The Clutter of Reality: How to Gently Trick Your Readers Into Believing You
Dear Filthy Writers, Filthy Lawmakers, and Filthy Sloths in Fear of their Lives on the Jungle Floor,
I talked to a creative writing professor the other day, and he mentioned a concept I’d like to explore. The room had alabaster walls, ruined over time by greasy, mind-numb college students. The room’s rug was a speckled universe of blues, whites, and greens. In one dark spot of the rug, near the corner, was a black hole stain that caught my attention. My eyes drifted upwards to a lingering pipe, fashioned in the 60s by a burly South Jersey man in flannel who wasn’t exactly getting paid by the hour.
Though all of that was entirely fabricated, it involved realistic details that contributed to a certain tone. The details may have been abstract, but we understand the futility of existence, the quest of the Pelagian v. Augustinian argument, string theory, the greatness of Domino’s Pizza. Whatever the theme was, the details left behind an image my professor called the clutter of reality.
The clutter in the story is what gives it depth. Even in narrative poems, certain details anchor the reader and provide images that act as emotional triggers. These triggers can either fashion a mood that the reader will feel, or transform the reader in some oddly convenient way.
Sometimes writers take this too literally and, as my professor says, have all arrows pointing in the same direction. Obviously, achieving a dramatic effect in a story involves the inclusion of details that contribute to a greater meaning. However, the reader starts to believe that the writer is a conman and the story is a true falsehood when all of these supposedly “random” textures of life have an all too coincidental meaning. For example, when you’re writing about the meaninglessness of marriage, it’s okay to have a ring break, symbolizing the destruction of some matrimonial bond (though that may even be a little hokey). Yet it’s incorrigible to have not only a ring break (and have it rust on top of that), but to have a wedding cake ornament snap apart, a TV show talk about the decline in marriages across the nation, passing conversationalist talk about how their marriages failed, yada yada yada. The reader’s going to say, “Hey! I’m onto you, filthy writer!”
Keep your motifs in balance. Motifs are sub-themes that aren’t exactly grabbing at some universal truth, but contribute to greater themes through reflection on the nature of certain human motives. For example, Moby Dick has an overt “Jonah and the Whale” motif, carrying over with men in the story named after characters from the Bible. One of the greater themes that this motif contributes to is man’s madness in the face of revenge. Other motifs involve details concerning the royal ass-ripping Captain Ahab gives to his crew time and time again. However, Moby Dick doesn’t have arrows pointing in one direction. As we follow Ishmael’s journey, we explore a lot of territory, and since some arrows point in logical directions, some in emotional, some in abstract, the novel becomes realistic and worthy of reading. If you’re into reading Melville’s poetic drivel, of course (keep your fists away, angry Melville scholars. I enjoyed it all the same.)
You can develop your motifs by keeping a track record of your details with a “motif grid.” After writing your story, think about at least five different motifs that occur consistently. Next, comb through the story and find all the details that you’ve used; these details can be descriptions, objects, or even relationships between characters. Every component matters, and every detail contributes to the end result. Organize these details into your motifs. If a detail doesn’t fit, ask yourself why you included it. If a detail does fit, see if it needs development, or if it’s necessary at all (assuming there are stronger details that give way to the same tone and feel). When done right, the motif grid will aid your writing significantly.
By having a clear sense of your story’s details, whether they are overt or covert, and to what motifs they give their substance, you will achieve a greater clutter of reality in your story. Successful realism, if intended, will convince the reader that you are, indeed, not a filthy writer after all.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully you garnered something from this semi-didactic article and experience. You can give me some credit, but give 97% of your “Awesome!” to Professor Ron Block of Gothenburg, Nebraska for his impeccable way with words.
By the way, there really is a dripping pipe and an awful stain. I didn’t make that up.
photo credit: Elisabeth Stonaker
Posted on June 23, 2012, in Cool Stuff, Why So Serious and tagged Augustinian, clutter, Clutter of Reality, dick, moby, Moby Dick, motifs, novels, of, Pelagian, realism, reality, Ron Block, stories, techniques, themes, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.