Piranesi and Writing “Poorly” on Purpose
Warning: spoilers ahead. Watch the video version on YouTube.
Author Susanna Clarke has an undeniable way with words. Her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, proved this. It’s a beefy tome, well over 700 pages in its standard printing, and as such you’d be forgiven for expecting her second novel, Piranesi, to follow suit. But you’d be wrong.
Piranesi is a much shorter book, following a solitary protagonist from a first person perspective with a relatively low number of side characters, but that doesn’t mean it’s less nuanced or complex. Clarke uses tons of sophisticated storytelling techniques to bring the world of the novel to life, but what’s most surprising is how often she bends and breaks the long list of “rules” many writers follow like religious dogma.
But first, what are these so-called rules, and why do so many writers adhere to them so strictly?
I believe this started at the dawn of the information age, when instructional subcultures began sprouting up in almost every field, writing included. Just Google “writing tips” and you’ll find a nearly infinite list of articles extolling the virtues of “show, don’t tell,” “use active voice,” and more.
I'm here to tell you these common writing tips are wrong—or rather, they’re not always right—and books like Piranesi support that claim. When Clarke breaks the rules, she deftly subverts our expectations in ways that enhance the story by altering the way we experience it through the prose.
Let’s look at a few specific examples, starting with the classic “show, don’t tell.”
This adage refers to the way good writing typically paints a picture by indirectly describing the characters, setting, or conflict. For instance, when telling a story, you wouldn’t usually write, “The large man at the store got mad.” You’d write something like, “He towered over me, filling the laundry aisle, his face bright red, his fingers balled into fists.” See? Much more specific and vivid. You’re not just receiving information but experiencing the events alongside the point-of-view character via carefully crafted indirect description. Showing, not telling.
And yet Clarke “tells” constantly in Piranesi. Just look at the following paragraph:
Shortly thereafter the albatrosses built a tall nest approximately a metre wide at its base and laid an egg in it. They are excellent parents; they were devoted to their egg and are now equally diligent in caring for their chick.
Most of this information is general and unspecific. Clarke doesn’t show the birds acting like good parents; she simply tells us they are. One of the few concrete details is the width of the nest, but that’s not terribly relevant to the story. So, why is she doing this?
Telling does have some advantages: it can convey information quickly when you want to keep the story moving or even speed things up because less detailed description often equals faster pacing. Telling can also create psychic distance between the reader and the narrative, meaning if you want your story to feel “far away" from the audience, telling is one way to achieve that.
Is that what Clarke is doing? I don’t believe so, at least not fully (although the psychic distance idea comes the closest). Before I explain, let’s check out another example of rule-breaking, this one involving active versus passive voice.
The common advice is to favor the active voice, which tends to be a clearer, simpler way of writing that lets the subject of the sentence perform the verb or action. For example:
The goat [subject] attacked [verb] Sam [object].
The passive voice, conversely, occurs when the subject of the sentence is having the action done to it, usually with the help of a verb phrase that includes a form of “to be” and a past participle.
Sam [subject ] was attacked [verb phrase] by the goat [object].
Here’s an example from Piranesi:
It was the very depths of Winter. Snow was piled on the Steps of the Staircases.
Ignoring the other issues—such as the first line’s use of the much maligned intensifier “very”—you’ll find the passive voice in the clause “snow was piled.” The snow did not perform the action, but rather had the action done to it. This may be acceptable in certain cases. Ask yourself: who did pile the snow? No one. It fell from the sky and formed a pile, as snow does, so it makes sense to construct the sentence with “snow” as the subject, even if the action is being done to it. This choice also creates some lovely poetic alliteration, a rhetorical device that involves the repetition of strong consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
That passage also highlights a third “mistake,” which is the capitalization of words that are not proper nouns. Proper nouns are typically capitalized because they describe unique people, places, or things. Using upper case letters to emphasize words that are not proper nouns is strongly discouraged by most style guides, but Clarke capitalizes words in this book with a recklessness I almost admire. Just look at this passage:
East of the First Vestibule the House is Derelict. Masonry and Statues from the Upper Halls have fallen through Broken Floors into the Middle and Lower Halls, blocking Doorways.
You could argue that some of those words are being used as proper nouns; the way the protagonist describes the First Vestibule, the House, and the Upper, Middle, and Lower Halls fits this usage in the context of the story. But several others, such as Derelict, Statues, Broken Floors, and Doorways, clearly do not function as proper nouns. So, why is she capping words as though her shift key is stuck?
I won’t pretend to know the author’s motivation behind these choices, but I can tell you how they made me feel while reading the book: out of sorts, mixed up, lost. And that’s exactly how I imagine the author wanted me to feel, given the story’s themes about losing memory and identity in a mysterious, fantastical world. Her choices make the prose seem uncanny and alien and slightly wrong, all of which complement the otherworldly tone of the book.
You might be thinking, well, Susanna Clarke breaks the rules, and she’s an acclaimed and respected author with “novelist” as her official profession on her very own Wikipedia page. That means I can start ignoring every piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard, right?
Sure. Knock yourself out. Play with language, see where it takes you. Surprising the reader is half the fun of being a writer.
That said, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the rules first. Breaking them with precision will lend clarity and purpose to your writing, but readers will notice when you break them by accident. They might not be able to name the exact rule being desecrated, but they’ll realize that something feels “off” every time you do it, which hurts your credibility as the architect of the story. Each violation of the conventions of writing calls attention to itself by seeming slightly unusual compared to the vast majority of writers who came and wrote before you. Being different can set you apart, sure, but it can also make you look like a novice.
In short, readers have expectations when they pick up a book, and subverting those expectations carries risk—mainly, that the reader will put down your work and never pick it back up. And no one wants that. So, learn the rules first. It’s hard work, but the alternative just isn’t worth the risk.
Or you could always hire an editor.