The hidden secrets of writing
Limerence by Vincent Pienaar (Penguin Random House)* is another novel we’d like to feature in this blog series on the published books of our Creative Writing Course alumni. Nominated for the prestigious Barry Ronge literary award for fiction, it offers a light-hearted view of a very Johannesburg character, Scout, who gets himself into deep trouble through his love of women:
‘Scout, I must speak something. Come back.’ I didn’t know there was anyone else in the shop, but somebody who knew my name was addressing me. I assumed it wasn’t God because He wouldn’t get the grammar wrong. I turned and there, in front of me, stood Avzal.
‘You … you speak English?’
‘Yes, I speak.’
‘Well, knock me down with a feather.’
He waved his hand. Clearly it was a term he was unfamiliar with but had no wish to dwell on. ‘Only a little. Only when I must.’
‘But you never said…’
‘Hear!’ He waved his hand again. I think he meant ‘listen’.
‘I’m hearing.’ My ears were hearing very well.
‘A man comes yesterday. A white man. He speak: “Do I know a white man who come around here?” I speak: “I don’t speak English.” He speak: “A white man with a white hat.” I speak: “I don’t speak English.” He look at me. “Fucking foreigner,” he speak. “Good morning,” I speak.
‘What does he look like?’
Avzal lifted his shoulders. ‘White.’
‘Not young. Not old. Him a cop.’
‘Dressed in uniform?’
‘No.’ Again the lift of the shoulders. ‘Him a cop.’
I thought of that overworked movie scene in which an apprehensive mother opens the door and an impassive but doleful military officer stands in front of her, a cap under his arm. There is no dialogue, only sad violins, and the soldier mouths something really tragic (the viewer is allowed to guess what). The mother holds a handy handkerchief to her mouth, her eyes flood with tears and her knees buckle.
I didn’t have a handkerchief but my knees were buckling.
Avzal pointed at a chair and I sat down.
A cop looking for me in Yeoville? I knew what it meant. It meant my leisurely ambling up and down Rockey Street was over. I would be confined to a two-bedroomed house and a cactus bush that was beginning to smell like urine.
‘It’s fucking solitary confinement, that’s what it is,’ I mouthed.
Avzal gave me a Coke from the fridge. I pressed the ice-cold can to my forehead. It felt really good.
After a minute or two, I shook Avzal’s hand. ‘Thank you,’ I said and meant it.
‘Good morning.’ Clearly, he had spoken all the English he wanted for one day, but he hugged me and patted me on the back.
At the door I was about to turn left when I heard my name again.
I turned. He waved his hand to the right, guiding me up Bezuidenhout Street towards Isipingo Street. He may not speak too much English but he, too, knew that my days of roaming Rockey Street were over.
Firstly, the dialogue is surprising, humorous and lively. He provides us with enough action and detail to animate the scene and draw us into the moment. He finishes the scene in a way that leaves us longing for more. He uses the skills of suspense in a sensitive way, leaving us on a cliff-hanger, which is not obvious or clunky, but nonetheless plants questions in our minds. It points towards obstacles Scout will face, and raises the stakes.
My tips today will encourage you to keep the reader turning the page.
- End scenes early. Don’t allow them to trickle away.
- Leave us with questions we’d like answered and constantly raise the stakes for your character.
- These don’t have to be physical stakes: they might have a lot to lose emotionally, mentally or even spiritually.
If you’d like to learn more about what keeps the reader glued to your pages, whether you’re writing fiction or creative non-fiction, we can help. Our Creative Writing Course will help you write better, if you’re a complete beginner, or if you have some experience, but would like to up your game. We cover these and many other techniques in great detail, and encourage you to try them out, with personal feedback.
*Limerence, by Vincent Pienaar, is available at all good bookstores.
Read our previous Hidden Secrets of Writing blogs here
The Hidden Secrets of Writing – featuring Lisa Anne Julien
The Hidden Secrets of Writing – featuring Adam Kethro