Authorial Tricks

I’ve not posted much about the philosophy or mechanics of writing, only implied things in the course of my reviews of the books I have read in the past eleven months.

There have of course been the Linguistic Annoyances posts but these have been mainly about general misuses of English and not particularly writerly.

Now, though, I have read a first sentence which demands comment.

To begin: there is foreshadowing (essentially the dropping of clues) – a necessary element if you’re to be fair to the reader. Some writers eschew this subtlety in favour of more or less telling you what’s going to happen (not good in my opinion.) Then there is just cheating.

One of a book’s first paragraphs that I well remember is from Robert Silverberg’s Kingdoms of The Wall. I quote:-
“This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and death. These are the things I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I must teach you for the sake of your souls. Listen and remember.”

This paragraph does several things. It lays out – in its first twenty five words! – the SF discontinuity from our world, it introduces a degree of jeopardy, it promises adventure and revelations, it offers redemption to its world’s putative readership and, by extension, to us. If you’re intrigued, get yourself a copy and read it. (Read any Silverberg from his mature period, you won’t be disappointed.)

However, the paragraph doesn’t foreshadow as such, it tells. It is close to, if not over, the border of cheating. Yet somehow we know the author is in full command of his story and we are in safe hands.

Now consider:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

An author must gain our attention, of course, but isn’t this a little extreme?

Yes, this might make you want to read on to find out why and how Colonel Buendía (presumably the main character) faced the firing squad, and the relevance of the ice. Yes, the author is definitely in full command and clearly knows what he is doing. But!

It’s cheating. The writer hasn’t yet earned the right for us to continue. He hasn’t engaged us with the character or his situation. It doesn’t matter even if the whole novel concerns the character’s reminiscences in the moments before the order to fire, the enticement is artificial, a shortcut to the involvement with the character that it is the writer’s job to engender over pages of close encounter. In a way we are being short changed here. As we also were with the Silverberg extract, since the narrator addresses us at one remove.

And there is another danger with this sort of thing. I quoted the second extract to the good lady and she remarked she wouldn’t bother with continuing to read a book that started in such a way. There would be little point, because the tension has gone.

Even if, which I suspect in this case, we are being deliberately misdirected (especially if we are being misdirected?) it is still a cheat.

The second quote is of course the opening to one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. One I am finally in the course of reading.

It has been said that ordinary writers may plagiarise, but great ones steal. Perhaps great ones cheat as well.

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