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Warning - possible cliche ahead: At the start of my project, taking advice to jump into the action and wanting to introduce some key characters early, I had my protagonist meet a love interest in the first chapter.  I've had my first chapter critiqued in my writer's group, and on here, but only recently, did someone point out that bumping into someone is a dreadful old cliche.  I know that dropping your shopping is an oft used cliche to get characters to meet, but hoped that this incident would work.  Come clean - is it old hat?

(My protagonist, Jack is arriving at an address for the first time for a job interview)

'Curtains fluttered at open windows and typewriters clattered. The sound of telephone bells ringing, unanswered. This must be the place.

As I reached over a railing to a porcelain bellpush, the door opened, and all I saw, before she crashed into me, was a woman walking backwards, waving her hands, and shouting ‘Only five minutes for a fag.’

Her heel caught a flagstone. We collided, and thinking she was falling, I grabbed her.

‘Get off,’ she yelled, pushing my hands away, turning around as I backed off.

‘I’m sorry. I thought —’

‘Are you Jack?’


Her eyes were smiling, cobalt blue.

‘Hah! My fault. Wasn’t looking.’

A shrill voice from inside the building. ‘Maddy. Shut the bloody door.’

‘That’s our receptionist. Let’s go inside.’

I followed Maddy into a dark hallway. A trace of frangipani perfume mixed with Camel cigarette smoke, then a flash of her blond curls in the shadows as she leaned forward. A narrow hatch slid open and a pale beam of electric light framed her face in the gloom.' 

    • Starting with a question.  In a song;

      'I was trying to be quiet, but the night was playing tricks on me.' has nothing like the engagement of the question in 'Visions of Johanna,'

      'Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?'

      I'm mulling over the use of questions in first person narration. Originally my first line was:

      'I don't know about you, but job interviews terrify me,' but wiser counsel prevailed.

      'No, just no,' said a proper writing colleague. But I find that slight aside to the reader tantalising. 

      Thoughts on using questions, and acknowledging the reader with an aside?

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      • A couple of first thoughts, R.J.. 1) The song question is a different kind of thing from 'I don't know about you ...' The song is the narrator/songwriter being self reflective, talking or singing to themself and staying within the boundaries of the song/story. The aside to the reader is breaking the boundary. 2) I'm sure that like any unusual writing technique, asides to the reader can be done if they're done well enough. But I'd guess it's a hard thing to carry off. The only example I can think of straight away is The Catcher in the Rye, and maybe I'm wrong with that. I can't remember it well enough. Satire appeals in a direct way to the reader -- American Psycho for instance. But simply addressing the reader head on -- certainly give it a go and see what you think. At the very least it would be an interesting experiment..

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        • Hi RJ,

          Laurent Binet in his novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, HHhH, used asides brilliantly -- and was unduly criticised for it by some who didn't get what he was doing. The asides were justified by both his subject & his approach. He's writing about a well-known historical event, but he questions  many conventions, both those of substance ("historical truth", eg.) and those of style (eg., how to sustain interest when the outcome of your story is already known?). The asides to readers are precisely one of a number of ways that he does sustain interest.

          The point is that if you break the boundary, as Libby says, you need to have reasons that serve your subject, your approach or both. It becomes another skilful means of realising your intention. If that's missing, it will seem fake.

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          • HHhH is a brilliant novel. As Janet says, one reason it's so good is that it questions, among other things, the whole idea of how to write an historical novel. Its asides are part of its metafictional approach.

            Did you read it in the original French, Janet? I can't read French but I thought the English translation by Sam Taylor was excellent.

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            • Hi Libby, I apologise for answering this so late. I was in a bit of a work-panic when I saw it; I should have just stopped and answered you. I read the book in the English translation because I read it in connection with my own novel. Heydrich makes an appearance there, and it has asides to readers too, although of a very different kind. I’d love to read HHhH in French – whether I ever do is another question. But I think Laurent Binet is brilliant. He’s written alternative history, you know, and it also received a prestigious prize from the super-critical French – not that I’ve read that either.

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              • Don't worry, Janet - I know you're busy. 

                I haven't read Binet's counterfactual history though I'd like to. I'll probably get to it at some point but not this year. Too many books on the reading list already! 

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              • I think Libby's take is interesting...that a narrator might loudly ask questions of themselves...there are other forms of story telling where it happens of course - if only in an unspoken way - 'Fleabag' for instance, even during sex I recall.  I haven't seen the Bond film yet - but perhaps Phoebe Waller Bridge's input will have Bond cocking a wink at the viewer. . . 

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