Have you ever dreamed of being royalty? Maybe you’re an Anglophile and enjoy a little BBC or even just a monarchic fantasy (like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings). At some point in your life—if you’re a girl—you’ve probably imagined yourself in place of one animated princess or another. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but the idea of living in a palace, surrounded by beautiful rooms (and—ahem—being married to a handsome prince) has a certain romantic appeal.
Now imagine what your life would be like if you could communicate with animals? What would you say to your beloved canine, feline, or equine friends? What might they say back? Could be kind of amazing, don’t you think?
But what if you were a crown prince or princess who possessed the gift of “animal-speaking” in a kingdom largely suspicious of such a feat? The law might state you’re destined to rule, but your gift makes you an outcast—it works against you. People’s narrowed eyes and whispered rumors follow you around, the animals you speak to are your only friends, and—unlike your respected “people-speaking” mother—you have no skill for ruling the masses… That, in a nutshell, is Shannon Hale’s novelized version of The Goose Girl, the story of Crown Princess Anidori and her coming-of-age journey of self-discovery and fulfillment.
It’s a clean young-adult-targeted retelling of the original brothers Grimm fairy tale, and I have to say, I was impressed. Depending on what you’re accustomed to reading, it might not be your particular blend of coffee (or tea), but for me two attributes stood out as potential lessons for aspiring authors. First, the lyrical style, rich with imagery and sensory details captivated me from the very first sentence. Second, the emotional journey grabbed hold and sucked me in—and still it resonates whenever I contemplate the basic message.
In my own words…
Princess Anidori couldn’t succeed until she stopped trying to be her mother, and you won’t succeed either—except as yourself. As for the writing lessons, we’ll dig a little deeper into Hale’s style and emotional impact in the sections below…
What I find so fascinating about Hale’s style is that it contradicts a number of basic writing guidelines (like the sheer abundance of similes and the far narrative distance, which, on the face, appears “telling” with a shallow point of view)… and yet the overall effect is vivid, sensory, and beautiful. Take the opening, for example:
“She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days. The pacing queen directed ministers and physicians to the crib. They listened to her breathing and her hummingbird heart, felt her fierce grip and her tiny fingers soft as salamander skin. All was sound. But her eyes did not open. For three days the grave-faced attendants came and went. They prodded her, lifted her lids, slipped thick yellow syrups down her throat.”
First consider, “She was born…” In this opening sentence, the author is conveying facts—telling readers something they need to know. One of the biggest rules in fiction is “Show don’t tell,” and any use of the verb “to be” can indicate telling in progress.
Hale could’ve opened with the baby’s red-faced squall (or some quieter “show”). She could’ve employed dialogue to convey the same information stated via narration. Instead, she puts readers at a distance by inserting a narrator between them and the action. (And did you notice the point of view character isn’t clear?)
Even so…this style is—in my opinion—not only perfect for a fairy tale, but also—in Hale’s case—it avoids the common pitfalls of its narrative-heavy approach by incorporating sensory details through unique (cliché-free) vivid words and similes. As a reader, I might not have been much impressed if the physicians had heard Anidori’s “rapid heartbeat, felt her strong grip and little fingers as soft as a baby’s bottom” (or “as soft as silk”—take your pick). But “hummingbird heart” for a sound? And for touch, “soft as salamander skin” or “thick yellow syrups [that slip] down her throat”? Much better.
The takeaway message is this: For anyone who’s ever tried to achieve deep point of view or “Show don’t tell” in their own writing, Hale’s style might seem to break “the rules” more often than not. But consider what Dwight Swain says in his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer: “To keep rules in proper perspective, violate them by design only. That is, make them tools for manipulation of your reader’s emotions. If that takes sentence fragments, non-punctuation, stream-of-consciousness, and one word paragraphs, by all means use them.”
If you can provoke emotion more readily by using (for example) a farther narrative distance—do it.
Is there any aspect of fiction more important than emotion? It’s true, a story with stagnant emotion can’t hold reader interest for long, but what about plot without emotion? There’s no need to debate which fictional element is most critical to success—no one aspect stands alone—BUT… I think any seasoned writer would generally agree that emotion is pretty high up on the list.
And I don’t mean the characters’ emotions, though that can be a factor.
On one extreme, characters melodramatically boo-hoo, with feelings so obvious as to bash readers over the head. Such tactics, however, are more likely to provoke eye rolls than engage reader emotion or interest. At the other end of the spectrum, a character’s emotional reaction might not be described at all and yet readers walk away with a deep sympathetic angst. The lesson? Sometimes story circumstances speak for themselves. Even when they do, there’s nothing wrong with showing a character’s realistic emotional reaction.
Still, as Donald Maass says in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” He goes on to say, “What the novelist is doing…is not causing readers to feel as the novelist does, or as his characters do, but rather inducing for each reader a unique emotional journey through a story.”
So… When our hearts fist around strangled capillaries, damming up angst and blood as we read some imaginary scene, we know the author has touched us on a deep emotional level. If a scene milks our emotions, perhaps it somehow speaks to the cavernous vacancies in our own soul.
Even so, certain scenarios tend to have a universal impact: love, loss, injustice, rejection… We can put our feet in the shoes of a character who has—in a very specific and lifelike way—been subjected to these broad universals, and experience for ourselves what they might feel.
Consider these snippets about Princess Ani from Hale’s novel (and the UNIVERSALS that describe them):
“In her world of cold marble floors and aged tutors and whispering children, only the animal-speaking felt like her own thing and the [swan] pond her own place.” OSTRACISM & LONELINESS
“The queen was like some terribly beautiful bird whose language [Ani] did not yet understand, and she felt her thin body fill with the desire to understand, and to please.” LONGING & FUTILITY
“It is time you learn your place, Crown Princess. You will be the next queen, and your people will not trust a queen who makes up stories and seems to talk to wild beasts.” DISAPPROVAL & REJECTION
“These people watch me, their future queen. I need to seem strong. She straightened and stopped her tears [at her father’s funeral], but next to her mother, she felt only half-formed.” INADEQUACY
“Ani saw herself clearly in that moment, as a face in darkness gains sudden dimensions in a flash of lightning—a young girl, a silly thing, a lapdog, a broken mare. She did as she was told. She rarely gave thought to her duties or spent deep hours or acted alone. She realized she would never have been capable of taking her mother’s place. That realization did not bring relief. Instead, the thought of the journey and her unknown future chilled her skin and pricked her stomach with dread.” FAILURE & FEAR
“The aunt pointed north, where few people lived and trees grew thick and prickly green all year, and where the girl could not follow. “I’m going home,” she said. She kissed Ani’s forehead, but her eyes did not leave the purple horizon. “Don’t forget all you have learned. If your mother discovers what I have taught you, she will take it away. I know her. The only thing she has ever wanted is shiny and fits around her brow. Still, you are better off with her, gosling. I would not wish my solitude on you. Stay and learn to be happy.” The princess sat on a stone, rested her arm on the back of a swan, and thought how her chest felt like a gutted walnut shell, and wondered if that sensation might last forever. She watched her aunt walk away, disappearing into a tiny spot of green that the eye tricked into a shadow of a rock a long way in the distance.” ABANDONMENT & LOSS
What do you think? Can you relate to these excerpts? Do you agree there’s power in the universal? For a chance to win your choice of a paperback* or e-copy of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, leave a comment below. Double your chances by sharing this article on Facebook and pasting the link below. If I get more than 20 different commenters, I’ll give away two copies instead of just one. (*Physical copies for U.S. residents only.)