Lessons from Lemony

Why are you doing an entire post about Lemony Snicket? Isn’t this a writing blog, not a fangirl blog? Why Lemony Snicket, and not one of your top favorite authors?

If that sounds like you, let me tell you now: you’re asking all the wrong questions.

If you’ve read his books at all, you know there’s no one else quite like Lemony. He’s a very good writer, and yet he broke almost every writing rule I know of. His books are, in all honesty, pretty ridiculous, and yet I couldn’t put them down. How does he do that??

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Probably the most important thing I learned from reading Snicket’s books is that you shouldn’t be afraid to break the rules. I don’t mean this in a bad way, as in, actually doing something illegal. I mean rules about writing. Have you ever heard that you should never, ever, ever stop the story to explain something to the reader? That’s one of the biggest no-no’s of the writing world.

And yet, Snicket is notorious for stopping in the middle of an action sequence to extensively define a word. Or starting a new chapter with a completely unrelated story about his own life. Or breaking off to engage the reader in a Very Fascinating Discussion about the water cycle, which has nothing to do with the story at present.

But here’s the thing. Lemony Snicket actually increased my vocabulary with all of his digressions. If not for him, I still wouldn’t know what the words austere or ersatz meant. And if you just skim over the parts about his past life, you’ll actually start missing important clues. Even the water cycle ended up being important.

So, takeaway #1: Don’t be afraid to experiment with the rules. There are times when they shouldn’t be broken, but if you follow them too strictly, you may end up missing something.

The characters are next on the list. Now, the characters could be better, and by that I mean most of them are static characters (meaning they don’t change much over the course of the story. I like to see characters’ struggles as they change.) Toward the end, Snicket went a little deeper, but overall, his characters are just memorable. You can’t help but love every single one of them, and if you can’t love them, you love being annoyed by them.

Each of the characters has their own talents, whether it’s inventing, reading, cooking, poetry, mycology, or even villainy. Side characters tend to have quirks rather than talents, such as being a horrible violin player, or having a bad taste in fashion, or being in love with the most boring job in the world.

Takeaway #2: Make each character memorable. Give them a tag, something that separates them from all other characters. Give the reader a reason to love them. I could write an entire series of posts just about how to accomplish that, but we must move on to the next thing I love about Lemony:

20180426_211727His secret codes and messages. Everyone loves the challenge of finding and decoding hidden messages. Like the letters “VFD” hidden in the eye symbol. Like when the first letter of every sentence spells a word. Oftentimes these messages are hidden in plain sight.

I actually have suspicions that he hid a message throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events. I haven’t found anything yet, but the illustrator, Brett Helquist, once hid a secret, encoded message in the illustrations for a different series, so it’s not completely unreasonable. (The series is Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, if you want to know.)

I also love the importance Snicket placed on books and libraries. Every single one of his books features a library of some sort, even if it’s just a tiny collection of books. Usually, one of these books contains the answer to a puzzling question of a mystery. Books contain knowledge, and Snicket reiterated that message over and over. It’s kinda refreshing, seeing as we live in a world overrun by technology. It’s like that feeling you get whenever you walk into a library. You know, it feels almost shut off from the rest of the world, because decades if not centuries of knowledge rest on the long rows of bookshelves, and it’s one of the few places where you can truly say, “The world is quiet here.”

Have you read anything by Lemony Snicket?

What do you think of his unique style? His ridiculous characters?

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