I’m just back from a few days in Venice teaching a writing masterclass (I know, it’s a hard life). In my lectures, one subject I found I returned to repeatedly was the hidden clues that make a novel work. Readers often don’t realise they are there, and that means they’re hard for a writer to spot.
Does that sound vague? Let’s have some examples.
Readers have a strong sense of whether surprises are fair. Sudden fatal coronaries, floods, falling trees and brake failures have to be used with careful judgement because they are convenient for the writer. They must be foreshadowed so that they seem inevitable and surprising but not arbitrary.
So if you wanted to warm the reader up for a car crash, you could plant a hint much earlier in the novel that one of your characters is often fined for speeding, or that it’s Christmas and drunk-drivers are on the roads. Foreshadowing mustn’t be obvious, so you need to disguise your intentions by making the scene appear to perform some other function – such as a couple arguing about who will stay sober for the drive home.
Enough secondary and background characters so that the world is populated
Some characters seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no connections to other people outside the main action. But if you add, as appropriate to your genre, a few colleagues, neighbours, extended family members, they seem to acquire more reality.
You also need extra people to make public settings believable. When you describe your protagonist walking down the street where they live, add a little life – a person hauling a suitcase out of their front door, perhaps. If the scene takes place at the dead of night, add a cat hunkered down on the parapet. If your characters meet in a coffee bar, give us a snapshot of the stranger sitting in the window, tapping on a laptop.
Here, you can learn from the movies – you’ll almost never see a street scene or a coffee bar that doesn’t have an anonymous random person doing an ordinary thing. Without it, the scene would seem strangely empty, artificial. The same goes for novels.
Many writers plunge into a scene’s action too abruptly. Although it’s good to get the story moving, we can also be disorientated if we don’t know who’s in the scene, how many people there are and what they are doing. Include this in your opening so that the reader can load it in their mind.
With themes we have to use a light touch. I see manuscripts where the writer is desperate to point out their clever theories that make their story look universal and weighty. The characters have a lot of conversations, about the theme. They see it on newspaper headlines or their Twitter feed. Indeed, the characters might seem to be enacting a series of examples the writer’s theme, instead of following their real, human urges.
Themes work best when they are covert, not lit in neon. So the clever writer will nudge the reader to notice them – perhaps with their choice of language, names, a symmetry in the characters’ situations. It’s certainly there, and it has to be placed carefully – but it is hidden.
All these details are easily missed by readers – and this is their very nature. They are usually smuggled in. They do their work in disguise, under the waterline. Without them, the world of the story might seem unconvincing, a scene might be confusing, a plot surprise may seem arbitrary, or the novel may seem hectoring instead of engaging.
(Psst… there’s more about these techniques in my plot book and my characters book.)
Let’s discuss! Have you come across these techniques? If you have, how did you become aware of them? Are there any others that you’d add?