Photo by Minnea
I write every day and I read every day, because Stephen King said to do so in his book On Writing. I used to not allow myself read fiction, I used to read books about writing. I thought reading a lot of fiction was a waste of time. I was wrong, very very wrong. So I've abandoned reading books about writing (King's On Writing being the exception), and started reading novels exclusively. And, you know what? I'm learning more about writing by reading actual fiction! The more different books by different authors I read, the more I start seeing patterns everywhere - in story, dialogue, beginnings, endings, character development, descriptions, plot, you name it. Here are a few:
Dialogue is all about repetition. My biggest fear is writing dialogue. English is not my first language, and I'm terrified that I won't be able to capture English talk with the ease of someone who was born and grew up in an English speaking country. So I'm trying to pay extra special attention to dialogue in the novels. And I noticed a pattern. At first I thought it was a one time occurrence, but when J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami and Chuck Palahniuk all did the same thing, I thought, wait a minute. These authors are so different, how come they do the same thing? You know what it was? Repetition. Roughly the formula goes like this: Take 1 idea that the character is trying to communicate and break it into 3 sentences. 1st one starts the idea, 2nd one picks up where the 1st one broke off, repeating its end, and then the 3rd one picks up where the 2nd one broke off and concludes it. Seriously. Do we really talk like that?!? I've been scratching my head ever since, but I tried it, and it works.
Here is an example from Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King, when Jake asks Roland for a Ruger, explaining why he needs it: "I'll put it at the bottom of my bedroll and wrap it in my extra shirt. No one needs to know it's there." He paused. "I don't want to show it off to Benny, if that's what you're thinking." See how one idea has been spliced into three statements, one picking up from the end of another? And how each next one let Jake assert what he meant? I get goosebumps when I see stuff like this. And I see it all the time.
Instances of plot summary throughout the story. Ok, this is a weird one, because I didn't see it at first, but then started noticing it more and more. Here is what it is. About several chapters into a book, the author will find a way to inject a quick summary of the plot, as in, so and so did this, and then so and so did that, and then they bla-bla-bla. It is usually in the dialogue or in the main characters thoughts, when the character finds herself or himself in the throes of indecision. Sometimes it's in a general description. This is clever, because often readers forget what they've read before and this little snippet roots them back into story, but also shows the humanity of the character, because in real life we tend to forget stuff and repeat to remember. Fascinating.
Here is an example from The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, from page 46, nicely summarizing what happened before and at the same time advancing the story: "The announcement of Barry's death on the Parish Council website sank with barely a ripple, a tiny pebble into the teeming ocean. All the same, the telephone lines in Pagford were busier than usual this Monday, and little knots of pedestrians kept congregating on the narrow pavements to check, in shocked tones, the exactness of their information."
Everything is explained. Actually, everything is explained to the point of you knowing what will happen but not knowing how it will happen. This boggled my mind for the longest time. I was wondering, wait, what about suspension? And then I understood that suspension is not about withholding facts, it's about the reader not really knowing what the character will do in this or that particular situation, and it's what stories are about, in the end. About people, fictional people, that deal with various shit, as simple as that. Seeing this allowed me to stop being afraid and take my time to slow down and thoroughly explain to my readers what the hell is happening in my story (well, it's causing my current Draft to double, so I'm not sure yet where this is going, but so far 3 beta readers tell me it's MUCH better than previous draft). Every good book has a way of rooting you as a reader from the beginning, and it doesn't have to be long, a few sentences is enough, but it continues throughout the story.
Here is my favorite example from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It's actually the very opening of the book: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." BAM! This is the whole book for you, right there. Yet we keep reading, because we want to know HOW this happens.
It's all about the characters. This is the most valuable lesson I've learned from reading. It's all about the main characters, the folks your story is about, usually two, because usually all stories are about love, and the rest doesn't matter and serves only as layers. (Yes, even Sherlock Holmes is about love, or, more specifically, about male friendship.). The rest provides a canvas, a type of background that doesn't need to be explained or closed or developed. It needs to make the reader FEEL. I've read many great books with sub-plots that wouldn't be closed, minor characters who would appear and vanish, a ton of "unfinished" elements, yet I read them till the end, loving the story. It puzzled me at first, but it doesn't puzzle me anymore. I know that many of you will shake your heads here, but hear me. I used to shake my head at this too, yet this is something that explains the success of The Twilight Saga or 50 Shades Trilogy. Readers FELT these books, so they didn't care about sentence structure or closed plots or anything like that. And, this is what happens in life. Unclosed loops.
It's hard to give a specific example on this one, but the perfect and most bizarre would be, probably, from 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, where at the end a new way of weaving an air chrysalis is introduced, never to be explained or closed. Here is a short excerpt following first 3 little people starting the job: "The next three followed suit. Only the last one did something different. He stood up, left the circle, clambered back up on the conference table, reached out, and plucked one frizzy hair from Ushikawa's misshapen head." What?!? Why? If you read the book, you'll get my agony. But I lovd the story and it didn't matter.
Of course all of these observations are only my hypothesis, so please feel free to dish in the comments what you think, what you saw, what you discovered, and I'll go read me more books in the meantime.