THE WRITER’S COOKBOOK
(Part 3 of 4)
by James Lincoln Warren
By tonight I will have returned to Los Angeles from San Antonio, which may be a shock to those of you who thought I was in Minnesota. Well, I was in Minnesota last week, so there. I haven’t decided whether to print Part 4 next week, when I will have no excuse for not writing a new column except sloth.
Part III: Kitchen Techniques
Recipes by themselves, even when faithfully executed, cannot guarantee a perfectly prepared repast.
Kitchen technique really counts. A chef must know how to cut vegetables any number of different ways, and whether ’tis better to julien or to chop. He has to know when and when not to preheat his pans, and whether to brown or to blanch. He ought to be aware of the peculiarities of his oven, where its hotspots are, and how accurate the temperature setting is. He needs to know when to merely beat ingredients into a sauce and when to purÃ©e them.
Likewise, the good storyteller will have a variety of techniques at his disposal, and array them so as to make his offering as tempting and tasty as possible.
In writing, verbal technique is called style. Style is much more a matter of craft and experience than it is of native ability. You can’t practice talent, you can only refine it, whereas craft is something you learn, usually through imitating writers who have more of it than you do. Let’s look at four stylistic methods to illustrate. Be warned that my examples are deliberately exaggerated for the sake of clarity.
Tempo. Tempo has to do with presentation. The tempo and rhythm of prose, what together are sometimes called its cadence, has a great deal to do with establishing mood. Let’s say you want to scare your reader. Fear, of course, is a spectrum, and depending on the moment portrayed in your story, you will want to convey it differently. If a brooding, menacing tone is called for, the prose should reflect itâ€”slow, inexorable, heavy, even oppressive. You might consider using unusual words to make the pace more deliberate, â€œeldritchâ€ instead of â€œweirdâ€, or describing by extended metaphor instead of being concise. If, on the other hand, you’re aiming to portray a moment of screaming sheer terror, the prose should be rapid, blunt, and visceral. Words and sentences must be short and direct, imitating breathlessness. This what Alexander Pope meant when he said of poetry that the sound should be an echo to the sense. His advice applies equally to prose.
Emphasis. This means bringing out a particular flavor in context. The most obvious way to do it is the use of exclamation points. A more discriminate method is typographical convention, i.e., underlining or italicizing. The best way is to construct a phrase in such a way that the emphasis in it is inescapable. Let’s say one of your characters is an evil old man. Depending on the context, the most important datum might be that he is old, or else that he is evil. If his age is more critical, your description might read, â€œThe malicious voice belonged to a man so ancient his face looked mummifiedâ€; whereas if his bad character is more critical to the moment, you might write something along the lines of â€œHis feeble voice, hoarse with age, oozed with such fetid malice that I wanted to cover my mouth.â€
Color. Another issue of presentation. A red tomato always looks more appetizing than a green one. Let’s apply this concept to a satyromaniacal character: â€œHe’s a regular Don Juanâ€; or â€œHe couldn’t keep his pants up if they were fireproof and he farted blue flamesâ€?
Voice. Voice is the means whereby personal characteristics are displayed independent of strict semantic content, incorporating tempo, emphasis, and color, but itself something distinct. How a character delivers an insult, for example, says much more about the character himself than the person he’s insulting: the person who utters â€œUgly, sir? Why, if ugly were breeding, he’d be forty to one to win in the Belmont Stakesâ€ is someone quite different from one who says, â€œDamn. He be uglier than a purple pimple pierced with an icepick.â€
Of course, there’s much more to style than these four examples, not the least of which is how to use punctuation effectively. Likewise, knowing what not to do is as at least as important as knowing what should be done. There are myriads of things to learn about style, but only one surefire way to learn them, by following these two simple but consuming steps: write a lot, and read even more.