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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.


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.)