Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fun With Lists...or Not Really...or Reading Like a Writer

Wodehouse, I don't think anyone will disagree, is a clever writer. There's a dryish wit that feeds his prose. British, yes? Yes.

When Wodehouse describes a regular situation (man falls off bike) he conveys all the normal information like:

1. If you're not careful, you can fall off your bike.

2. Falling off the bike will hurt.

3. A reader has empathy for the guy falling off the bike.

I'm a boring writer comparitively (See above, I made a list. So exciting.), so let's look at Wodehouse. Here's the passage from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie Wooster witnesses Officer Oates's bicycle accident:

"The constable, I say, was riding without his hands: and but for this the disaster, when it occurred, might not have been so complete. I was a bit of a cyclist myself in my youth -- I think I have mentioned that I once won a choir boys' handicap at some village sports -- and I can testify that when you are riding without your hands, privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence. The merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie connecting with the ankle bone at such a time, and you swoop into a sudden swerve. And, as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller."

Interesting bits of how Wodehouse developed the above passage (here's another list):

1. He lets us fill in the gaps. We don't actually see the Scottie dog attack the bike, but we know it happens.

2. He overexplains the situation. Wodehouse doesn't just say "If you ride without your hands on the handlebars you need to concentrate." No, it's "privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence." The situation is not an accident it is a complete disaster: "but for this the disaster...might not have been so complete."

3. The overexplanation and use of elaborate wording is reversed right at the end with the slang of "smeller."

Not to take the fun out of reading by overexamining, but taking small chunks of a writer's work and examining it like this can lead to revelations in your own work. I mean, in this one paragraph we got: leave gaps to fill in, overexplaining, and reversals. I'm sure that if we continued to probe the language of this paragraph we would find still more tidbits.

But that's not as fun.

Still...the next time you come across something that you really love in a work, you should read it, mentally note it, and come back to it after you've read for fun.

Always fun first, then work.

You don't need to examine the whole thing (who has that kind of time?), just take a paragraph like I did here. You will definitely learn something.

P.S. Official Warning Label: Do not attempt this exercise with Chaucer, Milton, myself, or Shakespeare. Your head will explode. And I'll just be embarassed.

5 comments:

  1. That's a fun passage. And maybe there's a metaphor in there? Or something...

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  2. Funny, I'd rank you up with those other 3 guys, too. Okay, maybe a bit higher than Milton.

    I like the idea of taking just a little bit of book apart. Figuring out someone else's whole novel is almost as bad as trying to figure out my own whole novel.

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  3. (I pay Deb well for her to say that stuff....)

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  4. I love reading analyses of writing like this. Though it does make me think "I'll never be that good!"
    Love that "the merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie..."

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  5. The pain of the mind is worse than the pain of the body.

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Fellow thieves! Please feel free to let me know what you've taken from this post - or share pertinent information that you don't mind me stealing.