Saturday, 21 May 2016

Truth to Materials and Heather McHugh

Woodcarvers use a natural material that has grain and knots. They could paint over their finished work, masking the irregularities. Alternatively, they could exploit them. A knot could become an eye. More often, the irregularities are used to create an independent source of interest. Artists might even choose a piece of wood with these effects in mind. Similarly, some painters don't mind their brushstrokes being obvious. Soutine for example didn't disguise the fact that his paintings were made of paint.

In the 1900s several architects and sculptors felt that the nature of the materials they worked with shouldn't be hidden. Henry Moore and others went further, claiming that certain materials suited certain purposes, that an art work should exhibit "Truth to Materials". The sculptor, Brancusi, believed that his art might "coax an image from within the material rather than forcing an image onto the materials".

In poetry the material is words. They have visual and sonic roots - letters and phonemes - so poets have two ways to demonstrate their truth to materials. Those two ways are related but not equivalent. Words with nearly the same letters often have nearly the same phonemes - "rough" and "tough" for example - though sometimes they don't - e.g. "rough" and "bough". Unless you're a crossword addict, words comprising the same letters aren't as strongly associated with each other as words that rhyme, but the option exists. An example is Jon Stone's "Mustard" where instead of each line ending in a rhyme they end with an anagram of "mustard".

Exploitation of these effects draws attention to the media. Just as varnish can accentuate the wood grain, so line-breaks can accentuate sounds. And as with wood, the effects can synchronize with the meaning or be largely independent of it ("The remarkable result of Valéry's treatment of sound and sense as consciously separated variables is that it allows the semantic components of the poem to take on structural value and the structural values of the poem to take part in a semantic or signifying action in turn" - "Paul Valéry and the Poetry of Voice", C. Crow, CUP, 1982, p.55).

On it points out that "The truth-to-materials doctrine appears as a consequence of technological development", and that there are connections to the Arts and Crafts movement - a reaction against mass (non-individualized) production. Devoting attention to the material at the expense of the content would tend towards the appearance of craft rather than art, which when backed up by doctrine might lead to unsuccessful works, especially if the audience is unfamiliar with that type of art. Just as people without an ear (or the ability to integrate sound and meaning) might think sound effects obtrusive, so people who struggle with wordplay might over-emphasise its relevance, hinting at methodological similarities to Jewish mysticism (the Kaballah), or the poet's apparent psychological obsession with form over substance.

Perhaps Concrete poetry exhibits Truth to Materials. I prefer the example of Heather McHugh (Paul Muldoon uses wordplay too, but I find McHugh's work more approachable, her aims more conventional). According to her poetry foundation bio her "work is noted for its rhetorical gestures, sharp puns and interest in the materials of language itself". In her work the words often retain a trace of their origins, pun and wordplay used to advance the poem. Here's part of her "Language Lesson 1976"

On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,

doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk with me.

and here's the start of "Ghoti" (a word GB Shaw invented)

The gh comes from rough, the o from women's,
and the ti from unmentionables--presto:
there's the perfect English instance of

with fish. Our wish was for a better
revelation: for a correspondence

and yes, she's into anagrams - here's the start of her transliteration of Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage”), where each line's an anagram of the original:


so e-agents can’t perfect an author.
His art (howbeit swapped shut) is his fire—

There are risks associated with this style. Once wordplay becomes a factor, readers may well think there's too much or too little of it. They might think it displaces (rather than augments) the content. Quite possibly they'll be distracted by the wordplay even if it augments. Flippancy is a common criticism; is it right to play with words when the poem's about a parent's death? One answer to that may be that the gulf between words and the world is so wide that any attempt to capture the notion of death in words is flippant, and exploiting the instability of language is mimetic.

McHugh (who had a poem in the New Yorker while a student) is not without her critics.

  • Hugh Seidman thought she sometimes "manipulates language to produce resonances of meaning without necessarily creating a psychological depth that might justify her insights and conclusions.".
  • Joshua Weiner (in The Boston Review) wrote that her "'will to be peculiar' (her own phrase for Dickinson) encourages a syntactic and semantic contraction into enigma; sometimes her jokes overkill. Such faults have developed among persistent strengths: in these formally distinctive, deeply felt, and intellectually challenging poems, McHugh has invented a style for herself that acknowledges the materials and contingencies of language without sacrificing poetry's primal resource in song."

She accepts that she is more sensitive to words than others are, possessing almost a type of synaesthesia. In an interview she said

  • You know, I never could tell things apart the way healthy people do. Meaning and means. Form and substance.
  • I was never very good at settling for any one sense of sense. So semantics became largely a matter of syntactics for me. Poems don’t make sense; they make senses.

My suspicion is that hers is the kind of cleverness that's currently unfashionable in the UK, where the voice is more important than the word. The academic voice isn't considered as revealing as the slightly deranged one.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Sound clusters

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Onomatopoeia and various other factors influence the choice of which sounds are used in a word (see "The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound"). If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. Derek Attridge in "Peculiar Language" calls them nonce-constellations, writing that "The operation of nonce-constellations is probably more significant than genuine phonesthemes in onomatopoeic effects", citing John Hollander.

The significance of these patterns is unclear. In "Choosing between sound and sense" I quote from people like Bunting for whom sound was a generator of meaning, and from people like Valéry for whom sound was important but independent of conventional meaning.

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc., that are used in Formalist verse. With free verse these dispersive, irregular patterns are the only patterns left. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers, but critics often pick them out. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's "Ceasefire"

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

"Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim" comes from "Talisman", by Peter Dale. In Agenda 33.1, W.G. Shepherd wrote about the phrase -

Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t

Here's part of a review by Forrest Gander of Jorie Graham's "The Scanning" (Boston Book Review, Summer 1997)

We hear first the echo of "kiss" in "its" and "mathematics". But even before those three notes are reinforced by "hiss", "missed," "distance," and "pianissimo," Graham introduces a counterpoint, the growling consonance of "glint," "gripped" and "glides" and the long o's of "show" and "over". Look how the word "show" recollects the second syllable of "harrowing" from the second line, and prepares our ears for the deep vowels in "pianissimo," "telephone,"


Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

is described thus by David Trotter ("T.S. Eliot and Cinema", Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006))

The intensity of Prufrock's arousal produces or is produced by an intensification in the verse. By comparison with its sparse and evenly paced predecessor ("and white and bare"), the line describing the hair on the women's arms seems positively swollen: the echo of "lamplight" in "light brown hair" and the internal rhyme on "downed" and "brown" fill it from within with the sameness of sound, with emphasis (p.243)

This kind of criticism raises various issues

  • whether all the perceived patterns exist - they may be the result of selective highlighting in the text. "Lit. crit. has a very bad record for selective quotation and selectively quoting supporting evidence while excluding all contrary data points." [J.C.]
  • if these patterns exist, are they accidental (i.e. are they as likely to occur in non-literary language)? Texts (particularly literary ones) will have bunched patterns of sounds. For example, while writing, one's short-term memory will contain recent sounds which may encourage the further use of those sounds, thus leading to clumping (echolalia).

Computer programs might be used to help resolve these issues, though quite what output they should produce is unclear. A few years ago I wrote a program that counted fricatives, plosives, end-rhymes, etc. It did quite well at identifying sonnets but it couldn't report on sound clusters. It could begin to convert these sound patterns into graphics. The graph below was an early attempt, showing the concentration of I (the bottom surface), W and L (liquid) sounds in the 1st stanza of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
   The lowing herd wine slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
a color-coded graph

The furthest edge represents line 1, the nearest edge (along the axis that runs from 0 to 10) represents line 4. Note the humps on the top surface at line 4, syllables 2 and 4 corresponding to 'leaves' and 'world' in the text. Note also the long ridges on the top surface along the 2nd and 6th syllable marks - indeed, many of the 'L' sounds fall on stressed syllables. But such pictures don't show a landscape which corresponds to how the sounds affect me. Perhaps the graphs should emphasise stress and end-rhyme more than they do.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Creativity and writing

Are writers difficult to live with? In "Creative people's brains really do work differently" it says

Frank X. Barron found that "the common traits that people across all creative fields seemed to have in common were an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks." Barron wrote that the creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”
It may be because they engage with the full spectrum of life—both the dark and the light—that writers score high on some of the characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness.

In my "Poetry, Madness, and Cure" article I look at how some mental illnesses may be confused with (or conducive to) creativity. The article about Barron's work tries to apply more recent theory to explain how these traits might be productive -

"The executive network helps us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune in to our inner experience. The creative brain is particularly good at flexibly activating and deactivating these brain networks, which in most people are at odds with each other. In doing so, they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought — cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous."

In my "Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects" article I try to incorporate the default mode network into explanations of how we interpret poetry. "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) also mentions the executive network, pointing out that

"In many tasks, both creative and mundane, we must constantly go back and forth between work and evaluation, comparing the ideal image in our head with the work in front of us.
This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don't, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake" (p.174)

The limitations introduced by constraints needn't be viewed as obstacles. Often they help. In "Need to create? Get a-constraint!", lab experiments involving poetry are reported upon -

Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.
And this returns us to poetic form. The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle, a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line.

Another concept oft-mentioned in this context is flow (or "being in the zone"). In "Flow states and creativity" it's defined as an

“optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s also a strange state of consciousness. In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.

In "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) it says

"Creative people often arrange their lives to maximize the possibility that flow periods will occur, and to be able to stay in flow once they arrive there ... The singer and songwriter Neil Young ... pulls over to the side of the road, abruptly leaves dinner parties, and does whatever it takes to stay connected to the muse, to stay on task. If he ends up getting a reputation for being flaky, and not always being on time, it's the price to pay for being creative" (p.207)

I'm sure most writers develop ways to maximize the conditions for the emergence and exploitation of Flow. In his article in "Magma", "Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow", Mark McGuinness interviews some poets on how they deal with flow. He uses the word "muse", which is apt. I wouldn't be surprised if age-old advice about The Muse could be translated into Flow terminology.

  • Inducing visits by the Muse - Writers come to know what increases the chances but there's no guarantee. Early morning and long journeys often work for me. Having a standard place and time to work helps others. Rituals (or just habits) may do the trick. Avoid having to be aware of the time. Workshop exercises don't work for me.
  • Making the most of the visits - Coleridge's "Person from Porlock" is now a nuisance call. Reduce the risks of interruptions - no e-mail or phone.
    Your job or lifestyle may give you a chance to take a break whenever the mood takes you. If not, having a notepad handy may suffice. It helps if those around you understand why you sometimes retreat to somewhere quiet. It's no good them saying "The shopping will only take an hour. You'll have loads of time afterwards to write". It doesn't work like that.
    Experience will also help you decide what tasks to focus on when you're in the flow. Proof-reading probably isn't the best use of of the opportunity.

See also

Friday, 26 February 2016

Dialogue for writers

Real Dialogue

Before looking at dialogue in fiction, let's consider real dialogue in more detail. Though speeches and debating skills have been researched for millennia, research into conversation began only a few decades ago. Here's an example from "Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004)

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff

It's banter. Some information is exchanged but quite a lot of other things are happening too.

Conversation can also expose the pecking order of the participants. Some of them interrupt, some affect the direction of the discussion. We have a fair idea of how people should behave in certain contexts, even as children. Here's another example (from "Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis" by Robin Wooffitt (Sage, 2005))

Child: Have to cut these Mummy [pause 1s]
Child: Won't we Mummy [pause 1s]
Child: Won't we
Mother: Yes

The Rules

There are patterns and expectations in conversation that we notice especially when they're not obeyed. Some of the earliest conversation analysis was done on calls to a kind of Samaritans helpline. The organisation wanted to know as early in the conversation as possible which callers were most at risk. They found that callers who didn't want to give their name were vulnerable. Directly asking the caller for their name was considered too threatening. How do you think they might start the conversation to illicit the caller's name? (Say 'Hello, I'm Dave' and wait)

We know how to take turns, anticipating when the speaker will stop. Pauses and ends of sentences are good places to interrupt. People who don't want to be interrupted avoid pausing at the end of sentences. Turntaking follows various conventions. If you get them mixed up, you'll be interpreted as shy or rude.

We know when to ask open questions and when to target questions at particular people. We recognise controversial statements and deliberate attempts to disrupt conversational norms. We use a range of techniques, but mostly we're expected to abide by a few principles (known as Grice's Maxims, etc). Briefly they're that we say the right amount and quality of relevant words in an appropriate fashion. Any deviations from these maxims are potentially suspicious.

In "The Organised Mind" (Penguin, 2015), Daniel Levitin suggests a situation where 2 equally-ranked office workers are in a hot room. The one further from the window might not say "Open the window", but they might say "Gosh, it's getting warm here?" How should the workmate respond? Should the reply show that they understand the game, or should they break the rules?

A real example

Here's a dialogue transcribed as discourse analysts do it

They're discussing a rather strange subject (E is going over S's report of strange happenings) but the overlapping, emphasising, false-starts, changes of speed, pauses, inhaling, etc are normal enough. We don't usually record those aspects when writing literature. Much gets "lost in translation". We could colour-code our texts for example, or use play-script notation. But we don't.

Real Examples (tidied up)

  • A: The thing about hard-backs is if you take a hard-back on the beach pages don't blow up. Some pages are bound and if you take a paper-back on the beach all the bleeding glue melts.
    B: Oh.
    A: You end up pages all over the places.
    B: That might do there and all cos it's like about ninety to hundred degrees at the moment there.
    A: Yeah.
    B: so.
    A: It's er. I was in, I was in, reading FHM on the sunlounger happy as hell. Not very hot. Pages open. Mm. The next thing you know this page came in my hand and all glue that holds the pages had melted and there were pages blowing all over the place.
    A: Not a happy hamster.
    B: Not a happy one. I've gotta take something and there's like a good book-shop er in Manchester airport. So you get there early enough anyway. So
    A: Mm
    B: Straight down to W.H.Smith's and er see what books I can get.
    A: Mm.
    B: I'm not gonna like leave it 'til we get there cos they'd be like you know. Separate tales of Doctor Duck or sommat.
    (from Carter)
  • D: I was (.) at the end of my tether (.) I was (.) desperate (.) >I think I was so fed up with being < (.) seen as someone who was a ba:sket case (.) because I am a very strong person (.) and I know that causes complications (.) in the system (.) that I live in. (1s pause) ((smiles and purses lips))
    B: How would a book change that
    D: I dunno ((raises eyebrows, looks away)) Maybe people have a better understanding (.) maybe there's a lot of women out there who suffer (.) on the same level but in a different environment (.) who are unable to (.) stand up for themselves (.) because (.) their self esteem is (.) cut in two. I dunno ((shakes head))
    (from Woffitt - the > and < symbols indicate speeding up and slowing down. The ":" indicates that a sound has been extended)

Literary Uses of Dialogue

As we've seen, conversation has many purposes in real life, not all of which are replicated in stories (though it's possible in film). In prose, dialogue has more literary uses -

  • Show not tell
  • Return the narrative to "real-time" after a passage of summarising text
  • Reveal personality (after a few lines you can know a lot about someone)
  • Add variety of texture - breaks up blocks of description
  • Change of Point-of-View (not always easy to do otherwise)
  • Advance plot rapidly (characters can jump and summarise in a way that narrators can't always get away with)
  • Flashbacks and Info-dumps
  • Flexibility - Characters can lie and get things wrong. Narrators can't do this so easily


How real should the dialogue be? As we've already seen, in real life there's redundancy, hesitation, mistakes, etc - all the things we're told not to do when writing. How many of these can we get away with in dialogue? The odd "Um" or "well" is surely ok. Ungrammatical phrases are ok (indeed, we'd expect some characters not to speak the Queen's English). But these effects can become tedious if over-used.

One common issue is whether speech should be rendered phonetically? How about this?

Too many bastards ken ma Montgomery Street address. Cash oan the nail! Partin wi that poppy wis the hardest bit. The easiest wis ma last shot, taken in ma left airm this morning. Ah needed something tae keep us gaun during this period ay intense preparation. Then ah wis off like a rocket roond the Kirkgate, whizzing through ma shopping list. ("Trainspotting", Irvine Welsh)

What are your views on that?

  • "Dialects are awkward to convey properly in print, and always look very hammy when the author attempts to write them down phonetically in the cause of accuracy. It's far better to leave them to the readers' imagination, and just indicate by the occasional phrase or regional word ... a little dialect goes a long way in fiction" (Jean Saunders, "Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", p.119)
  • "If writing dialogue for a character with a specific accent, don't write it out phonetically, as this can look patronizing and old-fashioned. Use odd syntax and a few choice bits of slang to convey their accent." (Rowena Macdonald)

When to use dialogue

You'll often find speech at the start or end of a story. Someone worked out that 10% of stories begin with "speech", and 31% end with it. However starting with dialogue might be a risky option nowadays

  • opening a story with dialogue "was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now. The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story. … That requires that she read on a bit further to make sense of the dialogue. Then, at least briefly, she has to kind of backtrack in her mind to put it all into context. That represents, at the least, a speed bump, and at worst, a complete stall." (Les Edgerton, "Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One")
  • "It’s a typical pet peeve of editors and agents: Stories that begin with dialogue." (Jane Friedman)
  • "beginning a novel with dialogue is hard. It's very difficult to do it effectively, because the reader doesn't have context, they don't yet know why they should care, and a lot of people are turned off by gratuitous in media res. … If you can pull it off, fantastic, if not, an agent will be able to tell very quickly" (Nathan Bransford)

Dialogue is often used at pivotal emotional moments- "John, I don't love you any more" is fast and effective.


What are they for? They tell the reader who's speaking and how they say it. But they're a common source of complaint. What about this?

"No!" he snarled angrily, his eyes full of suspicion.

Yuck. 98% of the time, just use “he said” or “she said” (it's more or less invisible) or nothing at all. The following isn't a good idea.

You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.

“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.

 “Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.

“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

If one's writing with a restricted point-of-view, one needs to be especially careful with adverbs, because they express far more than intonation and eyes can express - "darkly", "hopefully"

Identification of speakers

One can use body language instead of tags, thus avoiding the "Talking Heads" risk. i.e. instead of

"Our fence needs mending", John said.


John looked out of the window. "Our fence needs mending."


Beware of adverbs. "boastfully", "flirtingly", "humourously, "justifiably" are surely redundant. Instead you may need to work harder at the phrasing to compensate for the loss of intonation - if you want to add emphasis to the final word of "I'll go to the shops tomorrow" you could use "I'll go to the shops tomorrow", "I'm too tired today. I'll go to the shops tomorrow" or "Tomorrow I'll go to the shops"


It's standard in the UK to use quote-marks - either single or double ones. There are some quirky conventions -

  • Use a new paragraph for each new speaker
  • The final full stop of a quote is replaced by a comma if there's more text. E.g. -
    'I do like you,' he said
  • If you begin with a speech tag, put a comma before the quote. E.g. -
    The hare said, "I will challenge the tortoise to a race!" (some people use a ":" instead of a comma here)
  • When you have multiple quoted paragraphs, each new paragraph starts with an opening quotation mark, but only the final quoted paragraph has a closing quotation mark.

But authors break these rules, and abroad they sometimes do things differently

  • Some authors follow the rules above, missing out the quote-marks
  • Some authors (e.g. David Rose) follow the rules above, missing out the quote-marks but adding an initial dash
  • The French and Italians use guillemets - << >>
  • Some languages use this type of punctuation - „May Christ bless this house”
  • Sometimes authors use the method of play scripts

Authors aren't even self-consistent. In Anthony Doerr's short story collections, various styles are used -

  • "Pop," Josh groaned, "those boys are mentally handicapped. I do not think some sea-snail is going to cure them." (from "The Shell Collector")
  • You know her? the hunter asked. Oh no, Marpes said, and shook his head. No I don't. He spread his legs and swiveled his hips as if stretching before a foot race. But I've read her (from "The Hunter's Wife")
  • She cocks her head slightly. Look at you. All grown up.
    I got tickets, he says.
    How's Mr Weems?
    (from "The Deep")

Some authors omit quote-marks and some other punctuation characters too. This is from "In a strange room" by Damon Galgut

Where have you come from

Mycenae. He points back over his shoulder. And you.

Or what about this, the start of "Another country" by David Constantine?

When Mrs Mercer came in she found her husband looking poorly. What's the matter now? she asked, putting down her bags. It startled him. Can't leave you for a minute, she said. They've found her, he said. Found who? That girl. What girl? That girl I told you about. What girl's that? Katya. Katya? said Mrs Mercer beginning to side away the breakfast things. I don't remember any Katya.


  • You know, Bob - This is dialogue between characters who share information that they already know, just so readers can get caught up. Characters don’t have any reason to stand around talking about events they both know about. It's a ploy often used by SF writers to infodump. You're reading an SF novel. After an exciting first chapter set in the 23rd century, there's a scene at a breakfast table. The kids tease Gran about the good old days. She responds by telling them yet again about how tough it was back then, giving a history lesson. But why? The kids have heard it all before.
  • Monologing, Speeches, Ventriloquising - at the end of a whodunnit there's often a speech. In other situations though a character launches into a speech that's really what the author should say
  • Talking Heads - All talk, no action.
  • Ping-pong - lots of short phrases
  • Lack of Variety - The characters shouldn't all speak like you.
  • Replacing prose - In radio drama, dialog is used to describe the scene and action. It's also used to name the characters. If you try too hard to do this on the page, it can seem awkward - you might get away with “Gosh, how long have I been standing in this railway station now?” (From The Writer's guide) on the radio, but not on the page. The following is best replaced by description - "So you’ve decided to fight me, Albert!", "Yes John, and I’m winning, too. I have my foot on your windpipe"


  • The commonest advice is Read it out!
  • Watch (and listen to) Drama.
  • "Your characters shouldn't be saying exactly what they're thinking or you give the actors nothing to play." Marcy Kahan (from World Service )
  • "Try to remember that as far as possible, characters shouldn't actually answer each other's lines, they should jump off from each other's lines onto something else, or turn corners or surprise people. This will also create movement." Mike Walker (from World Service )
  • What's not said is also important. Silence is more effective on the stage than the page. In prose one may need to use avoidance instead
  • Use dialogue to show deviations from expected conversational norms.

Literary Examples

  • "Does Jack like porridge?"
    "All Scots like porridge!"
  • “Bring a bottle of wine and wear something uncomplicated – I’m in no mood for a struggle tonight,” rolled from Jean-Pierre’s lips like a bowling ball shooting up the return ramp, only to slow itself abruptly at the top before ka-whonking! into the balls already lined up there like all the lines she had heard before, and Sylvia knew at last that all the good ones were not married, gay, or in Mexican prisons.
    James Pokines (the beginning of a novel)
  • ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
    EB White (the beginning of "Charlotte's Web")
  • "You're not going out with him and that's the end of it!" Jenny's father announced.
    Mrs Wilson winked at her daughter and said: "So he's not such a bad catch after all!"
    The start and end of "It's only rock'n'roll" (Yours, issue 062).
  • 'Very well,' conceded Williamson reluctantly. 'But you are paying.'
    'I cannot be long,' warned Chaloner, supposing there was no harm in listening. He might learn something useful with no obligation to reciprocate. 'I have an audience with the Queen.'
    'And you say you have no connections,' said Lester wonderingly.
    "The Piccadilly Plot", Susanna Gregory, p.280.
  • "I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes."
    In 1911, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this passage from a medical report
  • The man speaks:
    “Should we have another drink?”
    “All right.”
    The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
    “The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
    “It’s lovely,” the girl said.
    “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
    The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
    “I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” The girl did not say anything.
    “Hills Like White Elephants.”, Ernest Hemingway.
    "In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough". (Writer Digest)
  • 'Why?' asks Marty.
    Before Lizzie can answer, Robert interrupts sulkily, 'Daddy sent her away.'
    'Oh Robert! Don't tell lies!' says his sister, shocked.
    ("The Spoiling", James Lasdun)
  • 'You're far too young for this job. Who sent you to me?'
    'Mr Peacock -'
    'Dear God, preserve me from do-gooders. Well, boy, do you think you can handle the job? It means a lot of heavy lifting, and you look as though a strong wind would blow you away.'
    'I'm a bloody sight stronger than I look - Sir.'
    "Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", Jean Saunders, p.97)


Sources and Additional Resources on Writing Dialogue

  • "Writing Dialogue", Tom Chiarella, (Story Press, 1998)
  • "The Write It Write Series: Dialogue Dynamics", Pinkston, Tristi (Kindle Ebook, 2012)
  • "Writing Dialogue - The Essential Guide", Jean Saunders (Need2Know, 2011)

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Mind the gap (continuity and fragmentation)

In this article I'm looking at continuity and fragmentation, both in prose and poetry. The two properties co-exist in most texts, though their intensity and type might vary.


When a text seems fragmentary there are several points to consider. Firstly, is the text mimetic? Underneath the surface disruption is there a represented world? If so

  • At what level does the disruption occur? Are words disrupted (Finnegans Wake)? Are there discontinuities between sentences? Or are there ruptures only when a chapter ends (Sartre's "Le Sursis")?
  • What types of interference are there? - Grammatical? Tonal? Point-of-view? Visual? Sonic? Temporal (flashbacks, etc)? Narrational (flicking between story-lines)?
  • How easily is the underlying story reconstructed? Episodic pieces might have gaps that can't be confidently filled, but that might not cause problems as long as readers can join the dots.

The author may introduce disruption for several reasons

  • Employing the aesthetics of conciseness, omitting all non-essentials (and even a few continuity cues)
  • To make perception harder ("The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" - Shklovsky, "Art as Technique"
  • To pack more into the text at the cost of surface clarity (as in Ulysses, which uses most of the methods of disruption listed above)

By disrupting linearity authors may be attempting to produce a more realistic rendition of how they think we perceive the world. However, reading is a special type of perception. According to Charney and Johnson-Eilola "we always read linearly and sequentially even if (1) the text presents information in a non-chronological fashion, and (2) the reader chooses the order of that sequence ... readers of hypertexts process network texts in much the same way as they would a text in print; that is, they store information in hierarchies even if they are reading in a user-determined order ... since the mind cannot import textural structure directly into long-term memory, the resemblance of a hypertextual structure to long-term memory is irrelevant"

Non-mimetic texts

But maybe there is no underlying represented "reality" that can be pieced together. Once parataxis substantially replaces syntaxis "the dethronement of language and logic forms part of an essentially mystical attitude towards the basis of reality as being too complex and at the same time too unified, too much of one piece, to be validly expressed by the analytical means of orderly syntax and conceptual thought" (Martin Esslin, "The Theatre of the Absurd", 1962.)

It's been suggested that "poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures." (D.Sperber and D.Wilson, "Relevance"). This effect can be achieved by having many secondary meanings and by disrupting the usually foregrounded vehicles of sense (syntax, meaning, etc), making cracks so that the secondary effects can bubble up.

Secondary effects may develop a net of interconnections - leitmotifs. The idea of a decentralised network of ideas has been described by Deleuze and Guattari ('rhizomes') but of course goes back much further than that - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" (Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25).

Montage and Collage are non-hierarchical ways of incorporating diverse fragments to produce a multicentred work, as are list poems. Gregory Ulmer described collage as "the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century". This may be because it cuts across the long-cherished Aristotelian notion of organic unity, where each component of a work is a necessary part of a whole. Max Ernst claimed that "Collage is a hypersensitive and rigorously exact instrument, a seismograph capable of registering the exact potentialities of human welfare in every epoch". In relation to poetry, David Antin remarked "for better or worse, 'modern' poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset".

The rich mesh of association may well predominate over any particular fragment or pair of fragments. With collage in particular, use is made of the difference between the source/material of the fragment and the meaning in the context of the whole - the observer is expected to bob up and down between surface and depth. Poetry as compared with prose tends to foreground the media (i.e. it's more collage than montage). Forms have evolved which optimally use sound to disrupt syntax - "Verse is a mechanism by which we can create interpretative illusions suggesting profoundities of response and understanding which far exceed the engagement or research of the writer" (John Constable, PN Review 159).

Breaking up is hard to do

Whether by design or not, readers will seek connections. Juxtaposition happens in all texts. On a small scale juxtaposing can happen on a line and can be read as an implicit (though perhaps surreal) simile. "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, "Statutes of Liberty"). If there is doubt, something novel may appear in this gap. Eliot and Pound spoke of "emotion" in this context, but more likely some surreal image or blend may appear.

Juxtaposed items may be similar in some ways (shared subject matter) and different in others (register, point-of-view). Sections and sentences can come alternately from 2 fields - in Henry Reed's 'The Naming of Parts' for example, the reported speech and internal thought alternate. 'Moby Dick' and 'USA' (Dos Passos) contain inserted non-fictional fragments. Found text can be inserted randomly into a poem, or fragments of different kinds of poems (rhymed and free-form) can be interspliced using a variation of Burroughs' cut-ups technique. Bakhtin's carnival and polyphony can come into play too.

In disrupted works there may be some narrative or an advertised hierarchical structure, but it's provisional and may exist more to aid the initial reading phase than to model the underlying conceptual structure. It may even be there to distract attention from where the real power resides ("The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him", T.S. Eliot). Connections between parts may be more to do with surface than meaning - leitmotifs without a plot. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" there's a common theme. In "The Waste Land" the links are more tenuous. In other works fragments are only related in that they each mention a red dress, or an accordian, or have someone shouting "Damn". These latter relationships can seem gratuitious, leading to "washing line" pieces (where the only point of the connection is to have somewhere to hang the pieces from) but this is to devalue the surface, which in collage is more relevant than usual. Without narrative impetus or suspense "thematic interplay" can become the poor man's "conflict and dynamism", a "compare and contrast" task that requires too much from the reader and masks the authorial persona.

Getting together again

When given 2 phrases or parts, the assumptions readers might make to connect the parts (and fill in gaps) include

  • Temporal continuity. In
       "Goodbye", he said, rinsing his cup before putting it in the sink.
       The roads were busy that evening

    readers can fill the gap in (the character left the house and drove off?).
  • Causal connection. In
       "Does Dave like porridge?"
       "All Scots like porridge!"

    we can easily deduce that Dave is Scottish.
  • Common subject. The parts might belong to a group (a description for example) where order isn't especially important. Fragments might be interpreted as an incomplete whole; the Gestalt might easily be completed. Just as in a painting some standard details might be left unfinished or unpainted, so in a "show don't tell" narrative the reader might easily fill in the unspoken detail.

When we come to a fracture in a longer text (between paragraphs, chapters, etc) we still try to make a connection between the parts. The way we do this will vary according to the type of text we're reading, but typically I suspect we first assume that the text is jumping ahead in time or place, leaving a gap that will be filled in later. Then perhaps we might think it's a flashback, or a parallel storyline that will be revisited. Only as a last resort do we concede that there may be no causal connection or character continuity.

The nature and amount of continuity between juxtaposed items affects the dynamics of reading

  • Narrative continuity (but other types of continuity too) provides forward motion
  • Juxtaposition produces a suspension, saving the current detail (which can't yet be processed or interpreted) so it can be used later, inducing formal tension: "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'" (Lodge, "The Art of Fiction"); "Modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" ( Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature")
  • Grouping implies a pause to gather and integrate descriptive detail (to look around). Unlike juxtaposition, the material in the group can be summarised - as a mood perhaps, or object; the raw components needn't be retained.


Here are some examples of contested continuity, showing the different levels at which disruption can occur, and how different types of continuity might cover the cracks.

  • A good woman
    This morning, as I gaze down from the window into the courtyard garden, the sight of the sprouting crocuses and fat daffodil shoots makes me long for the country. I pull on my boots and jacket and head for the Luxenbourg Garden. Hardly the country, but at least there will be the flowers I am so good at naming.

    On the way I pause at a travel agent's and look at posters. A cheetah lopes through long grass. A lion yawns regally, balancing himself on a tree-trunk. Masai-Mara, the pictures announce. Sunsets in Siam, reads the script above a group of men raking rice as white as snow in a peaceful paddy field. Golden beaches.

    By Lisa Appignanesi. An extract from a mainstream novel. It's a narrative, but there's little movement: two descriptions (during which the narrator is still and passively perceiving) are separated by brief action - it's almost a slide-show - Paris vs Africa.

  • Passing
    Down Dove Street, the silence is growing in the air like crystals; the foxes hate it, and they're straining their huge kite ears, but there's no sound at all but the slow, slow breathing of the city, and the feet and the drip and pat of raining. They bear left at the joke shop, where a reeking litter bin marks the corner. There's a dropped five pound note lying in a puddle, folded in the wet like cloth

    By Padrika Tarrant. An extract from a short story where continuity overrides fragmentation. The narrative is clear but not overwhelming. Take it away and you don't quite have a "sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" (Lautreamont), but crystals, foxes, kites, rain, a joke shop, and a five pound note are forced into unnatural proximity. Metaphors, jokes and lists are other ways to bring disparate element together in prose, the narrative a stealth mechanism. In prose the interruptions can be naturally introduced by a person interrupting a stream-of-consciousness.

  • A Visit to Aunt Flo
    Kate is a red geranium and Mary Jo a marigold. But you are the stuff of which thistledown is made. Light and silky. Here and gone.

    You have a name, same as the others do. Only it doesn't stick so well. It gets dispersed. It gets blown away onto the rag-doll and takes root there. Ellen Jane is hugged to suffocation and then discarded in the toy-box. Her legs over her head, a consignment of brick dumped on her back.

    'Ellen, put your coat on'. Mumma holds it wide, its lining smooth as silk, a paler brown than the outer shell.

    You saw the coalman framed in the kitchen window carrying a sack. You saw the way his face looked. You picked up the pillow and you were the coalman carrying the sack.

    By Jane Woods (Writing Women 10/3). The start of some episodic prose. There's a mimetic interruption between paragraphs 2 and 3, then an interruption caused by a change of scene between 3 and 4. There's continuity within paragraph so perhaps readers will assume continuity between them. The text supports this reading, so the fragmentation shouldn't pose a problem for traditional readers.

  • Pisgah
    How a fox ran under my horse's legs one day out on the Ranges and I didn't dare shout View Halloo. I watched it run through the grass and away till my cousin Erica saw it and shouted.

    The father's photographs of his parents, dead in the year I was born, high on the wall above a shelf in the breakfast room.

    The changing light over the watercress beds at Sherrington.

    How I was ill and broke a fruit bowl, and when I confessed to my mother she smiled and soothed and I confessed some more and she still smiled and I went on confessing.

    By Simon Burt (New Writing 3) - There's fracture between paragraphs in this extract from several pages of similar prose. It's a montage (slide-show) of conventional stills and short narratives. The lack of over-arching narrative will trouble some readers.

  • Pirates appear only at transitional moments
    "Have you been jumping in & out
    of the dressing-up box?" asked
    Alice. Stereotyping doesn't help
    but talking about the actual
    experience usually does the trick.
    Under the placid surface of her
    life there was a dark undercurrent
    of fear. Have you ever used your
    mouth to make a percussive sound?

    By Steve Spense (Tears in the Fence 51) - There's fracture between sentences. This is the 1st stanza of a poem. As far as I can see, the line-breaks are procrustian (Procrustes would force his guests to fit into the beds he gave them) but they don't disrupt because they're so easily ignored. Sentences are intact, and could easily come from 4 different domains, but there are connections - pirates and dressing-up; therapy and exercises.

  • Inserting the Mirror
    To explore the nature of rain I opened the door because inside the workings of language clear vision is impossible. You think you see, but are only running your finger through public hair. The rain was heavy enough to fall into this narrow street and pull shreds of cloud down with it. I expected the drops to strike my skin like a keyboard. But I only got wet. When there is no resonance, are you more likely to catch a cold? Maybe it was the uniform appearance of the drops which made their application to philosophy so difficult even though the street was full of reflection.

    By Rosmarie Waldrop. There's fracture between phrases. This is part of a prose poem where the sentences are correct grammatically, but have semantic shifts. There's a continuity of theme, and even a progressive argument. Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to 'flash fiction') is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it, and my main tool for it is collage"

  • Finnegans Wake
    That the fright of his light in tribalbalbutience hides aback in the doom of the balk of the deaf but that the height of his life from a bride's eye stammpunct is when a man that means a mountain barring his distance wades a lymph that plays the lazy winning she likes yet that pride that bogs the party begs the glory of a wake while the scheme is like your rumba round me garden, allatheses, with perhelps the prop of a prompt to them, was now or never in Etheria Deserta, as in Grander Suburbia, with Finnfannfawners, ruric or cospolite, for much or moment indispute.

    By James Joyce - There's fracture between letters though there's stylistic continuity. This is part of a novel where there may be an underlying (albeit dream) narrative.

  • Rich in Vitamin C
    Under her brow the snowy wing-case
          delivers truly the surprise
    of days which slide under sunlight
              past loose glass in the door
          into the reflection of honour spread
    through the incomplete, the trusted. So
          darkly the stain skips as a livery
    of your pause like an apple pip,
          the baltic loved one who sleeps.

    By J.H. Prynne - The start of a poem. Procrustian, ignorable line-breaks and indentation, but now the semantics are vulnerable. A "wing-case" (of a lady-bird for example) could be eyelid-shaped. A glance could surprise, or a blink could be the result of a surprise, but the syntactic sugar doesn't mend the semantic rupture for me.


But perhaps some fragments should remain disconnected, at least for a while

  • "At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding ... are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart's rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment", Breton
  • "[Forrest-Thompson's] concept of suspended naturalisation - the resistance to that urge to 'reduce the strangeness' - undoubtedly owes its origins to Keats's concept of negative capability, 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason'".

Perhaps some fragments need to remain alien

  • "Just as an alien body falling into a supersaturated solution causes the precipitation of crystals, i.e., reveals the true structure of the dissolved substance, the "alien word" [citations, etc] by its incompatibility with the structure of the text activates that structure", Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text", Ardis, 1976, p.109

See also

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Poetic leaps

Matthew Stewart pointed out on his blog that "the success of a poem often hinges on whether its pivotal syntactic leap makes to the other side of a semantic abyss". He went on to write that the connections "must be unexpected, revelatory and inevitable once made".

I've been interested for a while in such leaps. Here I'll mention a few of their uses and dangers.

Size of leap

When the reader makes a leap there's often satisfaction - like solving a riddle. Each simile or metaphor is a leap, which can vary in degree of difficulty.

  • When Amy Clampitt writes that a cheetah's lope "whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm", the reader needs to imagine what an accelerating cheetah might look like. All the clues are provided
  • When Joni Mitchell begins "Blue" with "Songs are like tattoos" the reader needs to work harder. The follow-up phrase "You know I've been to sea before" only partly helps.

Bronowski in "Science and Human Values" suggested that every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike". To some extent the bigger the leap, the more the eventual pleasure. The risk of a big leap is that some readers won't be able to manage it. The leap may require readers to be more imaginative than when they merely identify likenesses, they may need to invent something new - "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, in "Statutes of Liberty").

The size of the leap also affects the reader's sense of speed. Rapidly completing the gaps can be exhilarating, even if the leaps aren't unexpected.

Types of leap

Here are just a few -

  • The end-of-poem lift - A sudden leap out of the poem to the world is common as a conclusion. Also common at the end is a bigger than usual leap between 2 images (Larkin's "somewhere becoming rain"). Haiku typically end with a leap.
  • The turn/volta - Common in sonnets
  • Zoom-out - jumping outside the frame or context.
  • Inferences - Gaps may need to be leapt by making an inference. If someone replies to the query "Does Jack like porridge" by answering "All Scots like porridge!" it's reasonable (but not strictly logical) to assume that Jack is a Scot who likes porridge.
  • The stage dive - The poem hopes that the reader will offer support, otherwise the poet will fall flat on her/his face.
  • Description - When the argument or narrative stops and a scene or painting is being described, there may not be much significance to the order of the statements. Gaps may form between the statements. At the end of the description the reader will assemble the scene, having tolerated a localized lack of continuity on the understanding that it won't last long.
  • Conventional leaps - Readers will accept a phrase like "Years later" without feeling the need to plug the gap.
  • Conversational leaps - If you listen to someone having a conversation on a phone, you might be tempted to fill in the gaps. Some poems are similarly one-sided.
  • Unfillable leaps - It's natural for readers to seek a connection between successive images, but sometimes 2 images are just 2 images.

A few of these are situations where there's a shared understanding between 2 parties that makes their communication between each other difficult to understand for third parties. A context shared by the poem and the reader assists the readers efforts to leap more confidently.

Failed leaps

Any leap is likely to involve work. If the reward is nearby and guaranteed, readers are likely to make an investment. If sometimes they fail, little is lost. More problematic are the situations where gratification is delayed - readers may have to keep many loose ends in mind awaiting a final resolution. This might not happen until the end in poems that are more spatial than linear - see Linear/Spatial Form ("modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" - J. Frank).

But what about passages like the following? - "down the chain/ let play with money/ ahead in/ undeclared war/ full employment/ keep the silver clean/ or die/ intrude into metaphor". It's the beginning of "allowed to complain" by Tom Raworth. Maybe given enough effort it could be conventionally resolved, but it could equally be a random cut-up. Looking upon the poem as a sequence of failed leaps is probably inappropriate.

Types of reader

It's impossible to make the leaps appropriately "unexpected, revelatory and inevitable" for all readers. Poets tackle that issue in various ways - by not caring about reader variation; by offering notes; by offering alternative ways of reading, etc.

When Disney animations were hand-made, the master artists drew the key frames (the "keys"), leaving assistants to complete the frames in between (a job they called "tweening"). If apprentice artists could tween, why not knowledgeable audiences? Poetry has such an audience. But there are consequences to sacking the tweeners -

  • Suppose people tween differently? As long as the distance between keys isn't large, there shouldn't be problems. The keys act as checkpoints so that people can resynchronise if they feel they need to
  • If the distances become too large, some readers might lose the narrative thread. Consequently there's a tendency for each key scene to become more self-contained, the keys becoming a series of disconnected tableaux - a triptych, a gallery.

A common way of tweening in literature is to supply a supportive context of backstory, motivations, or justifications - in short, telling rather than showing. The amount of this varies according to the style. In the TV series "The Wire" there's little "telling"; the writers decided that all sound had to be sourced - no voice-overs and no background mood music. All music had to come from a car radio, an open tenement window, etc. Some poetry has a similarly purist approach, using juxtaposed images to keep "telling" to a minimum. The risk is that such poetry becomes a game of charades, a dumbed-down mime-show. Complex arguments are difficult to show, concepts like fate harder still.

Sometimes the "telling" (the interpretation, the moral) is only at the end, though this is rather unfashionable nowadays. One way to convey the information without despoiling artistic purity is to employ metalepsis, making it hard to distinguish between the "show" and "tell" elements. A cinematic example would be for there to be a voice-over scene during which a character walks into the frame speaking the voice-over.

Another, more reader-friendly approach is that adopted by the Rupert annuals. The Rupert Bear stories began as a newspaper cartoon strip, but soon became better known for the annuals. The page layout supports several reading modes. Each page has the story title at the top. Beneath that there's a page subtitle. Young children can follow the pictures and get help filling the gaps. Each picture has a rhyming couplet beneath it - e.g. He meets Pauline, and straight away/ He tells her all he has to say. At the foot of the page is prose which fills in less obvious gaps - Rupert and Snuffy run towards the tent. Pauline is the first Guide he meets and he pours out his story. People can read the verse, the prose or both.

An entertaining exercise is to take a poem (by Larkin, say, The Whitsun Weddings) and give it the Rupert treatment, pictorialising the imagery (at 1.20pm on a sunny day, a quarter-full train with all its windows open leaves a city station), adding sub-titles to describe how none thought of "how their lives would all contain this hour". Trying the same exercise with Larkin's "Toads" would yield a very differently proportioned layout. I suspect that with some poets their poems would all have the same proportion of text to pictures.

Monday, 7 December 2015

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin is the title story of her book. She's interviewed about it at

It interests me because it's a typical "New Yorker" story, the sort I alternate between wanting to write and trying to avoid. Neat or claustrophobic? Harmonized or predictable? I guess it depends on the type of reader you are and the mood you're in. If you like stories with organic unity, where everything contributes to the whole, then this story's for you. I think it's good. It certainly merits study, particularly regarding what it leaves out - for example, the past isn't info-dumped onto us.

It's 3rd person, from Kate's PoV. Here are the key pivots -

  • Kate (52) and Colman (70ish) live on a farm. They've slept in separate rooms for a year
  • Daughter Emer (25ish) with son Oisin (6) arrive at a day's notice from urban life, with someone called Pavel (50-ish)
  • Colman takes Oisin hunting. They return with a skull which Oisin thinks is a dinosaur's. They tell him that a meteorite killed the dinosaurs. They get out a poster of the solar system to show him where meteorites come from. He wonders about the Dinosaurs on other planets. Colman puts the skull in a bucket of bleach.
  • Kate and Colman share her bed to make room for the others. Next morning it's clear that Emer and Pavel have argued. Colman, Emer and Oison go off. Kate talks to Pavel. When everyone's back, Emer says she's going to Australia
  • That night after Kate tries but fails to have sex with Colman, she goes downstairs, finds that Pavel's been evicted from the bedroom. She decides against sex with him, instead taking the skull from the bleach, pouring the bleach away. She stares into the eye sockets of the skull.

These facts are combined with several sub-motifs that help bind the details together, make nothing appear incidental.

  • Unrolled paper - the poster; Pavel's architectural plans
  • Dead animals - The neighbors display dead crows to scare off birds; the skull; maggots; bees
  • Emer's brother John was cruel to bees, favoured by his parents according to Emer, and lives in Japan
  • Wind turbines - "like gods" says Pavin. Like bees, says Emer. They have red warning lights
  • Litter and junk - Colman's room; in the forest (which Pavel tries to tidy)
  • The contrast between the 2 couples - The older couple hear the younger ones have sex. Both couples involve an older man. The old male is fit, the younger male is lame
  • Art - a friend's show is the reason Emer's returned; Emer's paintings are on the walls; Kate looks in through the window of the house, sees "a series of family tableaux". Pavel takes photos.
  • Birds - alive, painted and dead
  • Stars - star-shaped biscuits; "a dazzling galaxy of stars" on the poster; "millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood" seen from the garden

Is there crisis and resolution? Who has changed during the course of the story? Kate seems stoic about her husband's sleeping arrangement. She misses her children. When she learns that Emer's leaving for Australia, she's sad, but no more so than previously. She cries in bed, which leads to sex attempts, then the skull episode. So has suppressed hope led to resignation?


  • What's the significance of the little creatures on the skull?
  • The bleaching is as much to whiten the skull as to clean it. Why?
  • What about the lathe?
  • What's the significance of the title? It helps make the reader look for symbols. Are Kate and Colman the dinosaurs? Birds are dinosaurs' closest descendants.
  • Why make a fuss about litter, and the fact that it's only at entrances?
  • The author's puzzled about some things too. In the New Yorker interview she says "It puzzles me a little, Colman’s withdrawal of physical affection — he does remain affectionate to her in other ways — and many rewrites later I’m still not entirely sure as to what lies behind that"

In an Irish Times review, Ethel Rohan suggests that Kate is initially "motivated by the need to reconnect with [Colman] and to enjoy a fuller sense of existence". That doesn't come through strongly for me. Kate doesn't yearn to travel, doesn't seem to have any interests, and the preparations she makes to empty Colman's bedroom could be (as she claims) to do with giving the grandson independence. That said, in the first paragraph there's "Colman!" she called, but he didn't hear.

Rohan makes several useful points that help address my queries -

  • The above skeletal breakdown suggests storytelling is formulaic and rife with a killing sameness. Unfortunately, that’s often true. However, the best storytellers have much more magic in their cloaks. Theme, for one. The theme of 'The Dinosaurs on Other Planets' is distance and everything McLaughlin puts into the story serves this singular, empathetic subject - I too am suspicious of the template. I can imagine it generating many stories. But I can see how thoroughly the theme of "distance" has permeated the imagery.
  • Kate tenderly observes her young grandson, Oisín, as he moves away from her and into the distance, likening him to a lamb and all its nuances to youth, fragility, sacrifice, and death: “The boy’s hair snagged as he squeezed beneath the barbed wire, and she knew that if she went to the ditch now she would find silky white strands left behind, like the locks of wool left by lambs.” - I missed this connection. The sheep's skull acquires greater significance, becoming both a symbol of death and of a grandson who's disappearing
  • The adults in the story, with varying degrees of complicity, also indulge the boy’s fantasy that dinosaurs exist on other planets. - I under-appreciated that aspect too, their differing openness to possibilities.
  • With this quote, I invite readers to exam (sic) and appreciate for themselves the various emotional and thematic layers: “Kate peered into the bucket. Little black things, flies or maggots, had already detached themselves from the skull and were floating loose. There was green around the eye sockets, and veins of mud grained deep in the bone... She looked at the skull and at the debris that had floated free of it, and something about it, the emptiness, the lifelessness, repulsed her, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of the boy’s [Oisín’s] small hands touching it. - that doesn't really explain the emphasis placed on the little black things, etc. I think I'm oblivious to many of these layers. Perhaps the idea is that even flotsam is life, the mud/green clinging to the bone. Or is it simply that she doesn't want her grandson to have an empty life, or to die?


  • Pick details from a restricted palette of interconnecting motifs. Try not to use a motif just once.
  • Don't fill gaps in just for the sake of it. In this story we don't know the location, and though Kate misses her children, we discover little about them: John's barely mentioned, and Emer's defined as much by her liking/disliking of people (and vice versa) than any nuanced emotion.
  • KateColmanEmerOisinPavel
    Make readers interpret symbolically (perhaps by choosing a cryptic title). The story benefits from awareness of the orchestration of small details. There's only one big symbol with a standard meaning - the skull. The others are lesser, their meaning emerging as a consequence of what they link to in the course of the story. Once readers are receptive, they're likely to read meanings into statements. For example, when in the story a character says that there's Lego in Australia too so he needn't take any there, it's easy to interpret this as suggesting that lives can be built from scratch there. Regarding character there are also many interconnections. In the standard character grid, the reader can fill in something for each cell. Again, there's much data to take in. Each detail has to be stored by the reader because it's likely to be used later, linking to other details. This helps make the story appear dense
  • Can a story made of sub-motifs without a plot (or with a weak one) work? I hope so, because I've tried it.