On Writing: Stealing ideas from Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has an amazing style, no? So beautiful, so flowing, so thoughtful and clear and enchanting, making you dream of magic and wish to live in another, more beautiful country.

And it’s all done through words. All the magic there is in G.G. Marquez is visible in every single book that he wrote. I could talk about his plots, his world, his whatever – but I actually want to talk about a single aspect of his writing: sentence structure.

Prosaic? Why, yes. But sentence structure is to literature what formulas and circles and gesture use is to magic. It’s what brings things together and makes them work.

So, let’s see! What does Marquez do? And how do you write like Marquez?

1. Long sentences.

No huge secret there. Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets. Dickens wrote novels. Marquez wrote long sentences. It’s kind of his thing. Even the damned wiki of “The Autumn of the Patriarch” says it: “The book is written in long paragraphs with extended sentences.”

Why long sentences? Because they’re cool. Because your mind reads things aloud inside your head and it adds the right stops and commas wherever they’re needed – and a long-run sentence sounds cursive, as if the narrator didn’t stop from place to place for breath or for a change of idea, but kept going on and on, lost in the story.

Is that all? Heck, no. My textbook on Victorian literature also contained long sentences, but they weren’t really a pleasure to deal with.

2. No returns

Here be a quote from “The Autumn of the Patriarch”:

She had said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.

What I mean by “no returns” is this: in the flow of ideas within one sentence, do not suddenly return to a previous point, to a previous idea, to a previous setting. Keep going on with the narration, not back. Why? Because the reader will have to go back to the previous point as well, breaking his/her flow of the story. Maybe he/she will even be frustrated, because of the need to recall something that has already passed into an image that appeared in the past.

In other words, none of this: “She had said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which one speaks of the death of a distant relative, because in her heart God, too, was now dead“. The bold part is my mundane, non-impressive addition. What would this return do? Well, several things. It would round up the sentence and make it seem like a self-contained story. It would underline the idea said before. It would stir the reader into thinking they discovered something to hang on to – and they would hang there, so you would appeal to their mind rather than their dreams, on a certain level.

It would end a part of the story of the woman – and so would disconnect it from the other story, in which she asked her son to return bottles.

Also, returns, coupled with enough mysterious grammar, can create confusion. Sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes it’s intentional. Check out John Milton’s opening sentence of “Paradise Lost”, which was definitely intentionally obfuscating:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heav’ns and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

I know it by heart. Why? Because it was only after reading it for what seemed like a couple hundred times that I could piece it back together into coherence. In case you’re curious about what’s there, but don’t have that much time/inclination, what it basically says is this: Muse, sing about the tree that got humanity kicked out of Eden until Jesus allowed us to get back to Heaven. You’re the one who talked to Moses and [who did other stuff], so I invoke you to help me do things that nobody else tried to do.

The sentence structure comes straight from hell in that one. Intentionally. Which is a situation extremely opposed to that of Marquez – because Milton had other purposes in mind. So, not saying returns are bad in and of themselves, but it really depends what you want to obtain in your writing. What you obtain also depends on…

3. Categories of words used

First of all, all categories here are arbitrary and they represent binaries because that’s more useful when it comes to illustrating my point. Don’t take them very seriously, but try to catch my point.

a. Concreteness vs. Abstraction

The more concrete and world-rooted you are, the more vivid the imagery. The more abstracted and concept-rooted you are, the more you encourage mental associations and the more you tell people to reason rather than feel. I’m not saying “Show, don’t tell” – this contains “Show, don’t tell.”

Marquez “The Autumn of the Patriarch” quote:

Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.

That’s the opening sentence.

Concrete words and phrases: weekend, vultures, presidential palace, pecking, screens, balcony windows, flapping, wings, stir, stagnant, dawn, Monday, city, awoke, lethargy, breeze, man, dead, rotting.

Abstract words and phrases: time, centuries, great man, grandeur.

And I’m not sure about that divide. It’s not a very strict divide, but the fact is this: even if you look at ‘city’ as abstract for some reason, or consider ‘weekend’ abstract and ‘time’ concrete, the general pattern is to have a lot of concrete details interlaced with a few unexpected abstract words. That’s why the audience can picture it so well – lots and lots of concreteness there, even if it’s some sort of metaphor.

Also, part of the concreteness: things are not named through abstraction, by category – but they’re named through specific instances. You can visualize some vultures pecking away at specific screens on certain balcony windows because Marquez implies these are specific objects in the world. Contrast to Hesse below.

After that, he can afford abstract philosophy, because you are already filled with sensation and you transfer it over the things which are nearly not at all concrete:

invulnerable to time, dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure, for he had not survived everything because of his inconceivable courage or his infinite prudence but because he was the only one among us who knew the real size of our destiny.

Contrast Herman Hesse, who had a much more abstract style:

Let us say that the freedom exists, but it is limited to the one unique act of choosing the profession. Afterward all freedom is over. When he begins his studies at the university, the doctor, lawyer, or engineer is forced into an extremely rigid curriculum which ends with a series of examinations. If he passes them, he receives his license and can thereafter pursue his profession in seeming freedom. But in doing so he becomes the slave of base powers; he is dependent on success, on money, on his ambition, his hunger for fame, on whether or not people like him.

Now, over here we have doctor, lawyer, engineer, curriculum, examinations – which could all be concrete types of words, representing something very specific in the world. But they’re not. They’re talking about generalized categories. It’s not this university, this doctor, this lawyer, this engineer, the Law curriculum. It’s simply ideas. Much less involvement from our senses, much more from our mind. He is telling us, not showing us, as it were. But it’s not a bad thing here, because Herman Hesse aims for entirely different goals than Marquez.

b. Adjectives and Adverbs vs. Nouns and Verbs

I was initially going to say ‘metaphors, comparisons and other such vs. direct description’. But that was a sucky title and not all that true.

When I was in primary school, in Romanian classes we had to learn about these things called “beautiful expressions”, which my mum hated so much that she probably set me forward on my path to becoming a decent writer by telling me to never use them. “Beautiful expressions” were these hackneyed comparisons and metaphors that had the role of ‘beautifying’ the text. I will translate a few I’ve just picked up from the net: (winter-related) “the clouds started sprinkling silver stars”, “snow settled over the land like a dazzling, white coat”, “the silver coat [of winter, aka snow]”, “shining silver flowers settle on the window”, “icy flowers painted on windows”. And so on and so forth. If you’re not native, they might sound interesting. If you’re Romanian you’ve probably heard them or variations thereof about a million times. You’ve been told to use them in stories as a primary school kid, as a homework assignment. Or stuff like that.

Well, guess what? Hackneyed expressions suck even when you’re in first grade. They ruin your creativity and make you think you need to use artifice for literature, which is false. We don’t live in Classicism anymore and even if we did…

Besides, as Marquez proves, you don’t need them to write amazingly beautiful prose. Going back to the quote which began with not wanting to beg God:

on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son

Mundane phrasing is quite alright, as long as the details are interesting and evocative enough: a basket of empty bottles. ‘A lot of empty bottles’ doesn’t cut it, because while we believe it to be true, it doesn’t bring up the same imagery, or it conjures too little. Add the basket and you get more than just a basket: you get a bent arm, or clenched fingers; an emphasis on the emptiness of the bottles, because you can almost hear them clinking as she moves, because we know how empty bottles sound; you get deliberation and the image of a careful, old-style woman. The parade, the ovations and the music are nothing special, wording-wise. But the image remains strong through its very direct, no-nonsense descriptions. It makes you a bit more involved with everything, less likely to be awed because you’re told this is where you get awed, but more likely to picture it and feel.

It’s a pattern Marquez tends to maintain: less flowery, more descriptive. Although it’s not universal (again the Patriarch novel):

the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory… announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end.

But this is where you need to feel the awe, to take a step back and think of it, understand it abstractedly. Still, it’s brought up after a lot of time of doing the exact opposite of this, therefore increasing its strength, keeping metaphors fresh as a stylistic device, lending you much, much visceral understanding of the world and of what the concepts mean.

What I’m trying to say is: the less you use something, the stronger the use of that thing will become. In a story with barely any dialogue a single line stands out. In a concrete tale, an abstraction built on concreteness stands out.

There are probably other contrasts to be found. And other texts might have others. Binary categories are useful because if you understand what each side of the category produces, you can use that understanding to fuel your own text.

4. Richness and Succinctness

When you have a hell of a lot of exposition and not enough space, do what Marquez does: write the bare minimum and put it in less than a paragraph . This is why those long, long sentences shine for him: they’re full of additional background details, of short stories, of anything and everything. The amazing bulk of background, which gets some people launching into impossibly long (and boring) expositions, is turned into the frosting and decorations on the cake, is slipped in and made short and beautiful and interesting and mysterious.

Here’s a beautiful blend, same Marquez novel, not a whole sentence:

in shadows we saw the annex where government house had been, colored fungi and pale irises among the unresolved briefs whose normal course had been slower than the pace of the driest of lives, in the center of the courtyard we saw the baptismal font where more than five generations had been christened with martial sacraments, in the rear we saw the ancient viceregal stable which had been transformed into a coach house, and among the camellias and butterflies we saw the berlin from stirring days, the wagon from the time of the plague, the coach from the year of the comet, the hearse from progress in order, the sleep-walking limousine of the first century of peace, all in good shape under the dusty cobwebs and all painted with the colors of the flag.”

The bolds are mine. Look at that! How many stories are there? One about 5 generations getting married. One about a stable that used to be grand. One about a plague which a wagon had survived. One about a comet. One about a century of peace. And more! Does it need to say more?… No. Tantalizing bits, or bits referring to past events that the readers know, are already enough to fire up the imagination.

Marquez writes like he fits the whole world on the page by filling in little details where others would place adjectives. It’s not an old wagon, a battered wagon, a wagon falling apart. No. Those are all direct. It’s a wagon from the time of the plague – reference to a huge event in the past, glossed over.

Sometimes to cut things very, very short means to provide richness to your text. To throw the light in such a way as to make it seem that there are many shadows which could hide doors to other worlds and times.

But does this help you write?

That’s enough for today. It’s late and my article is too damned long. But hopefully it’s helpful.

The short answer is: yes. Yes, it might. It helped me. Here’s how: don’t use it in your story. You’ll probably hate it. Instead, open a new file. Try it on. See how it works for you. See if you can get the hang of it. Trust me, after a few hours of practicing this sort of thing it becomes so natural that if you think “I want something that has a nice flow and [this other trait]”, you’ll just do it automatically. No more of this concrete/abstract, no return, mini-stories for richness crap. It’ll just work because you’ll have the hang of it. And, of course, you can turn it on or off.

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