5 Dumb Writing Gimmicks That Became Classic Books
We like our stories to be a little bit conventional. We like beginnings and middles and ends, and catchphrases and slow-motion explosions and kisses in the rain. We want to see heroes win and villains get steam pipes thrown through them and dogs cover their eyes with their paws when something embarrassing happens.
"There's nothing in here that says a dog can't be pope." -record scratch-
Cracked has broken this down before, discussing how Hollywood scripts in particular are assembled almost like Mad Libs, major story elements laid out according to precise minute-by-minute formulas. And yet almost no one notices this because of how comfortable we are with the formula; we expect stories to be laid out this way.
"A Battle of the Bands? That's just crazy enough to work!"
But other than our own cognitive laziness, there's nothing that says stories have to be so formulaic, that tales can't be spun around innovative, inventive structures. Not in the movies, of course -- those are doomed. But in a word-movie, the so called "book"? Holy shit, yes. With no obligation to make back a $200 million budget or pull in the increasingly slope-browed 16-to-24 demographic, writers have pulled all sorts of inventive stunts when writing novels. Here are five of the most mind-bending.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler -- Italo Calvino
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a book about a person reading a book called If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.
If your hand instinctively made a jerking-off motion when you read that, well, that's not an uncommon reaction.
The book is told in interleaving chapters, with the odd-numbered chapters, about the person reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, told in second person. As in, "You are enjoying reading this book. You're not feeling annoyed at all by this and are definitely going to be recommending this book to your friends."
"You also definitely aren't making a jerking-off motion with your hand right now."
The rest of the chapters, which you might expect to contain an actual story, are in fact 10 different first chapters of 10 completely different novels, which for various reasons the reader (you?) never got around to finishing. There is some structure, though, curious parallels and themes crossing over between the interleaved chapters. For example, after the "detective novel" chapter, the second-person chapter features the reader (me?) doing various detectivey things.
"What's making that 'fap fap fap' sound?"
It might sound like a hot, fapping mess, but it's not, at least not completely. This conceit and structure is ideally suited to exploring the nature of the author/reader relationship, the motivations behind the writing process, and whether we as readers should trust authors not to jerk us around. If you go into the book with an open mind (and maybe some ice for your elbow), you just might enjoy it.
"For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn" -- Ernest Hemingway
"For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn" is both the title and the entire text of a "novel" purportedly written by Ernest Hemingway. In the interest of accuracy, I should note that the authorship of the piece isn't wholly settled, but seeing as the story of Hemingway writing it to win a bar bet is so amusingly in sync with what we know about Hemingway's character, I highly recommend you not question it.
"Who wants to bet that I can't drink this baby?"
Whatever its origin, "For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn," considering the limitations of its structure, is a staggeringly good novel. It's a brilliant demonstration of the power of implication, six little words able to communicate a hopeful beginning, a tragic end, clear characters, and a tremendous depth of feeling.
By heartbreakingly capturing the twin tragedies of losing a child and having to deal with the idiots who respond to Craigslist ads.
So the next time you're at the movies and see a passionless romantic comedy, a trite heroic sacrifice, or anyone learning a lesson about anything, ever, just remember the time Hemingway (or someone) captured 12,000 times the emotion with six measly words.
A Void -- Georges Perec
A Void is a novel written using a stunt that I can barely contemplate. If someone asked me to try this with one of my columns, I'd say it was impossible and spit in their face.
"Spell check, Jack? Inconceivable." -hork. horrrrrrrk. HORRRRRRRRRKKKKKKKKKKK-
What is it that Georges Perec did that's so impossible? He wrote La Disparition, a 300-page novel, without once using E.
The letter, not the drug. About 70 percent of all novels are written without the benefit of Ecstasy.
Yes, E. As in the most popular letter in the high school that is the alphabet, the king of the vowels. He did this in French, but even the translations manage to go without E as well, like the English version, titled A Void.
Because This Is a Really Stupid Idea contains a couple E's.
Actually, that's harsh. This isn't a stupid novel at all. Along with really intelligently exploring the concept of, you guessed it, absence, it's also a fun, readable mystery novel. The characters in it are very aware that something is missing from their world and spend the bulk of the story trying to figure out what it is, a process made significantly more difficult by the fact that they can't "consider," "search," or "investigate" anything. Indeed, characters end up disappearing themselves as they learn the dark truth, the novel playing out like an old parlor mystery.
"OK ... folks. Stop trying to trick us in ... to ... uh ... saying ... that ... bad ... uhhhh. How to say ..."
"It's what you mail."
"Letter! Right! FUCK! THANKS A LOT, DAN."
Related: No, George Soros Wasn't A Nazi
Pale Fire -- Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov might be better known for Lolita, his novel about the seduction of a 12-year-old girl that I'm not going to make too many jokes about.
Not after Legal reviewed my column, anyways.
Pale Fire might be his better novel, though, constructed around, would you believe it, yet another insane structure. The book is laid out as a 999-line poem called Pale Fire, written by a fictional author, and presented alongside annotations written by a fictional editor and friend of the author. The plot of the novel is laid out in these annotations, which discuss both men's slightly nutty lives. Like the fact that they're haunted by a variety of ghosts, or that one of them might have been mistakenly killed by an assassin who was trying to kill the deposed king of a country called Zembla.
That old saw.
What makes the plot so complicated is how non-linear it is, the details spelled out in the interplay between the poem and the annotations. With all those annotations pointing back and forth, it's often cited as being one of the first books written in hypertext.
Which the world has since used for nothing but the highest-browed work, as evidenced by all the sites we have with that are really just begging for it.
Finnegans Wake -- James Joyce
Finnegans Wake took James Joyce 17 years to write, and he was going to be damned if anyone would be able to read it in less time. Widely regarded to be among the most difficult books in the English language, Finnegans Wake tells the story of... something. That's about all anyone can say, really.
"A word, a word, a word. Another one. Yes, there's definitely something going on here, word-wise."
To make any sense of the work involves unpacking it sentence by sentence, subjecting every word to a brutally intensive analysis, collecting all the various meanings that fall out of this process, and reassembling them into something that actually resembles a coherent thought; reading it is a serious fucking operation.
The whole book is written in stream-of-consciousness, dream-logic gibberish, in languages that don't actually exist. Joyce invented his own completely bonkers language that was kind of English but also not, sort of as if he'd taken English and lightly pulsed it in a food processor before he started writing with it. The book has no plot that deserves the name, although trying to analyze it for a plot may be missing the point entirely. There are main characters of a sort, but they're a little hard to pin down, given the fact that they are given hundreds, even thousands of names within the text.
"Heh heh heh heh hehhhhhhehhehehe."
In short, it's basically unlike anything that's ever been written. If we're being generous, we can call this the work of a man trying to reinvent the very concepts of a novel, language, and possibly even concepts themselves.
"No, I did it to fuck with people."
Ahh, well there you go. OK, I take everything back. Fuck books.