Standout Writing Includes Grace Notes

Standout Writing Includes Grace Notes

One of my all-time favorite books for teens is SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher. This is no one-time fling – it holds a secure place on the shelves of Literary Crush, and I’ll tell you why. Fletcher is a master at using figurative language with precise effect. In the craft book, Writing for Children and Teenagers, Lee Wyndham says that figurative language, figures of speech, and word images are the “grace notes” of quality writing. In other words, he says “Your ability to compose word images is a measure of your skill.”

Fletcher’s skills aren’t showy; her writing is organic and graceful. In fact, the plot of SHADOW SPINNER, a reimagining of the Arabian Nights storytelling structure, is such a humdinger of suspense you don’t notice how much of it is due to an effective use of figurative language. Let’s examine how Fletcher uses grace notes in regards to character development.

The cast of SHADOW SPINNER is enormous, as the book is set in the harem of the powerful Sultan. To help readers distinguish one character from another, Fletcher employs a subtle and progressively Layered Character Tag.

What do I mean by “layered?”

Character Tag, Layer One:

·         A Quick, Brief Description (QBD) as seen through the protagonist, 13 year-old Marjan.

For example, when Marjan first arrives at the harem, she meets

1.)    a “bony, beak-nosed woman of middle years” who takes Marjan to the baths,

2.)   a “beautiful woman with pale skin and coppery hair,” standing behind the Sultana,

3.)   a girl of “six or seven years old” with a pet gazelle. 

Each of these descriptions are unique—a pet gazelle? However, because Marjan is new to the harem and considered a servant, these characters have no reason to introduce themselves by name. The lack of a name could be confusing to the reader the next time these characters come on the scene, but Fletcher avoids this by moving us to the second layer of clarity…

Character Tag, Layer Two:

·         Descriptive Tag based on Marjan’s first impression (QBD) – a tag which becomes a substitute for the unknown proper name. For example:

1.)    the woman at the baths becomes “the beak-nosed woman”

2.)   the beautiful woman becomes “the copper-haired girl”

3.)   the little girl becomes “the gazelle girl.” 

Eventually, Marjan discovers these characters’ proper names, but instead of immediately dropping their tags, Fletcher eases us through the transition by using…

Character Tag, Layer Three:

·         Proper name + Tag = “Soraya, the copper-haired girl.”

The result of this layered approach is a reader who has so memorized each secondary character that by time a character is identified by Name-Only, the name itself is loaded with meaning. In other words, when we read the name “Soraya,” we know exactly who she is and how she looks in the environment of the story. Isn’t that cool?

So, how can you use the Layered Character Tag in your current work-in-progress?

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