Monday Motivation: How to lie convincingly
We sometimes throw around words like “truthful” and “honest” when we’ve been particularly impressed by a novel or short story we’ve read. We say of James Joyce’s Ulysses that it faithfully reproduces the Dublin of June 16, 1904. In fact, that day is honoured every year as “Bloomsday”, during which enthusiasts trace the path that Leopold Bloom travelled on his particular epic journey.
But what do we mean by “truth” when it comes to works of fiction, which are, after all, by the admission of both producers and consumers, lies, dressed up as art? Yes, the Dublin that Joyce recreated so artfully, mirrors in some respects the real Dublin, capital of the Republic of Eire.
But the characters that people it are not real. They are creatures of his imagination, conjured into a sort of half-life by his skill.
Let’s consider that artifice for a moment. How do you make words on a page – a kind of one or at best a two-dimensional universe – flower in your reader’s mind into something as real as the living room they’re sitting in reading your story?
The biggest factor involved, I think, is recognition. “John kicked the ball,” is about as pallid a line as you can imagine*, and yet it is enough to trigger in our minds an image. It is a vague and unsatisfactory image, however, because “John” is so generic. He could be any boy, of any age between, say, four and eighteen. The ball, likewise, is spherical, we know that, at least – but no more. Was it a football? A tennis ball? Was it scuffed and well-used? Or fresh out-of-the-box? And that kick? It seems strangely ambiguous. There are, after all, so many kinds of kicking in the world, some characterised by anger, others by delight; some are carefully calculated, others wild and undirected.
This little analysis gives us a giant clue. The more details that are supplied by the writer, or should I say, the more carefully chosen details that are supplied, the more clearly we’ll be able to recreate in our minds the picture that the writer had in hers. So:
“John McKenzie, nine years old and counting, knew that if he hit his football at precisely the right angle and with precisely the right amount of force, he’d be able, with a bit of luck, to thread the ball through the open window of his house-master’s study. He drew his foot back, wondered whether he wasn’t being an idiot, and let fly.”
This, of course, is a great deal more complex than “John kicked the ball.” I have in fact evolved that sentence through several generations. (I allow myself only a limited number of words for this blog, and I know already that I’ll be stretching things today. So I’m rushing, here…)
For instance, these two sentences focus on John’s intention. They introduce a sense of jeopardy and danger. But what can be said about them is that they are much more focused, much crisper than that first poor, single-celled amoeba of a sentence.
Details underpin the reality of your fiction. It is details – recognisable details – that help readers do their job, of recreating the pictures and the images that began life in your head.
They’re recognisable because they refer to specifics in the real world (although at least one category of philosophy is devoted to a debate about the reality of the “real world”) with which we are familiar.
That’s true also of the psychological reality of your characters. We’re not sure yet why John wants to cannon his football into his house-master’s study, but we can speculate that it has something to do with pay-back or retribution. And retribution – striking back against a perceived wrong – is a very powerful element of our lived reality.
It gets more complicated than this, of course – and the accurate reflection of complex emotions and feelings is among the greatest challenges writers face. It’s much more difficult to describe a complex tapestry of, say, grief, regret and guilt, than it is to describe a fistfight, which is, I’ve discovered, pretty difficult. **
A story unravels in your head, driven by characters that you’ve cobbled together out of your experience and your imagination. It’s your job to do everything in your power to help your readers enter the world you’ve created, and experience with them the events that your characters experience. Details – accurate, specific details – are the hooks that connect your world to theirs.
So let me end with the opening sentence of Ulysses, a masterclass in the use of specific detail:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
* Which is why it has always astonished me that first grade readers are so totally lacking in interesting detail.
** More about this next week in a blog that will deal with the three-act structure of complex scenes.