© 2019 by Howard Gunston.

"ILLUMINAE": A MASTER CLASS ON FORM

June 26, 2017

Well, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff just shredded everything I knew about writing a novel. Thanks for that. 

 

I binged their 2015 Illuminae earlier this week, devouring more than a mere kick-ass story, feasting instead on a genre-bending master class.

 

Not genre as in the type of story (thriller vs science fiction vs romance vs fill-in-the-blank), but genre as in the form of literature. In many ways Illuminae has as much in common with poetry and graphic novels as it does with prose.

 

The prototypical novel offers orderly rows of solid black text, where the words pop and order reigns supreme. Sentences read left to right, straight and narrow. The story emerges from a syntactic beauty unfurling before us.

 

There's certainly an order to Illuminae, but it's more akin to orderly chaos though nothing is haphazard in the delivery, even as events in the story-proper spiral ever out of control.

 

The concept of Illuminae is fairly simple: two teenagers, Kady and Ezra, break up, which sucks, but doesn't suck quite as much as the alien invasion three hours later. Told through a series of "recovered" transcripts, chat logs, computer logs, and other evidence of record, the reader experiences the chaos of surviving an alien invasion with the same visceral immediacy that our heroes do.

 

The story is witty and inventive and charming and thrilling. But as much as I love the characters-- and I do love them-- I'm addicted to the FORM.

 

The novel plays with white space like a frenzied mashup of Gloria Vando’s poem new shoes and an old flame with Alma Luz Villanueva's bitch. It leans into illustrations and graphics the way all great comics do. And yet it does all of this in a deceptively complex way, light on prose, heavy on story. 

 

I mean, HEAVY, although it never feels too burdensome, because Kaufman and Kristoff bore relief valves into their form, sometimes shedding even the standard left-to-right line read by trading straight and narrow with messy and expansive. 

 

These craft moves challenge the reader to keep up. Here are two examples.   

 

Move #1 - characterization. Contemporary writers know adverbs are persona non grata. Skip the crutch and go for the stronger verb. Sounds simple, but this can be a daunting exercise. Consider:

 

“That’s a great idea," she said.

“That’s a great idea,” she sarcastically said.

 

How else can we know she was sarcastic without the adverb? Turns out lots of ways, which Kaufman and Kristoff prove line after line.  

 

Illuminae’s first five pages omit dialogue tags beyond the name of who’s talking. And yet despite such minimalism, what they say immediately establishes strong, vibrant characters with their own agency. I not only hear the voices of Kady and Ezra, but their inflections, too.

 

Consider this sentence with Ezra:

 

“Okay, well for the benefit of the sight-impaired, I am now raising my… oh, dear, yes, it’s my middle finger at Mr. Postgrad here.”

 

I hear the snark without being told he said it with snark. I hear the tone because I know the character. I hear Ezra.

 

Move #2 - thrills (spoiler alert - skip two paragraphs to avoid). Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, even Guardians of the Galaxy, share breathtaking thrills and surprising adventures, but the written delivery is occasionally... familiar. There are only so many ways to write that an airlock hatch blew people into space.  

 

Unless you are Kaufman and Kristoff. They defy the familiar, even the familiar concept of POV, and offer a tense airlock scene told in two parts. The first, a terse 10 lines of computer code. The second, a page with nothing but 18 character names that basically fly off the page in a dramatic SWOOSH without a single onomatopoeia. 

 

Last month I graduated with an MFA and felt pretty good about where I was in my writerly journey. Then along came Kaufman and Kristoff and it feels like I'm back at the beginning.

 

Although, maybe not the same beginning, because the possibilities feel different today. The rules are on holiday.

 

Thanks for that.

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