Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

Do not try to write like Harlan Ellison. Normally, it's worth trying to copy your favorite authors. You fail every time, but in trying to capture something of their style, you stumble upon your own, and you grow as a writer. But when you approach Ellison's massive catalog, the stories you encounter first are usually the ones that made him most famous: the experimental pieces. These stories have physical aspects to them that immediately catch the eye and scream to the reader, "I AM NOT LIKE ANYONE ELSE!" The type font shifts, words collide on the page, the margins shrink and grow, ink bubbles represent the thought of a computer or an ethereal soul lost between worlds. In one story, you have to turn the book sideways to read it, then on the next page, words spiral out from the center, level off into a horizontal line, only to be clipped short by the edge of the paper.

Don't try this at home. You will only end with experiments in typography. And you will have learned nothing.


"The Deathbird" contains sections written in the form of exam questions. These sections could be dropped from the story without changing the plot at all. But they're really neat, aren't they? They make you want to try something like that. How about interjecting passages into your story supposedly written by a critic analyzing the story itself? Or a sort of writer's commentary in which the author explains what inspired his narrative.

You're missing the point. The heart of "The Deathbird" is the section entitled "Abu." It's about Ellison's dog, named Abu, and how Ellison took the dying dog to the vet and held him as he was put to sleep. It's sad, and it has nothing to do with the actual plot, which is a re-imagining of the Genesis story with the snake recast as the good guy. But the side story of Abu is actually the core of the whole story. It came first. Ellison lived it. He had a wonderful friend who lived with him for years then got sick and died in his arms. Ellison built the story around that moment, lending his real emotions to fictional characters. When we read "The Deathbird" for the first time, we're immediately taken with the style. But style does not make a story.

Let's look at another Ellison classic. "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." According to the author himself, this is the single most reprinted story in the English language. I'm not going to argue with that. It's a brave story, starting with a nearly page-long quote from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," employing a voice that seems to be in love with itself, starting in the middle and working its way to the beginning, changing fonts in one section to indicate different speakers, and making a direct allusion to 1984 near the end to remind you that this is a parable, damn it, not just a fun read. And you can't forget the jelly bean paragraph which is almost one long run-on sentence that attempts to mimic the sounds and chaos of millions of jelly beans tumbling from the sky. For me, the jelly bean paragraph is the second finest piece of prose ever written.

But all these tricks would mean nothing if the story had no soul. It does. I'll show you were to look. In the middle of the story, the Harlequin has a conversation with his wife in which she tries to convince him to stop his acts of defiance against the Powers That Be. She wants him to be normal. He tries to explain why he'll never be normal but can't express it well, and she doesn't understand. Then he tells her he'll be back at a certain time, and she lashes out. You're never on time, she says. Why do you make these promises to me when you know you won't keep them? He can't answer. What we have in the center of this science fiction tale is the timeless situation of a wife and husband out of touch, who can't understand each other and can't explain themselves. Without that scene, the Harlequin would have been a cartoon, good for a laugh, good for a message. The story would have been a smoke and mirror show with ultimately nothing to reveal. But the emotional weight of two people who can no longer see eye to eye grounds this fantasy in real life.

That is the lesson of Harlan Ellison. Start with a core of truth. When the Harlequin is questioned by the Ticktockman then degraded and ground to hopelessness, we would do well to remember Ellison's days as a protester for civil equality, his struggle for authors' rights, and the losses he must have faced at the hands of uncaring corporations who see art only as marketing campaigns. When Ellison writes of love or betrayal or hate or friendship or loss, his words are colored by his real-life experiences. Feel free to embellish your story with aliens or time travel or alternate realities, but always start with a core of truth.

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