Since starting to write seriously, I’ve noticed that my approach to books has changed. I still love to immerse myself in the author’s world. And have an immense sense of gratitude to all writers for their ability to transport me. But now, even when savouring the prose, I simultaneously take a little peek at the mechanisms employed. A look at how the magic works.
And I will share my musings with those who read the blog (yes, both of you!) in a series of book reviews, Reading Like A Writer. Reviews with an emphasis on what, as I writer, I have learnt from the author’s techniques.
And I’ll start with the classic fairy tale parody– The Princess Bride, by William Goldman.
Summary: Farm boy Westley seeks his true love, Buttercup, who has been kidnapped by evil Prince Humperdink.
“It’s still my favourite book in the world. And more than ever, I wish I’d written it”.
And so Goldman commences his story with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He claims to have abridged a classic story from Florin (where his father was said to be born). The first 35 pages detail his introduction to the story as a child, and how the story, read aloud to him, inspired his subsequent love of reading. It’s all plausible, and, had I known there never was a country called Florin, would have gone along with it. (By coincidence, I read it on April 1st).
Goldman describes his search for a copy of the long-out-of-print book The Princess Bride for his son’s birthday. To his dismay, it’s a dry tale. His father had skipped through the boring bits and read the adventure parts to him. Thereby inspiring him to abridge and release the new version to a modern audience (and add dry elements of his own). The plausibility is ramped up by Goldman weaving autobiographical fact in his fiction; his work as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, and had written Marathon Man and other blockbusters. Easily verifiable.
The epilogue is a description of the legal battles between him and the estate of the ersatz Morgenstern, the alleged author of the piece, and excerpts from the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby. To be honest, a little tiresome.
I’m not sure why he chose this device. Perhaps he wanted to add a dimension to the parody by including a layer of pseudo-intellectualism? Or just test the audiences’ gullability. At one point, he invites readers to write to the publisher and request a passage he wished to add to the narrative, but which the author’s estate barred. Wikipedia reports that “many” readers actually did so.
Between these bookends, is the story within a story, told by S. Morenstern; like Lemony Snicket, the narrator is a character in the story.
He tells a farce, a parody. An over-the-top adventure featuring larger than life characters and situations. Morgenstern’s voice is swashbuckling, bombarding the reader with one grand claim after another. Despicable bad guys, heroic good guys, landscapes lurking with danger. His descriptive sentences are adventures in themselves, long and winding. I’m surprised no kitchen sink was featured. The story grabs you by the throat and sweeps you in. And stands alone without the foreword and epilogue.
The prose is bold; the verbs, hyperactive. Goldman doesn’t shy away from the antagonists’ backstories. He describes their travails in detail with his usual gusto. And portrays them, not as stupid henchmen, but as the Best In the World at their particular crafts – swordsman, wrestler, genius. Unbeatable. Higher stakes for our hero. Ridiculous, hilarious.
Writers are constantly told to avoid telling in favour of showing. This story can be taken as an example of “good telling”, simply because the narrator’s voice is so strong.
As an example of telling:
“Fire swamps are, of course, entirely misnamed. As to why this has happened, nobody knows, though probably the colourful quality of the two words together is enough. Simply, there are swamps which contain a large percentage of sulphur and other gas bubbles that burst continually into flame. They are covered within lush giant trees that shadow the ground, making the flame bursts seem particularly dramatic. Because they are dark they are continually moist, thereby attracting the standard insect and alligator community that prefers a moist climate.”
This is reminiscent of the voice used in Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, when the Guide’s voice explained an outrageous point with encyclopaedic understatement.
Complications and more complications.
If, as a writer, you occasionally wonder whether you are making things too tough for your character, just flick through a few pages, and you’ll see, nah. Goldman demonstrates the maxim of constantly throwing barriers in the MC’s path. The stakes are continually raised. At one point, the hero dies. But that’s doesn’t hinder Westley’s success.
There’s the lesson, writers! Adventure involves creating brave, highly skilled, MCs with a noble goal... and torturing them, unremittingly. Hold their heads under water and as soon as they come up for air, give them another sound dunking. And make the water poisonous and inhabited with carnivorous fish and eye-sucking eels. Then give the hero the ability to breathe through his ears... then immerse the ears, too. And so on.
But it’s not all perfect.
My gripe is Buttercup, the heroine. She is nothing more than Westley’s prize, and really has nothing going for her other than her beauty. Passive and desirable, her role is limited to inspiring Westley to keep going and rescue her from Prince Humperdink. Ugh! Yeah, sure, the story is a parody, and she’s not the world’s first useless fairytale heroine. But this was written in 1973, not 1793. And if the reader’s prepared to swallow Westley becoming a master swordsman in two years when his opponent (the world’s best swordsman) took twenty to reach the standard, then giving little Buttercup the ability to karate-kick her captors in the kidneys would not be completely out of synch with the plot, even if this was before karate. Especially as it was before karate.
Overall impression. Fun. Good to read as model for hyperbole.
And if you want to contribute a review in this style, please contact me at joann_s [at] yahoo [dot] com