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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. 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? :)