Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why Victoria Can Get A Manicure

I've mentioned a few times how astounded I am that Tolstoy can write pages and pages about a man harvesting wheat and still make it interesting. I could never figure out exactly how he was creating any tension that way, but recently I've made some progress--I'm gaining on you, Leo!

I was reading Tolstoy's novella, Hadji Murad, when I stumbled upon a scene that was similar to Levin's wheat harvesting scene from Anna Karenina that I mention above. In chapter 2 of H. M., a group of soldiers carrying arms are moving to their new position where they are preparing to ambush their enemy. They have walked a ways down the road, and then turned off into the forest. This is the conversation they had:

"A good job it's dry," said the non-commissioned officer, Panov, bringing down his long gun and bayonet with a clang from his shoulder, and placing it against the plane tree. The three soldiers did the same.

"Sure enough, I've lost it!" crossly muttered Panov. "Must have left it behind, or I've dropped it on the way."

"What are you looking for?" asked one of the soldiers in a bright, cheerful voice.

"The bowl of my pipe. Where the devil has it got to?"

"Have you the stem?" asked the cheerful voice.

"Here's the stem."

"Then why not stick it straight into the ground?"

"Not worth bothering!"

"We'll manage that in a minute."

Did I mention that they were supposed to be preparing an ambush?

Two things are going on here. First, in the actual scene, there is a small amount of tension. A man has lost something, and the group is trying to figure out a solution. So, on a technical level, this is already working. Second, the entire time I'm reading this, my internal voice is screaming, "Get serious! You're at war! You're at war!" Over the small tension, a much bigger tension has been created.

That's the trick. Tolstoy is giving us the irony of the soldier's mental state. The entire time I'm reading what's on the page, I'm thinking about what's NOT on the page. Tolstoy decides not to stay focused on the story so that the power of the story becomes that much more powerful.

I've mentioned before that I have always wanted to create counterpoint in my writing the way music creates counterpoint with two different melodic lines. For me, the sort of irony that Tolstoy is creating serves that purpose. Though he only writes about one story, he's making me think about two, thereby keeping me distracted and doubly entertained.

I've been trying to do this in my own story about the cannibal. In a new scene, I wrote about a woman, Victoria, waking up and going to get a manicure. The entire description feels rather trivial to me, but I hope that the triviality gives the scene power when we learn that she is actually the victim's wife, and she has no idea what is about to happen to her husband.

Beyond making sure that our prose is smooth and clear, I think it's fun to think about how different scenes can play off on each other to create even more drama. Do you guys do this in your own writing? If you haven't tried it before, are there places you can think of where this might help you out?


  1. Davin, I'm dying to put up a picture of manicured toenails for your post. Hehehe. I'm glad you finally posted this one! It's been one I've waited for you to finish, and now I can see why.

    This is exactly what I have tried to do in Monarch. You know, the whole butterflies theme? Yeah, there are several scenes where they not only carry tension because of the problems I've set up in their migration, but they also divert the reader's attention from the main action while at the same time showing growth and change within the characters. The scenes have often seemed unnecessary and out of place to me, but now that I'm stopping to think about it, I could really strengthen these scenes and make them more prominent so that they provide the dual off-action you're talking about. At least that's all my plan! I sure hope it works!

    I also liked a post that Scott over at A Writer's Blog did awhile ago about character's bantering.

    I realized, after reading his post, that there are some problems with my characters - I'm not bringing them to life with the everyday human things that humans do - like lose something trivial while preparing for an ambush.

    Great post, Davin!

  2. And I just realized that sounded really funny in my last paragraph - like we prepare for ambushes everyday. You know what I mean. ;)

  3. Off-action is definitely important to have. In my current WiP, the primary storyline for 80 percent of the book is the MC finding her mom's diary. During that time, I'm also telling the story about how cruddy the situation in their home city is -- which distracts from, but enhances the main story I think.

    And then I'm also including the subplot between the MC and her ex-fiance. Yet another distraction.

    I aim for multiple layers of story. It makes things more fun that way.

  4. If I may add: The first thing that added tension to my reading of that scene from Tolstoy is that losing an object could undermine the ambush--as in make those about to be ambushed aware of their presence.
    I have found that the fear factor is raised for the reader if the characters seem to be relaxed, joking around or whatever is normal as opposed to OMG! INCOMING!
    Once again, friend, you have written a post that keeps me thinking and layering.

  5. Matthew, I've recently read that having three storylines going on is a great thing for a novel. Yay! I love multiple layers, as well. I even dress in layers. :)

  6. Yeah, the three storylines is mostly because I've found it impossible to only focus on one story in my writing. I keep running out of ideas if I don't have interwoven plots to maintain my attention over the course of writing the thing.

  7. Matthew, that's normal and a very good thing, in my opinion. I've found that most adult fiction that I read has at least three storylines to keep me interested and guessing and turning the pages.

  8. Michelle! Feel free to add the picture if you like. As long as they're not my toenails, I think we'll be fine.

    Your monarchs can work well in this role, and I can see how developing that storyline would make it stronger. There's something about nature and it's persistence that puts the rest of the world in perspective.

    Matthew, I tried to do something like that in Rooster as well, but I actually think I failed. I was trying to cover the economic status of the city where the story takes place and found it too complicated. But, I think I actually was trying to copy Tolstoy without knowing why he was doing it. Maybe I would be more successful now if I tried it again.

    Tricia, that's so true. Suspense is something I've just started to investigate in a bigger way, and I feel like I'm learning a lot quickly. Your tip is a great one!

    Matthew, I almost posted about what you were saying regarding running out of ideas. Now, I have to do it.

  9. Davin --

    Allow me to laugh evilly at generating a post idea ...


    That is all.

  10. I think the sidebar give it a sense of realism.

    This is where artistry of writing and judicious editing comes into play. It could probably be argued that this snippet does nothing to advance the story and should be cut, get to the ambush!

    An argument with equal weight is that this dialogue adds the element of reality to the fiction and makes the characters more accessible and is therefore necessary. The soldier is probably craving a smoke, and it makes perfect sense for him to check for his pipe even if he won't be lighting it.

    Perhaps Tolstoy, while he was writing this, really wanted a smoke but couldn't find his own pipe, and Davin just caught him in the nude.

  11. Rick, it's funny you say that because I have a naked picture of Tolstoy up on my bedroom wall.

  12. Rick, that's why I liked Scott's post I linked to above about bantering. It just makes the characters more real if the balance is right.

  13. I have a series of scenes, the aftermath of violence, where the characters are trying to pretend everything is all right . . . or, rather, that everything will be all right. They're eating, drinking, talking, and yet the underlying emotions are present, the tension is present, because every single person at the table is trying to deal with what happened to someone they knew, because aren't bad things supposed to happen to someone they didn't know?

    I think it's when we include the ordinary with the extraordinary that we can truly pull readers into the world we create with our writing.

    Great post.


  14. Interesting. I wish I were good enough. It's amazing to be able to pull that off.

  15. Ha! I bet his beard covers the naughty bits.

  16. Scott, that's a great example. Even in your description I feel like it's working well. Thanks for the example!

    Lois, I bet you could do it if you tried! I'm experimenting with it myself, and I'm wondering how readers will respond to it.

  17. Davin this is a wonderful post. In my own writing, I am trying to learn this too. If I can master this, I know I will be well on my way.

    You know the saying, Writing a novel is 5% talent and 95% hard work? Well it's so true isn't it? :)

  18. Robyn, I think that's very true. I feel like I'm working so hard to get my book just to hold together.

  19. In Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" there is a scene where the main characters are fleeing the war and they've illegally come across the border into Switzerland (which is neutral). They are trying to get to some isolated spot when the Swiss police stop them and question them about their being in the country. The main characters end up standing around for some time, pretending to be people they are not and wanting to run for it, while the two Swiss police have an argument about which sport, luge or cross-country skiing, is the better sport both for spectators and participants. They are passionate about their sports and the conversation is funny but also very tense because you just want them to shut up so the main characters can get away from them. So there's this totally ridiculous and mundane conversationg going on during a moment of high tension and it is, you know, just brilliant.

  20. Scott, that's a great example too. Just hearing your summary kind of gives me chills.


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