Saturday, 17 January 2015

Odds and Ends - Elizabeth Kay

Odds and Ends

It’s January, and I’m so busy turning over new leaves that time is in short supply so I thought I’d cobble together some odds and ends that I use when teaching, which might be of use. Or not!


When you are faced with something that has to be glossed over – such as a coincidence which may seem just a bit too fortuitous to the reader – it’s often best to tackle it head-on. For example, if a character is taken for someone else because they just happen to look alike, or have the same name, you could make the character reflect how strange this was. This makes the reader subconsciously realise that the writer knows this piece of information is a bit unlikely, and is flagging it up, rather than hoping the reader hasn’t noticed – or, even worse, being totally unaware themselves how contrived the situation will seem. Don’t let your reader think he or she is smarter than you are, or the suspension of disbelief will go up in smoke.

Dream Sequences

Dreams are two-edged swords. Inexperienced writers frequently use them as a substitute for reality, so that they can write in a surrealist way, drop in a plot clue, and get away with it. Ending a story with the line it was all a dream is the biggest cop-out of the lot. Dreams aren’t really like reality at all.
            Lucid dreams are dreams when you realise you are dreaming, and can actually make decisions about the direction the action will take. There are ways of testing whether you’re asleep, as well. Electricity doesn’t work in a predictable way, and turning on a light won’t work. Most dreams are predominantly visual, with a bit of sound thrown in, and the occasional sensation. You cannot smell in a dream, nor, presumably, can you taste anything either. Nor can you see absolutely everything – only the objects that are important will be on view, and turning round in a circle to survey the whole scene is impossible. You can feel emotions, though, and very powerfully too. The most obvious one is fear, during a nightmare, but sorrow and euphoria are almost as common.
            The most successful dream story, in my opinion, is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Impossible things happen all the time. Animals speak, characters grow bigger and smaller, and one thing can change into another for no apparent reason. A baby becomes a piglet, a cat slowly vanishes until only its grin is left. And, maybe most important of all, scenes change without warning. Falling down a well, going through a door, Alice usually finds herself somewhere else entirely, that bears no relationship to the place she’d just left.
            Think carefully before you use a dream. It’s not as easy as it looks.

 Basing Characters on Real People

Some characters seem to come from nowhere. Others have a starting point with a real person, but should very quickly become themselves. If a character stays too close to someone you know, you’re always thinking, so-and-so wouldn’t do/say/ think that. The character must always serve the story, rather than the other way round. Eccentric people provide the best material – they’re more interesting, their reactions are more exaggerated, they often have a hobby or obsession that informs everything they do. However, the person you know better than anyone else is, of course, yourself – so you use aspects of yourself quite a lot as well. I also think there’s a lot of acting in writing. I imagine myself as my characters, and try to see things from their point of view. This can suddenly give you a completely new insight into someone you thought you knew extremely well. It’s also true that when you know someone very well you tend to assume that the reader knows what they look like too, and it’s easy to neglect a description.


You need to develop an ear for when a word occurs too quickly. Common words such as the and and can occur several times in one sentence without us spotting them – they just disappear. The more uncommon a word is, the more we notice it. You could get away with two glasses if the paragraph is sufficiently long, but substituting spectacles for one of them would work even better. A word like approbation gets noticed immediately, and you may need a whole chapter before repeating it doesn’t stand out!

Remembering ideas

The older you get (I’m talking about me here!) the harder it becomes to remember ideas. When you get one, it occurs in context. The sights, sounds, smells – all these things contributed to the thought arriving in your head. Trying to recall exactly what you were thinking when these stimuli are no longer there is surprisingly difficult, so jotting something down as soon as you reasonably can is very good practice. I keep a notebook with me at all times for precisely this reason, and I also have one beside my bed. This is not to remind myself of dreams – they usually only mean something to the dreamer – but because as you fall asleep your inhibitions go, and you make connections that your mind wouldn’t normally countenance. If you don’t switch on the light and record them then and there, they won’t still be there in the morning! And do make sure you explain your idea the way you might to a child, in complete detail. Otherwise you may not have the faintest idea what you meant. There are situations, of course, when you simply can’t jot something down – driving a car, for example. Speaking the idea out loud helps, as sound is a different sort of memory, and may be recalled when the visual memory of the word on the page, or the abstract memory of it in your head have been lost. Of course, shouting out “Oh yes, someone must have planted a bomb!” on the tube isn’t recommended.

And as I can’t think of anything visual to add, here’s some seasonal pictures from Iceland, and the cover of Jinx on the Divide, which features the Northern Lights.


Nick Green said...

The flagging up of coincidences etc that you mention is known on my favourite website (TvTropes) as 'lampshading'. Something is jutting out, so you 'hang a lampshade on it' in the hope that no-one will notice it (i.e. think it's a lamp).
Better still, of course, is finding a genuine in-story reason for the apparent coincidence.

Bill Kirton said...

Thought-provoking 'odds and ends' indeed, Susan. They're things we've all experienced but when they're brought into focus in this way, as self-contained issues, it makes you realise how complicated it is to create something resembling 'reality'.

Nick Green said...

One more tip: Always remember the names of your characters, Brian! 😜

Debbie Bennett said...

I used to be able to lucid dream as a child. It was such fun. I still find I can play with story ideas at night and things seem to flow better when I'm on the edge of sleep

Lydia Bennet said...

Good talking and thinking points - it's ironic, but one of the differences between fiction and real life, is that in real life ludicrous unlikely coincidences happen all the time, which wouldn't be believable in a novel however many lampshades you throw over them! Sometimes in writing about real life you have to tackle this kind of thing - if readers find something unbelievable, I've known writers scornfully let them know 'it really happened' - this is actually beside the point, as it's up to the writer to make it credible. Repetition can be a very powerful tool, though as you say it's best avoided most of the time.