Fish swiper, yes. But reptile conqueror? Really?
There’s an interesting curve in the writing circle: the capacity to be surprised, and how to incorporate that into your writing. An angle that can seed a writing voice is to use a surprising incident as a writing prompt.
My office is a 1966 Airstream, set on the edge of my girlfriend’s and my property, in a semi-rural area in central California. The trailer is surrounded by fields on all sides, and when you look closely, there’s always something going on. Looking closely is a habit that all writers should have.
A while back, a cousin of the fellow above flew into my neighbor’s field. It’s not that unusual to see herons in the general neighborhood — after all, I took the photo of this sharp-beaked beauty just a few miles from my house. But he was near a watercourse, where there are all kinds of wiggly things for him to eat. My neighbor’s field is weedy, scraggly land where no fish worth its saltwater would venture. So, seeing the heron fly onto the property and strike one of those heraldic heron poses was noteworthy.
Any excuse to abandon my work, I scuttled over to the Airstream window nearest the bird to watch him work. If you’ve ever watched herons at play in the fields of creation, they’re often pretty deliberate about their doings. They might neck-jut a few feet or so into some shallow water, and then fix that acute-angle head for minutes at a time, undoubtedly trying to come up with some heron haiku. This featherhead did his kind proud by freezing in place.
But then he chicken-footed forward toward our wire fence and started doing a fascinating bob and weave, his long neck shimmying from side to side, cobra-style, while he simultaneously ducked up and down. I thought for a moment that he was sick, and was about to collapse in the field. Not quite. On one of his swinging swayings, he shot that head forward to the base of the fence and came up with a big lizard in his beak. I didn’t have time to even gasp before he flipped his head a bit and swallowed him whole.
Galvanizing Readers with Electric Characters
That moment was shocking and unexpected — I was agog. The bird sauntered out of sight of the Airstream — probably to see if there were any armadillos around to play poker with — and when I came out a few minutes later to check on him, he had vamoosed.
Now, you’re going to think that I’m bending a stiff bird to make a point, but honestly, when my head had returned to my body after watching that lizard slurping, I immediately thought that the bird’s behavior was a good illustration of an approach to working with characters in stories. You can give your reader a good clap on their forehead by making a character do something astonishing once in a while.
You have to be careful here: I’m not talking about having a character spontaneously speak Swahili when they were raised in Brooklyn. I’m referring to having a character do something that’s possible (and that indeed might be integral to that character’s nature), but that’s not probable, that breaks boundaries. Something that expands the character’s potential or place in the reader’s imagination. That kind of developmental concussion can push a story, or shape it in new ways.
The Frogs Are Not What They Seem
A second nature lesson — and one that again relates to writing — is something I’d learned earlier, but was reminded of again because I heard a tree frog croaking after a recent storm. But that was just a soloist: in springtime every year, the frogs that do their philosophizing near our water garden start to do it more boisterously. And they are loud.
When I first heard this resonant chorus years ago, my city-boy background prompted me to think it was the loud-mouthing of some large toads, maybe even bullfrogs. I’d look all over the place for the source of the croak-storm, but I could never see the buggers. It took me many searches to finally spot one. No wonder: Pacific tree frogs, the wide-mouthed worthies that comprise this orchestra, are only a few centimeters long. But when they are soliloquizing about their romantic talents to any lady frogs in the vicinity, they give it their all. They are Danny DeVito with an aggressive hangover.
As with the heron, the frogs nudged me in a writerly direction as well: work with characters that aren’t quite what they seem. You might have a scrawny, wiry guy who turns out to have extraordinary strength, or a reserved little sister who later turns out to wail skronking bebop sax in a secret band. Stick some herons and some tree frogs in your writing — it will give it a stronger pulse. And this isn’t just for fiction: God knows that business writing could use a phrase that’s on fire, or a trapdoor opening and swallowing up the beautiful bride. Wake the audience up.
Oh, you probably should stick a swallowed lizard in there every once in a while too; some characters turn out to be the eaten, not the eaters.
Any animals making mischief in your writer’s mind?
I want to round out this focused (give me some latitude on that) attention on one other component of a writer’s voice: its oddness. Writers are often a bit outside the line — and that’s a good thing! The line is often something that’s toed, but not by most writers. They’d just as soon skateboard over that line. I’ll use the example of eccentric car design to put some wheels on a writer’s engine.
I love old cars. I’ve probably owned 45 cars, and that’s a tortured tale of love and leaks. I was at a vintage auto concours a couple of years ago, where there was an eyeball-scorching field of gleaming chariots, where the “oohs and ahhs” were many and involuntary. But then I saw this rig pictured above, a BMW Isetta with a teardrop trailer behind. The Isetta took more than 30 seconds to reach 31 mph, topping out at around 50. That the owner of this one had the peculiar cant of mind to hook up a tiny — but usable — trailer behind struck me with its whimsicality.
I don’t know where the quote “Normality is what cuts off your sixth finger and your tail” comes from, but the Isetta is an exemplar of the quote’s creed. Sometimes that sixth finger is the only one that can get a grip on an unusual idea, so it’s a shame to cut it off.
I read a New Yorker article about David Eagleman, a professor of neuroscience and of his work on how the brain conceives, interprets, and filters its sense of time. The article is wholly fascinating, but one of the tangents discussed in the piece was the “oddball effect,” which at its essence posits that the brain reacts with great focus and avidity to things that are outside the standard pattern, pushing the norm or subverting it, so much so that time itself seems to be dilated as a result of the brain’s attention.
Be Open to Writing Surprises (and You’ll Surprise Your Readers Too)
Though I don’t even play a scientist on TV, I can’t address the measures or implications of that phenomenon, so I’ll just turn it to my purpose: The oddball effect is often a sensation of incredulity, mixed with delight. It’s when you pull up next to a car at a stoplight and the driver is wearing a gorilla mask. Good God! Good writing often is fueled by the oddball effect.
So, like the Apple ad that saluted the crazy ones and the misfits, I want to salute the eccentric writers, who stroke and poke our brains. People like Tom Robbins, who never met a metaphor he couldn’t bend around a shooting comet, or Oscar Wilde, who while studying at Oxford University, would walk through the streets with a lobster on a leash. Or Lord Byron, who when told at Cambridge he couldn’t keep a dog in his room, discovered that there were no rules against bears. So he got one. (Note: Can we draw any conclusions about prestigious English academies and lunacy?)
Bertrand Russell said, “Orthodoxy is the death of intelligence.” Here’s to the guy that owned a truly oddball car, an Isetta, and thought, “A little trailer to go with it, that’s the thing!” He probably would have put a bear in there too, if he’d thought about it long enough.
So, the capacity for surprise and the oddball effect — to me, solid writers’ tools. But like any tools, they need to be used at the right time and judiciously. Too many surprises and too many oddballs would produce writing that’s just calling attention to itself, rather than bringing the reader to some higher level of delight or understanding.
This is adapted from my newest book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, available on Amazon. Check it out.