Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere is a funny macabre urban fantasy that focuses on a regular everyman named Richard. One night, he accidentally gets sucked into a magical world beneath London. And when I say beneath London, I mean in the sewers. It’s a mucky dank world where most people are out for themselves as they barter, plot, and kill. Richard’s sole motivation is to get home to “London Above” as he goes on an adventure with a ragtag group seeking an angel named Islington who may or may not be able to help them all. It’s a delightful story, one that features Gaiman’s vivid witty writing. I admired page after page of it. What I admired most though was his ability to deftly weave emotions into the plot. Neverwhere offers a great lesson in how to write emotion. Here are the techniques he used:
After Richard discovers the character Door bleeding on the street, he carries her back to his flat. This is the wrong choice, he knows that, since moments earlier he made the choice to leave his girlfriend Jessica behind. They were headed to an important dinner with her boss. Here’s how feels about it:
Somewhere in the sensible part of his head, someone — a normal, sensible Richard Mayhew — was telling him how ridiculous he was being: that he should just have called the police, or an ambulance; that it was dangerous to lift an injured person; that he had really, seriously, properly upset Jessica; that he was going to have to sleep on the sofa tonight; that he was spoiling his only good suit; that the girl smelled quite dreadful … but Richard found himself placing one foot in front of the other … he just kept walking.
This is a great passage that shows Richard’s contradictory mix of emotions. He’s disappointed with himself for not ignoring Door, guilty at ditching Jessica, annoyed that Door smells, and finally numb in the name of doing the right thing. And we witness how he actually thinks it through. We all have interior selves arguing about what to do and how to feel sometimes and Gaiman captures that internal struggle well.
Close Point of View
When Richard’s at his office and his desk is being carried away by co-workers who should notice him but no longer really do, he realizes he has disappeared from the upper London world. His frustration and shock and panic all come through in a simple exclamation that’s italicized to denote his immediate, internal reaction: I don’t need this shit.
Physical Action & Description
Halfway through the story, Richard finds himself on a high plank in an elevator shaft. We feel his intense fear through what he does. The description masterfully incorporates his actions, his thoughts, his feelings, his desires.
Richard stepped off the shaking platform, and onto the wooden board; then his legs turned to jelly beneath him, and he found himself on all fours on the plank, holding on for dear life…. The rest of his mind, however, was engaged in telling all his limbs to clutch the plank rigidly, and in screaming at the top of its mental voice, “I don’t want to die.” Richard closed his eyes as tightly as he could, certain that if he opened them, and saw the rock wall below him, he would simply let go of the plank, and fall, and fall, and–
An implied feeling via the words in dialogue can often be most effective. When Door won’t accept a creepy woman named Lamia that Richard found and who’s offered to guide the group, he feels indignant. That comes through in his verbal response to Door’s refusal.
“You just don’t like it that I’m sorting everything out for once, instead of following blindly behind you going where I’m told.”
Sometimes Gaiman says it straightforwardly with an adjective to describe Richard’s feelings. It’s not as complex or sophisticated as the passages that describe his interior monologue but it keeps the emotion flowing alongside as Richard experiences it.
Richard folded his arms, exasperated.
Richard looked around, puzzled.
Well Used Adverbs
How many books and articles have you read that say you should never use adverbs in your writing? I’ve read plenty and though I avoid them, I do use them once in awhile. I think adverbs can be effective when a character does an action that can be truly described with an adverb. For instance, you can say, “She waved cheerfully” or “She waved slowly.” Those give off different connotations. Gaiman uses adverbs in these kinds of instances.
When he bumps into Lamia again, now knowing of her vampire-like ways, Gaiman writes:
Richard raised the knife, nervously, remembering the chilly passion of her embrace, how pleasant it was and how cold.
Similarly, toward the book’s end, when his friend Garry asks him if he wants to talk about his spacey melancholy state, he writes:
Richard looked at him seriously. “You’ll laugh at me.”
This last adverb especially pulls its weight as we know what Richard has been through. He can’t take the story lightly. Richard can’t look at Garry’s offer to talk any other way because his adventure has been so unreal and life-changing. It’s a small but effective way to reveal Richard’s feeling at that moment.
Practice and Patience
I believe including emotion in a story is the most difficult aspect of writing. It can come off as stiff and unconvincing. Some how-to writing books recommend you only describe emotion via a character’s physical manifestations. “She stiffened,” or “His fingers trembled.” This is an effective strategy but it can stray toward parody when used again and again. I mean, how many times can a character’s hands tremble? Conversely, Gaiman uses all types of techniques, mixing in the physical with the psychological. This is what makes his writing so rich and our attachment to Richard so strong. I’m sure it took him many years and many drafts to master it. I can’t recall if he’s done this assorted approach with later books like American Gods, but it certainly helped to make Neverwhere the timeless classic that it is.
To learn more about writing techniques, see my post, Why Reading Aloud is the Best Editing Tool.
I’m in the final stages of editing a manuscript. Today I read the book aloud. It took a long time. Doing it such a pain — it sounds strange to hear your voice after sitting for so long in silence, and it’s physically arduous — but my gosh, is it revealing. I find all sorts of mistakes and clumsiness. And I find the strong sentences too. But mostly the flawed. That’s why reading aloud is the best editing tool. I highly recommend it for any writer, fiction or nonfiction. Here are the things I discover when I do it.
Repeating words or gestures
I read aloud and hear that my protagonist shifted in his seat twice in the space of a page. I used “against” twice in a paragraph. Ehh! Buzzer.
Phrases like “had to be heard at” or “being uncomfortable with what was” or whatever I may write that ends up sounding like a Sarah Palin spoof.
Overused or too many metaphors
Did I just compare that woman to a weasel and then a sentence later her hat to a fox? Is that man’s round face like the moon? Baaad… remove.
Do I need both “vivid” and “green” to describe the field. Should I say “cramped” forest or is a forest by its nature cramped? Kill the darling description. Tighten, tighten, until the rhythm is smooth.
Didn’t my protagonist already tell his cousin, in a slightly different way, that he’s anxious to confront the villain? Yes, I wouldn’t have caught that had I been reading silently. And, do I really need so many attributions? “He said,” “she said,” etc. Probably not.
And lastly, and most importantly, what I learn from reading aloud is how the tension rises and falls. Where the slow spots are. And whether or not all of that works. If not, it’s sixteen steps backward and into reconfiguring plot scenes and internal sequels. Luckily, I worked those issues out earlier in the year and didn’t have to do that today. Whew.
One thing I don’t necessarily learn but think is a great benefit is hearing yourself tell the story, hearing your voice, how you project or don’t, how you simply articulate words, and how quickly you read. The delivery of the story to the outside reader is incredibly important, because after all, that’s what this whole endeavor is about.
For more writing advice, see my post, A Lesson From Neil Gaiman in How to Write Emotion.