Writing Secrets: Grand realisations – lesson from a master

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Every now and again, a character has a realisation which changes everything. It hits him between the eyes and forces him to view things in a completely new light.

Since our readers have been viewing the world from his perspective, his new understanding also alters the way they must see his world and his situation.

As writers we have a tendency to point and shout. We are tempted to signpost the trigger for this revelation and immediately explain its significance. We don’t trust our readers enough to be subtle. To allow the resolution to creep up on them more gradually.

The final chapter of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight contains such a denouement. And he handled it so masterfully, I couldn’t resist sharing it. But I’ll have to do this very subtly myself, without creating spoilers.

In this chapter, his protagonist visits a man “whom I had once grown to love after first disliking and then fearing him” when he was fifteen. As a teenager, and as an adult in search of answers, he has been focused on himself and his own hurts. It is this visit which contains the trigger which makes him realise what he did to others.

He, and therefore we, are given pointers which we sense are significant, but don’t yet understand why. Chatting to the man, whom he’d known as The Darter, over tea, Nathaniel says:

“I remember those nights with you on the barge with the dogs most of all.”

“Do you? Is that what you remember most?”

“Yes.”

He raised his cup in a silent ironic toast.

Through the rest of this uncomfortable meeting, he does not find the answers he seeks, but we don’t know why – only that there’s something here which is unsaid, which we don’t understand.

I thought I had experienced every aspect of him – his roughness and then the generosity, so it was difficult now to see him so static, to have every sentence of mine swept cleverly away to a dead end.

Standing briefly in his bathroom, smelling his shaving soap, noting the three toothbrushes of his family, the stacked towels, Nathaniel reflects:

He’d been an adventurer and now I stood there, claustrophobic, within his life. How calm and content he’d appeared pouring the tea…

As he leaves the bathroom:

I went out into the narrow hall and looked for a while at a framed piece of cloth, embroidered with words. I didn’t know how long I stood there looking at it, reading it and rereading it. I put my fingers on it, then pulled myself away and walked to the kitchen as if this was certain to be the last time I was here.

Nathaniel leaves shortly after. Ondaatje says nothing more for the moment. We readers feel as though something happened during this difficult visit, but we don’t know what. We almost fear that Nathaniel, and we, failed to glean any new answers at all.

But slowly, over the remainder of the chapter, we begin to gather that something profound did happen in that flat; that he did gain a new understanding – and we read on to discover it too.

I was miles away, caught up in the noise of the trains back to Suffolk, before I allowed myself to gather our lives through the prism of that afternoon visit. There had been no attempt to forgive or punish me. It was worse. He did not wish me in any way to understand what I’d done with my quick and unwarranted disappearance all those years ago…

…We are foolish as teenagers, but the only hope given us is that we learn, we change, we evolve. What I am now is formed by what I was then. Not by what I’ve achieved, but by how I got here. But who did I hurt to get here, who guided me to something better or accepted the few small things I was competent at. Who taught me to laugh as I had? Above all, how much damage did I do?

By now, we are certain that something happened in the flat, but what? What did he see or learn there? And it’s at that point he takes us back to the moment he leaves the bathroom and sees the embroidery on the wall.

I can’t tell you its significance or what it says, since that would be a spoiler. But do you notice how Ondaatje hides the significant detail among the textural. When we first saw it, and no doubt when Nathaniel first saw it, we thought it merely more evidence of The Darter’s new and settled – claustrophobic – way of life. Just part of the stacked towels, the toothbrushes, the shaving soap of a supremely domestic life.

He allowed the revelation to creep up on us. He didn’t hit us between the eyes with it. That’s why I still declare restraint to be one of the most important qualities of good writing.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The secret’s in the specificity

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