A Lesson in Suspense

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Reading graded readers can be quite educational on how to write good stories. Previously I wrote an article about a graded reader “Hall of Shame“, in which I highlighted various problems I had observed within the genre, and then provided a summary of recommendations on how to write better graded readers. Elsewhere I wrote another summary of advice on writing graded readers (I called the Easy Readers in my earlier posts.)

In this article I’d like to talk about suspense. I think I was in my twenties when I first really thought about suspense at all when reading. A fine simple example that crystalised it for me was Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Two memorable simple bits of suspense occurred in it. The first is the sofa stuck in the staircase, which is explained toward the end of the story. The second, which amazed me in its simplicity was explaining two of three things, and not answering the third one until late in the book. I was reading on, wondering what the third thing was. This illustrated that it didn’t really matter what the suspense is, as long as it’s suspense. It doesn’t need to be figuring out who committed a crime, or whether the romance concludes happily. It can be pretty much anything.

The next observation, which inspired the way I’ve organised my Gnomeville comics, was the use of cliff-hangers. I was reading a collection of X-Men comics, and noticed that they always ended with a cliffhanger, and unanswered questions. By never fully ending the story, people get hooked and need to read the next issue. Soap operas seem to work the same way. It struck me that this is a very good strategy for graded readers, since we want to motivate people to keep reading to improve their language skill.

I buy and read graded readers by other authors, and I was struck by the contrast suspense made between two otherwise very similar stories by the same author, Sylvie Lainé.

Voyage en France tells of an English couple who go to France, because Louis is reminded of a creative project he commenced with his best friend, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about a man trying to find an old friend, echoing the current situation. Louis wants to see how the story will end, by finding his old friend. We read the story of Louis and Melba as they follow a series of clues to find Louis’s old friend. This suspense worked for me, as I wanted to know how the story would end. I also wanted to know whether they tried to finish the movie, but that question wasn’t answered. I read the story quickly, despite many chapters of fairly mundane travel activities, all because of the suspense.

Contrast the above story with Voyage à Marseille. This contains the same two main characters, doing the same things, that is, travelling through France to get to a destination. However, it lacks the suspense of wondering whether they will find the person they are looking for. The first bit of excitement happens quite late, the disappearance of the car, and is resolved quite quickly. There is another unanswered question that had potential as a simple bit of suspense, the title of the biography of Louis’s friend that they were visiting. Unfortunately that wasn’t answered in the final chapter. It took me a lot longer to finish this story, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to know the answer to.

So, when writing graded readers, please provide suspense. It makes a lot of difference to the reading experience.

 

 

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Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve – my kind of book

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I recently noticed an article in an issue of Reader’s Digest while in a waiting room. It was discussing the vocabulary of Green Eggs and Ham, and other statistical aspects of writing. It was an extract of Ben Blatt’s book “Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve”. Since the article was about a lot of the things that I work on, I felt compelled to get the book, and immediately read it.

The book compares a set of literary classics, best sellers and fan fiction via quantitative statistics. The author used my old friend Natural Language ToolKit (NLTK) for Part of Speech tagging etc. for the text analysis.

The first chapter looks at adverbs, which are frowned upon in writing. The next looks at statistical differences in writing by each gender. Chapter 3 discusses the history of authorship attribution, as played out with the Federalist Papers. The relative frequency of different function words tends to be like a fingerprint for an author’s writing. He uses this on co-authored works to figure out who wrote what. Next up is seeing if authors follow their own advice on writing. Then comes the chapter I saw in Reader’s Digest, that discusses Dr Seuss and readability measures. In the same chapter he notes that the average reading age of bestsellers is decreasing, from grade 8 in the 1960’s to grade 6.

Next up is a comparison of UK and US writing, including an interesting comparison on the loudness of Americans compared to English people. Chapter 7 looks at clichés – another area I have researched, albeit in lyrics instead of novels. The remaining chapters look at book covers, first sentences, and text generation.

This book did a lot of things that are closely related to my own tinkerings, as well as some of my published research. The author is a journalist and statistician, and several of the chapters, if written in an academic rather than journalistic manner, would have made good quantitative linguistics papers, with the amount of research within the book possibly being enough for a PhD in the field.

I only had one gripe about the book, and that is one sentence in which he assumes his reader knows nothing about statistics and says so. It’s one thing to explain something clearly starting from scratch or to state that something is left to an appendix for those interested. It’s quite another to tell the reader that they don’t know enough statistics. While some readers may not be insulted (eg. the “for dummies” series was popular), I usually am. I may not be the world’s expert on statistics, but I have a working knowledge, and I am capable of learning. I had a similar experience when I wanted to learn about the premise behind the Zone diet, and read a book on it, only to be constantly told by the authors that I’m fat (I’m not). The moral is: explain things clearly, but don’t insult the audience.

All in all, this was a book that’s exactly the kind of thing that I enjoy.