Friday, June 13, 2008

Powerful Writing

All this talk about voice made me think about the works that were strongly written and what made them good. When I think of a single passage in a book that stopped me in my tracks, I think of Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown. This is a book I read in high school or junior high, and one that I love. I read this book for one certain passage, about half-way into the novel. When I read it the first time, I still remember weeping so hard that I couldn't see the page. In fact, I don't think I wept so much at a novel until I read JK Rowling's fifth Harry Potter the end...when a certain character I loved died.

Here's the set-up. Aerin is the not-so-talented daughter of the king. Her cousins all have great magic and are beautiful and accomplished and all, but Aerin sticks out like a sore thumb with red hair and a mysterious dead mother. In order to find her place, she starts fighting dragons, which are a dangerous nuisance (but little more) in her kingdom. This gives her an unsteady hold on prestige. She's good at it, but it's menial work and not very respected. Until one of the great dragons awaken--one that's as big as a mountain and capable of destroying the entire kingdom.

Aerin fights and kills the dragon--but is mortally wounded--her body is broken and burned, and she swallowed dragonfire, which is killing her from the inside. Her father (the king) and Tor (her cousin and crown prince--and soon to be fiance) meet her on the road, and Tor grabs her by the arm--which has nearly been burned off by the dragon.
She screamed, except that she could not scream, but she made a hoarse and awful sound, and Tor dropped his hand and said something she did not hear, for her scream made her cough, and she coughed and could not stop, and the bleeding began, and flecks of her blood dripped down Talat's neck, and her body shook, and the cloak fell away from her and onto the ground, and Toor and Arlbeth sat frozen on their horses, helplessly watching.
What makes this such a powerful passage? Well, first of all it's the context and the 112 pages leading up to that passage. I know all about how Arlbeth loves his daughter despite her unconventional ways, how Tor loves her but Aerin doesn't love him, the struggle Aerin had to turn Talat into a proper horse for her. I know these people, so I care about them.

But that's not why this passage brings me back to the book so much that I have been known to read up to that passage and stop without reading the end because I love that one sentence more than the whole rest of the book.

Let's analyze this passage as a writer:

  1. It's one sentence long. This is basic, but it's important. The structure of language changes how we read. When I read this one long sentence, I cannot make myself take a break, the way a period would naturally make me stop. I pause at the commas, but not as I would at a period. The length of the sentence, accompanied by how it is broken up into small segments with the comma clauses, makes the reader move from clause to clause quickly. The speed of the reading makes the reader feel the quickness of the event. It's not slow and drawn out, it's pain that's compressed and compounded in a very short time. It's the difference between slowly applying heat, or thrusting one's arm into a fire. The pain is all right there, all at once.
  2. The action progresses within the sentence. Aerin's pain starts in her arm, which leads to her scream-cough, which leads to her coughing up blood. It's a progression, and it's key to the sentence structure. If there was one pain--say, the pain in the arm--and that pain was contained in one sentence and described in several different ways, we might perhaps have a better idea of what the pain in the arm really felt like (i.e. I don't know if it's a burning pain, or a crushing pain, etc.). On the other hand, we'd lose the momentum of the progression--this sentence is not about how badly one part of Aerin is hurt--it's about how all of Aerin is hurt.
  3. There's a shift in perspective. The sentence starts with Aerin, focused entirely on her pain, but ends with the men who love her--Tor and Arlbeth--and how they cannot help with her pain. That last clause, that's what makes me weep. The sentence shifts from physical to mental anguish. It shows how pain extends past the person who is in pain. It puts the story into perspective, and makes the pain of Aerin that much worse because there is no help for her, and because those who love her really can do nothing but watch helplessly.
So that's what I think makes that passage powerful. In general, powerful writing needs certain elements. In this case, it's a combination of backstory, structure, description and perspective. Certainly the passage is not as important to me when it's cut out of the text and pasted here--and certainly a book would not be readable if every single sentence was powerful. However, in our writing, I believe that one of our goals should be a build-up to a similar powerful passage. You can have several, certainly, and the whole point of writing should not be these few powerful sentences, but if you can write a story that is so gripping, one that can lead up to words that are so powerful...well, then, you've succeeded.
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