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Snake Hands and Consequence

Snake Hands and Consequence

By Rebecca Daff, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     This year we were lucky enough to have John Crowley deliver a craft lecture at our winter residency, and I had additional good fortune in that he addressed the very technique-related issue I’ve been struggling with in my writing: borderline-anemic first drafts. Crowley’s advice was like a laser beam of authorly goodness shot into my brain. Epiphanies galore—enough, actually, for me to come up to him after the lecture and flat-out tell him “you just diagnosed and fixed my first novel.”

      In Threaded Scales, my protagonist, Christina’s, journey is fairly straightforward—a neat, single arc with no real deviation. It reads like this: A happens then B happens, then—wait for it—C happens. Because there aren’t many major twists and turns in the novel, the rough draft only ended up being 253 pages. Christina has obstacles on her journey, sure, but she never stops moving forward to her final destination. Compare this to Sam and Frodo’s path in Lord of the Rings. What if Sam and Frodo plodded doggedly along toward Mount Doom, having to navigate some obstacles but moving in a somewhat-straight line toward their goal? What if Frodo never got captured and taken further away from Mount Doom? What would the books be like if his relationship with Sam was never tested and he and Sam were always together? Perhaps Lord of the Rings, instead of being a several-book series, would only be a 253-page novel.


I told you about Path: Path is like a snake, it curls around the whole of Little Belaire with its head in the middle and the tip of its tail by Buckle cord’s door, but only someone who knows Little Belaire can see where it runs. To someone else, it would seem to run off in all directions. So when you run along Path, and here is something that looks to be Path, but you find it is only rooms interlocking in a little maze that has no exits but back to Path—that’s a snake’s-hand. It runs off the snake of Path like a set of little fingers. It’s also called a snake’s-hand because a snake has no hands, and likewise there is only one Path. But a snake’s-hand is also more: my story is a Path, too, I hope; and so it must have its snake’s-hands. Sometimes the snake’s-hands in a story are the best part, if the story is a long one. – John Crowley, Engine Summer


     A large part of Crowley’s craft talk also focused on causality. He suggested that if your work feels too thin and your characters are plodding along (“and then, and then, and then”), it may be an issue of them “not living in time.” If characters are living in time in their world then what happens in their lives is always a result of what has happened before. Crowley wants you to consider the following: Is the end of your character’s journey a natural result of everything that has happened in the course of the book or is it just where the character ended up? To find out, take the end of the book and view it as the cause of everything that happened before. Looking backward, is it inevitable that all these things happened? Does the end necessitate, or cause, everything that happened before it? If your characters are living in time then events do not happen outside of consequence. And like life, things rarely happen in a linear fashion, but if we look back from our current vantage point, we can clearly see all the things that happened made the fact that we’re at this spot, in this position in our lives, inevitable.

     He explained all of this much better, but I think it boils down to a basic truth: a series of events a book does not make. A novel is made up of causes and consequences, each one flowing naturally from the other. Events have real meaning for characters and alter not only the path they follow, but truly affect who they are. To not take these things into consideration when writing could result in a story that reads like you’re pulling your protagonist along with a piece of string. And that’s the last thing you want after spending months, or years, writing your novel.

Contact Information

Kristen Thompson

Published on March 03, 2015

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