Thursday, December 28, 2006

Learning from the Masters: Neil Gaiman, Part II

In college, I hung out with a bunch of guys after we all got done practicing. At nine, ten o'clock, we'd all sit around, drink, and listen to recordings. (Or "listen to recordings.") Just a way to relax after an intense day of working.

Anyway, there was a friend of a guy in our group, who would come up now and then. Whenever he did, he'd end up standing in the middle of the room, recounting stories from his past. He was a natural storyteller; even if you'd heard him tell the story ten thousand times, you still eagerly looked forward to the story, because you knew that no matter what, you were going to laugh your ass off.

In fact, even when he'd say the first sentence of his story, a benign, short first sentence that hardly had any meaning at all, you'd start chuckling. You couldn't help it. You just knew that this was going to be good.

Neil Gaiman is like that.

In the first three chapters, there's hook after hook after hook. Layers and layers of them, hooking short, hooking long, and they surface all over the place. When you're reading it, you know that you're in the hands of a master storyteller, and you just can't help but love every moment of it. It's just thoroughly entertaining.

So when he starts Chapter Four with this short, boring sentence, it's not at all boring, and it's so loaded and full of promises, that you immediately grin and want to rub your hands together with glee. You just know that this is going to be good. The sentence is so understated that it's hilarious:

"Fat Charlie woke up."
See? All by itself it's nothing, even cliche. But in the context of his writing, it's like when my friend from college would take his position in the middle of the room, and start recounting his stories.

He does this again in Chapter Five, when he begins with "Fat Charlie was thirsty." But this time he builds on it in a way that's almost like poetry. He starts short, builds on it, and builds on it even more as if revving up an engine before screeching down the street at top speed.

"Fat Charlie was thirsty.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt and his mouth tasted evil and his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins which was why it hurt to try and think, and his eyes were not just too tight in his head but they must have rolled out in the night and been reattached with roofing nails; and now he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting slowly past each other was above his pain threshold. Also, he wished he were dead."

Hah! Now see, that makes me grin. First, the long sentence almost mimics the overwhelming feeling of pain one feels when hungover. There's no place to take a breath until halfway through, just like there's no relief from the pain and discomfort the morning after. The comma and the semi-colon are almost like the gasps of air one takes in when it hurts to breathe or move.

And then, after the world's longest sentence (okay, not quite), he ends with one of his short sentences. "Also, he wished he were dead." I don't know why that strikes me as funny. It's a cliche, but instead of starting with the cliche, he starts with this rambling, long description that colors the feeling of the morning after perfectly. At the end, he just adds, "Also," which in itself is funny. Also? What also? Also implies two, and after all that description, "Also," is so understated that it's funny.

He adds, "he wished he were dead," which is what a whole lot of writers would have started with, but now it carries more power and weight, because of all that had come before.

In the middle of Chapter Six, Gaiman starts another section with one of his short sentences.

"Spider felt odd."

Again, as a reader, you get that gleeful feeling, like you just know something big is going to happen. "Odd" sounds like "just a little bit off," and the understated nature of the word, in Gaiman's hands, is loaded with promises of big things to come. He goes on, of course, to describe the odd feeling perfectly.

The short, understated but loaded sentence is often found in folk tales and old stories. This is the only book I've read by Neil Gaiman, so I can't say whether this is his style, or whether he is using them to give a myth-feeling to a book that deals with little gods and such. It's something to experiment with, though. Something to add to the tool chest.

1 bonus scribbles:

Edie 12/28/2006 05:16:00 PM  

You hooked me. This is definitely on my to-buy list.