Wednesday, December 28, 2011

[Wōdnes-dæg] A Lesson from Clive Cussler

Once more the Christmas season is come and gone, but my urge to learn more carries on. Some recent holiday reading is the source of the learning this week. Though it's holiday reading because of timing rather than theme.

Lately, I've been learning a little bit about what makes an intriguing and interesting book. As much as can be learned from the work of Clive Cussler, that is.

As one of the most popular writers of the end of the 20th century, it seems like he's one to check out for style pointers. Though, looking into Cussler's style has also taught me what I know to be true of my own as much as it has shown me what works.

What I've noticed the most about Cussler's writing is that his dialogue handles exposition quite badly. Bits of information just keep dripping off of it like drops of fat from spit-roasting hunk of meat and then leaping from the flames and into the laps of those sitting too close to the flames. As a result this expositional dialogue strikes me as hackneyed and quite out of place.

What my critique of this dialogue comes down to is that factual exposition tends to make dialogue seem unrealistic. The sort of stuff that any real, live person might say "Oh, that's neat" to. Or perhaps something like "why are you telling me this?" So on that count, I have learned what not to do. Keep the facts to the narrator, but keep them relevant to the story.

When the narrator does go on about facts and figures for an extended period of time (specifically in Shock Wave) the narrator's voice sounds stilted. Sure this is interesting, but how is it relevant to the story? A nice sidebar about the status and habits of penguins is nice, but it's just pointless window dressing if it doesn't come up again later on.

As per Cussler's general description? Spot on. I really like the way that he clearly describes his characters and their features. And I like how he uses small details to fill in for personality descriptions. Ticks and mannerisms and side activities are the things that give characters life. However, having the narrator describe anything as "evil" makes me a little wary. Describing an aspect of Boudicca, a daughter of diamond magnate Arthur Dorsett (in the book Shock Wave), as "evil" is a nice bit of subjective description, but it is something that a seemingly omniscient narrator should stay away from.

Now, the way that Cussler describes his action scenes is exceptional. However, I think that it succumbs to too much insider talk. I don't necessarily mean that he gets down to the nitty gritty of what kind of shoe is on a foot as it does a specific kind of kick, but he seems to bring out the specialist vocabulary in his fight scenes for the sake of brevity.

Interestingly, though it's not sentence brevity that Cussler focuses on with this specializing technique. A fair number of his fight/action scenes actually seem to have longer sentences than those found elsewhere in the book, and yet these flow as smoothly as any other. What makes the difference, it seems to me, is that long sentences in action sequences are simpler than long sentences elsewhere. And, perhaps the most important thing to be learned from Cussler's action writing: The period is not just the end of a single self-sufficient unit of expression but is also the signal of the end of a sequence or chain of rapid fire events.

Keeping dialogue to dialogue, making description clear, and on topic, and making the flow of my writing mimic the flow of action sequences. These are the things that I'm going to start carrying into my own fiction writing. I might pick up an older Cussler to see if there are any differences between what his style was and what it is. Even if I don't, Shock Wave has definitely showed me another style, and taught another approach to writing. And for that, I thank it.

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