Tag Archives: literature

Dazzling With Language in Stories

Dazzling language in storiesThere are many things that go into crafting great stories.

Some aspects are hidden from initial view. They are glimpsed only as the story progresses. They exist in the tension between character, theme, setting. They relate to pace, tone, mood, insight.

Such tensions play off against one other eventually kindling a fire that dazzles. Others, such as arresting physical and psychological descriptions through simile and metaphor, are immediately apparent.

No two stories are the same. The narrative relationships within each are too rich and varied for that.

A gifted writer knows when to dazzle us with her exotic yet precise word choice and when to use a subdued vocabulary in order to let something else shine through. A gifted writer is like a gifted conductor, moulding, pacing, coloring every note to greater purpose, now drawing our attention to one voice, now to another.

Dazzling Stories

Today I want to point to what is perhaps the easiest skill to spot – the virtuoso use of language that grants us crucial insights about life (and death).

Examples in stories are as numerous as they are varied, so my choice is a personal one. I’m referring to the many arresting lines from Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer for literature in 2010. The book has not only had a lasting effect on me, but has inspired me to try my hand at a more literary style, resulting in my recently released novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There is something magical about Harding’s use of language that transcends space and time and makes it truly universal. He starts his book with the lines:

“FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster.”

A little later, Harding gives us this surreal description of Forge’s world tearing open as he prepares for death:

“The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”

This is exceptional, packed writing. How can one not want to read more?

Although I do not presume to claim a place amongst such illustrious company, passages such as the ones quoted above inspired me to come up with my own insights about growing older and our need to reconcile our life with our past mistakes. Here’s my protagonist, The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s, Benjamin Vlahos, pleading for a second chance to get life right:

“Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be a subatomic particle existing for the briefest of moments; all the joy and pain of birth and death compressed between the two staccato ticks of that relentless hand.

At other times I imagine a scaled-down version of myself, living on the surface of the watch, fighting against the perpetual ticking of that fearsome engine. I imagine gripping the watch’s hands in my bleeding fists, my arms extended, my body and head thrust forward, my legs bent and wide apart, until I stop the hands from ticking and force them back, rotating them anti-clockwise, back to that moment on the Sydney pier when I stopped to buy my last pack of cigarettes, while Miranda stood on the pavement smiling brightly back at me.”

Ultimately, Benjamin, despite his being a theoretical physicist, opts for art, not science, as a way of understanding life’s vicissitudes:

“Isn’t everything worth knowing squeezed inside the kernel of a story? All that’s ever been written, sang and spoken, pressed into a single pearl? The story is our raft when old age casts us out to sea; the logs are the memories, the ropes are the love and kindness we have shared. Can my equations ever be that?”


Use powerful but appropriate metaphors In your stories to immediately capture your reader’s attention.

And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

Babies Kissing

Secret Ingredient

What does it take to write a good story? The facile answer is: many things – maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on. But is there one element without which your story would be significantly weaker? When I joined Elmo de Witt Films in the early nineties as that company’s resident screenwriter, the experienced South African director gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been mulling over ever since: a story that doesn’t solicit emotion is headed for failure or, at best, obscurity.

Emotion and Story: Why should we Care?

A story filled with events and characters who leave us cold, leaves us cold, period. It may be filled with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy. But, who cares? If you want to write about any of those, publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or deliver a talk at the local philosophical society. A story is, of course, capable of transmitting deep, world-changing ideas, but only if we care enough about the events and characters in the story to delve deeper into the text and ferret such ideas out.

Caring about Fictional Characters and their Situation

So how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we foster and nourish throughout our writing careers. It doesn’t come overnight. The centuries are littered with tomes addressing the subject, and countless of modern-day blog posts, including mine, proffer aspects of the craft. Needless to say that any blog on effective character creation rests on a similar foundation – the use of emotion to draw us into our characters’ lives. Without wishing to diminish the depth and complexity of the subject, I offer one way, out of a myriad of others, which may assist you in kick-starting your thinking on how to approach the challenge of creating characters that we care about: Make your character (1) a worthy/interesting/caring person (2) who finds herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune/peril, which (3) worsens as the story progresses. This is the first step in creating empathy for your character, and therefore, in getting to know and care for her.


One of the most important requirements of a successful story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.


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