Fiction notes: The power of juxtaposition

15/04/2023 at 10:53 am | Posted in Fiction notes, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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For decades, I wrote non-fiction. Then the poles shifted in my personal life, and now I almost always write fiction. But back in the beginning of my career, I did write a single short story. It was called ‘The Dormer Window’, even though the window in the story was a slanting, attic sort that could be more properly termed a skylight.

When it was published, in Britain and Ireland, no one seemed to mind the architectural inaccuracy. What they liked was the way it juxtaposed the hard drudge of a couple’s ordinary life with a window that revealed their passions and dreams, in unexpected ways. In the story, the husband created an attic bedroom, complete with slanted window above the bed. At night, their reflection revealed them as Chagall’s lovers, entwined and floating in the air. As one editor memorably put it, “It’s about love and DIY”.

I had a quick look for the story yesterday, but couldn’t find it. If I do, I’ll share it on these pages.

But what I really want to talk about is the use of juxtaposition in fiction writing. It’s such a useful device, to put two contrasting things closely together. And it seems to work particularly well for people. To be human is to have duties that we must do, to survive and hopefully thrive. But to be human is also to have powerful emotions. In day to day life we often try to hide these. However, it’s vital for our sanity that there is an outlet for our yearnings, hopes and dreams – a dormer window, if you will.

I invite you to consider what you are currently writing, or perhaps reading. Is juxtaposition present? And, if so, how does it enhance the story?

Fiction notes: Who’s telling the story?

15/02/2023 at 8:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Novels written in the first person have a certain power. When I read, “I am a free human being with an independent will,” in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, I’m owning that thought. In my imagination, I am Jane.

Now consider these words further along in the same novel: “Reader, I married him”. That’s such a satisfying line – an emotional closure to a handkerchief-drenching plot. But Jane is now addressing the reader… and I am the reader, so therefore I can no longer imagine that I am Jane. So I slip into the role of confidante, which is nearly as good, but not quite. And yet the switch is worth it for the power of that line.

By addressing the reader directly, Charlotte Brontë breaks the fourth wall – she reminds us that Jane Eyre is a fictional character on a metaphorical stage. The stage, with its back and two sides, may resemble a four-walled room. But that illusion dissolves as soon as the audience is acknowledged.

Luckily, the reader’s imagination is elastic, as long as the storytelling is strong enough to support it. I’m quite happy to identify as Jane Eyre for the duration of the novel, except during those times when she addresses me.

If a novel is narrated in the third person, do we identify less with the central character? Logic suggests that we might. And yet consider Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My all-time favourite novel is narrated in the third person. However, Persuasion is stuffed full of dialogue, and possibly the best love note in the English language. There is therefore lots of first-hand experience to read and to enjoy.

What about you? Do you like a character to narrate her own story? And how does it feel to you if she talks directly to the reader?

Fiction notes: Why Muscles Do Not Make a Man

15/01/2023 at 9:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that when Woman meets potential Mate, one of the things she probably will notice is his muscles (or lack of them). In primal times, it mattered, of course, that a partner would be strong enough to help protect your future children. But does this matter today, in romantic fiction or, indeed, in life?

I have a dog who is stronger than me. Yet he looks to me, and to the other humans in the household, for affection, food and shelter. His physical strength is trumped by his need to be part of the pack. In our human world, the patriarchy became dominant by building on the advantages of muscular strength. But physicality has its limitations. Intelligence, collaboration, adaptability, inventiveness and agility are all useful attributes for a potential mate of any gender.

In fiction, it can be fun to combine different strengths in one delicious package. Think of Superman, the nerdy, bespectacled reporter, with muscles that can save countless others. Or the popular trope of the sexy librarian, in glasses. Glasses are a quick way to suggest intelligence, but maybe there are other descriptors that can work in less expected ways?

The male love interest in my current writing has a healthy, toned body and not, so far, any sign of glasses. But his most attractive quality has nothing at all to do with muscles, although he does use his strength to protect. So what exactly is this man’s mysterious appeal? Well, here’s the thing. He’s kind. And kindness can be the sexiest quality of all. (Though he does have to learn that, sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.)

So, what characteristics do you like to see in a hero – or a potential mate? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Illustration: Self portrait by Philipp Otto Runge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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