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.
Some writers can become trapped in their protagonist’s minds. Everything is heavily filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness, to the extent that we can lose our bearings in the external world. In this video, we consider how JM Coetzee finds the right balance between interior and empirical experience.
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.
Why is it that bikinis are sexy and naturism isn’t? Why do we never get to see the Blair Witch? And who cares whether your protagonist has attached earlobes? D.D. Johnston discusses the importance of being selective when describing your fictional world.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Begin with an individual and you find you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created – nothing. And the difference between an individual and a type is whether we get to see the specificity of their being in the world – whether they have a unique context in which to come alive.
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