In this series, I look at just a few sentences to get under the nuts and bolts of writing.
This post, it’s Frances Hardinge’s Skinful of Shadows*, which I’ve just finished.
From the blurb:
Frances Hardinge weaves a dark, otherworldly tale in A Skinful of Shadows, her first book since the Costa Award-winning The Lie Tree.
When a creature dies, its spirit can go looking for somewhere to hide.
Some people have space inside them, perfect for hiding.
Makepeace, a courageous girl with a mysterious past, defends herself nightly from the ghosts which try to possess her. Then a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard for a moment.
And now there’s a ghost inside her.
The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, but it may be her only defence in a time of dark suspicion and fear. As the English Civil War erupts, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.
In this conversation from Chapter 1, Makepeace has been having nightmares. Her mother tells her a story about a girl who’s being chased by a wolf and she has to choose whether to stop and sharpen a stick with which to fight, or keep running.
“Can you fight a wolf with a stick?” Makepeace asked doubtfully.
“A stick gives you a chance.” Her mother gave a slight, sad smile. “A small chance. But it is dangerous to stop running.”
Makepeace thought for a long time.
“Wolves are faster than people,” she said at last. “Even if she ran and ran, it would still catch her and eat her. She needs a sharp stick.”
Mother nodded slowly. She said nothing more, and did not finish her story. Makepeace’s blood ran cold. Mother was like this sometimes. Conversations became riddles with traps in them, and your answers had consequences.
This small conversation brings up the fundamental difference between the two – Mother has run away from the ‘wolves’ that are chasing her, whereas Makepeace is at a crucial juncture. Her answer will determine whether her mother will help her learn whether to fight or flee.
It’s a great example of a really important conversation. Sometimes, the tendency in writing is to write exposition through dialogue with characters describing something that would be better shown to the reader. But here, the conversation is about the potential philosophies of the characters and is a crucial turning point for the way that Mother will shape Makepeace’s life.
Makepeace – her name has already been explained as being important to the Puritan community she lives in, immediately before the English Civil War – is clearly uncertain what answer her mother wants. She’s “doubtful,” and her “blood ran cold.” She’s thoughtful an deliberate, not only to get an answer she feels is right but to try to work out the answer her mother wants her to give.
Mother is a tricky character. She comes across here as being slightly unfair, bordering on cruel. The “slight, sad smile” tells us that she already thinks she knows what Makepeace’s answer will be as a result of her question – if you can fight a wolf with a stick that’s what she’ll do. She’s perhaps sad because she realises that Makepeace is very different to herself. She can see the dangers that Makepeace will experience, and the ways that their lives will be different. Yet, a reader doesn’t quite realise yet, she’ll do everything to help Makepeace take this different path.
The final paragraph here is chilling. We’re in Makepeace’s thoughts, and the metaphor of riddles, traps and consequences tells us a lot about the tensions in their relationship. It seems that Mother can be cold and hard, and Makepeace wants to please her but often feels like she can’t. A significant part of the book is about this tense relationship.
The conversation ends here. We move to a section of exposition, telling us about their lives in the community and how they came to be here. It’s a great shift, because it starts to explore the reasons why Mother is this way and how she’s bringing Makepeace up in ignorance of a lot of important information about her heritage.
* Affiliate link – if you buy through this I get a small commission. All books featured are ones I’ve enjoyed and chosen myself.