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Language of story and language of anecdote

Back on GEnie, we defined a novel as an attack novel if it had an incredible amount of momentum that made it impossible to not write. As you can imagine, this was -- and is -- an incredibly satisfying state to be in when breaking draft.

Cast in Courtlight (and yes, I know the latter isn't a real word, but it's a fantasy), is like that at the moment. Which is good, as it stops me from hovering on the phone and complaining at all hours to my ISP. Which is, once again, down. And has been for several hours. I'm logging in via someone else's connection, and I hate doing that. I'd rather have the television or the telephone die completely than lose my internet connection. Go geeks.

I've been thinking a bit about why this book is different from, say, HOUSE WAR, which is (was; I'm writing to Luna deadline at the moment) progressing at a much slower rate, and wanted to talk about it a bit here -- which means I'm putting off the round-up for another post.

A friend of mine has infrequently used the phrase the language of story. Cutting it down to my interpretation (and he may feel free to expound on his, since there's no guarantee they're the same thing <wry g>), the language of story is a force of Story, like the motion and form and shape -- but it's about the words used, the rhythms, the way the sentences are built; they run in a current that in some way captures a specific and individual tone. There are certain stories, certain books, that I could not tell in any other way -- but I think they're less accessible than, say, my LJ posts because they're written in the language of story.

His language is in every possible way more emeshed in epics and things that are not modern in sensibility. We've talked about ways to change this to make his writing more accessible -- but at base, I'm fairly sure it's not possible; for him, the language of story and the story itself are not separable.

I would say that my West novels are written in what is for me the language of story. I don't labour intellectually to evoke tone; the tone is present and it permeates the whole.

But recently, this friend dropped by the store, having started something entirely different. His intent, he said, was to use the language of anecdote to tell this particular story. This struck me as sensible.

And then it stayed with me, as these things often do, growing roots in odd places. Writing Cast in Courtlight, I realized that what I've done with the Luna books is almost exactly that, but much less consciously: I'm using the language of anecdote in which to convey the story. Letting the language of story take over would alter everything I'm writing about; it would give it a different scope, a totally different tone, and an entirely different texture. The story itself would be the same -- but were I to write in the language of story, and hand some poor alpha-reader both versions, I'm not sure they'd recognize it.

There are some books that are written in what is, to me, the language of anecdote. Some of them, I love, and some I don't. This is also true of the language of story. Let me give a couple of examples, and then someone can tromp on my feet.

Tanya Huff writes in the language of anecdote. Her style is modern, and it almost never invokes the mythic; it's fast-paced and breezy and so utterly witty, often in a black way, it's almost like she's standing right there. Brust is another writer I would classify this way for the Vlad books.

Patricia McKillip writes in the language of story. She evokes the mythic, echoes of old magic, things that were almost lost and are remembered in glimpses of her words.

In both cases, the use of words, the choice of words, the way those words are handled, are above reproach; the stories they tell are different, and the tone is different as well.

I don't think I could write something with a huge scope in the language of anecdote. But I also think that the language of anecdote carries with it more accessibility; the language is closer to spoken asides and verbal cuts, rather than to something that has to be read on the page; you can't speak a single sentence paragraph as if it were, well, spoken.

I'm still mulling over this as I write.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 13th, 2004 10:05 pm (UTC)
What you're calling "the language of story" and "the language of anecdote".... do you think this mostly applies to the fantasy genre? For example, I read a lot of historical mysteries, and I don't see either mythic or anecdotal approaches in my favourites.

OTOH, I'm currently reading Sheri Tepper's The Family Tree and see both approaches in this single book (although the anecdote and mythic story sections are currently separate).
Oct. 14th, 2004 01:10 pm (UTC)
What you're calling "the language of story" and "the language of anecdote".... do you think this mostly applies to the fantasy genre? For example, I read a lot of historical mysteries, and I don't see either mythic or anecdotal approaches in my favourites

Not really. Or rather, there are SF approaches that I would consider language of story. You know what? Star Trek is, to me, entirely anecdotal; it's here and now. It's how we speak to each other. It's short hand with bad science that's meant purely to entertain.

Historical fiction (I don't know if this takes mystery into account or not) for my tastes -- which means I'm trying not to generalize -- is best served when, in fact, very little about the -language- is here and now, because the language is anchored to the time; the way people thought a hundred years ago and the way they think now are different. I couldn't write anecdotal history unless the history were entirely window-dressing to the plot. In which case, I'm not sure why I'd go into all that detail and research, if that makes sense.

Oct. 15th, 2004 05:31 am (UTC)
So, is what you are calling "the language of anecdote" is speaking in a contemporary voice and a story filled with short entertaining episodes?

What do you mean by "the language of story"? Is it language that expresses a place clearly in another place and/or time (not as seen through contemporary eyes)?

What about a story clearly set in another place and/or time, but the book is clearly filled with many short entertaining anecdotes? For example, the Jasper Fforde novels.
Oct. 15th, 2004 05:57 am (UTC)
What about a story clearly set in another place and/or time, but the book is clearly filled with many short entertaining anecdotes? For example, the Jasper Fforde novels.

That, oddly enough, would be the language of anecdote for me -- it doesn't have the gravitas, or really, the serious extrapolation of a true secondary world, but I really enjoyed it. And the toasters, even if they were overkill <g>.
Oct. 13th, 2004 10:24 pm (UTC)
What you're talking about sounds a little bit like what I think of as the voice of a story (though I may in fact be thinking of something completely different--always hard to tell. :->) I know that some of my stories have what I think of as a transparent voice, while others have a more lyrical or mythic voice--I wonder if these don't align to the language of anecdote and of story, at least in part.
Oct. 14th, 2004 01:14 pm (UTC)
Let me try this again -- and let me once again be grateful that no one is paying me to write this, because clearly a refund would be in order.

For me the language of story is, in fact, a type of language I use only when telling stories. It's the subconscious voice of story, for me. It's its own narrative force.

The language of anecdote is what I would use to tell my friends something that happened. Well, okay, I tend to use more colourful langauge in real life than on-line, but the basic idea is still sound.

Television writing is always anecdotal, to me. It's the dialogue.

The Luna book is consciously written in a very present & modern/contemporary tone -- and I really do have to stop myself and rewrite passages when I lose that sense of tone, in a way that I don't have to when I'm working on a story that's rooted in a different reality. I've actually had three people now tell me there's something anime-like about it. I'm not quite sure how to take that.

Oct. 14th, 2004 01:54 pm (UTC)
Ah! Much like, say, 150 years ago, there was a poetic diction that would never be used in daily conversation but was considered the appropriate language for verse. And today there's a rhetorical language used in political speeches (and sometimes sermons) but rarely elsewhere. (Not that all political speeches use this — Bush's "folksy" manner is when he consciously doesn't.)

Oct. 14th, 2004 05:17 am (UTC)
I can't seem to quite get my head round two concepts for what I've always seen as one thing...like Janni, I see the voice of story, but voices, like those of people around us, vary not just in timbre and gender but in delivery, choice of vocab, emotional clues, etc.

But it's an interesting idea, that's for sure.
Oct. 14th, 2004 01:15 pm (UTC)
I can't seem to quite get my head round two concepts for what I've always seen as one thing...like Janni, I see the voice of story, but voices, like those of people around us, vary not just in timbre and gender but in delivery, choice of vocab, emotional clues, etc.

I tried explaining what I meant a bit more clearly (one hopes <wry g>) in response to Janni's post above -- did it make any more sense, or am I still floundering?
Oct. 14th, 2004 02:41 pm (UTC)
Perhaps some examples are in order....
[No one messes with Morris Dancers, because they might shake a bladder on a stick at you.]

Oh, that's not to worry.

As the world is swung in the grip of gravity, the days will lengthen and warmth and light will increase, but this need not be, in the hearts of men.

The tendrils of lust and striving can flow out the land, and all folk lose the madness of hope and delight. Nothing to see, or to measure, but the birdsong grows dull and the joy falls out of faces, until life is a burden, dealings hold no kindness, and the sun of summer grow wan.

Gone on long enough, and the memory of delight becomes a pain and a mockery, the delusion of impossible things, and all the company of one's fellows sharp and bitter and sullen.

So as you should be glad to hear the hard, bright sounds of bells and the struck oak, you should sorrow to hear the soft, dull flop of the broke-necked corpse going into the bog with a round stone bound into its belly, to drown in the dark, dead, dragging water all glee and weal.

[That's (one of the) (local to Graydon values of) the language of story, something that relies on evocation -- indication of association -- rather than invocation -- naming of things. Evocation works on what you *already know*; 'whomsoever pulls this sword from this stone is rightwise King born of all England' is a 'huh?' line if you don't know the story.]

Nah, man, don't piss off Morris dancers. That shit works.

No, really; it doesn't matter if they believe it, and it *sure* don't matter if they've been drinking. Even Father Abraham's didn't care if you *believed*, eh? It was doing the ritual right that mattered.

Get up early, prance about, wear the bells, wack the sticks, there's more joy in the world. Some of it sticks to you; some of it sticks to the folks round the dancing, and some of it just sort of skitters about until it finds a place or person to light on.

So if you don't get your share of happy karma, not that big a deal; you can probably make that up. But the *other* ritual works, too, the one where they kill you and all the happiness of the season together.

Even aside from the 'damp and gruesome murder' part, that's no fun.

[That's (about as well as I can approximate it) the language of anecdote; direct invocation of things and the relationships of things. If you can skate the line between these, you can do some neat stuff. The best example of that coming to mind is Zelazny --

"He was running as though the Devil Himself was after him.

And I was."

Not an easy thing to pull off, that, and splendidly simple to do horrid bad.]
Oct. 14th, 2004 03:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Perhaps some examples are in order....
Loved this. Especially 'cause I know morris dancers.

Oct. 14th, 2004 03:34 pm (UTC)
I see those as different aspects of voice--but then all these categories we use are not exactly stone-carved!
Oct. 14th, 2004 06:14 am (UTC)
Makes sense to me ;) . My feel of it is that it's akin to the difference between the Latin of the medieval Church and the vernacular that the people actually used -- each legitimate within its own sphere and yet very distinct in tone and purpose. It's the immediacy of "hey, how ya doing, heard your pig took sick" versus the well-worn familiarity of "in nomine Patris, et filii..." that relies on past association for its power.
Oct. 14th, 2004 08:34 am (UTC)
It's an interesting idea. Personally, I suspect there are quite a lot of different broad types that you can divide authorial voices into, and I wouldn't say that any one of them is more "story-like" than any other -- but then maybe we're looking at slightly different definitions of the word 'story'. Having said that, I guess that (like most analog spectra) divisions are going to be fairly arbitrary anyway... One of those places where you pays yer money and takes yer choice, I suspect.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 14th, 2004 01:17 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me as if you want to quantify the capacity for oral transmission of a story. Or at least something close to it. Certain stories lend themselves more to be read out loud, to engage the reader.

This is what I was hoping to avoid invoking. In either case, both are clearly written -- but in tone, the latter for me is entirely contemporary (or my version of contemporary) in sensibility. Pratchett is entirely contemporary in sensibility, and I suppose does lend himself to being read out loud -- but I don't think of his work as particularly oral in tradition.

(Deleted comment)
Oct. 15th, 2004 10:31 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me as if you want to quantify the capacity for oral transmission of a story.

This is where I am having trouble with the idea--because I have numerous friends, couples, who read to each other, and they'll read Pratchett or David Weber one time, and then Kay or George RR Martin the next time. So High Fantasy and Broad Fantasy, or SF based on Hornblower/Wellington, both may read well. It's one of my tests for any book that's a keeper--does it read well aloud? Both Zelazny and Brust can read very well aloud--but not all Brust. He's having a lot of fun with his pastiches, but reading them aloud is a performance in a way reading aloud other books may not be.

I try hard to make sure my own read well. I do understand, though, that M is making a real distinction--I think my fantasy (published) is more accessible than my SF, even though there are unexpected depths to the fantasy.

I hope that made sense--I'm on painkillers...
Oct. 14th, 2004 04:20 pm (UTC)
Starting with the Terms
It's an old debater habit—defining one's terms.

(Hi all, lots of interesting people linked here, and here I found myself.)


If we take Language as a given term, to mean, in this instance as Michelle has insisted, written words, and the syntax, phrasing, in which they are arranged, we can probably leave it at that, and focus on the two contrasted terms: "Story" and "Anecdote"

Story is a weighty word: descended from histoire and historia it shares a common root with history. Webster's gives the definitions "1 archaic a: HISTORY ... 2) a: an account of incidents or events b: a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a question c: ANECDOTE; esp: an amusing one 3 a a fictional narrative shorter than a novel...b: the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work....(blah blah blah)."

Anecdote doesn't carry the weight of the shared root with history. Websters gives anecdote as the third-or-so meaning of story. Its antecedence is Greek; it comes from anekdota, which meant unpublished items. For anecdote, Webster's gives only one defintion: a usu. short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.

So, for the purposes of this discussion, what is the difference between a story and an anecdote?

I would hazard that a story carries all that historia weight. It's a tale that tells the history of something—its place in the pattern of time and events and what came of those events. An anecdote interesting, charming, fun, and even historical, meaning about a time long ago; it's by definition (if you accept Webster's) interesting. But it doesn't carry that weight of history, of partaking of and affecting the pattern and fabric of time.

Hmmm...I don't think I've clarified a thing, darnit! I can't tell you what this says about the language of story or the language of anecdote, except to not, as others have, that we do tend to use different language for each.

Contrast, for example:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

(I don't wish to get into a discussion of the relative merits of either author or book. I simply chose two that were of a different genre and period, and as close to each other in age of writing as I could manage off the top of my head.)

Oct. 14th, 2004 09:01 pm (UTC)
Other than those two?
Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men begins with driving directions which incidentally describe several landscapes. I don't think this is either language of story or language of anecdote, and I don't know what to call it. (The rest of the novel is in the language of anecdote -- except that it's also in the language of story. Or perhaps not; that's how it seems to me.)

There's the language of nonfiction -- or perhaps the languages of nonfiction. It's most obvious in pseudo-nonfiction such as John Brunner's consumer reports on such things as time machines, or guidebooks to other worlds. But it's also used for parts of various stories (short or novel-length) by Jack Vance.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 15th, 2004 10:39 pm (UTC)
Another example--
Where do we put books like Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna, both books with an interesting blend of non-fiction lecture, an anecdotal "modern" voice for those living the story, and a voice that is, for want of a better word, the voice of myth?
Oct. 16th, 2004 06:23 am (UTC)
Re: Another example--
I'd say those were both very meta -- they've got sections in the language of story('this happened to notable persons in another time'), sections in the language of anecdote ('this happened to me'), sections in the language of reason ('we may conclude that this happens on the following factual basis'), and sections in the language of conviction ('this must be so (as any fool can see)'), all set up to interact with each other and make it obvious to the reader that all these things are constructed, even if the speaker -- the voice of the passage of writing -- isn't clear on that point.

I think they're brilliant, but they're also narratively highly complex.
Oct. 16th, 2004 08:55 am (UTC)
Re: Another example--
I think they're brilliant, but they're also narratively highly complex.

Yes--but when you read the book, they don't feel complex. Like reading Zelazny--it's magic, but you don't see how the cards are shuffled or where the coin comes from. And where was that rabbit hidden?

But this gives us four categories, so can M's system work for these books?
Oct. 16th, 2004 09:42 am (UTC)
Re: Another example--
Er, well, when I read Ms. Yolen's Great Alta books, they did feel complex; I was looking at the structure and the way the choice of language was set up to support it and going 'wow!' and 'I wonder if I can steal that' and 'what's that bit of mechanism for?'.

The experience of reading differs; I think that's the only reliable thing about it.

Language of Story/Language of Anecdote are not intended -- I know I don't intend them, and I would lay strong odds that Michelle would not so intend them even in the grip of one of Gollum's opium dreams -- as a comprehensive taxonomy; they're names for a type of stuff.

It's almost -- like tragedy and comedy -- enough for a descriptor of approaches to fiction; is this now, or in some other time? (There are certainly no dragons in England today.) Does this portray persons of greater scope -- whether in grace and dignity or achievement or villany -- than anyone you know, or does it portray recognizable persons from out of your experience? (Compare Gawain and The Canterbury Tales.)

I could even argue that the fundamental problem with the Lord of the Rings movies is that the books are written -- especially the last two -- in the Language of Story, and the effort of adapting them to the movie format was also an effort to put them into the Language of Anecdote, where import parts would not go. (Tell me those were Noldor. Go on, I dare ya.)

But, useful or not, it's not -- like any other dichotomy is not -- comprehensive, nor complete.

I do find it very useful as a way to think about what I'm doing, because my default voice for fiction is regarded even by those who appreciate it as being off in some far country, at a distance beyond that which many readers would care to make the effort of journeying, and so fundamentally unsuitable as the kind of tourist destination which gets package tours and development investment.
Oct. 16th, 2004 10:52 am (UTC)
Re: Another example--
I do find it very useful as a way to think about what I'm doing, because my default voice for fiction is regarded even by those who appreciate it as being off in some far country, at a distance beyond that which many readers would care to make the effort of journeying, and so fundamentally unsuitable as the kind of tourist destination which gets package tours and development investment.

Hummm...I think this is the loveliest way of saying "I don't write in a current bestseller voice" that I've heard. A problem of my works as well, I suspect, though I occasionally push for a more accessible voice.

I think Jane's Alta books touched me on multiple levels, which is why I don't remember thinking of them as complex. I deeply enjoyed them, but haven't re-read them--I think because so much of them still moves within me.

I don't know if you can aim for that kind of writing--I think it just bubbles out of us, like a spring....
Oct. 17th, 2004 02:31 pm (UTC)
I love this. I feel that I understand what you're saying, though I'm sure that in this, as in everything else involving process, everyone is interpreting it slightly differently. But this makes perfect sense to me.

I think that maybe some of the difficulty arising in interpretation of this concept might stem from viewing "the language of story" as a term of classification, rather than viewing it as a specific description of the tone of an individual story. You can say that Book X and Book Y both invoke "the language of story", but you can't universally say that the "language of story" is a sort of mode of delivery. Though, well... hmm... I'm not sure if that makes sense... let me try to explain more clearly.

When writing a character, their personality, their essence, determines the cadences of their speech and intricacies of their actions. Stories, as living entities of their own comprised of many inner workings, have their own personalities. The difference, as I see it, between "language of story" and "language of anecdote" is the difference between letting the story tell itself - autobiagraphically so to speak, in its own style and personal cadence - and telling the story from an outsider's point of view. The latter imparts a greater sense of clarity and view, the former invokes a sense of tone and undercurrent that brings the story to life as much through impression as through intellect. I'm not saying that the "language of anecdote" does not convey tone or subtlety, because it most decidedly can; a story's merits exist in some ways independently of their "trappings." Rather I'm saying that one "language" presents itself as an observation, and the other as an introspection. Or perhaps it would be best described by saying that the "language of anecdote" is the work of a translator recounting the story, while the "language of story" is the story itself speaking in its native tongue.

Maybe an even clearer comparison could be drawn by using Point Of View as a model. The impression you get of a story told in first person is completely tinted by the personality of the point of view character; there can be details expertly described in an objective manner, but you never lose the tonal impression of the narrating character. (At least you don't in good first person narrative.) In a way, this is similar to the "langauge of story," in which comparison the character's point of view is considered the story. The same example holds, to a lesser degree, when considering third person limited as a point of view. I gravitate most frequently to writing in third person limited, and in this mode, when I switch from one character's point of view to another's, the entire cadence of the writing can change, because I am deeply into that character's thinking and feeling process.

In this manner, assume that a story itself, as a greater entity, has its own point of view, regardless of what narrative devices are used within it. The language of a story that features a culture which prides itself on subtlety of speech and thought would be a subtle one, given to complex turns of phrase which evoke layered imagery and require an unraveling of words in order to get at the heart of what is being said. The same story told in the "language of anecdote" would paint a clear picture of the culture without shaping the narrative itself in a mold of the culture in question. Both representations are valid, engaging, and illuminating - one simply allows the story to live outside of itself, while the other does not.

And of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and variations on every theme.

Anyway, that's how I interpreted what you were saying, Michelle, and how I view my own work as well as the works I read. Is this drivel in any way in keeping with what you meant? :)
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