Sunday, 17 April 2011

O is for Optimal Objects

In your story you will use objects. Characters will employ them as they go about their daily lives. Utensils, tools, decorations. Eat with a spoon, dig with a spade, balance a tiara and whatnot. Sometimes these items will also add personality to your character. What kind of object they’re using, what they’re using it for, how well they use it, will all add something to how that character is perceived.

Beyond that, objects have a number of roles they can play. And some they will play whether you want them to or not.


Unlike real life, a work of fiction is very much controlled by an external being: You. It’s like being given a guided tour, and everything the tour guide points out is assumed to have some significance. Even if it doesn’t. And the more unusual or remarkable the object, the greater the assumed significance.

If Jack, a writer, searches through his desk draw for a pencil sharpener, and moves aside receipts, paperclips and a gun before finding the sharpener, the gun is going to stick in the reader’s mind, and they’re going to expect it to be used later on. You may only be using the gun to show what kind of writer Jack is (in the Hemingway, Hunter S. mould) but the object carries such a weight of expectation that unless you handle it carefully the reader will jump to the obvious conclusion. A gun is the extreme example, but my point is showing an object is like an item in a glass case on your guided tour — it’s been put on display for a reason. If it turns out not to have any particular relevance it’s going to feel very weird.

The other thing that will elevate the significance of an object is how much time you spend on it. If Rachael is brushing her hair and you describe her hairbrush in great detail, the reader is going to assume the hairbrush is important. You may just be a fan of antique hairbrushes and fired up by your recent trip to the Hairbrush Museum, but the amount of time you spend on an object will emphasise the importance of that object, whether you want it to or not.

Knowing the power of making the reader aware of an object, and being able to use language to add weight to that object, not only enables you to control reader response, it also means you can start to manipulate it.

If, for example, Jack comes home and finds his family manacled to the radiator in the study and a team of burglar’s ransacking the house, he might rush to his desk and open the drawer. We know what he is reaching for without having to be told because of the pencil sharpener scene earlier. If one the burglars holds up the gun and says, ‘Looking for this?’ you can subvert the expectations of the reader. If Jack is then handcuffed too, but has grabbed some paperclips from the drawer and escapes, that too has been planted.

This is a silly example (can you really open handcuffs with a paperclip?) but my point is even though the gun was mentioned very casually when Jack was searching for a pencil sharpener it was obviously going to be noted by the reader. But it also acted as a decoy for the paperclips.

There are only so many things you can mention in a story before people get overwhelmed or just stop caring. Once an object is mentioned it is in play and assuming the reader will view it in the way you intend is not a given. Using object efficiently, so they have the most impact in the least obvious way, is a skill all writer’s need to learn. Understanding the inherent value of an object in the reader’s mind, adding to that value, burying the object so it isn’t obvious, providing plausible alternative uses as a misdirect, using other objects as a mask, manipulating the reader’s expectations — these all take considered planning to be truly effective.

However, it should also be noted that most writers also do a lot of this instinctively. And that means very often when you’re stuck, especially near the end of the story, you will find that if you go back to the first act when you were setting things up, there, somewhere, the character will have used or mentioned an object that will provide you with a way out much further down the line. I’m not sure how this happens as often as it does, but it’s definitely worth looking at if you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

28 comments:

Botanist said...

Positively Machiavellian! I like.

I think the same thinking can be applied to other parts of the landscape too...parts of the scene that you might not think of as "objects" in the same way: that crumbling cliff top, the river below, the woods in the distance, all could be set-up for later dangers and escapes.

gaylene said...

excellent post and great reminder. Thanks for sharing!

The Writing Goddess said...

Good post, liking it.

As a reader, few things bug me as much as red herrings - it's one thing if the characters also chase a false trail, but if it's mentioned, for example, that all the children in house XX have blue eyes, I the reader want a pay-off.

Jeigh said...

I agree. It drives me nuts to hang on to an object for the entire story, waiting for it to play in, only to get to the end and realize it wasn't important after all. I always assume everything has been mentioned for a reason. Now to apply the same concept to my own story...

J.A. Beard said...

A great post. Always something I've struggled with as well.

McKenzie McCann said...

I love this post. I don't think I've ever really read a piece solely about utilizing objects. They're important, no one will deny that, but I'm glad your giving them some attention.

Alleged Author said...

Great post! I like planting things in my novels, but I sometimes worry this causes them to become too circumstantial. Enjoyed reading this!

Josh Hoyt said...

I have never thought about the objects that I write about. This is wonderful information.

Brent Wescott said...

As usual, a great, thoughtful post. (Have you thought about reposting these A-Z posts onto their own page? I'd be one that would want to come back to them for further guidance.)

Anyway, I was thinking you might mention symbolism in this post about objects. Is there a reason you didn't? Are you saving that discussion for day S?

Melissa Bradley said...

I sometimes struggle with this myself. A thoughtful post on how to handle this situation.

I love coming here to your site and have tapped you for the Versatile blogger Award. You can get your badge here http://melissasimaginarium.blogspot.com/ I always find something useful and thought-provoking in your posts. Thank you!

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments and kind words, much appreciated.

@Brent - I completely overlooked symbolism, which is of course a very valid use of objects. I tend to not actively use them in this fashion and rely on my subconscious to take care of it. Otherwise it can easily become heavy-handed (in my hands at least). I don't really feel qualified to go into depth on the nature of symbols and semiotics so conveniently have left it to others.

Thanks very much for the question.

Madeleine said...

Good point. It's worth putting some thought into :O)

Ellie said...

I agree, especially about going back to the beginning and using it to find a solution.

Thank you for making me think, again!

Ellie Garratt

Laura Pauling said...

That's one area that makes for great showing! Thanks for the reminder. Were you ever on CC with your name. It looks really familiar!

mooderino said...

Yes, I'm still on CC. Working on a draft right now so not as active as I was. Still no8 in the all-time ranking (if only there was a cash prize for that).

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

Loved this. It is so important to have an object show up later. I always try to mention one casually then bring it up later in the ms. It's a great reminder to watch how you introduce said object for maximum affect.

Milo James Fowler said...

Great post; excellent reminder.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I'm going to look for this more in books I read. Very interesting the power we authors have when describing or focusing on an object. :)

Nofretiri said...

I love the example with the hairbrush, because you can imply so many other things:
- It's the only left heirloom from her mother and the woman is an orphan.
- The woman suffers from compulsive act (I hope that's the right English word) and she simply HAS to do that!
- It's only a special moment, where the woman is so lost in thoughts (because of love, anger, fear) that she completely forgotten what she's currently doing!

Great post! Very inspiring! :-)

Karin @ Nofretiris Dream Of Writing

the writing pad said...

Brilliant post and loved the examples :-)

Langley said...

I often paint myself into a corner so I'm going to take your advice and look back to find an object that may help. Super!

I’m A-Z Blogging on Langley Writes about Writing and Langley’s Rich and Random Life

This is Belgium said...

interesting, inspiring blog

Andrea Mack said...

I love thinking about how objects can play a role in character development or to add a little interest to a story. Great post!

Arlee Bird said...

You make excellent points here. And though I do think much of this does come instinctively many writers probably to overlook some excellent opportunities. Maybe in the future I'll start maybe mental notes or even lists of what all can be seen in each scene of the story to make sure I'm not missing any opportunities to flesh out a story.

Lee
Tossing It Out
Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

Charmaine Clancy said...

You're right, most of my tool-planting is done in the re-writes.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Anne K. Albert said...

Excellent post. I've written myself into a corner many times. In one book I killed off who I thought was going to be the villain in the first chapter. Didn't see that coming, BUT, it sure made for a much better book!

Michael Offutt said...

Hmmm. I don't think I quite thought of objects in this way and am glad that you pointed it out. The gun example is great.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Great insight! I'd never thought of this until now. Thanks for the eye-opener. :)

♥.•*¨Elizabeth¨*•.♥

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