Five or six persons, standing up, filled the narrow apartment, which was lighted by a single window looking out on the yard, a sofa of brown damask wool occupying the interior of an alcove between two door-curtains of similar material. Upon the chimney-piece, covered with old papers, there was a bronze Venus. Two candelabra, garnished with rose-coloured wax-tapers, supported it, one at each side. At the right near a cardboard chest of drawers, a man, seated in an armchair, was reading the newspaper, with his hat on. The walls were hidden from view beneath the array of prints and pictures, precious engravings or sketches by contemporary masters, adorned with dedications testifying the most sincere affection for Jacques Arnoux.
– Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
I can’t remember why I was watching the video on how to win bar fights, nor do I recall how to win bar fights (good news for any of you planning to challenge me to single combat in a pub this year), but I do remember the instructor’s central advice: ‘Use the ambience.’
‘Ambience’ was a polite word for ‘objects that are around you’. And ‘use’ was a polite word for ‘hit your opponent with’. Some of his suggestions felt like they would be effective – clubbing someone with a chair, I imagine, has a certain crude persuasiveness – and some felt like they might require a level of precision not usually available to combatants whose foe is not already unconscious/a consenting partner – e.g. grabbing a small tobasco sauce bottle off a table, ‘and now we play hide the sauce bottle’. (I realise a certain amount of innuendo is at play here, but I think he was suggesting that one attempt to insert an entire hot sauce bottle into the anus of one’s – presumably clothed – opponent during a pub brawl. I’ve never tried this, but I imagine if you succeeded you would, indeed, be declared the winner. I suppose the video didn’t say it was about how to win bar fights easily, and perhaps the aim was to lend one’s victories some creative flair)
This isn’t a post about how to win bar fights. Boo! This teetotal coward cannot teach you that skillset.
But I do think the advice applies to one particular tactic you can use in your fiction. It’s easy to get so caught up in the characters around whom your story (quite properly) revolves, considering their motivations, maybe writing out backstories for them or conducting imaginary interviews to get a sense of their voice.
We can expend so much imaginative energy on make our characters – or at least our protagonist – real for ourselves, that we neglect the rest of our fictive universe, and we forget to apply the standards and tests we apply to people for the world they move through. You might have sometimes worried:
‘Is my character believable?’
‘Is my character original?’
‘Is my character interesting?’
‘Is my character three-dimensional and rich?’
But it’s less likely that you routinely ask yourself:
‘Is this room believable?’
‘Is this room original?’
‘Is this room interesting?’
‘Is this room three-dimensional and rich?’
I did a mini-rant a few weeks ago about lazy beats. It’s instructive to me how quick most writers are to catch themselves in clichés of dialogue, clichés of action, clichés of emotion, but how rare it is that they scrutinise their prose for clichés of environment.
How often do you think, before you have a character enter a room, or a building, or an area outdoors: How can I make this area different? How can I make it specific and lived-in? What is idiosyncratic about this space?
Of course, you have to pick your battles. One could very quickly get bogged down in slavishly listing every object, texture and angle in a given room the instant a character enters it. Part of the point of Flaubert’s lavish, lengthy descriptions in the extract above is that he’s taking the piss and skewering posh materialistic pretention. Many of the rooms Frédéric enters have been designed and decorated for the express purpose of impressing those who enter, and, since the protagonist starts the novel rather naive himself, it fits both the theme and the point-of-view embodied by the central character to have time slow down as he stops to take in the grandiosity of each room as he enters.
Think: what single object might the eye be first drawn to in the room you’re describing? In what way could this room be different? For the next week, try to stop yourself each time you enter a room. Look around – what would stand out to a newcomer? Try to notice what you notice when you walk into a room you’ve not been in before. What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell? What is the temperature like?
If you want an object lesson (pun intended) in ‘introduce a room, make it interesting’, I heartily recommend you read George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Each chapter moves to a different room in an apartment block, whether or not they currently contain people, describing the contents and the stories behind them. The peculiarity and the range of the tales that arise from this exercise is breathtaking. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s really funny and readable.
I’m not suggesting you’d always want to go as far as Perec does, but seeing this technique taken to extremes can help you get a clear handle on how it works (the famous Glass family medicine cabinet scene in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is another opportunity to study a relatively pure form of this move) and then you can absorb it into your repetoire and employ it as and when you need it. That’s a lot of what developing as a writer is: you notice an effect, you work out how the effect was produced, you hunt down other examples to learn exactly how it works, then you steal it.
That’s the name of my next non-fiction book, by the way: WRITING: HOW TO WATER DOWN THE GREATS FOR FUN & PROFIT
My fiction debut, The Honours, is published by Canongate in April. Pre-order now to get a first edition the day of release!