The Secret History, Donna Tartt — a Post on Writing Technique

What does it mean to tell a story? When I think of “telling a story,” I am thinking specifically of the act of verbal storytelling – perhaps around a fire with an audience of people who can leave at any moment. In this situation of verbal storytelling, it’s important to keep your listeners in anticipation of what might come next. It is also helpful to inform them about the world of your story. And to tell them about the kind of story you are telling, and to fulfill that kind of explanation.

Digressions that explain the storyteller’s apprehension of what is to come are most welcome, as such pieces of the “story” build towards satisfying narrative and powerful insights into the characters. On the other hand, self-indulgent words or metaphorical flourishes that detract from the flow of the narrative lose the audience that is collected in the light of the storyteller’s firelit circle.

If you are sitting with a bunch of 11 year old boys (or girls) by a bonfire, and you begin by saying “I’m going to tell you a scary story,” you darn well better fulfill that expectation. Also, it’s possible to stop your story part way through, and provide some narrative explanation for what is happening to your character (first person or third person). For example, one might pause the forward momentum to observe that “he was really scared now, scared in a way that cuts right down to your bones. You ever felt that way? I know I have, and my blood turns to ice.” Furthermore, you can even digress entirely from the story, as long as you provide an explanation or connection back to the story at hand – for example, I might pause my plot in verbal storytelling, and describe the street of the “scary story” at some length, until I am sure that it is fixed in the reader’s mind. And there is no need to apologize for such an info-dump, as long as it is necessary to establish the environment for my readers. Along these lines, I think especially of Herman Melville’s massive digressions about sailing life, ships and whaling in Moby Dick that add color to the story, and add detail, but really aren’t necessary to the plot. These are all acts of meta-story that allow the narrator to comment on your own story, but in verbal storytelling we do this all the time, if we are good storytellers.

I’m thinking about this act of verbal storytelling, and how natural it is to “control” our reader’s expectations and inform them about what is happening in your story because I have been reading Donna Tartt’s lovely and rapidly moving literature-as-suspense-novel book The Secret History, in which she describes an insular world of private college upper-classmen with cute preppy names (ie. “Bunny”), obsessive intellectual habits (reading ancient Greek and Latin texts and taking them seriously), and dastardly deeds (murder of a local farmer, followed by a cover-up murder of one of their own). I started reading Tartt because I grew very bored with the straightforward and somewhat mundane murder-in-a-Dublin-suburb police procedural beginning of Tana French’s new book Broken Harbor. I started thinking then about why I was immediately captured by Tartt, and why I was disappointed in French’s novel.

French begins by having her main character talk about his work: “I had spent the last few weeks putting together a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions on one of those tricky drug-dealer messes, making sure the little bastard didn’t have a single crack to slime through. Some detectives think their job’s done the second charges are filed, but I take it personally when one of my catches wiggles off the hook.”  This establishes who the character is, and what he cares about. But it’s boring as heck, and we already know we are reading a police procedural. That’s why we picked it up. The label says “police” / “detective” / “Irish murder.” Why doesn’t French tell us what kind of police novel this is? And why doesn’t she tell us more about her actual story? It’s not entertaining.

And this may seem like a simplistic critique, but then I came across this lovely quote from Donna Tartt: “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”  Our first job is to tell a story, a story that entertains.

In our work as writers, it is sometimes possible to lose sight of the fact that our ultimate task is simply to tell an entertaining story. All too often, I fear, that our work as writers takes us into extended metaphors, love of language (for language’s sake), experiments with narrative, insertions of different perspectives, and interpolations of authorly opinion. All of these tools may help us in our task, but in contemporary fiction – such as in the work of Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Thom Jones and other New Yorker style “literary fiction” masters – I sometimes fear that we have lost the task of telling a story, and that we no longer understand that if we fail to draw our audience into a story, we have lost our purpose. [1]


*(Tartt’s thought is a corollary to C.S. Lewis’s famous words “We read to know we are not alone.” )

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[1] I am reminded of this “story telling character” of earlier novels when I read The Corrections (an abominably over-written and indulgent contemporary novel) and compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (also a contemporary novel, but one that pushes forward narrative and character development with great relish, and draws water from the same well as 19th century masters such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters… and arguably Bram Stoker as well).

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