Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.
Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.
Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).
Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.
Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.
Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.
Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.
I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.
Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”
Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:
1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.
In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.
2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.
Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.
3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.
In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.
I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.
None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.
My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.