Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 4: A quiverful of techniques


You can think of dozens of ways to be different, but it’s not as easy to be different in a way that doesn’t seem gratuitous, random, or bizarre. We’re stuck with certain linguistic necessities, of which grammar is only one, forcing whatever innovation we hope to achieve inside a box. It might be a large one, but it does impose its limitations on us so that we’re not free to use language in a way that’s incomprehensible, that can’t be digested and analyzed. Our characters, even in experimental literature, have to behave in ways that make a certain degree of sense, at least in the context of the world those characters live in. Kafka’s souls act believably in the situations they find themselves in, yet that universe isn’t recognizable to those of us inhabiting “reality.”

What we can do, though, is take the ingredients of fiction — down to the level of the sentence, even the word — and play with them. Some very successful and famous writers manage sentences hundreds of words long and pull it off convincingly. Some write strictly in tagless dialogue, and it works. Still others get into the heads of madmen, children, animals, or inanimate objects and make us believe we’re in there with them; we can understand what it feels like to be mad, or a can o’ beans (as in Tom Robbins’s Skinny Legs And All).

We can write novels from different, competing points of view or using ambiguous narrators. Or we can put ourselves in our own books as characters. Scenes can morph into dreams and dreams into realities, because the world of the fictional being is completely artificial. You’d think the possibilities are so great that they might as well be endless and there should never be repetition on any level. And yet the same stories keep getting told in more or less the same way. At the risk of getting repetitive myself: Patterns cause repetition, and repetition makes patterns.

Still, what a great writer can do with a pretty familiar story is striking. We all know the tale of Ulysses, but it took a genius like Joyce to turn the ancient story into an unrivaled monument to modernism. Robert Coover tossed the legend of Noah on its head. Good writers never have a shortage of material to work with because the trove of literary treasure that can be modified, manipulated, reconstituted, dressed up, and reshaped is pretty much infinite. We’ve seen, for instance, a number of Shakespeare plays and Jane Austen novels molded into modern stories set in everything from a high school to navy ships, so the possibilities are there to be plucked.

Another technique is to shake up the chronology. Linearity is an easy path to write and to read in, but a skillful hand can broaden a narrative by telling it in pieces arranged for maximum drama or thematic punch. Harold Pinter wrote a backwards play. Laurence Sterne gave us a book that was all over the map, time-wise. More recently, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a striking example of how playing with time can give a book additional dimensions it wouldn’t have if told in the usual, front-to-back way. One of my favorite novels — The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford — achieves something profound in its non-linearity the traditional approach would have failed at.

In a sense, this can be seen as a more sophisticated or elaborate use of the flashback, which in itself can have strong modern effects when handled well. Most first-person narratives, when you think about it, are actually long flashbacks, since the narrator is telling the story from a point beyond the action. And coupled with present tense, as many first-person stories are written in, the concept of time becomes quite fluid and distorting, like looking through a telescope the wrong way.


My copy of The Unfortunates

I remember my excitement a few years ago, learning about the novel, The Unfortunates, by English author B. S. Johnson. What’s unique about that book, which hasn’t enjoyed the critical enthusiasm it really deserves over the decades since its 1968 publication, is that it’s told in any order the reader wants. How did Johnson pull that off? By writing the book in many small pieces that are individually bound, like pamphlets, framing them with a fixed beginning and ending, and delivering the whole thing in a box! What an extraordinary idea, and what an extraordinary feeling for the reader as she spreads all these leaflets out to reassemble in any number of ways. I’ve gone through the book a couple of times, in different orders. Each reader can have very different experiences coming from different chronologies. To my mind, this is a concept that should have caught on.

Why didn’t it? Probably because readers, and publishers, are simply too rigid about what a novel is, or should be, rather than what it could be.

You’d also have thought that the ebook would invite experimentation, but nothing interesting has panned out on that front either. I can envision — and have begun some notes on — a novel that has alternative story lines that readers could select by clicking on hyperlinks embedded in the ebook. They might interweave or sometimes contradict one another, but the idea would be to have them complement in a way that enlarges any single one of them. There could be, for example, a protagonist who has a moment of truth, and two story lines branch out from it, following each possible choice. The reader might be able to toggle between the two to see where the protagonist would be at that moment on the other road. It would, at times, feel more like a game, though the writer would always be in control of the narratives, rather than a participant-reader.

Who wants to step up and write the first novel in the new paradigm?


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan

12 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 4: A quiverful of techniques

  1. kingmidget
    January 14, 2016

    Yeah. I agree that the potential for experimentation with e-books has been sorely lacking. I wonder if it’s simply this … it’s too hard. The example you gave of The Unfortunates is perfect — it’s a brilliant idea and provides readers with a wonderful experience, but I can imagine trying to write something like that was very difficult. And beyond the skill of most writers. As we’ve discussed, it seems you can’t find a reader who isn’t a writer now. Well, think about that — are all of those reader/writers really all that talented and creative? No, the vast majority of us can only write if we’re following a formula or sticking with the same thing over and over again. Think about Stephen King, who has written some incredible stories over the years — most of what he writes, however, isn’t one bit creative because he writes in the same voice and follows the same concept over and over and over again.

    The reality is that very few writers are actually talented enough or creative enough or committed enough to pull off the kind of writing you’re suggesting.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 14, 2016

      I’ve wondered sometimes if Johnson came up with The Unfortunates almost by accident. Maybe he couldn’t make it work in a more traditional way, and said, Let’s chop it up into little pieces and throw them in the air and see what happens.

      But I agree with you, as you’ll see later in the series, that it’ll take special talents to pull this kind of thing off, and I ain’t got the goods myself. (Or I’m now too cynical to try… 😈.)

  2. sknicholls
    January 14, 2016

    My kids used to read a paperbacks with alternative story lines. Every so often the reader would be given choices of pages to turn to, their choice would lead them down different plot treks to a final ending of their consequences of having picked those paths.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 14, 2016

      Yes, I think a lot of interesting things are done with children’s books that could easily be upgraded for adults. Why not?!

  3. John W. Howell
    January 14, 2016

    You go right ahead, my talented friend. I’m still grappling to keep my head above water.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 14, 2016

      I stopped trying to keep my head above water long ago… 🐟

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    January 17, 2016

    I suspect most readers resist books that force them to make choices and follow alternate routes through a work of fiction. That turns reading into WORK, not entertainment. Being entertained is a passive process, which is why most people think of “the movie” if there is one based on a book. Lord of the Rings is a case in point. I fear creative fiction is doomed to be read by the self-selected few. Of course, that’s no reason to not write it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 17, 2016

      I think that’s probably true, though when you start to blur the line between books and computer games, participants might come to feel more involved in the story. I’m not sure how it would work, but I know some writers are trying to figure out ways to do that.

      It’s going to take a fearless writer who doesn’t mind sacrificing sales to try something really revolutionary. Or a writer who has low sales anyway…

  5. Vonclair
    January 17, 2016

    Whoa! That’ll take one badass writer! We’re waiting on you oh mighty one!
    Wherever you are… ;-P

    I think the problem is, as Audrey said “That turns reading into WORK, not entertainment.”. Our art is often associated with entertainment, nowadays most would like to be spoon fed the story, and for it to be an easy read.
    Does that mean it is impossible write an innovative fiction? No, but it does make it considerably harder.

  6. cinthiaritchie
    January 22, 2016

    This made me chuckle: “We’re stuck with certain linguistic necessities, of which grammar is only one…”

    For it seems as grammar has gone all to hell. Even in traditionally published books, and in newspapers and magazines, I constantly see incorrect verb tenses, grammar errors, etc. I can understand misspellings–they can sneak up on you. A few months ago I read a traditionally published book and, get this, the author had used “lay/laying” instead of “lie/lying” the whole damned book. It’s like: where was the copy editor?

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 23, 2016

      I guess grammatical errors are okay if they’re filtered through a character. Then the author is saying, “Look, this guy doesn’t know the difference between lay and lie!”

      But, yeah, inadvertent errors are infuriating because they lower the bar and soon become okay. To many, at least.

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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