Sunday, 9 April 2017

Writing for Beginners (27)

After the event.

There’s an old gag about a driver who stops to ask an old man for directions. After a few moments of careful thought, the old man says: ‘Well, first off, I wouldn’t start from here … ’
Joking apart, the same thought can be applied to writing: effectively, are we starting from the appropriate point in our story, or approaching from the right angle? There's always another way of looking at a scene, and the one you first think of might not be the best. This applies whether we’re at the start of the story or beginning a fresh chapter or scene, say, in a novel.
As an example, I once had in mind a particular opening scene. It hinged on a murder, where the victim had heavy chains tied to his feet and was lowered into an indoor swimming pool to die. It was a fairly dark scene and I’m still not sure where it sprang from, only that, once in the story-grinder, it had to come out.
To gain a feel for the atmosphere, I visited our local swimming pool when it was quiet, to get a sense of a deserted poolside (the murder was committed at night). I also wanted to capture the floor texture, smells, damp air, sounds, echoes and so forth. Okay, I stopped short of actually hurling myself into the pool with a hundredweight of ships’ bling round my ankles, but there are limits to the lengths of my research.
It was while writing up my notes that I had a thought: what if, instead of beginning with the scene of the murder, which was by its nature fairly brutal, I went for another angle? After all, describing violence might be attention-grabbing, but where did it leave me afterwards? And did it help the story?
The result was, I scrapped my original scene and opened with a scene later that day. This time, with the central character – an amateur sleuth – looking down at the dead man standing on the bottom of the pool, his body moving gently in the water. Nearby floated a curled strip of soggy cardboard.
Effectively, this after-the-event opening allowed me to skip the violence (which didn’t really advance the story) and stopped me revealing too much detail about the – pardon the pun – execution. That was, after all, what I wanted my sleuth to find out, since that’s what sleuths are for.
It still gave me ample room for atmosphere, tension and the horror of finding someone killed in this way. And rather than describing how the deed was done, I left it to my sleuth to notice how the dead man was clutching the lane marker rope, which he’d tried to use to pull himself out and was keeping his body upright. He also worked out later the horrible significance of the strip of soggy cardboard. (I'll tell you this much: the killers had prolonged the victim’s agony by handing him a cardboard tube from a kitchen foil roll to breathe through).
Switching the order of approach like this is quite useful. Instead of going through events as they actually happen, which can sometimes be too revealing, you can bring them on almost in flashback, interspersing them with your central character’s thoughts, suspicions or fears. This is particularly useful for crime stories, where you want the reader to follow up the clues as well, thereby increasing the tension. But it can work just as well in other genres, where a character might be reviewing, say, family events loaded with emotion and meaning, rather like a slide-show, and drawing conclusions from it which may have a life-shattering effect on others.
The post-event opening can work in other powerful ways. Describing a car accident can be difficult to pull off without making it sound cartoonish and over-indulgent. However, opening the scene after the accident, describing the driver coming to, the tick-tick of a spinning wheel, the silence, the smell of fuel and the horrifying drip of liquid – can be much more shocking. This is because the reader’s mind is automatically filling in the gaps, creating a vivid picture of their own making - which is, after all, what we want them to do.
Changing the point at which we describe a scene can also work if we change the viewpoint – in other words, who sees what. Having a character walk unexpectedly into a meeting, for example, can be full of tension seen from that character’s viewpoint - particularly in, say, the reading of a will. Imagine viewing it from inside the room, describing perhaps a self-satisfied and expectant bunch of graspers, all of whom think they’ve got it settled. Then in comes the unwelcome interloper. This could bring out a whole raft of additional tensions and reactions, so that rather than seeing the reaction through one pair of eyes, we’re seeing it through many.
A simple test is to take the last scene you worked on and start from a different angle. It will undoubtedly make you write the scene in a different way, but it might also give you thoughts about future projects.
·        Describing events as they unfold can sometimes ‘reveal’ more than you want.
·        Coming in on a scene after an event can improve tension and give direction for future narrative.
·        Change the viewpoint, change the drama.
·        The silence after a crash can be more dramatic than the crash itself.
·        Allow the reader to fill in some of the gaps.


Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.

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