Skip to content

What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Yann Martel

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

Sometimes, I dearly wish this column were meant for full book reviews.

Well, no, not really. For one thing, I doubt that many of you, my dear readers, would want me to spoil all your potential fun reads by revealing juicy details about various books. Besides, I’m not terribly interested in penning critiques week after week; I’m way too much into Read-It-For-Fun for that.

However, upon occasion I do come across a story I enjoy so much that I want to delve more deeply into it by analyzing, speculating, ruminating, and other gerunds of a thoughtful nature. Not that I don’t gain an equal amount of enjoyment from other stories; it’s just that some stories lend themselves so well to in-depth blogging, I find it difficult to resist taking out my shovels and pickaxes of literary criticism and hacking away with abandon until I’ve thoroughly deconstructed the whole kit and caboodle.


Well, no, not really. I don’t know about you, but I’m not much into deconstruction myself (see Jacques Derrida if you want to know more), so I’m not ever likely to pick any text apart until there’s nothing left of it. That said, Yann Martel‘s Life of Pi is one of those stories that makes me want to write about it and write about it, and then write about it some more, it touches me so deeply and so completely.

But, dear inklings, I shall restrain myself. If you have an uncontrollable urge to deconstruct or even deeply analyze Life of Pi, I invite you to do so within the comfortable coziness of your own blog — and use the comments section below to share the link to your ruminations with the rest of us!

In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away here, telling you WILAWriTWe-style of what Life of Pi has taught me about writing, a what which pertains to structure (note the lack of any de– prefix) and variety.

Structure and Variety

Here are three specifics that stand out to me:

1. Martel tells his story (Martells his story? hee hee) in exactly 100 chapters, mostly from the perspective of main character Pi Patel. In a few of them, the point-of-view (POV) switches to an unnamed first-person narrator, whom the reader assumes to be Mr. Martel himself. In the last six chapters, POV is ostensibly the I-narrator’s, but with Pi’s POV frequently nested within the narrator’s. Yes, strangely enough, that falls under my definition of “simple.” Trust me, when you’re reading, it makes perfect sense. And it’s brilliant, besides.

2. The variety within the novel is simple, too, if variety can be called simple. Some of the chapters are “long”; some of them are “short.” Flipping through the book, I find a chapter that goes on for seven pages; this seems to be one of the longer ones. Chapter 97 consists of two words. The final chapters consist of a transcript.

3. Pi’s narrative is printed in a standard font. The I-narrator’s is italicized. Within the final chapters, the words of two Japanese investigators use a different font entirely.

Mix It Up

For once, I can sum up WILAWriTWe in a single header: the one you just read (unless you’re one of those people who just skims everything and skips headers WHICH ARE IMPORTANT!!! *ahem*). When you’re writing, mix it up! Be bold! If you’re a new writer, be cautious about multiple POVs (PsOV? [I seem to have a thing for parentheses today.])–and no matter how many novels you have under your writing belt, beware editorial wrath resulting from the use of too many fonts (unless you’re going the e-Novel route). But be bold! Vary chapter length! Let your characters express themselves in as long or in as brief a time as they see fit. It’s fun for your readers…

…and I can tell you from personal experience, it’ll be fun for you as a writer, too. In “Shadows After Midnight,” my current work-in-progress, several of my characters engage in dialogues in-between chapters. Not all of the characters are privy to these conversations, which makes it a special challenge to remember who knows what and who doesn’t. But those sections of the novel are great fun to write, mostly because it gives my mind a chance to play with a different sort of toy for a while. When I go back to chapter-writing, the chronological scenes sparkle fresh and new — and because I’ve given my characters a few moments to speak uninterrupted between the chapters, I suddenly know those characters better. I swear, it’s like magic.

So mix it up. Don’t be afraid to play. For heaven’s sake, don’t start worrying about what other people are gonna think about you going beyond standard precepts! Be creative. After all, that’s what this whole root-tootin’ writin’ hoopla is about, ain’t it?

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(Click some of those Amazon links up yonder. If you buy something off’n them, I gits a few coins to rub together at the next county fair! [And where the country bumpkin came from, I promise you, I do not know.])

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

4 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Yann Martel”

  1. I loved that story, and although it’s been few years, I got a different impression of the narrator vs. Pi’s POV. But, I have to admit, my own experience of the book was through audio. I remember two distinct voices (there are 2 readers on the audiobook), and each has an accent. If I remember correctly, Pi’s story is told with an Asian (Japanese?) accent, while the narrator has a Brittish accent. That plus the context lent me to believe the narrator was someone interviewing the adult Pi.

    I am very curious about the changes in font that you mentioned, since I haven’t actually READ the book in person. I just might have to read this one again, after all, I really liked the story.

    On WyLAWriTWe, I’m not sure exactly how I feel…I like the idea of “mixing it up,” and creative variety when it comes to being a reader…but as a writer, I think one’s propensity for incorporating that sort of thing might be related to personality type.

    I say that because as a highly organized individual, I crave order, maybe not in everything, but in most things. I like creating rules for my stories, like POV changes every so often or chapters must be this long or what have you. I think some “chaos” could be interesting, but only if it is controlled chaos (is that logical?). 🙂

    Maybe I just need to branch out and use more creative techniques, but I think if I did, it would have to be in a very careful and intentional manner, or else it could do serious damage to the story’s readability.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Ooh, now that’s a fascinating thought: totally different experiences of the same book, resulting from visual vs. audio “reading.” Interesting! I’ve never actually listened to an audiobook before. I’ve always preferred curling up in the couch and reading…probably because I’m such a visual learner. 😉

      If you do pick up the book again, I’d be really interested to hear in what ways you experience it differently!

      And Becca, I totally get you on the “controlled chaos” idea. I hope my article doesn’t come across as advocating a free-for-all! A free-for-all is exactly the mistake that many new writers make–and you’re absolutely right in saying that care and deliberation are key. We just have to remember that “order” and “structure” are meant to be the skeleton upon which we build our stories–and even if the external variety covers up the bones, the bones are still very much there. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Becca!

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    I haven’t read it yet.

    A friend of mine just rashed an article though: bad paragraph construction, too many short sentences, peculiar styling, etc. That is, he attacked from the academic old-school style of writing. Which just doesn’t work that well on blogs.

    I just agreed with him.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Hmm….I’d be interested to know what personal and academic culture your friend is coming from. Martel’s novel is definitely not “standard”–neither in the academic world, nor in modern Western culture. I can see where the “old school” might have some issues with the book, since it portrays some fairly unusual paradigms.

      Of course, if your friend is coming from a non-Western school of thought, then I just stuck my foot in my mouth. Oh well. It happens. 🙂

      All of that said… Dave, I’d love for you to read the book and come back here to share your thoughts! I haven’t gotten to talk to many people about this book yet, and I’d very much enjoy a discussion with people who wouldn’t mind “spoilers.”

      Thanks so much for commenting!