Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 47.
In his short story The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges asks, quote ‘In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?’ The answer, of course, is ‘chess’.
That’s a very highbrow way of introducing today’s topic – I could have just as easily referenced the party game Articulate, which uses the same mechanic, or TV presenter power-couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan’s old phone-in quizshow You Say We Pay. But I thought by evoking Borges I’d lend myself a certain amount of literary mystique that might make my advice sound more convincing.
So yesterday I quoted the author Steve Aylett who said ‘when readers fill in the gap, they think it’s their idea’. And you can use this concept, you can very quickly turn it into a technique where you create a mood by introducing a bunch of stuff loosely associated with a particular location or person or era, and often without being able to articulate why, the reader will start experiencing the mood and emotion of that place, person or time, and it’ll feel like a magic trick and they won’t be able to work out why.
The most basic form of this is the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. Which people tend to roll their eyes at these days as if believing in any sort of compositional principle when writing is tantamount to superstition. Or they do this bad faith argument of deliberately overinterpreting it as an absolute rather than a rule of thumb.
But mostly, right, mostly it is better to give the reader an experience than report an event. Mostly that is more powerful, more immersive, more entertaining, more persuasive. If you don’t care about any of those things then by all means don’t worry about it.
For today’s exercise I just want to drill you in the basics of this. Of treating some things, some concepts like riddles that you want the reader to solve. But more it’s about cracking open the direct experience of things, rather than relying on prepackaged abstract concepts where your understanding and my understanding of what that word means, what it connotes, might be quite different.
I’d like you to take an emotion, and write a scene in which the viewpoint character is experiencing that emotion, or has just experienced that emotion and it’s still in their system. They’re infused with whatever emotion it is. Maybe they’re in love, maybe they’re very afraid, maybe they’re furious, maybe they’re deeply depressed, maybe they’re full of lightness and joy, maybe they’re touched with an odd, nostalgic melancholy, perhaps they’re vengeful, or weary, or unmoored and baffled, or grieving, or inspired, deeply curious, pulsating with lust, paranoid or perhaps ardently defiant.
Pick any emotion from the great colour wheel of emotion words, any pervasive feeling that you could describe in a sentence. Then, what you’re going to do is, describe this character entering a shop. Your choice what sort: could be an old bric-a-brac shop, a deli, an art dealer, a garden centre – you know the shops, I don’t need to list them. Your viewpoint character enters, for whatever reason, and I want you to colour the scene with their chosen emotion.
Describe everything through a lens of that emotion, inflect it with that emotion. But do not mention the cause of their emotion and do not, under any circumstances, name the emotion or use any synonyms for it.
The real aim of this exercise is: can you describe the shop, and their experience of being in it, in such a way that someone reading the scene would start to feel some of the things your character feels? Just by your choice of what you choose to describe, where you shine the light of attention, how you stimulate our five senses, can you move us closer to that mood?
So I don’t want to steer you too much but I will suggest that it’s better to focus on concrete nouns – things in the narrative present you can see, hear, touch, smell, taste – than abstract words and experiences like horrible, hated, adored, amazing, bright, wonderful, etc. The temptation can be to just start writing about how ‘He flinched at the terrifying trolley’ or whatever, but really I’m asking if you can try to describe a trolley in such a way that we flinch at it, because we find it terrifying.
Anyway. 10 minutes. Pick an emotional state you can describe in a sentence like ‘She was miserable’, ‘He was tremendously excited’, then write a scene where your viewpoint character is in a shop, and try to write it in such a way that we experience their emotion, without your ever mentioning their emotional state.
Make sense? Cool. Remember, doesn’t matter if you stack it. Have a go, and one way or the other, at the end of this you’ll have learned a bit more. Three… two… one… go.
And that’s it.
How was that for you? You might like to take the time to glance back over the piece and reflect on where you feel this went particularly well. It’s tricky, getting the balance right, and to be clear, because we don’t have a larger plot in place sometimes these scenes can come out a bit stodgy, because essentially this is a character twiddling their thumbs with no story to take part in. So don’t worry if it felt a bit slow or bogged-down. That’s natural. It’s actually a really common reason why a scene sucks. Because there’s no structural necessity for it.
All stuff to consider for future projects. But for now – thanking you kindly, and I shall speak words at you once more tomorrow.