What do you do when the right word - phrase - action - scene - is something which the reader might take the wrong way? Anything from tripping up on a word, to hooting with laughter at a moment of high drama? The other day, writer Graeme Talboys posted this on Facebook:
OK. I know this is very first-world anorak writery stuff, but in my latest work I have a psychic who is also illiterate. The problem is, I keep using the term 'read' to describe what she is doing and it is beginning to jar in my head. Is it my problem or is it something readers of the book would pick up on?
As a card-carrying writing anorak, how could I resist joining in? My first thought was that actually I'm not sure it would be a problem: "read", like "see", is so widely used it's hardly even a metaphor. But assuming Graeme felt it was a problem, (at the risk of sounding like your worst-ever line manager) could the problem turn out to be an opportunity?
Emma: Having said that, if you can't eliminate a problem, you can always try and meet it head on. Why not unpick that problem in the narrative itself? Let her - or the narrative - acknowledge the oddness of saying "read", when she can't. Not print, anyway.
Graeme: She is a character that turns up again in the next book and that would make an interesting background to the characters re-acquainting themselves
Emma: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If your reader might get the giggles at something serious that has to happen in the book, then give the characters the giggles too.
Graeme: And if the character uses the term herself, it would probably lead others to assume that she was literate in a more conventional sense.
Emma: Yes - you could choose whether that assumption is made by characters or, indeed, by the reader. Then the moment of "But she can't read" becomes a jar for the reader in a good way: a sudden little estrangement. It's a lovely example of how a solution to a problem ends up enriching the text in a way you didn't expect. Can I base a blog-post on your problem?
And Graeme kindly said I could, which is why you and I are both here. The thing is, it's not just words, and it's not just jarring, which you may be able to sort out in this way: larger-scale problems are eligible too.
A long time ago, in a novel which ended up as seed-corn for A Secret Alchemy, my teenaged narrator, living with her extended family, was waiting on the morning of Valentine's Day to see if the boy she's just not slept with would nonetheless send her something. For her, it was serious, and I needed it to be serious for the reader too, because we already know this boy may be a road to disaster. The household also included the rather older Ally, estranged from her husband, hugely admired by Stella, and trying hard not to fall for Stella's cousin. What if both the husband and the cousin sent Ally flowers? What if the cousin's were anyonymous, but Stella worked out who they were from? Then it wouldn't just be a necessary piece of plot, but part of her sexual education: suddenly she sees her binary will-he-won't-he agony in a context of much more complicated, difficult adult dilemmas. (Did I mention my fondness for I Capture the Castle?)
So I wrote the scene: dialogue, carefully chosen flowers, knocked-over coffee-pot, irritated uncle and all ... but as the third delivery boy turned up, I got the giggles. It was serious, but it was also funny: an embarras de fleuresse, you could say. And if I were giggling at this pivotal moment of both plot and story, when the emotional and sexual stakes rise hugely for everyone, what chance the reader wouldn't? Then I realised that Stella seeing the funny side would not only be likely but, better still, it would hold the reader inside her experience, instead of them being pulled out of it to laugh from the outside. Best of all, it would actually add to Stella's growing-up moment, to see glamorous, self-assured Ally's dilemma as in some way absurd.
This isn't just about coping with unwanted humour, either: for example, what if you realise that some might take your comic setup as actually being sad? Rather than upping the comedy with more banana skins, more satire, you might decide to acknowledge the pathos. And if you really want to push an extended metaphor but ... there's a point at which it falls apart? Could the narrative realise that, and point it out?
So when you've got something which you're afraid your reader may not take in the spirit you need them to, you've got two ways to go: a) cut it: set up something else which will do the same job in the story but without risking that wrong reaction or b) do it more wholeheartedly: make sure the narrative gets there before the reader does. Sometimes the solution is the opposite of what you might think.