Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading for Writing: Incarceron and Sapphique


Apparently I’m not content to write about one book at a time for these posts; oh well. Here are some writing strategies I learned from these excellent dystopian novels by Catherine Fisher. All of the examples are brief snatches without character names, so there shouldn’t be any real spoilers. 

Pacing of Parallel Plots. Both books switch back and forth between the actions in two different worlds. In the beginning, the worlds get alternating chapters. As the pace of the story speeds up, their sections become shorter and the switches are made within chapters. It’s so simple, but so effective for pacing. Fisher also uses the switches to their best advantage, ending the sections with cliffhangers and often starting the next section with an image/theme/dialogue that crosses over and blurs the lines between worlds. It’s like a carefully edited scene change in film where one image morphs seamlessly into another. 

Twists and Turns. One of the back cover blurbs for Incarceron mentions the “twist ending,” but I actually think the more shocking twists are throughout the story, starting in the opening chapters. Again, Fisher knows her pacing.  

Word Choice. Most writers have heard some version of Stephen King’s quip “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Fisher is great at constructing strong sentences that don’t need adverbs because the verbs and adjectives are so perfectly chosen. 

The overweight visitor “unfurled” from the carriage.  

“A membrane of water webbed her wide mouth.”

“The cold kiss printed under her ear.”

“Every muscle scorched with wrath.”

Details, details, details. It’s all about the little things. Description doesn't weigh down the prose; it just works harder. With one seemingly minor detail, Fisher can give the sense of…

…someone’s character: “Dragging the pack nearer, he took out the bread, tore it open, and tossed her the smaller part.”

… a delirious mental state: “Someone’s hand lay half out of the blankets; he tried absently to make it move, and the long fingers cramped and stretched. It was his, then.”

…the ruthlessness behind the pomp and protocol of the royal court: “Her wig [was] a towering construction of woven hair in which an armada of tiny gilt ships tossed and drowned.” 

Admittedly, dystopian novels with a touch of steampunk will always be an easy sell for me, but I really do think Fisher created an interesting and perfectly paced tale. I learned from it, and more importantly, I enjoyed every second of reading it.

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