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An interesting writing question - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
An interesting writing question
In my last Shades segment, I used a very recognizable Stephen King "riff," the intrusive thought set off by font change, para-switch, and parentheses:

The mattress and pillows had been viciously clawed, and Tonks realized that they must smell like her, smell like a


human woman.

King may or may not have snagged this device from another writer; I'm not sure. (It strikes me as kind of similar to some of Eliot's riffs in "The Waste Land.") I will say that I flatly admit to snagging it from King and using it shamelessly for years. It's a neat way to get that effect. (My answer to the poll below is obvious from that, but it's still an interesting question to discuss, imho; please don't hesitate to disagree with me.) olympe_maxime mentioned that she's wanted to use it, but has been hesitant because she only knows it from King and it would feel plagiaristic to use it, and asked my opinion. It's too fun a writing question to leave in random comments, so I thought I'd toss it out to the internet. [Coffee Talk]Discuss amongst yourselves.[/Coffee Talk]

Using "riffs" from other writers is...

The way writing is generally done--riffs get picked up all the time and synthesize themselves into new authors' styles.
Part of the normal learning process for writers, like sketching the masters for artists, which falls away as the individual style develops.
An homage to the original writer.
A lazy attempt to avoid coming up with an original form of expression.
A kind of plagiarism.
24 comments or Leave a comment
dreamer_marie From: dreamer_marie Date: May 29th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I admire JKR's use of brackets and I use it whenever I can. Lately, I've realized that she often used dialogue to describe people's actions ("don't look at me like that, Hermione!" and so forth) and I used it in my last fic. It's just a technique, and it's OK to experiment with it until you find what you like best.
wychwood From: wychwood Date: May 29th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I said I thought it was "part of the normal learning process", that sort of experimentation and imitation; some of those stylistic things may even end up becoming part of your own "vocabulary", but I think they will probably tend to fade away later on.

On the other hand, there is also the deliberate use as "homage". I think one is more likely to spot that in the work of a writer with a distinct style of their own - when it's obviously not just protective colouration or imitation, but a reference to something else.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: May 29th, 2006 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Plus I don'tthin kit's asin if yo uendup keepinga particualr trick yo ulearned somewhere else and love to do.

By the wa yI never udnerstood that parentheses trick .I'd see nit instories (but im not sueif it was case of overuse of it or a case of me just not geting the formula). I've seen afic where the stuff inparentheses copmletel ydistracted me from whathe mai nstuff said while i kew it wassuposed to show a new layer or whatever the hack it was suposed t odo. I nother words if isee it i onl ythink 'hey. style trick. what's she sayign wit hit?"
Just like the color codes I"ve heard of, or the poetry that's i naparticualr shape to represent something.
gehayi From: gehayi Date: May 29th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that it's fine. If it works, use it. If it doesn't synthesize into your style, you'll drop it soon enough.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: May 29th, 2006 05:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think most writers probably do this to a degree, whether or not they're concious of it (I'd suggest it's almost unavoidable, given that people who love to write generally read voraciously too, and have ideas - and therefore ideas about how things should be done). And some riffs become part of the their style, and others fall away - so that the combination of what's left becomes the signature style of that writer...

It's a really interesting thing to ponder!
From: le_parapluie Date: May 29th, 2006 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with maple_clef's reply. Perhaps all art is basically stealing, developing, and then producing something that in the end is different, as it's passed through another person who will no doubt add their own stylistic touches to it.

You're right--the above passage is a very "King" technique. I've seen him use it in varying styles. That being said, it's possible to still emply that break of the subconscious/interruption of the thought process into the narrative without using the exact from you've displayed above, because we've seen King toy around with different fashions himself.

In the end, as others have said, you end up developing your own style--inescapably drawing and being influenced by others you've read--and the result is rather like King's "toolbox" metaphor, I'd think.
From: le_parapluie Date: May 29th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)


(go me)
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: May 29th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
::shuffles feet::

I do the intrusive parenthesis thought thing too. A lot. But I do because it really is one of the best ways to work in a thought that is, literally, intruding on the current thoughts.
honorh From: honorh Date: May 29th, 2006 06:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I actually think it's a bit of the first three, though I voted the top one. As long as it's something that's not overused, and doesn't become a crutch, I don't see why not.
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: May 29th, 2006 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting topic. I don't write fiction, but have occasionally borrowed a riff (as you call it, which I like) from one of my favorite authors, Rumer Godden. She has a very distinctive form in which she transitions into thoughts or quotes:
Everyone had told her she would like it, but 'I don't like it at all,' said Nona.
Tom really knew, and 'You could make a dolls'-house,' said Tom.
(from Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.)
Other times the "and" or "but" is the beginning of the quote--somehow she weaves quotes and prose together very smoothly, and it is a device I am always tempted to borrow. I would certainly be using it as a silent nod to her, since few people in the US seem to read hr books and both the children's and adult books are some of my favorites.
(Deleted comment)
buckbeakbabie From: buckbeakbabie Date: May 29th, 2006 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know how much help this will be, but the entire discussion has reminded me of my one of my favorite West Wing quotes:

Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: May 29th, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't even think of what you cited as a "riff". I thought you were originally referring to quoting material he'd written. What you cited is more like a structural thing, like the form for writing a limerick. It isn't plagiarism to write a limerick. Or take the structure for "The Sound and the Fury". I don't think it's a "riff" if you were to write a book in three parts, each in the first person PoV of a different character.

That said, though, of all of the sorts of things that one could borrow from another writer, that would be the last thing I'd pick. I've never seen that in a book but if I did it would really annoy me. (Sorry--I'm kind of picky about stuff like that.)
inkpenpaper From: inkpenpaper Date: May 30th, 2006 12:31 am (UTC) (Link)
I have never read Steven King, and I have used a similiar technique. I think it is just one of those things that happens.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: May 30th, 2006 01:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
From everyone's comments here, I get the sense that people are interpreting 'riffs' as 'general writing tendencies' rather than the specific, unique device that I see King's intrusive-thought-thing as being.

Allow me to explain. JKR's use of dialogue to show the behaviour and expressions of people other than the speaker - that's a 'writing tendency' (for want of a better term) than a real device, the way I define device. It falls into the category of things like consciously avoiding adverbs (another mostly-King thing), ending a short comic essay by unexpectedly harking back to something you started the essay with, creating an unreliable narrator, etc. These are things almost every writer uses, and they're not specialised enough to be called devices by themselves, IMHO (though the unreliable narrator could be used as one).

But that intrusive thought 'riff' is like... like if you published poetry using an adamently uncapitalised name, like e e cummings. Or if you set all your stories in Maine. Well, maybe it's slightly lower down the ladder of discomfort than both my examples, but it's still the same ladder. Which is such a shame, because it's a brilliant, brilliant device. I wish (and how!) I could be OK with using it everywhere.. bleh. Right now, I would only use it if I was explicitly paying homage to the original author.

You know what would be good, though, is if any of you know other people who have used the device, preferably before King. That would go a long way in convincing my gut it isn't plagiarism. :)
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: May 30th, 2006 05:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I can't present a set of examples, but it's something that never struck me as particularly unusual -- it seems a natural enough construction that I never thought of it as all that distinctive -- and I've hardly read any Stephen King.
matril From: matril Date: May 30th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've hardly read any King either, and I confess I actually thought the technique was original Fernwithy. :blushes: And I still wasn't sure whether it would be plagiarism-ish to copy it.
tiferet From: tiferet Date: May 30th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm a Dark Tower fan, but I've definitely seen other published authors do it.

And I think it's a tool. Use it, where it makes sense to use it, by all means. Language works like that--one person makes up a construction, other people use it, it becomes part of the grammar/vocabulary of the language. Stealing would be if you used a chunk of King's actual TEXT.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: May 30th, 2006 11:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, exactly.
dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: May 30th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
how about this - if it weren't King's riff, if it were your own, would you want to keep it for yourself, or would you want it to become a part of the way people continue to use language?
tears_of_nienna From: tears_of_nienna Date: May 31st, 2006 02:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I tend to use a writer's riffs when I'm writing in his/her particular universe. If I'm writing Silmarillion fic, I tend to borrow the sweeping narrative diction Tolkien uses. If I'm writing Holly Black fic, I pile on the sensory details like she does. MI pilfered the parentheses technique for my Dark Tower drabble, and now I have to weed it out of my non-King-'verse fics. I try not to use Tolkien's diction when writing Holly Black, if that makes sense.

This plays merry hell with crossovers, though--one of my works in progress has Remus and Roland sitting together in the Hog's Head and I don't know what to do about narration there.
lar_laughs From: lar_laughs Date: May 31st, 2006 03:41 am (UTC) (Link)
That's an interesting subject. My thought is that as long as you aren't using the same words as King, it's not plagurism. You didn't just take out the name he used and add Tonks.

While I know this isn't a true rule of thumb, I always figure if a monkey at a typewriter could do it, it's not plagurism. Not that a monkey would necessarily do that, mind you. But it might what with the space bar being the largest key on the keyboard and the Enter key being so easy to get to. It is an interesting way to set something off, I must say. It shows you exactly where to read in the emotion.
melaniedavidson From: melaniedavidson Date: May 31st, 2006 08:07 am (UTC) (Link)
...I'd say when it's unintentional, it's generally 1); that 2) and 4) can be the same instance but that 2) isn't always(or even generally) also 4) and 4) isn't always part of 2); and that 3) is perfectly all right as well and can be related to 1)(Author A does something, Authors B, C, D use it as an homage, and it spreads). I don't think I'd ever call it plagiarism, though. So, if it were ticky boxes I would have checked the first four.
From: indywind Date: May 31st, 2006 02:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
To some degree all of the above, according to circumstances?
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