Well, I thought that I’d write about a few of the clever hidden tricks that writers use today (kind of like how game designers use hidden mechanics in videogames).
This article was initially inspired by a few of the books that I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly about a month and a half before I wrote this article. But, although I’ll be talking about some of these books, the cool hidden features I’ll be describing can be found in other books too. In fact, you might have seen a few of them without even realising it.
1) Internal recaps: At the time of writing, I’m binge-reading a ridiculously long 700+ page historical detective novel called “Lamentation” by C. J. Sansom. One of the interesting things about binge-reading a novel of this length is that it means that I was able to spot a really cool hidden feature that is designed to help out people who read it at a slightly slower pace.
In short, every once in a while (such as on page 201) there will be a recap of some of the previous events of the story. Either the narrator will briefly mention how some new clue connects to a previous clue that he has found, or there will be a scene where he spends a few paragraphs thinking about the earlier events of the investigation.
My initial reaction to all of this was “I know!!! I’ve been taking notes!” or “I worked that out on my own already!“. But then I realised that these short recaps are actually a really clever way to make sure that people who, say, only read thirty or fifty pages a day can still follow the complex events of the story. They’re kind of like the “previously..” segments at the beginning of TV show episodes – which are annoying if you’re binge-watching a boxset, but great if you’re watching one episode a week in the traditional manner.
So, if you’re telling a novel-length story, then it can be useful to occasionally include brief recaps of what has happened earlier in the story. Just like how novels in a series will sometimes quickly mention events from earlier novels in the series (to help both new readers and long-term readers), it can also be useful to briefly recap the earlier events of the story that you’re telling right now.
2) Hinting at a larger world/story: This is a technique that I noticed during both the final novel in Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series and in Dashiell Hammett’s excellent “The Maltese Falcon“. Both stories will hint at a much larger story or “world” than is actually shown on the page – either through brief descriptions (that imply background stuff that isn’t directly explained or shown), through tantalisingly brief descriptions of really fascinating background events or through showing a dramatic event and then partially leaving what happens afterwards to the reader’s imagination.
When used well, this sneaky technique is useful because it helps to immerse the reader in the story. Although this might sound like it would annoy the reader, it has the opposite effect – it makes them curious. It makes them want to imagine what else happens in your story’s “world” and it makes them want more. It can also be a sneaky way to give your characters and/or story more depth than is shown on the page.
This technique is nothing new though and the most famous example of it can be seen in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Although most of Doyle’s stories will focus on just one of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, there will occasionally be ultra-brief references to some of Holmes’ previous cases. Some of these will be cases that appear in other stories but, in a stroke of genius, some of them aren’t.
This hints to the reader that they’re only seeing a few of the many intriguing mysteries that Holmes has solved. Not only does this make him seem like a character that exists independently of the events shown in the stories, but it also makes him seem like a more prolific detective too.
3) Easily- readable historical narration: One of the clever things that I’ve noticed in historical novels written in the 21st century, like Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” and C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation”, is how they’re able to create an ‘authentic’ historical setting whilst still using first-person narration that is very readable to modern audiences.
The narration in both these novels still sounds a lot like something from Victorian London/Tudor England, but these novels are as easy and intuitive to read as a non-historical modern novel would be. And, if you’ve ever tried to read anything that is actually from Victorian or Tudor times, then you’ll know how… challenging… these things can be to read when compared to modern writing.
So, how do they do it? These writers look at the general linguistic features of writing from these times and then apply some of the underlying “rules” from this to more straightforward modern-style narration. The important thing is choosing which rules to follow and which ones to ignore. Basically, if a rule gets in the way of the story, then it has to go.
For example, the Victorian-style narration in Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” keeps the formal language and style used in 19th century fiction, but sticks to using words and sentence structures that modern readers will easily understand. On the other hand, the narration ditches the frequent references to classical mythology that are a common part of 19th century fiction (because modern readers will be confused by these).
Likewise, the 16th century-style narration in Sansom’s “Lamentation” is kept very readable because it uses a slightly modernised version of the more “matter of fact” tone used in non-fiction writing from this time (rather than, say, the elegant theatrical poetry of Shakespeare). In other words, it focuses on using the more “timeless” parts of the English language, but with modern spelling and grammar. This is then complimented by a few carefully-chosen historical words and phrases that usually make sense from the context that they’re used in.
So, yes, if you want to make historical fiction narration more readable, then look at the “rules” used by writers of the time you are studying and then try to find an unobtrusive way to apply some of them to more modern-style narration.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂