28 April 2013

Silence, Subtext and Unreliable Narrators

As I walked into a small shop a few days ago, I overheard part of a conversation between the store owner and a person at the counter. The customer asked about someone they were thinking of employing. 

The owner hesitated for the briefest of moments before giving a pleasant, but non-committal response.

The hesitation said everything. The polite words spoken without any enthusiasm merely confirmed my initial reaction. I wouldn't employ the person they were discussing.

As I came out of the shop I thought about that exchange as a writer. 

Dialogue is vital in writing. It should do at least one of the following things:
  • Advance the plot
  • Deepen understanding of the character
  • Create or advance conflict and suspense. 

Silence, or a pause that is slightly longer than it should, can often tell us far more than conversation. Why is the character silent? Is it because they don't have an answer, or because they don't want to tell what they know? 

Is it a comfortable silence, or does the person act awkwardly and out of character? Does another character rush to fill the silence with chatter?  What questions would go unanswered, or be answered ambiguously or untruthfully?

Silence can also heighten tension, especially when it's obvious one character knows something, but isn't telling. Does the reader know the answer, or are they being kept in the dark as well?

If used well, silence can do the same job as dialogue in expanding plot, deepening character and creating suspense or questions. 

Subtext is the content hidden under dialogue, and is a good way to show the relationship between characters. For example, Sally and Jane have had a disagreement at work. They sit at adjacent desks, but have been working silently since the disagreement. Then Jane says she is going to buy coffee and a muffin from the cafe along the road, and asks Sally if she would like anything. Neither mentions the disagreement, but the offer of coffee and a muffin is subtext for an apology, or at least a request to forget the disagreement. Subtext is often used between people who know each other well, although a group of people may use it to laugh at someone outside of their group. 

Another way that dialogue can keep the reader guessing is by using an unreliable narrator. I recently finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and without giving away too much of the plot, as you read further into the book you begin to realise that what you are being told is not necessarily the whole truth. 

A narrator may be unreliable because they are deliberately misleading you, or it could be because they don't fully understand the situation. An excellent example of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Haddon.  The narrator is fifteen-year old Christopher Boone, who has behavioral difficulties. Because of this and his age, there are scenes which he doesn't understand, but which the reader does. 

Christopher gets into trouble because he doesn't understand other people, or subtext. An example of the type of subtext he wouldn't get is, 'Can you open the window?' To Christopher this is a question about his abilities, but we know he is being asked to open the window.

Using an unreliable narrator isn't something you can decide to do halfway through a manuscript, at least not without a lot of rewriting, but it makes for an interesting read when used well. 

25 April 2013


Today is ANZAC day. Here in New Zealand and in Australia, it is a day we specifically remember the New Zealanders and Australians killed in war, and also honour returned servicemen and women.

The date marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers – the Anzacs – on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. 

My father was too young to serve during the Second World War, but he remembered being evacuated to Devon as a young child. His mother died when he was four, and I can only imagine how he must have felt losing his mother at such a young age, and then being parted from his father and family, and also how his father must have felt.

Today there were ceremonies, large and small, around the country to commemorate ANZAC day. In our quiet area there was a lovely ceremony at the memorial in the park by the beach. 

I stood in sunshine and looked out over the beach and calm sea, and thought how lucky I am to live at this time and in this place. 

In our busy world we have too few moments to be still, to enjoy what is around, and to be grateful. We should treasure each of those moments.

22 April 2013

Set the Scene

In some books or films, the setting is so integral to the story that it feels like one of the characters. If the setting changed, the story would change.

As I thought about this an old Robert Redford film came to mind, (sorry but I can't remember the name). It's a cowboy film, and throughout the film the scenery is harsh desert giving a feeling of searing heat, and a decided lack of life.

In several of Daphne du Maurier's books setting plays an important role. Think of the gloomy threatening inn on Bodmin Moor (Jamaica Inn), and of the oppressive house, Manderley, in Rebecca. 

Heathcliffe is as wild as the Moors surrounding him. 

Lives Interrupted (for me) couldn't be set anywhere else but London. Kate has dreamed of living in London through her teenage years, and we see the city through her excited perspective. Whether it's the dingy arrivals area at Heathrow or the gloomy tube stations, she sees everything as new and exciting. Even having her bag stolen doesn't change her delight at living her dream. After the bombings, she views London in a very different way as she attempts to get back something of the person she was before.

My current book, Lies of the Dead, is set in a Cornish village called Poldrayth. The village is fictional, but based on a real place. The three main characters are two brothers and a sister. Tom, the older brother, is the only sibling who still lives in the village, and it has a strong influence on his character. He is steady, reliable and always there, just like the village. It has been the family home for generations, and Tom can't imagine living anywhere else. However, when his life is threatened there, it changes his view of the village.

The importance of place doesn't have to (and shouldn't) mean long paragraphs of description. The setting is seen through the characters, and affects their actions and the way they view the world. It makes them who they are. Someone who makes quick, rash decisions will view their surroundings differently to someone who is slower and methodical. A couple in love would enjoy a walk in a secluded setting, that same setting at night would have a totally different feel for a nervous person on their own.

Knowing our characters, and how they will react to their surroundings can have a huge impact on our story, indeed it can make the story. The whole basis of the film Crocodile Dundee is having the two main characters spend time in a vastly different setting to their usual one, and seeing how they react.

What is the setting of your book? If you changed the setting would if change the story? You don't have to change the setting of the entire book, but if you changed the setting of an important scene would it make a difference? It might move your story in a totally different direction.

If you're having difficulty with a scene, change the setting and see where it takes you.  I'd be interested to know if you've tried this and how it worked for you.

08 April 2013

North and South, Top and Bottom

Here in New Zealand we are slowly moving from Summer into Autumn, and our clocks have just gone back an hour. It takes some getting used to - celebrating Christmas during Summer, and Easter at the beginning of Autumn. I tend to try and not think about seasons and months at the same time - it's just easier that way.

I visited a garden centre at the weekend, and was holding a beautiful yellow chrysanthemum when I noticed a poster in a quiet corner. The title of the poster was April, and before I read any further I looked at the flower in my hand and thought, that poster's a bit out of date it's autumn. 

Yes it is, which means it's April (not October!)  Mixing seasons and months adds confusion when you've spent the first half of your life in the northern hemisphere and then move 'downunder'.

Last weekend I had a long telephone conversation with my brother in England. Shortly afterwards I mentioned to one of the little people they had very cold weather in England with a lot of snow. As we were wearing shorts and t-shirts because it was hot and sunny here, she gave me a quizzical look and asked if their seasons were in a different order. Now that is mind blowing.