In this video, D.D. Johnston discusses how imagery is often the connecting point between subject and theme (for a reminder about subject and theme, see writing tip 71). He looks at Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Psychopolis’ and presents a weird theory about Magpies. Psychopolis is available here, starting on page 52.
In this video we look at two descriptions of the same place, which appear at different stages of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Although the place is the same, Smith is able to advance the story just by changing the sensory details on which she and her characters focus. Being able to do this, to show rather than tell, to use concrete description as an essential part of the story rather than a background, is central to how most writers work. But do remember that mimesis is not the only way to tell the story: there are many alternatives to the cinematic mode of narration.
Sometimes I’m asked to critique a story, or a scene in a novel, that, despite being well written, is somehow kind of bland. There may be nothing wrong with it – the author communicates clearly, and uses concrete detail, and writes strong dialogue, and deploys a consistent and appropriate point of view, and doesn’t clutter her prose with adjectives or adverbs, and yet, somehow, the story or scene doesn’t leap off the page – it’s dull. One option is to make the characters more distinctive, more idiosyncratic, more unusual. But very often the solution is to take the characters and their conflict and transpose them into a distinctive micro world.
Writers often complain that it’s hard to be original. Here’s how to write something that’s never been written before.
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Sometimes writers think only of the function of a scene – for instance, if the plot demands that the protagonist argues with his wife then the writer writes the argument and, to break up the dialogue, has the characters doing something mundane such as drinking cups of coffee. This video discusses the value of getting your characters doing something interesting while they’re advancing the plot.