Demandingly 'wrong'-headed
The ugly duckling and the life-raft

Singing the story

The other day I was commenting on someone's work, and found myself saying, ‘Women may be unreadable to men, but as a writer you have to convey that they could be read.’ Leaving aside the truth or falsity of the first half of that sentence, it still raises an interesting question about how you imply what you don't say outright. Poets assume that readers will unpack their poems (although I'm never sure if that's a safe assumption of the listeners who have to be such a large part of a poet's concern these days). But those of us who write prose fiction - most of all novels - have to assume that our words may only get one pass, as it were, from a reader.

The question's most acute when you have a narrator who's also a character in the novel. Even if they aren't technically unreliable they are, inevitably, subjective, with a partial (in both senses) view of the events they take part in. But even with a third-person narrative which could potentially be both objective and omniscient, the fun starts here. One of the things I keep finding myself saying to writers who've nailed the basics of the right word for the right place is that, ideally, every word should be doing not just the right job, but two right jobs. One is probably just naming a thing, joining a sentence, describing an action. With apologies for raising the bar just as they've cleared it, I say that that the second job is where the real writing starts.

Sarah ran for the bus and jumped on, is the the basic job done. But how do I write it? Even at the simple sensory and metaphorical level, there are so many possibilities. If I write that cold fingers of air seem to catch at Sarah’s arms and drag her backwards, it says something different – makes the reader feel Sarah’s experience differently – from if I write that the sea of pedestrians parts as she races along. If I describe how the red bus ahead of her flowers and flames against the grey towerblocks it’s different from if I write of the grubby, warm breath of the open doors into which she dives.

And that's before I've thought about the meaning of the action in the wider context of the novel. If I wanted to be satirical or comic I could describe Sarah’s run to set up a pratfall, or make charicatures of the lookers-on. If I wanted to be magical or poetic I could cast my mind loose and dream up a montage in heightened language of the fantastical characters past which she runs. If I wanted to be psychological I might make Sarah feel that she’s running away, and hear the doors crash shut behind her, cutting her off from her lover. If I wanted to be philosophical I might write it as part of a series of events exploring the idea of running away from things, as against standing your ground or fighting back or being seduced, and I'd use metaphors to match. And all of those could be seen and felt by Sarah, or I could write them so that there's a counterpoint between how she sees it, and how the reader does.

No, there are no rules, and much of what I seem to blog about is letting go of outcomes, circumventing your Inner Critic, allowing the intuitive to come forward, speak, make your work true to its self, and the best it can be. But what I've been talking about here is technique, pure and simple. It didn't take me long to come up with all those variations on a theme of Sarah getting on the bus. It's just practice, like practising scales and arpeggios till you can do them in all keys and at all speeds without even having to think about it. Then when it comes to the opera it'll be the story that you'll be singing, not the notes.


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Jim Murdoch

I think what the writer needs to determine is how significant Sarah's running for a bus is. In a great many stories the simple uncluttered expression, Sarah ran for the bus and jumped on, will do the job very nicely; it progresses the story and gets her from A to B with the minimum of effort from all concerned.

A man running is the opening image to William McIlvanney's novel, 'Laidlaw', if I can quote the opening to the book:

"Running was a strange thing. The sound of your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs … A voice with a cap on said, "Where's the fire, son?" Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal."

You're quite right though. It's common for me to read a poem more than once but I'm more prone to skip chunks of a book if it's not holding my attention. And that's the whole point of this opening section. This is significant. This matters and McIlvanney makes sure you know it. This is as in-your-face as you can get and in so very few words.

Emma Darwin

Of course - the fundamental necessity is to decide what you're trying to do at that point in the story, as well as tell the basic physical events, and write the action to suit. But even 'ran' and 'jumped' in the basic sentence are doing two jobs: other verbs would denote the same event, but imply other qualities about it. Even if you decide to write the event as briefly and plainly as possible, there are still decisions to be made about how.

Angela Young

I have just found your comment on dovegrey's World Book Day November post - I too wish we'd had the chance to have a conversation ... but I've just ordered The Mathematics of Love and am looking forward to reading it.

Also, your phrase in this post: 'It'll be the story that you're singing, not the notes' absolutely hits the spot. It's what I strive for because it isn't only the story that matters, but the language with which it is told.

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