I’ve been reading Les Miserables lately (I wasn’t happy with the story line in the musical, so I had to find out for myself. But I do love the music). It’s amazing.
I’ve always loved the writing style of the 19th Century. At the same time it can be a pain to get through and just down right confusing (no scanning paragraphs). I still think there’s a lot for writers to take from it…and a little bit not.
Starting with the Waterloo. About a quarter through the book, Hugo sidetracks to the Battle of Waterloo. He does this for two reasons: to give historical context (even though the event happened years before) and explain the name that Thenardier gives his tavern.
So, for the immediate sake of characterization and story line,only the last bit of Waterloo was actually relevant.
Not that I wouldn’t mind reading an account of Waterloo. I know about zip about it. Plus Hugo’s commentary is insightful and interesting. However, while gripping the pages of a well-loved paper back, wondering what is going to happen to Valjean ans how he will finally get to Cossete, I. Don’t. Care. About. Napoleon.
So even though in the 19th Century that was acceptable, and common, to get sidetracked for five chapters, I would not advise it now. But what if a long narrative is needed for the plot line? What if something has to be explained, some history moment illustrated out so that the reader can understand the rest of the story?
Make it part of the story itself.
Perhaps make it a riveting opening sequence. Have a character tell the story to someone else. Give the reader what was promised: a continuing story that grabs their attention and their affection.
Which brings me to my next point. In ballet class this past week, the teacher said always give what you promised, but then give a little more.
The little more is what Hugo gives.
His writing is never just a story. It is never just the formula of a narrative. Not jut conflict and resolutions. He gives insight. He makes you think.
“It is one of those moments of blinding and yet frighteningly calm insight when the thought goes so deep that it passes beyond reality. The tangible world is no longer seen; all that we see, as though from outside, is the world of our own spirit.” 1.
This describes a profound moment where Valjean has what we would call an “out of body experience”. The key moment where Valjean turns from felon to hero. Hugo indeed could have used our simply words, but he didn’t. He took it deeper, as well he should. A writer’s purpose is speak what cannot be spoken. It is to illuminate those thoughts and feelings that too often we cannot explain to ourselves or others. A writer’ true mission is to teach humanity the truths of itself that humanity cannot express.
Well. That just went a long way.
But that’s my point. Good writing isn’t just entertainment, it is knowledge given to the reader. So summed up:
Give what you promised, then give a little more.
Pg. 117 Les Miserables, Penguin Books. Really old beat up edition. (I ripped the cover off by accident. Sorry!)
P.S. Do you ever writer late at night, and your mind just starts to die?
Me: how do you spell “go”? Does it have a w at the end? No, it’s an e! No you dummy, it’s just g o.