Nabokov Defeats the Quiet, And Graves Conquers the Brits

Using Nabokov (Lolita) and Graves (Claudius The God) we examine a quiet setting and circumstance made lively, and a lively circumstance and setting made cinematic and engaging, respectively.

First, the quiet made lively. Nabokov’s narrative pushes forward due to his gift for discerning meaning and detail in everyday life and then reporting it with the flair of a phenomenal writer. Basically, however, you can break Nabokov’s categories into observations/ruminations, commentary, and fantasy. This provides an excellent guide for using these same methods for injecting verve into narrative that would otherwise be too quiet or just plain dull.

As follows:

Comments on the behavior of others and their quirks

"The painted girl in black who attended to all these poignant needs of mine turned parental scholarship and precise description into commercial euphemisms, such as "petite." Another, much older woman in a white dress, with a pancake make-up, seemed to be oddly impressed by my knowledge of junior fashions; perhaps I had a midget for a mistress …"


"I sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that escorted me from counter to counter, from rockledge to seaweed, and the belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into transparent water."

Bits and bits, things upon things

"Goodness, what crazy purchases were prompted by the poignant predilection Humbert has in those days for check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, soft pleats, snug-fitting bodices … Swimming suits? We have them in all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black."

Observations/Ruminations on the ability of objects and organizations to affect human life

"There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool."

Surreal metaphor

"Lifesize plastic figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted, faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that rather eerie place where I moved about fish-like, in a glaucous aquarium."


Robert Graves is a writer who never ceases to amaze through his sheer imagination and craft. The following excerpts from Graves' Claudius The God illustrate not only the fundamentals of good storytelling, but the extras it takes to render a tale believable, vivid, and memorable. The anecdote itself focuses on a single event, a battle between the ancient Romans and British tribes. It is divided into pre-event, event proper, and post event narrative. The event proper is composed of various sub-events and a climax.
Graves weaves in a comfortable amount of detail, cinematic imagery, interpersonal conflict, high emotions, and unexpected complications so that the story cannot help but be interesting and suspenseful throughout. Graves also uses the narrative enhancement technique of "delayed cognition" to achieve suspense within the narrative.
He also works in details about the cultural aspects of the groups so that he can use this knowledge to work twists and complications. He fills his pages with many objects peculiar to the time: camels, chariots, charms, ceremonies, gods, etc. Finally, he mixes in fundamental aspects of the human condition--tragedy, absurdity, comedy as well as all the vigorous emotions.

As follows:

The characters are challenged by geography, helping to stimulate tension and conflict:

"The occultist led them over three or four miles of boggy country until they reached the marsh proper. It stank, and the will-o-the-wisp darted about it, and to reach the beginning of the secret track the Guards had to wade thigh-deep after their guide through a slimy pool ..."

Minor complication in environment requires innovation in order to overcome:
"Each man had his shield slung across his back and a big chalk circle smudged on it. This was to keep touch in the dark without shouting to each other ... Aulus had observed that deer follow each other through dark forests guided by the gleam of the white fur patches on each other's rumps ..."

Social activity prior to event:

"... a fine breakfast (before the battle) and we all drank the right amount of wine ... and in the intervals of serious discussion we did a great deal of joking, mostly about camels ... my contribution was a quotation from a letter of Herod Agrippa's to my mother: "The camel is one of the six wonders of nature. He shares this honor with the Rainbow, the Echo, the Cuckoo, the Volcano, and the Sirocco."

Unusual sub-event and imagery, example of "delayed cognition." Read the paragraph carefully. Delayed cognition postpones information or the full realization of information, which helps to create natural tension:
"A British outpost was stationed in the pine copse at the farther end, and as the moon rose these watchful men saw a sight and heard a sound which filled their hearts with the utmost dismay. (Graves doesn't come right out with what this is, but rather introduces a sight and sound "which filled their hearts with dismay." As the reader completes this sentence, a dramatic question, an enigma is created.)  A great bird with a long shining bill, a huge grey body and legs fifteen feet long suddenly rose through the mist a javelin's throw away and came stalking towards them, stopping every now and then to boom hoarsely, flap his wings, preen his feathers with his dreadful bill and boom again. The Heron King! (What is the Heron King?) They crouched in their bivouacs, terrified, hoping that this apparition would disappear, but it came slowly on and on. At last it seemed to notice their camp-fire. It jerked its head angrily and hurried towards them, with outspread wings, booming louder and louder. They sprang up and ran for their lives. The Heron King pursued them through the copse with a fearful chuckling laughter, then turned and slowly promenaded along the edge of the marsh, booming dully at intervals ... (Not until the next sentence does the reader learn the true nature of the Heron King.) The Heron King was a French soldier from the great marshes which lie to the west of Marseille, where the shepherds are accustomed to walk on long stilts as a means of striding across soft patches too wide to jump. Posides had rigged this man up in a wicker-work basket ... head and bill improvised of stuff-covered lathes and fastened to his head. He knew the habits of herons and imitated the walk with his stilts ..."

Environmental change, how it effects the participants; circumstantial mix of objects results in peculiar condition which in turn produces a complication:
"The mist was pretty thick here. One could only see ten or fifteen paces ahead, and what a terrible stink of camel! ... but the mist seems to suck it up and hold it, so that you would have been astonished by the rankness of the air ... if it's one thing that horses hate, it is the smell of camel ..."
Again, the environment or setting comes into play, influencing the action and circumstances. It's vital to make that intimate connection between what is happening, who it's happening to, and where it's happening.

Minor complication prior to event creates interpersonal conflict and threatens to change the outcome of the event even before it starts:
"The two divisions draw up on either side of the central fort. Caractacus is angry and reproaches Cattigern, because he has just been told that the Trinovantian infantry posted at the Weald Brook have fallen back during the night. Cattigern is angry at being spoken to in this way in front of his whole tribe. He asks Caractacus haughtily whether he accuses the Trinovants of cowardice. Caractacus wishes to know what other excuse they have for deserting their posts."

Anecdote of a sub-event, reason for minor complication revealed, spiritual beliefs complicate:
"Cattigern explains that they retired for religious reasons. Their commander had been coughing violently because of the mist and suddenly began to cough blood. They regarded this as a most unlucky sign and respect for the nymph of the brook did not allow them to stay. They therefore offered a propitiatory sacrifice - the chief's two ponies - and withdrew ..."
Once more, the setting creates complication, and uncertainty:
"Dawn has broken ... with open ground shelving down towards the brook, but after three or four hundred yards the field of vision is obscured by a sea of mist. Caractacus cannot tell yet in which direction the Roman attack will develop ..."
When environment is to play a role, it must be consistent. If difficult terrain exists, it should be there at every turn. Similarly, if the weather is inclement and dangerous, it should be present all throughout until it subsides. 

Unusual imagery, an unexpected sub-event, violent reaction to a complication:

"A curious sight is seen. A company of immensely tall long-necked beasts with humps on their backs are being trotted up and down, in and out of the mist, on the flank which Cattigern has been told to attack. The Britons are alarmed at the sight and mutter charms against magic ... Cattigern signals the advance. And then a strange thing happens. As soon as the column of chariots sweeps down into the mist where the beasts have been seen, the ponies go quite mad. They squeal, buck, snort, balk and cannot be forced to go a step farther. It is clearly a magic mist. It has a peculiar and frightening odor."

Another unexpected sub-event, vivid imagery, delayed cognition technique:
"His division is unaffected by the spell and sweeps down, three thousand strong, on the flank of the halted Roman mass, which seems unprovided with a flank-guard. But a more powerful charm than a stinking mist protects this flank. The column is going at full speed and is just out of javelin range when suddenly there come six terrific claps of thunder and six simultaneous flashes of lightning. Balls of burning pitch hurtle through the air. The terrified column swings away to the right, and as they go a shower of lead bolts comes whizzing at them from the Balearic slingers posted behind the thunder and lightning."
Notice the delay. The second sentence states: "But a more powerful charm than a stinking mist protects this flank." This creates the dramatic question: What is it? The next sentence satisfies that question.