Friday, May 26, 2017

On reading more to write better: Lemony Snicket and writing voice

Image result for lemony snicket picture
Lemony Snicket's investigating knows no bounds.
As writers, it’s often difficult to know the most effective way to tell a story. Often, the story itself is the easy part. But how can you tell it in a way that makes it new and interesting and worth reading? My suggestion is this: take a few notes from Lemony Snicket.
Snicket (also known as Daniel Handler) became quite famous for The Series of Unfortunate Events, a children’s series about three orphans who have terrible things befall them while they try to uncover the mysteries their parents left behind. Snicket has a very unique and distinct voice in telling the story. Just take a look at a few of these quotes:
  • If an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, “Well, this isn’t too bad. I don’t have my left arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me whether I am right-handed or left-handed,” but most of us would say something more along the lines of “Aaaaah! My arm! My arm!
  • People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.
  • Taking one’s chances is like taking a bath, because sometimes you end up feeling comfortable and warm, and sometimes there is something terrible lurking around that you cannot see until it is too late and you can do nothing else but scream and cling to a plastic duck.
To begin with, Snicket’s way of talking to the reader is very conversational. It’s as if Snicket is writing a letter to a good friend, or to someone that he hopes to become good friends with. The tone is warm and friendly, while still conveying an overall message of despair and agony when Snicket tells us over and over again that only terrible things are going to happen to the Baudelaire’s. In spite of all the terrible things he’s relating, Snicket keeps the tone light partly by dispensing little bits of wisdom (such as those quoted above) that aren’t told in profound ways, but in silly and easy to understand ways. Since this is a children’s series, this method works phenomenally - it puts Snicket on the same page with the reader without talking down to them. It also gives him a chance to use some hilariously bizarre explanations, metaphors, and stories. Snicket stays on the reader’s good side while telling of some very terrible things that happen. The combination of all these makes Snicket a unique storyteller and a part of the story.
Snicket’s narration enables him to make himself a small character within the story. He gives us a reason that he’s telling the Baudelaires’ tale - he’s researching them and trying to track the kids down. Throughout the books, Snicket chooses to become a bigger part of the story by adding in other family members, such as Kit Snicket, who help the Baudelaires and help tell us more about Lemony Snicket and his role in everything. Having the narrator be an observer to the main character’s plight isn’t anything new (just check out Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), but making the author a character in the story does take things to the next level.
So what can we take away from Snicket’s writing? First of all, start figuring out how exactly you want the tone of the story to be - is it lighthearted? Is it dark? Is it a strange mix of both? Then, once you know the feeling you want to put in your books, start writing that way. Practice copying the tone of authors who write the mood you want to convey (or even mix authors if you haven’t found anything you like) if you’re stuck and not sure how to write what you want. Then, once you have their techniques down, start looking at you can tell the story in a way that other authors have told it before, but make it unique by putting a twist on it or taking it to the next level. Once you have the correct tone down, you need to find a good narrator. Who do you want to be telling your story? How involved in the action are they? Is one of the characters narrating or is there no clear narrator? Don’t be afraid to look at the pros and cons of each possible narrator. You can even practice writing scenes from different points of view to see who makes a more effective narrator. If you find that a different narrator brings a different tone to your work, don’t be afraid to change your overall tone to fit a better narrator. Keep finding your tone and testing out narrators until you find one that really works for you - that tells the story how it deserves to be told.

Good luck with your writing! Don’t forget to continue reading more to write better. If you need a reminder, just remember what Lemony Snicket has to say: When trouble strikes, head to the library. You will either be able to solve the problem, or simply have something to read as the world crashes down around you.

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