Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Good designers can create normalcy out of chaos...." --Jeffery Veen

In the above quote, replace "designers" with "writers".  Because writers are just people who design with words, right?

    About a week ago, I finally got around to reading Divergent.  (I know, I know, it took me long enough.)  It was great in general, but one of the things it did reminded me of the Inkheart books -- both Roth and Funke use simple, everyday occurences -- even the most mundane of things -- to give the reader a sense of normalcy.

    Example time -- first, from Inkheart:

    " 'And, Meggie,' [Mo] said over his shoulder, 'you go back to sleep.'  Then, without another word, he closed his workshop door.
    Meggie stood there rubbing her cold feet together.  Go back to sleep.  Sometimes, when they'd stayed up late yet again, Mo would toss her down on her bed like a bag of walnuts.  Sometimes he chased her around the house after supper until she escaped into her room, breathless with laughter.  And sometimes he was so tired he lay down on the sofa and she made him a cup of coffee before she went to bed.  But he had never ever sent her off to her room so brusquely."

    "Dustfinger must have been waiting in the road beyond the wall.  Meggie had picked her precarious way along the top of that wall hundreds of times, up to the rusty hinges of the gate and back again, eyes tightly closed so she could get a clearer view of the tiger she'd imagined waiting in the bamboo at the foot of the wall, his eyes yellow as amber, or the foaming rapids to her right and her left."

    "Meggie was just throwing [the sparrows] the breadcrumbs she had found in her jacket pocket -- left over from a picnic on some long-forgotten day -- when the door suddenly opened."
    "It was a strange feeling to be spying on Mo.  She couldn't remember ever doing it before
-- except the night before, when Dustfinger had arrived.  And the time when she had tried to find out whether Mo was Santa Claus."

    Throughout these bits of story -- most of them slipped seamlessly into the main narrative of the novel -- you get a real sense of how life was before.  Before the characters' lives went crazy, before the story itself started and everything changed.  You get a glimpse into how close Meggie and Mo's father-daughter relationship is, how Mo isn't exactly the most responsible parent, but he loves Meggie and makes things fun.  You see how Meggie used to climb the fence and imagine she was on adventures -- who hasn't played in their yard as a kid? -- and that she goes on picnics and leaves crumbs in the pockets and tried once to determine whether her dad was Santa.  In these paragraphs, in relatively few words, Funke establishes the characters' lives before, to better show how they change after, and again, sets a normal background that makes it easier to believe the fantastic, sometimes unrealistic things that're going to happen. 

    Divergent did the same thing for me:

    "We walk together to the kitchen.  On these mornings when my brother makes breakfast, and my father's hand skims my hair as he reads the paper, and my mother hums as she clears the table -- it is on these mornings that I feel guiltiest for wanting to leave them."
    "[M]y brother made breakfast this morning, and my father made dinner last night, so it's my turn to cook."

    "We sit at the table.  We always pass food to the right, and no one eats until everyone is served.  My father extends his hands to my mother and my brother, and they extend their hands to him and me, and my father gives thanks to God for food and work and friends and family."

    And then there's the example Tris goes back to the most -- her mother trimming Tris's hair.  It's mentioned several times, so I won't pick an example.  Throughout Divergent, these pieces of background information show how her family interacts and works, which is really complex, given their dystopian world's customs and standards.  Family plays a large part in Divergent and Inkheart, and I think that shows.

    Both authors managed this well --- a light-handed sprinkling of background information, of the characters' pasts, that isn't forced or heavy.  It feels so natural that it also makes the world seem normal, real, and to me, that's important in a book. 

    Agreed, or no?  What books have you read that had the same effect as these?


Bethany Elizabeth said...

I absolutely agree. Those little details are what will break your heart or make you smile. I love books like that. :)

Clarissa Draper said...

I don't have any real examples but I agree, it's so important to blend the background info in seamlessly. It's not easy to do but it can make a reading experience a lot less boring. Nice to meet a new blogger.

The Story Queen said...

Definitely agree! I think it grounds the novel and just makes it seem that much more realistic. When little details like that are added, everything seems more real and the world more believable.

Also, glad you liked Divergent! :)

Jenna Cooper said...

For sure! I think that it's important to establish what was normal for a character before the craziness. And it doesn't even have to be something we do now. I just finished Graceling, and before the book, she was her uncle's thug, doing his dirty work. I don't know anyone who had that job, but the details in that provided a lot of important character shaping for Katsa and understanding her so I could go alongside her better through the rest of the book.

Anonymous said...

You've got a good point! I especially love the examples from "Inkheart". Of course, whenever I'm reminded of little, subtle things talented writers do, such as slipping in bits of the background like that, I start to wonder if my work will ever be so good.

Then I immediately stop the train of doubtful thoughts and start telling myself off. ;D

Miss ALK said...

Hi Jenna!

It's Miss ALK from Confessions of a Maine Teenager. Thanks for all your kind comments on my blog! I'm happy to be following you now :)

xoxo Miss ALK

Kelley said...

Little details are what make the book for me. Good examples. I'm reading Divergent now. Maybe I should check this Inkheart out then?

Oh, btw, your bio for this blog is adorable.

K.V. Briar said...

Divergent is next in my TBR pile, I can't wait! I've always wanted to pick up Inkheart, but haven't had a chance yet.

I agree the characters background is so important, but *lighthanded* is the key. Info dumps drive me bonkers! I hate it when it makes the story come to an abrupt halt.

By the way, I left you an award on my blog :) stop by if you get a chance!

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Bethany -- I love how you worded that! And I agree -- they're the best kind. (:

Clarissa -- I think it makes books special, but you're right, it can definitely be difficult. Nice to meet you, too!

Story Queen -- Agreed, for sure. And it's a great book! I should've gotten around to reading it sooner. (:

Jenna -- Good point! I really like your example; I'll have to look that book up.

Taylor -- I do the same thing. But realizing it is the first step to fixing it, right? Actively working on details like that will hopefully lead to doing it instinctively.

Miss ALK -- You're quite welcome! And thanks! (:

Kelley -- I hope you like *Divergent*! And I love the *Inkheart* series -- its premise and characters are amazing. It isn't all that similar to *Divergent*, but I'd definitely still recommend it. And thanks!

K.V. -- I love them both! Hopefully you will too. And info dumps are horrible -- even if it'd be interesting otherwise, I usually end up bored and tempted to skip over that bit. And thank you! I checked it out right away. (:

Amaranthine said...

I love these little sprinklings. They make or break novels for me. but I'm not a very careful reader so it often takes several readings to catch them all ;)


Lynda R Young said...

I did enjoy Divergent. It first grounded the characters in 'normal' life and by doing so highlighted the massive change in their lives when it happened.

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Amaranthine -- Same here. So I always have an excuse to reread them. (:

Lynda -- Me too. I love how it focused on her family so much, too, since that ended up being such an important part of the story.

Shelby said...

thanks! now following!

alexia said...

I agree, I like a light sprinkling of info, whether it be back story, or other character development.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Shelby -- Thank you!

Alexia -- You're welcome!