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 them 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 crystallised 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 decades earlier, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about an old 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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Challenges of Representation in a Language Comic Book for Beginners

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I often reflect on the content of my comic book, and how I have unconsciously absorbed the default story of a white male character (in my case a group of white male characters) on a quest. In addition I have a wise (white) female character (Chantal), who is an oracle that intends to change the likely outcome if the quest continues as it normally would.

I’ve been made aware that people of colour want to see more people like themselves in stories and movies. I must admit that I have yearned for more female perspectives in literature and movies at times, which is as close as I can come to imagining how people of colour feel about being left out of mainstream media. Similarly for people who are queer, obese or disabled.

The difficulty with comic books is that the illustrations are often caricatures that exaggerate features. It would be tricky to create a PoC character without it seeming racist. There is no opportunity in a comic book for beginners in French, which has an extremely constrained vocabulary, to make things nuanced. I think the best I can do is have a variety of skin colours across the cast of characters, and not make the bad characters the dark-skinned ones. Having a queer character _might_ be possible (more likely a queer couple, as that’s easy to do visually without resorting to stereotype appearances). Given it’s a fantasy world, I could potentially do a genderqueer character that magically goes back and forth between genders all the time. After all I have a python that can make itself look like a dragon and a large gnome. Theoretically, the same could happen with skin colour.

I received only one star from one reader on Goodreads for Episode 1, without explanation. I can only guess why, but my guess is it’s to do with it being an entirely white male cast in the first episode – apart from the griffon, which is a mixture of white, blue and brown. This is partly due to unconsciously absorbing this default – even though my various influences (mainly fairly tales, Astérix, Smurfs, and Uncle Scrooge) do have more female characters than I do in Episode 1, partly as an artifact of being a slave to word frequency lists and my rules about what to include in each episode. In Episode 1 I only use French-English cognates that look identical in both languages. As such I only use adjectives that are either identical for both genders, such as “visible”, an exact spelling for masculine nouns only, such as “certain”, or exact for feminine nouns, such as “complète” (first occurs in Episode 2). I also chose to use a very limited palette in the drawings, roughly equivalent to a typical 12-colour set of coloured pencils, crayons or felt pens.

I think my comic books will evolve to have more diversity through the series. Episode 1 is already published, so it is what it is. Episode 2 at least introduces a main female character, who, like me, tends to work on her own to solve problems – at least at this stage in the plot. Episode 3 includes new characters, but since they’re not “good” characters, I won’t make them PoC. I haven’t written the Taxi and La Question du Moment for Episode 3 yet, so there is a bit of scope there to increase diversity. At least now I’m more aware of this, and can consider it in my writing/drawing process. Stay tuned for Episode 3… Meanwhile, here is a first attempt at a PoC for my comics – a recolouring of a panel from Episode 2. Is it OK?

g2croppedp17excerptrecoloured

Recoloured panel from Episode 2’s La Question du Moment. I think this is ok. Let me know if it isn’t.

Easy Reader Hall of Shame

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Having finished reading yet another boring German easy reader, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to easy readers that should never have existed.

Authors of easy readers are trying to trick language learners into learning target language while being entertained with a story.  However, some authors don’t do enough entertaining, and it is transparently obvious that the story (or part of it) is just a vehicle for exposure to vocabulary or, in the case of CEFR-based books, practising common scenarios required for surviving in the target language.

So here is my list of the worst easy readers I’ve read:

  1. “Sur les Routes de France” by G. Colquhoun and E. Guergady, published by John Murray, (French).
    Not only was this boring but it was long: 137 pages of tedium.  It is basically a story of a family going on holiday in France, following their trek through different locations.  I read this over a number of weeks as it took enormous willpower to finish it.  Happily this is out of print.  I thought that I must have the last copy in the world, but a quick Google search reveals that there are second-hand copies on the market.  What amazes me is that this work, that was first published in 1959, got reprinted several times.  I have a second edition copy from 1964, but I see on-line that there was a 1973 3rd edition .  That means that at least 14 years of students had to suffer this text!  Steer clear of this one.  There are many better stories to read.
  2. “Lustige Dialoge” by Harry A. Walbruck, published by National Textbook Company in 1985 (German).
    This contains 30 short dialogues that are “humorous”.  My Goodreads review states it succinctly: “Full of annoying anecdotes involving dated stereotypes passed off as humour. I really struggled to finish the book.
    To be fair, some of the dialogues were somewhat humorous, but for the purpose of providing extensive reading material it fails, as the individual dialogues are too short, and there is no motivating reason to read the next one.
  3. “Deuxième Acte” by O.M. Fordham and V.L.R.Lewis, published by Harrap in 1965 (French).
    This book is a sequence of letters written between members of two families.  The content of the letters, as well as the dialogues in the back of the book are very mundane.  It was another book that was difficult to finish, but was mercifully short (compared to no. 1) at 76 pages, including exercises that I tend to skip over.  One thing that I have found too many of is stories of typical traditional nuclear families doing ordinary things, such as the mother in the kitchen or doing the shopping, the father coming home from work, blah blah.  Admittedly some of these books are old, the authors of the various books probably didn’t know of each others work, and the average student wouldn’t have been exposed to more than one of these, but I’m rather sick of the genre.
  4. “Glück gehabt” by Theo Scherling and Elke Burger, published by Langenscheidt in 2010 (German).
    There are many other books I could list that are like no. 3 in their irksomeness, but I’ve decided to go for variety rather than comprehensiveness.  Langenscheidt do a good job at making their text and their audio easy.  They also do well in avoiding stereotypes for their characters.  For example, in Leo & Co, one of the regular characters is a single mother who is a car mechanic, working with her dad, while Leo himself is an artist who runs a pub/eatery.  On the down side, the stories are a bit on the mundane side, with this particular one being the worst I’ve read so far.  The story mostly follows the lead character in the act of getting a new apartment.  While listening to it I kept waiting for the plot to start, but nothing really happens other than finding out about an apartment, getting it, then moving into it, with a small side story of a colleague hurting their back.  Skip this one unless you’re desperate for the practice.
  5. “Technik und Natur” by Mike Lynch, published by Heinemann 1996.
    I’ve chosen this reading booklet as an example of another problem that often occurs with supposedly easy readers.  Some authors control the grammar but use far too much difficult vocabulary.  This particular booklet has interesting subject matter for those interested in science and technology, but the percentage of difficult words is too high.  There is vocabulary support, but text should really be written in a way that less than 5% of the words require it, since it interrupts the flow of reading.

I think that will do for now.  So the moral of the story is, when writing for language language learners:

  • Don’t be boring,
  • Optimise the length of the text to allow a good reading session,
  • Don’t inundate with vocabulary.

It is possible to do the above.  There are many examples.  I love some of the stories in the Découverte series, such as “Dans la Maison Bleue”, which are full of imagination, and have illustrations that complement the stories.  Here’s hoping there are more interesting books in the future.  I hope mine will also be enjoyed.  I’ve had good feedback so far.