It Was a Perfect Liftoff: Writing Lessons From the Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Readers around the world are familiar with the work of Chris Van Allsburg, author of the classics Jumanji  and The Polar Express. And many are also familiar with his most haunting work: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

I’ll skip the recap about Harris Burdick. If you’re unaware, click here.

Mysteries  has been used in classrooms for decades to inspire and teach creative writing (I made it the foundation of my own writing unit for sixth graders). But the book has more to offer than a simple jumping-off point for composing stories.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick  teaches many important lessons both about writing and about storytelling.

1: The Value of Wonder

Perhaps the most important lesson Mysteries  teaches is the value of wonder. Like so many of Van Allsburg’s works, Mysteries  hinges on its ability to inspire amazement in the reader. Houses that lift off like rocket ships, ocean liners sucked into the Venice canal, rocks that come skipping back across the pond…

Children aren’t the only ones inspired by these images and ideas. Wonder is a universal human element. It is a thread woven through the history of storytelling from the very beginning.

Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife he was three days late because he was swallowed by a whale.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

From the far-flung adventures of Odysseus to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to our modern narratives of Lord of the Rings  and Harry Potter,  wonder reamins constant.

Wonder is not exclusive, however, to works of fantasy. Consider the following mainstream novels that are wonder-ful:

  • One-Hundred Years of Solitude  by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Blindness  by Jose Saramago
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany  by John Irving
  • Life of Pi  by Yann Martel
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay  by Michael Chabon

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There are many ways to evoke wonder in storytelling. Magic and the supernatural are not required. What is key is the sense of awe and delight that is present in the reader.

2: Some Mysteries Are Better Left Unsolved

Much of the delight in Mysteries  comes from the fact that the stories are unfinished. In fact, they’ve hardly begun. We are given only the image and the first line. The rest is left to our imaginations.

Had Van Allsburg given full narratives for each story, Mysteries  would not have been nearly so successful. No doubt they would have been fun, entertaining stories, but they would not have stuck in the mind in quite the same way.

Our minds are wired to be intrigued by what we do not know  (this is why scantily-clad is generally more enticing than fully-nude). And while readers seek resolutions, not everything in a story needs to be brought to a definite close.

And in some cases, it is the lingering ambiguity that haunts us.

Shirley Jackson was a master of lingering ambiguity. Her great novel The Haunting of Hill House  ends in death, but the death (and all that haunting that has come before) is unclear. Is it caused by ghosts within Hill House? Or by “ghosts” within the character’s mind? Or is it simply a car accident, nothing more and nothing less?

Hill House  ends as it began, with Jackson’s eerie uncertainty:

…Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Another fine example—this one from the movies—is the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. What is the viewer to make of that closing shot of the spinning top? By leaving the facts inconclusive, Nolan inspired millions of fans across the globe to argue endlessly about various interpretations. The lack of answers keep people coming back in a way that a tidy conclusion simply wouldn’t.

3: Let the Reader Fill in the Gaps

Connected with the concept of lingering ambiguity is the idea of letting the reader fill in the gaps. Mysteries  is designed as an invitation to the reader to do just that: we’ve only got these first lines, do your best to imagine what happens next.

A host of professional authors were invited to do just that. Writers from Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, and Lemoney Snickett all contributed.

But while Mysteries  is an extreme example, the basic concept is widely applicable.

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It’s applicable when crafting actual scenes in a story. Robert McKee uses a fine example in his fantastic manual Story. Imagine you’re writing a scene in which a character drives to another characters house. Then the character gets out and walks to the door. Then the character knocks. Then the character enters and the two characters begin talking in the living room.

McKee points out that a good film editor (Story  addresses screenwriting, though it is equally useful for narrative writing) would cut everything between the car and the living room. The audience can fill in the gaps between those two points. Showing them is not only unnecessary, it impedes the flow of the story.

In the same vein, you can let the reader fill in the gap on an actual sentence level. Stephen King, railing against adverbs, makes the case that if you’ve done your job well, the reader can infer from context how characters are speaking.

Go fuck yourself, asshole!” Tom shouted angrily.

Angrily, King argues, is unnecessary. The context is there. Let the reader do the lifting.

On a side note: one should always beware of using adverbs when describing dialogue anyway. A fun example of how adverbs can go wrong comes from Harry Potter, in which a bit of Ron’s dialogue is attributed with “Ron ejaculated loudly”. Perhaps the connotation is different in Britain, but on this side of the pond that one always gets a chuckle.

4: Out Along the Borderlands

Mysteries  is flush with surreal images, first lines and ideas. A growing vine sprouting from the pages of a book, a nun in a floating chair, a pumpkin glowing with spooky inner light. The book compels the imagination by juxtaposing the everyday with the bizarre.

Call it The Twilight Zone Effect. Rod Serling understood the appeal of stories that operated at the borders of literature. In fact, he was so successful at mining this particular ground, that his influence is still felt today, not only on television, but across the literary arts.

Serling is hardly the only writer to go there. Many writers have done so, from well-known masters like Stephen King and Angela Carter, to lesser-known but equally brilliant writers like William Sloane and Brian Moore.

“In spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the ‘nonliterary’ genres are held, in particular by our finest writers of short stories, many if not most of the most-interesting writers of the past seventy-five years or so have, like Trickster, found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands.” — Michael Chabon

Many writers who see their work as firmly in the mainstream are afraid to venture into the waters of the surreal, lest they be pulled too far ashore. But I would point to the amazing success of mainstream literary writers like Karen Russell, Kate Atkinson and Kelly Link (to name but a few) whose works exist with one foot solely in the “literary” and another firmly in the “surreal”. It seems silly to ignore whole realms of storytelling for the fear that your work won’t be Taken Seriously.

Navigating the borderlands can be tricky. It is all too easy to fall into tired cliches and worn-out ideas. Finding fresh territory requires a two-fold effort: learning to go deep within yourself, so as to find what is meaningful about your own experience, and reading widely the work of authors who are currently mapping these in-between spaces.

5: Keep It Simple

Books for children are, by necessity, simple. But simplicity of presentation shouldn’t be confused with a lack of depth or a simplisitc understanding of the world. The history of our species is littered with stories of surprising simplicity. In fact, you could argue that the stories that survive are the ones whose central conceits are easiest to grasp.

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Consider the simplicity of novels like The Time MachineThe Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, The Martian Chronicles. Many such works revolve around a central metaphor, one their authors have not sullied by layering greater and greater complexity onto the initial idea.

The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boys is a boy and the fish is a fish…What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

Books like The Old Man and the Sea  are often taught in classrooms around the world because of their thematic values (or their metaphorical baggage, depending on your point of view). But it’s worth stressing that, in Hemingway’s case, the author argued strenuously that all the symbolism people found in his work was, to use his own word: shit.

Hemingway acknowledge that what you see in the text is based upon your own experience (what goes beyond is what you see beyond…) but he was quick to point out that one does not need to hunt for symbolism to understand and enjoy the story. It’s a simple story, he insists. The boy is a boy. The fish a fish. The sea the sea. You don’t need any more than that.

I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember.” – Ray Bradbury

Bradbury understood the power of a simple, elegant metaphor. Stories like The Fog Horn, The Jar, The Small Assassin, and The Veldt  stick in the mind not only because they are clever, inventive and well-written, but because they are metaphors you can remember.

Note that Bradbury didn’t say they were complex metaphors, or intricate extended metaphors. He said they were ones you could remember.

Mysteries  doesn’t give us enough of a story to meet Bradbury’s “memorable metpahor” standard, but the book does speak to the power of a simple idea easily remembered. Once read, it is difficult to forget the haunting quality of Van Allsburg’s images and each brief but beguiling open line.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing a long, complex, intricate and difficult novel (two cheers for James Joyce!). But the more complicated the work, the fewer people it will likely reach. While most readers may begrudgingly admit War and Peace  to be a masterpiece, few people are intimately familiar with its characters and plot. Little Red Riding Hood, by contrast, is known the world over.

More Thoughts On Writing

Keep It Short & Put the Good Shit at the End: Lessons in Writing Sentences

My Love Affair with Hookers: Great 1st Lines in Fiction

Go On My Son: What I Learned About Writing Dialogue from Don Corleone

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