Writing Right with Dmitri: Inconsequential Moments
I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand. Beside the couch was a wooden chair, and on the angle of the back hung a very seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat, much the worse for wear, and cracked in several places. A lens and a forceps lying upon the seat of the chair suggested that the hat had been suspended in this manner for the purpose of examination.
'You are engaged,' said I; 'perhaps I interrupt you.'
Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle'
Does this make you chuckle? It does me. Here's the opening of one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. Nobody gets killed, unless you count some Christmas geese who end up as dinner. And the story is a delightful little puzzle involving the geese and a stray gemstone.
The fun bit is that it all begins with this ordinary domestic scene. Sherlock Holmes is a bachelor, and his flat isn't much tidier than, say, Psych's Sean Spencer's (before Juliet gets hold of him). The pipe, newspapers, felt hat and magnifying glass all serve to set up a tale that's going to be an entertaining romp.
So where am I going with this? First, despise not the day of small things, writers. It doesn't all have to start with, 'It was a dark and stormy night.' Or, 'It was the best of times…', or even with, 'Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.' You could start with toast and coffee.
The trick is to make the toast and coffee interesting. Also, to make sure the toast and coffee are important. Okay, they don't have to be important. But if they aren't, then something that is said or done over breakfast should be. It should lead into the action. See what I mean?
Let's look at a few more of these:
On a bright December morning long ago, two thinly clad children were kneeling upon the bank of a frozen canal in Holland.
The sun had not yet appeared, but the grey sky was parted near the horizon, and its edges shone crimson with the coming day. Most of the good Hollanders were enjoying a placid morning nap. Even Mynheer von Stoppelnoze, that worthy old Dutchman, was still slumbering 'in beautiful repose'.
Now and then some peasant woman, poising a well-filled basket upon her head, came skimming over the glassy surface of the canal; or a lusty boy, skating to his day's work in the town, cast a good-natured grimace toward the shivering pair as he flew along.
Mary Mapes Dodge, Hans Brinker
From this seemingly boring beginning grows a pretty absorbing tale about family love and class consciousness in the 19th-century Netherlands. Watch those kids on the canal, they're starting a story.
Huckleberry Finn begins with a brief recap of Tom Sawyer, and a few insults hurled at the veracity of novelist Mark Twain, but quickly settles down to domestic bliss in the form of Huck's life with the Widow Douglas. At least, the widow is happy:
Well, then, the old thing commenced again. The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there wasn’t really anything the matter with them, – that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Now, the individual incidents at the Widow's table aren't significant in themselves. However, they build up a picture of two differing views on the meaning of life: the Widow's, and Huck's. Now, wonder how those two are going to work it out? Read on, friend.
F Scott Fitzgerald married a girl from the Deep South. This turned him into a keen observer of the behaviour of the indolent upper class down in Alabama. And we get this:
Suddenly the square of yellow light that fell through the door was obscured by a dark figure. A girl had come out of the dressing-room and was standing on the porch not more than ten feet away. Jim heard a low-breathed 'doggone' and then she turned and saw him. It was Nancy Lamar.
Jim rose to his feet.
'Hello –' she paused, hesitated and then approached. 'Oh, it's – Jim
He bowed slightly, tried to think of a casual remark.
'Do you suppose,' she began quickly, 'I mean – do you know anything about gum?'
'I've got gum on my shoe. Some utter ass left his or her gum on the floor and of course I stepped in it.'
Jim blushed, inappropriately.
F Scott Fitzgerald, 'The Jelly-Bean'
Before we go on, 'jelly-bean' is a forgotten slang term from the 1920s, used to refer to a slacker who's only interested in hanging around the pool hall and drinking on the sly in Prohibition USA. All this inconsequential talk about chewing gum has a purpose. In the next few hours, Nancy Lamar is going to break that guy's heart. And it starts with the chewing gum on her shoe.
Now, what am I saying? Well, everybody's always asking, 'How much detail do I put in? Is it important? How do I know?' And my answer is this: put in enough to make it real. Put in what will lead the reader to discoveries about the characters. Don't paste on the detail – make it intrinsic to the story. And let the furniture support your hidden thesis.
Hidden thesis? What are you talking about? I don't have a thesis. This is fiction.
Don't have a thesis? Sure you do. You may not realise it, but every novel and short story ever written has a hidden thesis. It's not usually overtly expressed – in fact, it would be a terrible thing to do to a reader. You don't want to come out and say, 'The moral of this story is, don't trust spoiled Southern flappers who flirt and drink with you.' Or, 'It's better to live poor and free than to kowtow to false respectability.' Or even, 'If your heart is pure, you will win the race.' Naw. You let the reader find out what you're trying to say about it all.
Now that I've said enough about homely incidents, let's play a game. Spot the hidden thesis behind these works. What do you think the writer meant to tell us?
- Atonement, by Ian McEwan.
- Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
- Fatherland, by Robert Harris.
- The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning.
- Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
Now, here's the tricky question: once you've figured out what the writer meant to say, see if you can divine the counter-thesis: what the writer actually said that he/she didn't mean to say.
For example: F Scott Fitzgerald's short story has a hidden thesis that delineates the character defects of young men and women in the 1920s. By living in a different time, we have the advantage of Fitzgerald. We can compare and contrast. We notice that being a 'jelly-bean' isn't so different from being a slacker or Gen-Xer. But Nancy Lamar! She illustrates the complex behaviour peculiar to the flapper – the emergent consciousness of a stage in feminism. It's not a pretty picture, but we can understand it.
Now, what do you think the other writers have said that they didn't necessarily mean to say? William Golding was always sanguine about this sort of process, and claimed he learned a lot from the critics. Maybe we can, too.
So, from tiny things to bigger things… How do our inconsequential moments reveal the hidden thesis behind our story? Does the magnifying glass, the teacup, even the chewing gum on the bottom of the dancing shoe lead us to an underlying truth? What do you think?