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Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Perhaps the worst offense man can do is to rob a child of their innocence purely for their own unbridled desires and pleasures. This happens to be the story of the novel, Lolita. The text speaks volume for Vladimir Nabokov’s writing ability for he took such a horrific subject matter and at points, managed to ingrain beauty and lyricism into it. Still, one can never truly justify the actions of Humbert, no matter how much he pleads his case as we read the story from his point of view.

Reading the novel, I could not help but be inspired by Nabokov’s masterful writing. Hence, I made a list of a few things I learned about the craft of storytelling as I read this book. Of course, there are many more lessons than what I have listed especially when it comes to sentence construction or paragraph construction but I’m mainly focusing on the storytelling aspect of Nabakov’s work.

On The Use Of A Foreward: Nabakov uses the foreward to essentially tell the reader how the story will end for we know the fate of Humbert right away. What this does is that it neatly packages the story, for now, we have a semblance of what kind of story is being told. Also, by prepping us for the coming unreliable narrator, Nabokov, as the true narrator, can then have a bit more creative freedom for we are not going to be told an unbiased story but rather, the story will be a criminals memoir.

Additionally, by mentioning the possible mental health issues Humbert may have had, Nabakov also attempts to create some sympathy for his character because once the story begins and we start to read about his pedophilic activities, creating sympathy becomes almost impossible.

On Conflict: At the core of it, conflict is what drives a story. In Lolita, Nabakov constantly presents various different conflicts for Humbert to deal with. The overarching conflict being his desire for a child to satisfy his needs. In doing so, Humbert creates a narrative in his own mind in which he almost blames these children, “nymphets”, as he calls them, for seducing him. Although he is clearly wrong in his reasoning, this is an example of how the character would try to justify his actions in order to overcome a conflict.

Additional examples being simple conflicts such as running low on money or Lolita being attracted to other boys or nosy neighbors. Additionally, a series of conflicts may take place in a single scene such as when Humbert meets Lolita’s husband. In that scene, there is an overarching conflict, whether or not to kill the husband, and then smaller conflicts such as trying to get Lolita to come back with him or whether or not he should express his love to her again.

What I took away from this is that a character must always be trying to resolve something. He or she doesn’t have to succeed in solving the conflict but there must be something they are trying to fix or overcome or avoid in order to bring stability and order back into their lives. Stability and order which has been interrupted by the conflict.

On Expectations: Nabakov also plays on the reader’s expectations to build suspense and to keep the story interesting. This is aided by the fact that we, as the reader, are inside of Humbert’s head and so, whatever Humbert expects to happen, we also tend to think will happen. Nabakov is then able to use this to subvert our expectations and take the story in a different direction. An example of this is Lolita’s mother’s death. We know Humbert did something bad for him to be in prison, as stated in the foreward, and we also know that the mother presents an obstacle for Humbert. Hence, Humbert plans to kill her. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Humbert will go to prison for killing the mother and yet, that does not happen, in fact, the story takes a completely different turn as the mother is accidentally killed in a car accident.

Furthermore, such a technique is even used at a smaller scale such as when Humbert is meant to initially live with a family with young children and so, he begins to dream about things to come, only for his expectations to be crushed when a random fire causes him to move into a different home. Now, with his lowered expectations, he enters this new home, where he finds Lolita. Once more, the expectations for things to come are raised.

Another way of manipulating expectations is to give the character what he expected but in a manner that was unexpected. A case for this can be seen in Humbert’s plan to be alone with Lolita when they, including the mother, go to the beach. However, the plan doesn’t even get a chance to start because Lolita brings a friend with her. But, the very next chapter, Humbert almost on accident finds himself alone with Lolita in their home and is able to fulfill his desires as he had wished previously. So, the end goal is realized but through different means.

Constantly, Nabakov plays with Humbert’s expectations and our own, raising them, cutting them short, turning them around, giving hope and so on. It is a simple technique and yet powerful because if the character is taken by surprise and then so is the reader, hence, the story remains interesting.

Too Much Detail/Unpacking: The only issue with the novel was the level of detail concerning things other than Humbert or Lolita or other characters. I am fond of Nabakov’s writing, like many people are, however, it was a chore at points reading several pages in a row that merely described the setting or where they were going in such detail that it was tiresome to keep up with the long sentences.

However, it is the same level of detail and care which makes this book so incredible. So, when that detailed, unpacking style is aimed at the characters and what is happening to them and what is going on in their minds, you get to see these figures that almost seem real, living, breathing humans. But when aimed at objects and things, it can really slow the pace of the novel down. This is a personal preference. I am interested in the characters more so than the world.

Poem: My Life

The setting sun ends my day,

the rising moon starts my night,

my day went eventless,

for my thoughts, were stuck in my past,

hoping not to repeat what I’ve done,

unable to move,

my actions, frozen,

my night comes,

it brings with it my past thoughts,

unable to move on,

my, my, my,

selfishly thinking about myself,

the same thoughts of the past,

always about myself,

unable to move on from me,

my moon watches me,

as I stand still,

frozen,

my sun will rise,

and release me from my state,

with its warm and tender touch,

hopefully,

until then,

I spend my time thinking of myself unable to move on from me.

 

Poem: My Mute Love

I live as a mute,

unable to reciprocate love,

or care,

my mind isn’t muted,

it speaks,

eloquent sentences about love,

constantly,

but the words never reach my lips.

Only an embarrassed smile,

I can manage,

hoping that you understand,

from that little gesture,

all that is in my mind,

and know,

the love,

that I carry in my heart,

imprisoned,

but one day,

it will be freed for you,

if you keep,

loving me.

 

Poem: Children of the Traffic Light

Tired feet in broken sandals,

aching from slapping the paved roads.

Worn out jeans, torn and restitched, torn and restitched,

held around the waist by a broken belt.

The faded shirt, once as bright as the clear skies,

hanging off the frail body.

Leathered young skin,

beating sun upon the bare neck,

where the sweat of hard work glistens.

Calloused hands,

waving bright little toys in the air,

selling that which they should be playing with,

foreign to the touch of delight.

Their tired eyes watch the other little children,

cooled by air, playful smiles, unworried happiness,

separated,

physically by glass windows,

but eternally by birth.

Hardened eyes set upon soft ones,

as the light turns green,

they watch as childhood rides away,

as for the working children,

everlasting red.

 

Poem: Cycle of Life

Helpless,

soft little hands,

curling instinctively,

grasping, searching, hoping,

for mama’s fingers,

or papa’s palm.

 

Helpless,

old brittle hands,

instinctively closing from the pain,

waiting, lonely, hoping,

for a warm embrace,

forgotten what mama and papa felt like.

 

Helpless,

born without consent,

die without consent,

the same soft hands,

hardened by life,

once protected,

now abandoned,

the old hands search for the waiting little ones,

together, the cycle of life.

Poem: Envy

Your eyes don’t see the rising sun,

casting itself differently across the skies each time

neither do you feel its varying touch.

Your eyes can’t see the drifting clouds,

never two the same

but your eyes don’t see the difference

the world changes around you

the barren trees coming back to life

blades of grass poking through the melting snow

the gentle wind blows for a few moments,

gone after that,

this moment never to be the same again.

You are blind to the preciousness of the now,

for instead, your sight dwells on others

seeing their happiness saddens you

around you is your own life

waiting for you to see it

but you only have eyes for someone else’s life.

Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

An ongoing difficulty associated with writing fiction is generating new ideas that can be used for storytelling. Often we look of inspiration in our own life, whether it be looking in the past, what we have been through, or seeking stories in our present, what we are going through. But such methods can be finite and also involves things that are too personal, which one may not wish to share or simply, perhaps you have not experienced something that is worth writing about. Additionally, we take inspiration from writers we admire. But such inspiration comes with its own issues of authenticity for we come to sound like other writers or write a story that borders on plagiarism even if that was not our intent. 

This is where Neil Gaiman comes in. Specifically, his Masterclass lectures. In those lectures, Neil Gaiman gives four techniques that can be used to generate new ideas and all four have one thing in common, approaching a familiar story with a new perspective.

One of the techniques involves changing the point of view of a story. By choosing a different character through which we, as the reader, see the story, it changes the story itself. Also, by imagining an old, familiar story through the eyes of a different character, you can open your mind to new possibilities.

Neil Gaiman cites the novel ‘Foe’ by J.M. Coetzee as an example of this technique. In that novel, Robinson Crusoe’s tale is told from the point of view of Susan Barton.

Another technique is to modernize the theme. This technique also involves changing your perspective. By interjecting modern themes into older stories you are able to form new ideas.

Neil Gaiman uses Margaret Atwood’s novella ‘The Penelopiad’ as an example of this technique. In that novella, Margaret Atwood interjected the modernized female point of view and told Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

Switching of the story element is another technique that can allow for new ideas. Here you take an old classic story and simply have it take place in a different environment. By changing this one element you can get the idea of a new story.

‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer is used as an example by Neil Gaiman. Cinder is the story of Cinderella but unlike the classic fairytale, this one takes place in Beijing and with Cinderella being a cyborg.

Lastly, one can simply make the story their own. In this technique, you take a story that you are familiar with and then apply your own experiences and what you know to that story.

Neil Gaiman uses ‘The Godfather’ as an example of this technique. The author of the novel, Mario Puzo, was an Italian immigrant in post-war America and so, he combined his personal experience with the elements from ‘Henry IV’ by Shakespeare to create his own masterpiece.

These are all simple exercises that work one core value of fiction writing: imagination. You are essentially thinking “what if…”. What if we saw the Wizarding world through the eyes of Ron Weasley, instead of Harry Potter? What if the Odyssey took place in space? What if The Body had elements of my own experiences? What if our current understanding of trauma was applied to an older story?

Adopting a new perspective and view what you have already known in a different light can be all one needs as a writer to generate new ideas and hopefully tell good stories which can be used by others.