novel also ends at this point, circling back to the beginning.

    This present appears in present tense. From there her narrative looks back (past tense) to the arrival of both the aliens and those who recruit her to her new role communicating with the alien heptapods.

    But she also remembers the future with her daughter who won’t even be born until after the aliens depart. When Louise remembers the future, she does so in future tense:

    I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen...

    Note how she’s also addressing her daughter. The passages remembering the future appear in second person/future tense.

    It’s soon revealed however that she never gets the opportunity to tell her daughter the story of her life. Louise knows in advance that the right moment will never come.

    We learn near the beginning of the story that her daughter dies in an accident.

    Structure

    The first thing to note about the novella’s structure is that the sections set around the heptapods and the language acquisition issues are told in chronological order, in contrast to the future memories which are jumbled up.

    The main plot relating to communicating with the heptapods is somewhat heavy in ideas and theory.

    It’s not always the case, but some of these scenes are drier than those looking to the future.

    Scenes with the unnamed daughter bring light, emotion, and more humanity to the story.

    Chiang has balanced these elements well, leading to a solid structure and pace.

    The flash forward scenes weave in and out of the main narrative and while Louise tells us at the outset how this story ends, what packs the emotional punch at the end is seeing an entire life in fragments.

    It’s already clear that this story begins and ends in the same place.

    So what about the rest of the structure? If we were to adopt the structural breakdown that KM Weiland talks about in her book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, the structural points might be broken down as below.

    The resolution of the novel circles back to the opening hook. We learn on the second page of the story that spaceships have arrived. That’s definitely part of the opening hook. On the second last page of the story those ships depart and the final scene returns to the present, just before the daughter’s conception. Exactly where the story started.

    If we look to the inciting event being about 12.5% into the narrative, that would fit with Louise’s first sighting of the heptapods through the ‘looking glass’ devices. She has already been recruited to communicate with them near the beginning/opening hook. This is also where she starts working with Gary, and their working relationship will heavily impact her future.

    The first plot point (25%) introduces the logograms and the beginning of the writing system that will change the perception of any human who learns it.

    The first pinch point (37.5) reveals the nature of Heptapod B, a language with a grammar in two dimensions. A full fledged graphical language. Louise has made a breakthrough with the written language.

    Meanwhile the midpoint introduces Fermat’s Principle of Least Time where a ray of light takes the fastest route through water. After trying and failing to engage with the heptapods on physics, this is the first breakthrough. This is a variational principle. Gary is the one who explains it.

    The next structural point has the two of them discuss this principle and how it means the light ray has to know ahead of time where it will end up before it can choose the direction it will take.

    This strikes a chord with Louise who has already seen the heptapods write in real time. They too need to know in advance the direction the strokes in their complex logograms will take.

    Around the second plot point or 75% mark there is a question of whether it’s possible to know the future.

    The existence of free will seems to suggest otherwise.

    Yet Louise sees an object in front of her that will cause her daughter a minor injury in the future. Louise still feels compelled to reach for it and buy it. It feels right and instinctual.

    The 88% mark introduces subject of gift giving between humans and heptapods. By this time, thanks to learning a non-sequential language, Louise knows what will happen, just like the heptapods. She is merely playing her part and saying her lines as the story moves towards its conclusion.

    The military and government have their hopes that some new technology will be handed over. For them this would be their ultimate goal, the climax of the interaction which runs up to the resolution.

    For Louise, the gift is the knowledge of the future, not to mention her daughter who is an indirect consequence of the alien visitation. She will also start a relationship during this period.

    And so the story moves to its conclusion, circling back to the beginning.

    If this all sounds very dry, it’s because I’ve left out the more personal subplots that also tie in. In case you want to read the story yourself. Plus the thematic elements and linguistic breakthroughs are what actually happens at these percentage points.

    While you don’t have to hit these points, they are useful in analysing a story’s structure. Most of all, they are a good reminder that something needs to happen/change every so often.

    You cannot have long scenes and chapters where nothing happens.

    And when things do happen, they should be building on one another, as they do in Story of Your Life.

    Chiang’s structure and language/physics plot develops nicely to its conclusion, weaving together with the more emotional and personal story of Louise and her future daughter.

    Finally it all comes together in the resolution.

    The question of free will

    Since I didn’t write this post as a general review of the novella, I don’t want to get too much into themes. However, I did want to address the issue of whether free will is possible when you know the future already.

    One reason for addressing this is the very structure and narrative choices the author has made illustrates why Louise does not attempt to change the future, even though she knows the outcome.

    Normally, the idea of knowing the future so you can change it deals with something simple – you have an intuition/dream not to get on a plane because it will crash. If you believe this intuition, your choice doesn’t just extend to whether you save your own life, but whether you try to stop the plane from taking off.

    The problem is you don’t have the whole story of why the plane is in danger. You have an end prediction, with little to no context.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, sometime after she begins learning Heptapod B, Louise starts to see flashes of the future with her daughter. Even before her daughter is conceived, she has seen the whole of her daughter’s life.

    She has also felt the love and maternal bond she will have for this daughter, and she can see that in spite of knowing how her daughter’s life ends, it’s all still worth it.

    She is compelled to live out her fate. Just like the heptapods who enthusiastically interact with the linguists even though the aliens know everything the humans will say and do in advance. Knowing the future doesn’t seem to dampen the heptapod’s interest. In fact, going through with the action formalises it. Which relates to something else that comes up in the story – speech-act theory.

    Ted Chiang’s use of future tense scenes, interwoven with the main plot, makes Louise’s future with her daughter the most vibrant part of the novella.

    It also perfectly illustrates why Louise, having considered the question of free will when you know the future, still carries on the path that will lead to her losing her child.

    Because, as the novella shows clearly, Louise already knows and loves the child before she’s even conceived.

    No wonder she feels compelled to act out this future, with all the joys and sorrows she knows lie ahead.

    Like Fermat’s Principle of Least Time and the beam of light passing through water, Louise already knows her destination.

    What lessons can we learn from this novella?

    While point of view and tense are things all fiction writers deal with, they are usually not used to reinforce a theme or display an idea – certainly not the way Chiang used both in Story of Your Life.

    It’s certainly true that both can be approached in a more utilitarian way.

    In which case your safest bet would be third-person POV/past tense. This is a largely invisible combination that does not draw attention to itself and which is less likely to annoy readers.

    Alternatively, you can use first-person POV and past tense – another safe combination.

    You can certainly change tenses and points of view within a narrative, but there needs to be a good narrative reason.

    In Story of Your Life there are very good reasons.

    Likewise, Chiang’s particular method of putting together a story – starting with the end, then the beginning, then filling in the rest, will work for some people, but not everyone!

    In conclusion, it’s always worth looking at how a classic story has been constructed and why the author has chosen certain narrative devices. Especially an award-winning adapted novella that still impresses after a quarter of a century.

    Other related blog posts

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With the Vampire.

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby.

    When publishers drop the ball.

    Looking for feedback on your own story?

    Whether you’re writing a shorter narrative or a full novel, an objective eye and developmental feedback can give you useful insights into how to polish your final draft(s).

    I offer different options – report only, or report plus margin comments. You can check my services page below to see what’s available or let me know if you have custom requirements.

    Click here for my services page.

  • Maeve Brennan

    Maeve Brennan
    Maeve Brennan

    Maeve Brennan was an expatriate Irish writer who spent most of her life in the United States. There she worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion writer until 1949 when William Shawn invited her to move to The New Yorker.

    Some of her short stories had already been published in the magazine before she started writing her ‘communications’ or vignettes of New York under the Talk of the Town column. Her by-line was the Long-Winded Lady. Her real name would not be revealed until William Morrow published forty-seven of her columns as The Long-Winded Lady in 1969. While two of her short story collections were published in the United States during her lifetime, she was largely unknown in Ireland.

    Maeve Brennan: The Long-Winded Lady
    The Long-Winded Lady – Maeve Brennan

    To some extent, Maeve Brennan’s life has parallels with that of Vivian Maier, a nanny who lived a low-key life of anonymity, while taking thousands of photos. Vivian was an incredible street photographer, capturing ordinary people in fleeting moments. These photos would only be discovered after her death.

    But Maeve was more glamorous than Vivian. Petite and barely over five feet tall, she wore her auburn hair back or in a pony tail and was always impeccably dressed for a good part of her life. Her fashion writing doubtless helped establish her personal style. She wore strong lipstick, drank, and swore like a longshoreman.

    But while she had short stories published at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker, like Maier she was never famous in her lifetime and was almost unknown in Ireland. And like Maier, Maeve captured ordinary fleeting moments in these vignettes. But her portraits of city life were captured in words, not film. In a letter to her editor and close friend William Maxwell, she said she wanted to write as though the camera had never been invented.

    In her author’s note to The Long-Winded Lady collection, she writes:

    It is as though the long-winded lady were showing snapshots taken during a long, slow journey not through but in the most cumbersome, most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities… 

    Maeve Brennan

    The attention to detail shown in these vignettes also appears in her short stories and her novella, The Visitor.

    Early life

    Maeve was born in Dublin in January 1917 to Irish Republican parents. She was one of four children. She and her two sisters were all named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.

    Irish politics was at the centre of her parents’ life back then. Both participated in the Easter Rising in 1916. While Maeve’s mother Una was only imprisoned for a few days, her father Robert was condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted. He was in prison when Maeve was born.

    Robert, a de Valera supporter, continued to clash with the authorities, including Michael Collins’ Irish Free Staters who raided Maeve’s childhood home, an event she revisits in one of her short stories The Day We Got Our Own Back.

    The move to America

    In 1934, da Valera appointed Robert to the Irish Legation in Washington. Robert’s wife and children moved with him, and so Maeve’s American life began. She attended a Catholic convent school and went on to study English at the American University, graduating in 1938. She was fiercely Irish in the United States, and a glamorous American when she visited her home country.

    Her parents and brother returned to Ireland in the nineteen-forties, but she stayed behind, along with her two sisters. She had moved to New York and was soon writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar.

    Thanks to Harper’s Irish editor Carmel Snow, Maeve got to meet other Irish writers and was often to be found at Costello’s Bar on Third Avenue. There she would come into contact with future colleagues from The New Yorker. She had already started writing her short stories during this time as well as her novella, The Visitor.

    Maeve was only seventeen when she left Ireland. But her childhood home, the street and the neighbourhood in Dublin would come to feature over and over again in the stories she penned while living in New York.

    Interestingly, Maeve never wrote about the biggest disruption of her life – the move to Washington. Her writing looks back to her childhood in Dublin, or later to her life in New York or her observations about the wealthy and their servants in an exclusive Hudson River enclave.

    The short stories

    From the time I was almost five until I was almost eighteen, we lived in a small house in a part of Dublin called Ranelagh. On our street, all of the houses were of red brick and had small back gardens, part cement and part grass, separated from one another by low stone walls…

    The Morning after the Big Fire by Maeve Brennan

    When you read Maeve Brennan’s stories set in Dublin, you sense that there’s a biographical truth in a character’s home, their street, or the furnishings of a room. She’s mining her past, her childhood, her family and heritage from thousands of miles away. And perhaps distance in space and time sharpened her memories.

    The opening to The Morning after the Big Fire reads like someone reminiscing about their childhood – going into detail about the houses in the street and the common end wall, and the tennis court at the back. Nostalgia is a big part of Maeve’s writing. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl whose father reports a fire at the shop and garage next door.

    The next day, the girl tells the neighbours, revelling in being the bearer of news. But she’s suddenly very annoyed when it seems one of the men might go round and check out the ruins and be a greater authority than her. She’s already been banned from going near the remains of the building.

    This is exactly how a child might feel when there’s a moment of drama. Suddenly the centre of attention and authority, and aware that it could all be lost any moment when an adult steps in. When the other children go round to see the wreckage, she is no longer the authority and pretends to be disinterested.

    When the new garage is built, she secretly hopes it will catch fire and watches to see if it does. But there is no other fire before her family leave the house years later. The story ends with her thinking that if some child went round there with a match, she wouldn’t blame them, as long as she got to tell the story first.

    The Morning after the Big Fire is a very short story – about three pages long. It’s built on nostalgia, her childhood home, and wryly observes child psychology.

    In another story, The Old Man of the Sea, the girl, her sister and mother are plagued by an old man who comes round to sell apples. Her mother always takes pity on beggars, so she buys two bags.

    After that, he comes round every week with two bags prepared. The mother can’t get rid of him. She doesn’t want all those apples. The situation escalates from week to week, while the girl is reminded of the old man Sinbad carried on his back. An old man who seemed to get heavier and heavier as time goes on.

    The story is simple and full of humour as the mother, a soft touch for anyone who comes to the door, eventually hides in the kitchen and then the back garden. The mother in the story has a lot in common with Maeve’s mother.

    Religion comes up in some of the stories – the girl narrator in The Barrel of Rumours is sure the poor Clare nuns sleep in coffins, and that they have to be measured up for their coffin the first day they enter the convent. Her mother thinks this is nonsense and wishes she would shut up about it.

    All these stories and more appear in The Springs of Affection. This was the first of Maeve’s collections to be published after her death.

    Maeve Brennan: The Rose Garden
    Maeve Brennan: The Rose Garden

    In another collection, The Rose Garden, there are five stories set in Dublin, while the rest are set in the US, whether Manhattan or a wealthy community on the Hudson.

    In real life, Maeve married The New Yorker’s managing editor, St Clair McKelway. The marriage shocked some of their friends and colleagues who did not expect a good outcome. McKelway was an alcoholic and indeed the marriage would only last five years.

    But during that time they lived in the exclusive Hudson River retreat of Sneden’s Landing. A place that would offer Maeve more inspiration. She later recorded the snobbery of the wealthy in her satirical stories set in the fictional Herbert’s Retreat. The maids in these families are invariably Irish. In her biography of Maeve Brennan, Angela Bourke speculates that the stories may have been building to form a novel. Six were published in The New Yorker but most critics failed to interpret the coded messages about how the privileged appeared through the eyes of their Irish maids.

    With her marriage coming to an end, Maeve and McKelway agreed to divorce. In late 1959 she moved back to Manhattan. She had a cat and kittens with her, but her other cats and her beloved black Labrador Bluebell had to wait until she found better accommodation.

    Bluebell and the cats appear a few times in Maeve’s short stories, but perhaps one of the most poignant examples is the one that opens as the preface to the short story collection, The Rose Garden. One of her Long-Winded Lady vignettes, she’s lying on the beach at East Hampton, where she lived for several years. Bluebell and the cats are there, but it soon becomes clear it’s a dream. The beloved pets are long gone. The year is 1976. Maeve is almost sixty.

    The Visitor

    Maeve Brennan: The Visitor
    The Visitor

    Maeve had already written her novella, The Visitor, before she went to work at The New Yorker. She was still in her twenties. The novella wasn’t discovered until 1997. It was first published in 2001, less than a decade after her death.

    The story of The Visitor follows Anastasia King, a young woman who has been living in Paris with her mother. At the beginning of the novella, she is returning in a train to Dublin. Her mother is dead, so she is coming back to live with her grandmother. But Mrs King, who never liked Anastasia’s mother, is nursing a grievance. And while she is never rude to her granddaughter, it’s clear that the old woman has no intention of letting her stay for long.

    It is tale of loneliness, and a thirst for love, undercut by a beautifully understated cruelty and revenge. A story where daughters and granddaughters suffer at the hands of their older female relatives. Not only Anastasia herself, but an older woman she befriends whose own mother stopped her marrying the love of her life. But even Anastasia’s friendship with this woman takes a darker and crueller turn when she deliberately fails to carry out the woman’s last wish. On a first read it seems almost unfathomable that the simple request isn’t carried out.

    The manuscript of The Visitor was discovered in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame Library. It was among the papers of Maisie Ward from the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward.

    It’s not clear whether Maeve failed to keep her own carbon copy. No copy was found among her own papers. It’s believed that the novella was written between 1944 and 1945 while she was living in a sixth-floor apartment at East 10th Street. She was in her mid-twenties and still writing fashion copy for Harper’s. The bitter heart of the story would stand in contrast with the writing in her day job.

    The Long-Winded Lady

    Maeve moved to The New Yorker in 1949. And in 1954 the first of her Long-Winded Lady pieces was published there. While Maeve’s Dublin stories mined her memories of her childhood, her Talk of the Town vignettes were very much rooted in the present. It wasn’t that she didn’t reflect on the past in these prose pieces. In fact, she was very aware of the constantly changing nature of the city – of buildings always being torn down to make way for the new.

    In one story she writes of a farmhouse which was moved to a different part of the city to preserve the building. But she also writes about people like herself who lived in hotels and dined in restaurants and wandered the streets.

    She observed what was going on around her, and recorded fleeting moments that most other writers would probably ignore.

    One particular 1969 vignette titled The Solitude of Their Expression has Maeve looking out her window. She is living in a Forty-ninth street hotel with two big rooms, high ceilings, and big windows on three sides. She can see the Empire State Building. But one memorable part of this piece has her observing an elderly woman in another hotel. The woman’s window has two red geraniums.

    Maeve remembers recently watching this woman sitting at her window, two floors down from the roof, reading a letter. The thin and aging white net curtains were fastened back to let in all the light and air. It was a hot day.

    ‘Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading.’

    The woman reads the second sheet of paper, then stretches her arm out the window and lets it go. A third sheet of paper soon follows. Then she stands up and vanishes into the dimness of the room.

    Everything from the geraniums in the window, the thin white net curtain of the hotel, the hot weather, the sheets floating down the outside of the hotel are transient. Both women are long gone. Brennan captures moments like these that would otherwise never be known. How could this elderly woman imagine people reading about her over half a century later?

    Maeve lived in hotels like this, moving from one to another. She walked the streets, dined in cafes, and watched the people around her. The Long-Winded Lady is an observer recording the changing city and its inhabitants.

    The Springs of Affection

    After Maeve divorced McKelway she became something of a wanderer. She continued to write. Her masterpiece long story The Springs of Affection was published in The New Yorker in 1972. The story clearly mines her memories of Ireland, Dublin, Wexford, her parents, and her wider family.

    The central character is Min Bagot. The Bagot family appear in a number of Maeve’s stories. But in this one Delia and Martin are dead. Min, who was Martin’s twin, reflects on her memories, including the day when everything changed – the day Martin married Delia. Nothing was ever the same again. Their mother never approved of Delia, and neither did Min. Min’s two sisters will also go on to marry, but she will remain with her mother. She wanted to be a teacher but instead becomes a dressmaker.

    Her bitterness seeps through the story. Yet to her, the triumph is that she is the last one standing. Her sisters, her brother, her mother and father, and Delia are all dead. You can be jealous of those just starting out, but you can’t be jealous of the dead. She sits among the furnishings, books, and possessions she’s taken from her brother’s home. She returns in her mind to the day of her twin’s marriage and the in-laws’ farmhouse.

    These families went a long way back in time, and they remembered marriages that had taken place a hundred years before. They didn’t talk, as Min understood talk. Here in the country they wove webs with names and dates and places. The dead were mentioned in the same voice with the living, so that fathers and sisters and cousins who had been gone for decades could have trooped through the house and through the orchards and gardens and found themselves at home, the same as always, and they could even have counted on finding their own names and their own faces registered faithfully somewhere among the generations that had succeeded them.’

    Maeve’s biographer, Angela Bourke, notes that ‘Almost every fact in ‘The Springs of Affection’ is true, and yet the story is not. The relationships in two families over three generations, the appearance of houses and countryside, the people in the story, the work they do and the room where they do it, all are precise in their details and historical fact.’

    However, there were parts that were very much not true. Going by the biographical details, Min Bagot was clearly modelled on Nan Brennan, one of Maeve’s older relatives. Yet Nan was very far from the cold and spiteful central character of the story. She was well liked in her community, independent, visited daily by relatives, friends, and neighbours. She was also eighty-five years old at the time of publication and The New Yorker had a way of reaching all the way to Wexford in Ireland. So much so that Nan wrote on the back of an old photo of Maeve and Bluebell, ‘Greatly changed for the worse, 1972.’

    Meanwhile, Maeve was becoming increasingly eccentric. Her beloved Bluebell had died, leaving her adrift. Her parents back in Ireland were dead. Maeve’s mental health began to decline and she became paranoid. Her appearance changed, her makeup sloppy. Homeless, she took up residence next to the women’s room on the nineteenth floor of The New Yorker. There she took in a sick pigeon, and gave money to people on the street.

    Maeve claimed that her younger sister Derry, who had already moved back to Ireland, had stopped speaking to her after the publication of The Springs of Affection. Nevertheless, when Maeve visited Ireland in 1973, she spent some time at her sister’s house. She spent about a year in the country, not always living in the same place. Her appearance improved but she was again showing confusion even before she returned to America. There her mental health continued to decline. She was hospitalised more than once. She also vanished for periods of time, leaving her American friends worried.

    Her daydream piece about Bluebell and the cats at East Hampton was published in The New Yorker column in 1976. Maeve’s biographer Angela Bourke speculates that Maeve may have written the piece from a hospital bed.

    Maeve’s last Long-Winded Lady communication was published in 1981. She died in 1993 in a nursing home. She was seventy-six. The staff of the home were surprised to learn she had been a writer.

    Although there was already a growing interest in her work before her death, it was with the publication of The Springs of Affection collection that Maeve Brennan began to achieve the fame she never saw in her lifetime. A second collection, The Rose Garden, followed, along with the rediscovered manuscript of The Visitor. Angela Bourke’s biography was published in 2004.

    Lessons from Maeve’s writing

    Maeve didn’t write on a huge canvas. Her fiction and her vignettes are focused on the small things. Incidents from childhood are mined, family members become inspiration (and not always in a flattering way).

    Where bigger events enter the scene – the Republican struggle and the clash with the Free Staters – they are viewed through a child’s eyes. Maeve gives some context through the lens of someone looking back in time. But the story The Day We Got Our Own Back is very much a child’s view of what should be a frightening event.

    Maeve is equally detailed in her vignettes recording Manhattan as the city changed around her. Her eye for detail picks out people and fleeting moments that other writers might overlook. It’s a lesson in attention to detail, something helped by her time writing fashion copy at Harper’s Bazaar.

    Just as actors observe the people around them, so must writers. But writers should also view the world around them, fleeting moments, memories from the past.

    Writers are told to write what they know. Maeve Brennan is a good example of someone who did just that. She wrote about a transitional time in Irish history. She didn’t write about the famous people. Instead she detailed the lives of the people she grew up with, the family, neighbours, children, nuns, priests, and others.

    In New York she sat at her window, walked the streets, sat in cafes, and watched the world go by, noting the details and reporting them in her Talk of the Town column. She satirised the snobbery of the wealthy at Sneddon’s Landing on the Hudson, wrote stories about characters in Manhattan, and immortalised her beloved pets, like Bluebell.

    Her writing is not only seeped in nostalgia, and homesickness at times, but there’s also spite, satire, warmth, and humour.

    Maeve Brennan was revered by younger writers at The New Yorker, but her stories of Ireland failed to take off in her own country. Part of the reason was her mining of an increasingly distant past. But during her lifetime, Irish literature was dominated by men. It was only after her death that interest in her work grew, on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In her short story A Free Choice, published in The New Yorker in 1964, Maeve wrote:

    She began to believe that she had been remembered at some time far back, at some moment when she had thought herself down and out and forgotten and derided. It had all been only in her imagination, that she had been forgotten. She had not been forgotten at all.

    Recommended reading

    Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker by Angela Bourke (biography)

    The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (short story collection)

    The Rose Garden by Maeve Brennan (short story collection)

    The Visitor by Maeve Brennan (novella)

    The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan (Maeve’s collected vignettes from the New Yorker)

    Related IndieCat Editorial posts

    Here are other posts on authors and their work:

    Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock – IndieCat Editorial

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith – IndieCat Editorial

  • Character credibility and the domino effect

    Character credibility and the domino effect
    Character credibility and the domino effect

    What is the most common problem I see in manuscripts? Let’s call it character credibility and the domino effect. But before I get to that, let’s check out the more obvious problems I’d be looking at.

    The more obvious developmental concerns

    As a developmental editor who deals with fiction, I obviously look at a novel’s structure, its plots and subplots, and the strength of the characterisation.

    I’ll also look at pacing, point of view, whether the right point of view and tense is being used, whether there are inconsistencies in POV.

    I’ll look at the themes. And whether the plots and character arcs serve the theme.

    I’ll check out the novel’s location. Does it needs to be fleshed out more? Or is there is too much detail slowing down the pace?

    I’ll check dialogue for any problems there.

    I’ll look at the balance of showing versus telling. And I’ll check the beginning to see if it has a good early hook, the middle for standing strong, and the ending for closing in the best place. I’ll also check to see if the ending matches the promise of the beginning.

    In fact, there are all sorts of things that will come up in a developmental edit. Some writers have POV nailed down to the point there isn’t a lot to say about it. They might have as much dialogue as needed, and it’s strong and doesn’t need much attention.

    Different writers have their own strengths and weaknesses. Over time they can become aware of what they need to work on so that by the next novel, they know what to look out for.

    Psychology and the domino effect

    But there are one or two things that come up so often that I thought I’d write a post about them. They’re actually related to one another. I call them ‘the dominoes’ and often ‘the psychological dominoes’. However, it’s not necessarily always an issue of psychology. But psychology is something that I end up commenting on the most in a manuscript’s margins.

    To start with a basic example of the dominoes – imagine your character is shot in the leg. That would be painful. If they’re not used to being shot in the leg, or being attacked at all, there will likely be some lingering trauma for a while. So it wouldn’t make sense for you to have your character walking about a week later without any pain or any memory of what happened.

    Yet this is the kind of thing I do see in manuscripts.

    It’s usually not a gunshot though. It will be something else. It could be a terrible accident that should impact the characters for quite a while and reverberate through the novel until there’s some kind of resolution – even if it’s not the main plot and you don’t spend too much time on it.

    Basically, once you set up that first domino and knock it over, there should be a chain of dominoes going over after it. A chain of consequences.

    How would someone in the real world react?

    This doesn’t mean you have to angst over following through on every single thing that happens to your characters. But it’s certainly worth thinking about how someone in the real world would react to something like that. Would they get over this event immediately? Or would they think about it sometimes in the dead of night? Perhaps they could be frightened it would happen again?

    I often find that characters have suddenly developed amnesia about things that have happened earlier in the book. And it’s a form of amnesia that just wouldn’t happen in the real world.

    Sure, you don’t think about bad things all the time. But there will be little things that sometimes trigger a memory and a physical response to that memory.

    Your characters must be credible

    This is the kind of thing I often address in margins. Because otherwise characters lack credibility. They don’t act like real people. They do what is required in any one scene. But this will undermine their overall believability and even their likeability in the eyes of the reader.

    For example, a character that doesn’t think about a tragic event after it happens and carries on happily could end up looking heartless or even psychopathic.

    While you might indeed want to create an unlikeable character, they still have to be credible. Even unlikeable people will want to avoid putting themselves into dangerous or upsetting situations again. Even unlikeable people can mourn for a loved one.

    The importance of creating engaging characters

    One of the most important goals early on in your novel should be to get the reader to care about their character and want to know what happens to them. At the very least, if the character is Patrick Bateman, the reader should be intrigued by them.

    That’s why digging deeper into character psychology is so important.

    Readers don’t remember every detail of a plot long after they’ve finished the book. But they remember how the book made them feel. They’ll remember whether they fell in love with the characters or strongly identified with any of them. They’ll remember the atmosphere of the book too.

    So, characterisation is really important and that means making your characters as believable as possible.

    An example of the dominoes

    This does not mean loads of reflection or angst, which would block forward momentum of the plot. But it does mean remembering that your character does not have amnesia. There will be times they remember something. You can use memory triggers carefully in the right places.

    Here’s an example: imagine your character goes out one night and is beaten up. They shouldn’t then swan out the door another night as if they don’t recall what happened the first time. Your character should be wary about going out alone. They might even put it off. They might have to overcome their fear. When they do go out, they should be hypervigilant. Obviously it depends on your plot and the character’s situation whether they’re likely to be attacked again. But if they have fears, and you play on it, you can increase the stakes for the character, and the tension for the reader. You can make the reader worry even if nothing happens.

    It’s not about creating false tension, it’s just natural that someone would be worried and you don’t necessarily have to add much to the text to show the inner battle to overcome a fear. It’s not about adding in a chunk of words. You just need to show the consequences of a previous plot event, how it impacts the character, and how the character learns to deal with it over time.

    Otherwise, if they sail out the door with no concerns, you’ve missed a bunch of opportunities to show inner conflict, higher stakes, tension, and so on.

    Use psychological triggers – but don’t overdo it

    If bad things happen to your character, consider what might trigger them into remembering. It could be something that another character says in a conversation that briefly causes them upset or stress. They can overcome it. But if a character’s loved one is murdered, and someone else mentions another murder, the main character cannot help but be triggered into remembering/feeling/reacting etc, complete with physical symptoms, however brief.

    Dealing with the dominoes is not something you have to worry about much in an early draft. You can leave this to the polishing stage. But it’s best to deal with it a bit earlier than late drafts. That’s because if you do introduce triggers, it might mean scene rewrites or some new scenes.

    Most of all, it’s not every single thing that happens to a character that matters. It’s what someone in a particular situation would naturally feel when a possible trigger is present.

    Or when they’re lying in bed at night unable to sleep. This is a time when people in the real world do angst. But I often see characters going to bed, even in the middle of dramatic events. And they seem to fall asleep immediately, when many real people would be tossing and turning!

    Conclusion

    It’s worth paying attention to your own reactions to things – how you’re reminded of events from the past. How other people around you behave.

    Writing a novel doesn’t mean you have to write a psychological manual. But adding in psychological realism can help boost your characters and the inner conflicts to another level. It can also help, where relevant, in raising a scene’s stakes.

    Ultimately you’re making your characters stronger. You’re showing a chain of actions. Character amnesia (which can leave a plot looking episodic and disconnected) is eliminated, and your stakes are raised.

    Looking for feedback on your novel?

    I currently have openings for manuscript critiques, mini opening chapters developmental edits, and full developmental edits. I can also give feedback on novel outlines with a report and margin comments.

    If you have any particular questions, you can contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com. You can also check out my services page here:

    Developmental Fiction Editing Services – IndieCat Editorial

  • Famous first lines… or how to start your novel

    Famous first lines... or how to start your novel
    How important is the first line of your novel?

    Novels with famous first lines. You’ve seen them, even read some of them, or pored over their opening pages. Famous first lines you can repeat from memory.

    Ursula Le Guin says in her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, that:

    First sentences are doors to worlds.

    She’s right. A great first sentence can hook the reader and reel them in.

    Of course, you can’t build the success or fate of a novel on a first sentence alone. If you have a great first sentence or first paragraph, and the writing that follows doesn’t live up to its promise, the reader will bail.

    In another blog post, I’ll deal with the conversion sequence that starts with the cover art and that moves through to the opening of the book.

    But to summarise, there’s a sequence of hooks that are meant to draw a reader in. The cover image might help a book stand out in a bookshop against the competition. The cover can be seen from across a store. You can’t see a blurb from that far, and you won’t get anywhere near the opening lines until you are tempted to pick the book up in the first place.

    The power of the opening sentence hook comes at the end of a sequence of hooks that lead up to it.

    Getting a potential reader or book buyer to check out the book in the first place is a challenge. The book market is already saturated and it’s easy to get depressed when you walk into a large bookshop and check out the sheer wealth of competition.

    You need all the help you can get – which is why great and genre-appropriate cover art is so important.

    A decent blurb is also important.

    But readers browse the opening pages of far more books than they’ll ever buy or read. They are engaging in a filtering process – filtering out what doesn’t appeal fast as they search for something that hooks their attention, and makes them curious to read more.

    That’s why the opening lines and pages of your book matter.

    Your opening lines need to draw a reader in. They can do this in different ways. Sometimes it’s dropping the reader straight into some action – there are Hollywood films that also use this type of hook.

    There are also opening lines that raise a question in the reader’s mind – leading to a curiosity to find the answer(s). Some opening lines cast a spell over the reader, urging them to read on.

    One of the things readers remember most about a book is how it made them feel. They won’t necessarily remember all the plot details years down the line, but they will likely remember the impact a book had on them, the mood of the book, its atmosphere, and how it made them feel.

    Sometimes this is also related to the writer’s voice, and voice is something that can show up in the very first line.

    In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King was asked about his favourite lines, and they turned out to be his opening lines. According to King:

    An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

    Among his own books, his favourite opening line is from Needful Things. Four simple words printed in 20-point on a page: You’ve been here before. King sees this as an invitation to keep reading and that it suggests a familiar story.

    King works on his openings while he lies in bed before going to sleep. He composes them in his head and will rework them over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Once he’s happy with the opening, he knows he can write the book.

    There are many famous opening lines in fiction:

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. 

    Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

    The opening sentence of Rebecca is a particularly famous example. Perhaps one of the most famous – in part thanks to the Hitchcock adaptation where Joan Fontaine narrates the opening sentences of the novel.

    But many people know it from the book alone. It’s a line that throws up questions in the mind of a new reader. Who is the narrator – we never find out her true name. She is simply the second Mrs. de Winter. And what is Manderley?

    The sentences that follow the first line fill in some of the details. Rebecca opens on a mystery – the mystery of Manderley, abandoned, ruined, and overgrown, and why the narrator can never go back.

    Here’s another famous example:

    The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

    LP Hartley – The Go-Between

    The Go-Between is a classic English novel set against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian era. Specifically, the summer of 1900. It is a novel in which an older man is reflecting on the time he spent as a young boy at a school friend’s estate – a period he has blanked out from his memory until he finds his old diary and pieces things together.

    In an interview Hartley said:

    I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all’s well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War…

    The first line of the book links to the changes the character has seen in the world since 1900. He’s remembering the past from the 1950s. Two world wars have passed, with what in 1900 would have been unimaginable casualties and horrors. The aristocratic late Victorian society that young Leo samples in his visit to the estate has long passed away. The past is indeed a foreign country and things were different then.

    Speaking of long summers in 1900, there is also Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I wrote about in another blog post. Here is the opening sentence:

    Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

    Lindsay wrote the novel after a series of dreams about a picnic at the Rock. She wrote it in winter, but when she woke from the dreams she could still feel the summer heat. The novel’s opening sentences capture the mood and season of the dreams. But the central event of the novel, the picnic at Hanging Rock, is also referenced from the very first line.

    Staying on the theme of summer there is this opening line:

    It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

    Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

    In a few short words, the novel’s opening sets the season, the talking point of the time (the Rosenbergs, which also anchors the opening in a particular year), and the location.

    Or how about the opening to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:

    The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

    The opening line of the prologue gets to the heart of the story, yet a new reader will only have questions rather than answers at this point. Who is Bunny? Why is he dead? And why does the narrator mean by the gravity of our situation?

    Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the answer. The first half of the novel leads up to the events that cause Bunny’s death. The second half deals with the fallout. The opening sentence doesn’t deal with the lead-up to the death – but it shows that there will likely be consequences. And that the novel deals with this in some way.

    The opening of 1984 immediately indicates that there is something not quite right about the society in this book. The clocks are striking thirteen. This famous novel deals with a dystopian society and acts as a political warning.

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    George Orwell – 1984

    Zora Neale Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but she never really got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her fame really came after her death. The opening line of her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a standout line. It’s more than just an opening hook that draws the reader into her story. It’s a handy saying too.

    Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

    Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

    William Gibson’s Neuromancer has a particularly striking image in the opening sentence:

    The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    Meanwhile, the opening sentence to JG Ballard’s High-Rise raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

    The opening of Andy Weir’s The Martian gets straight to the seriousness of the narrator’s situation:

    I’m pretty much fucked.

    And he is. Well and truly. The rest of the novel follows him as he figures out how to survive on Mars when the rest of his crew have left him for dead. Nobody on Earth or even his old crew know yet that he is still alive. So, help isn’t arriving anytime soon.

    Or how about Iain Banks’ unforgettable first line in his contemporary Scots novel, The Crow Road:

    It was the day my grandmother exploded.

    Apart from the unexpected image, there are all sorts of questions like why and how she exploded.

    The novel isn’t actually about the whys of her eventful cremation, but the mystery of why the narrator’s Uncle Rory went missing. This is woven around a story about family and growing up.

    But that first line is a hook that gets the reader to read on. Hooks that raise questions in the reader’s mind can be answered early in the book providing there are bigger questions being raised that pull the reader on to finish the story.

    Earlier in this post, I mentioned Stephen King’s approach to first lines – he really tries to nail the first line before tackling the rest of the book. However, if you spend too much time trying to nail that first line, you can lose your confidence and motivation when it comes to the rest of the book.

    It’s far more important to get your early drafts down so that you have a story to work with, and characters to flesh out.

    It’s not unusual for writers to start the earlier drafts of their novel with a different scene or at a different stage in the narrative. And this is perfectly fine. A lot of writers need some warmup prose to get them into their story. Much of this can be discarded later.

    Once you have at least one full draft down, you can start to think about the right starting point. But even that isn’t about exactly the right first line.

    You can actually leave your opening line or lines until the very end of your writing process. During the earlier drafts and rewrites, you can note down ideas for opening lines. But this fine-tuning of the opening can be something you can postpone until later.

    After all, you don’t want to waste your burst of enthusiasm for your story on working and reworking the same lines over and over. Plunge into your story. Worry about the details later.

    You might be someone who often has a good first line in mind – if so, that’s great. But it’s not necessary when you’re first sitting down to write. Especially if you want a line that will really hook the reader.

    Of course, it’s not just your opening line that matters, but your opening paragraphs, pages, chapters etc.

    If you want feedback on your opening chapters, I offer an opening chapters developmental edit. The relevant service page mentions 15,000 words, but I also do custom word counts for those who want a shorter opening assessed.

    The edit looks at opening hooks, characterisation, point of view, and much more. You get an editorial letter and a copy of your manuscript with track commenting in the margins.

    More posts from the IndieCat blog

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    How to establish a writing routine

    So indie authors aren’t real authors?

    Researching your novel’s locations online

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project