Today’s insight comes from a novel I’m currently reading, “So Many Ways to Begin” by Jon McGregor.

I noticed something in one of the chapters: a neat way of communicating the passage of time and also, of adding movement to the background of a scene. I found that this made the imagery more three dimensional, more filmic.

The novel is what I suppose would be called a Literary novel, where what draws us in is not necessarily the plot or the action but the characters themselves, how they view the world and also, the language. However, there is a thread of suspense going through the story, as one of the characters is trying to figure something out; and the novel goes backwards and forwards in time quite a lot.

I was paying attention particularly during NaNoWriMo, when I was writing the draft of my novel, to see how a novel could unfold while not having a strong plot. I was particularly looking at drawing a reader into a scene with not much action and the different ways of guiding a reader through a scene and painting a strong picture without necessarily going into much detail of surroundings etc.

In the scene where I found this device, the protagonist is talking to his aunt, who is now in a home, and they’re sitting in a garden. The conversation is what’s important in the scene and the characters don’t DO much. However, there is movement in the action and this mainly comes from a gardener, who is raking up the leaves and carrying them away in a wheelbarrow. And the writer manages to build suspense even in this action.

So, let’s get specific. At one point, David, the protagonist is looking at Julia, his aunt during their conversation. At this point, and I begin to quote:

“He noticed that the gardener had forgotten to take his rake, leaving it leaning against the branches of one of the trees.”
(p. 174/ loc 2427)

They continue talking (for about a page) and his aunt falls asleep while holding a cigarette.

“She faltered back into silence, her cigarette burning down to the filter in her hand. He reached out and took it from her, squashing it into the ashtray, and sat looking at her in the near darkness. He noticed, in the garden, the man coming back for his rake.” (loc 2440)

Isn’t that a great way of ending a chapter – you set up a little action and you resolve it at the end. Meanwhile, you’ve brought the reader into the garden with you, you’ve added movement, you’ve added colour – because I dare anyone to read about a gardener, rake and tree without seeing some sort of colour, and you’ve added a satisfying resolution, to counteract the emotion that might be bubbling up under the conversation, which does have emotion and implications for David, but I’m not going to go into that now, because it would stop your enjoyment should you decide to read the book.

So, this is something I quite liked and I used it in a scene in the novel I was writing. My protagonist had gone to a part of the city, to revisit an area of significance to her. And there she found a couple of tourists looking around, basically being lost, and at the end, they just made a decision of where to go to. So, not a huge deal, but it adds a little bit of, I wonder what they’re going to do next, while giving a little bit of a breather from the protagonist, and also, it just adds life to the scene.