At this point you may be asking: “Are some of the authors you cite, John Grishom and Robert James Waller, plus the idea of looking at soap operas and B-movies, the best models to emulate for people who want to write?” It’s because these works are less sublime that it’s easier to see the techniques they are using. Once you grasp how these pieces work, go to more literary writers if you want to see applications that are more intricate and subtle. However, we are talking about a difference of degree and not a difference in kind. What makes an artist great is beyond his or her effort. Such a writer speaks to his or her times, and has some special significance to those times. That decision is in the hands of the audience, and the vote is being taken continually by which books are purchased and which are not selling and are consequently discontinued. I prefer Scott Turrow to John Grishom, myself, but there is no denying that Grishom, Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Waller, and other best-selling authors, have a genius for giving the public what it wants, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway—best selling authors of their times. True these latter names also have had a significance for subsequent generations; but it will be future generations who will read or not read the current crop as well. About a century and a half ago some teacher was harping on a student to put away that crap by Nathaniel Hawthorne and read his assignment in Voltaire. A hundred years from now, who knows. We are tremendously sophisticated visually thanks to movies, magazines, television, computers. Learn to analyze what works in those media and apply it to writing. It’s not only more easily accessible, it’s also where today’s audiences are. The latest techniques aren’t in classics or in text books based on them. The tools are all around us, recognize them and use them.
Here are a variety of literary examples to help define the terms in Principle #3 “Selection” means the amount of detail you include. James Michener and Edna Ferber are good examples. Most Michener novels give an historic picture interspersed with individual experiences that are a microcosm of larger socio-economic changes. In Alaska he talks about the gold rush in general terms, then we see lives of individual characters caught up in the fever for wealth. He outlines political factors leading to the United States’ annexation of the territory and shows in real terms what that means to a family living in the wilderness. Then there’s the rise of fishing industries and a picture of a group of Indians whose way of life is being threatened. The reader is shifted back and forth. Whether the book would be strong enough as history alone, or the segments of human conflict could be taken out of context and made into a novel by themselves, is questionable. We have the significance of history, the detailed drama of humans living it, and a certain rhythm that pulls audiences through both.
“Juxtaposition” links together unexpected elements. John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Cannery Row compares the struggles of people with intermittent descriptions of the struggles going on among lesser creatures in nature. Hemingway does the same using war (and hunting). In Madame Bovary the ironic Flaubert alternates between his illicit lovers and descriptions of animal husbandry. The first part of the film, The Godfather, juxtaposes opposite emotions. If there’s a scene of tenderness between Diane Keaton and Al Pacino, the next shows family members being gunned down on the street. Marlon Brando’s playing with his grandson is followed by someone waking up with a horse’s head in his bed. Real life happens more gradually. Alternating a scene of predominantly one emotion with a scene of a contrasting emotion, heightens both emotions. The Godfather, Part II employs a similar technique drawing parallels between the present and the past—Pacino becoming the Godfather and DeNiro avenging his neighbors a generation earlier. For the DeNiro character the ascension of power gains him support and respect. For Pacino power brings isolation and desertion by those he loves. The Godfather, Part III didn’t use juxtaposition and it floundered despite having the same story elements.
For me Grishom’s The Firm and Pelican Brief both pit ambition against traditional values. The Firm’s immense popularity has to do in some part with the public’s distrust of lawyers. But, watch how the story is developed. The Tom Cruise character has graduated and now his wife is looking forward to their enjoying a life together. He agrees, but the reader feels his ambition showing through. Just as we’re wondering what the resolution of this domestic conflict will be, we are whisked away into the workings of the firm. Again we become involved because things are too good to be true, though the protagonist is blinded to what we realize. Then it’s back to his wife who through her contact with other firm wives is having her fears confirmed regarding the paternalism of her husband’s employer. In the book these two strands (power and success vs. leading a good life) converge for a satisfying conclusion; in the movie…the mob is brought in deus ex machina and we’re left wondering more about Hollywood, than about either ambition or traditional values. (See what can happen if you don’t plot out your story with diagram boxes?)
“Inversion” means reversing the order of scenes. It’s the basis of the detective genre. A version of this, let’s call it “behind the scenes,” is also popular with media people, such as Rush Limbaugh. “Let me tell you why things are in the terrible shape they’re in today” followed by a reverse chronology of causes supposedly leading to the deplorable results he bemoans in the present.
What if someone built a progression of scenes up to a key scene and then left that scene out? That use of “omission” is often what happens in novels by Henry James and William Faulkner. It takes supreme self-confidence to pique the reader this way, and it seems to me, these authors are saying that life is anticipation and reaction, not present events. A contemporary example of this is Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. There is one scene which he withholds from us for the whole book. He finally does deliver, but only after he has led his readers through every possible tale. It’s wonderful storytelling, and interesting to see what he trimmed when he did the screenplay for the movie. The movie, by the way, is a good example of “acting as reaction.” Barbara Stresiand–who I like–produced, directed, and starred in the film. Nick Nolte–who I don’t care for–stole every scene out from under her by simply being the audience stand-in (showing us how to respond to someone like Streisand who always seems bigger than life).
I mentioned Bridges of Madison County for an example of shifts in time–using different lengths of time for scenes and shifting their sequences. Another original example of switches in time and perspective occurs in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Lastat, The Body Snatchers. Think of the possibilities. Her vampire hero has lived for centuries so in his memories can skip back and forth hundreds of years. Because he can take different forms, he can easily go to different parts of the world in hours, plus he has the ability to read his victims’ minds which lets the reader know what other characters are thinking. James Joyce’s and William Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness bends our notions of time and space, but my favorite example of switching perspective among characters is The Joy Luck Club. It’s a fantastic inspiration aspiring writers.