Monday, 3 August 2015

Not All Moments Are Weighted Equally - Heather Dyer

Sundial 2r.jpg
©Liz West

Time (in novels, anyway) can be condensed or drawn out for effect. Sometimes we might want to use a ‘scene summary’ in which we sum up a large expanse of space and/or time in just a couple of sentences: changing seasons on the farm, a normal day at school, a boring few days during which nothing much happens. Going into more detail when nothing much is happening would bore our readers. Words are expensive, and we need to gauge how many to invest.

Other moments are more valuable because they’re more significant in terms of plot and/or character development. They’re worth spending more words on. Occasionally, a moment that lasts less than a second in ‘real’ time, is so important that, if it was a goal, we would be watching it played out in slow motion.

Look at the famous last paragraph of James Joyce's  short story, "The Dead", and see how a few seconds during which nothing much happens outwardly, is expanded on and explored in great detail:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Here, the reader can feel the same incredibly complex, almost impossible-to-articulate emotion that the protagonist feels. It’s done indirectly, through showing what the character is looking at and what he’s thinking about.

But can complex emotions also be conveyed indirectly in books for children, where the characters and readers are so much less sophisticated? I think so. Here’s a moment that I’m wrestling with in my own book for 7-11 year olds. Hannah is torn between climbing aboard a magic carpet, or staying safely on her side of the window. Only one second of ‘real time’ passes:

Hannah hesitated. Ever since watching Aladdin, she had longed to ride a magic carpet. Once, she had even sat cross-legged on the oriental rug in the hall, and commanded it to take her to the Taj Mahal. But nothing had happened. Now, at last, she had her chance – but the gap between the carpet and the windowsill was just the wrong distance. Hannah could see the flagstone path below; it would be a long way to fall. 

File:Flying carpet.jpg

Getting into Hannah’s head at this precise moment allowed me (and, I hope, the reader) to appreciate how torn Hannah is between security and freedom, bravery and cowardice. These, I realized, were Hannah’s ‘issues’. These issues revealed the theme of the book, and pointed me in the direction of her character development.
  1. What a character is looking at can serve as a symbol or metaphor for their feelings or the situation. 
  2. A character’s thoughts might recall a previous incident or another subject that throws light on the current situation. 
  3. A character’s feelings are best shown by describing the sensations in their body, or by allowing the reader to feel the same emotions by showing them exactly what the character is experiencing. 
If we pause to unpick the important moments, they may reveal (to us and to our readers) the deeper themes contained within them.

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Purkiss said...

In Ian McEwen's book, A Child In Time, there's a scene where he describes a car accident, and breaks down the moment of impact into slow motion, so that the experience seems to last for ages. It's brilliant. (Mind you, also I remember a squash match in his book Saturday - and various other things too - which went on for so long they had me screaming "Enough already!" at the book...)

Heather Dyer said...

Ha! The moments must be worthy, I suppose...