Tag Archives: Jane Eyre

Description – Don’t Leave it Too Late

Or, Avoiding the Longbottom Paradox

Readers who are invested in your story will begin to imagine the people and the places in it. This is what we want: for them to care about what you’ve created like it’s real. This means that, consciously or not, the reader is creating a picture in their minds. By adding detail too late on you can disrupt their absorption in your world by contradicting their image of it.

For example, if you want the reader to know that the character has an extraordinarily deep voice, or a strong accent, tell us that when they begin speaking. If you only share that after a significant portion of dialogue, the reader may feel as if they have been reading it wrong. Get your essential description in early to avoid reader upset.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can't see he's standing on a box.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can’t see he’s standing on a box.

It’s the same feeling you get when a film adaptation of a book comes out and the characters look nothing like how the source material describes them. Think of 6’5″ Jack Reacher being played by Tom Cruise. A brief Internet skim reveals that the opinionated masses believe that compared to the books, film Jane Eyre is too pretty; Katniss is too fair-skinned; Neville Longbottom looks too much like a young Clive Owen; and Tyrion Lannister is far too sexy for his (leather) shirt.

It’s fine for the reader to guess details that you don’t mention at all, it’s just when new information is introduced later that it can be annoying. 

That said, you are allowed  to surprise the reader on purpose, for example: ‘Betty swore internally at her alarm clock each morning, dreading another day of work. It was Monday and rain clattered into her windows. She dove further under the duvet; it was dreadfully cold. Well, no one can afford to heat draughty old buildings anymore. Eventually, the sound of her beloved dogs yapping inspired her to drag her weary legs out of bed. I suppose one must persevere, she thought, one is the Queen of England after all.’

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you when you’ve been reading?

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Secrets and Lies

Intrigue is the root of so much great storytelling. I think the trick to writing it well is to give enough clues for the reader to have a few guesses at what secret is held by the mysterious aristocrat/creepy housekeeper/any character who gives cryptic answers to simple questions while gazing with a troubled frown into the middle distance. Yet don’t let your audience get too close to the truth- perhaps pop in a few red herrings; a surprise ending is always a treat! Or, it can be great fun to drum up a bit of dramatic irony- let your audience  in on the secret and let the anticipation for the fall out build!

I recently read the absolutely brilliant Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Bradden. The eponymous protagonist lacks a credible back story, refuses to see certain guests and giggles awkwardly before becoming deathly pale far too often to be innocent. The reader is brilliantly fooled along with the characters up until the final dénouement: more twists than a curly-wurly on a helter skelter.

Many of the best secrets are hidden in attics (see Dorian Gray) but Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester hides a whole wife up there. It is an undeniable classic by Charlotte Brontë; secrecy and foreboding are cleverly maintained throughout.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a greatly unexpected reveal- who’s funding Pip? Probably one of the eccentric wealthy people in the novel…or perhaps not!

In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Misselthwaite Manor is host to many secrets behind locked doors, in addition to the magical garden. Even a child, Colin, is hidden away. It is a master class in that timeless literary technique of implying something’s wrong with the use of shifty servants.

A complex web of secrets is found in Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The biggest secret is who the title character really is. Is he the illegitimate son of the chap that he suspects is his father? Moreover, everyone else is hiding something: affairs, secret children, the fact that they’ve found out someone else’s secret but aren’t willing to tell them. The whole thing becomes an ‘I know something you don’t know’ to the power of ‘I know something you think I don’t know but actually, I do’.

Also, the device is used in practically every Shakespeare play:

Romeo and Juliet: ‘I just met you, and this is crazy, but how about we get married and keep it a secret from our families?’

Hamlet: ‘I killed your father to marry your mother.’ and, ‘I’m not actually mad. Or am I?’

Julius Caesar: ‘We’re going to kill the chap in charge, and yep, Brutus is coming too.’

Merchant of Venice: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

Twelfth Night: ‘I’m a woman dressed as a man.’

The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I’m a man dressed as a woman.’ (Just for a touch of variety…)

What do you think of my list? Do any other brilliant fictional secrets spring to mind? Please share in the comments!

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