Novelist Suzannah Dunn is one of the tutors of our creative writing courses. Here she talks to us about that most tricky conjuring act that all novelists have to master: How to give the illusion of truth in your novel – and the irony that this very struggle to show a convincing reality can cause some knotty problems …
It’s odd that when we fiction writers talk about what’s at the heart of what we do, the talk is so often of truth: of telling the truth, and of trying to get to the truth. And that’s the case for writers of fantastical fiction as much as for those of us who aim to create realistic, recognisable fictional worlds.
It’s crucial to us that our fiction ‘feels real’: the setting and the characters – what they say and do and what happens to them. That ‘feeling real’ is what I strive for in every minute of my writing life, but sometimes my efforts have me tie myself in knots. Here are three things you might want to think about:
1. Naturalistic dialogue: If you’ve ever written dialogue, you’ll know how much works goes into making it ‘sound natural’. But however hard you try, your written dialogue won’t be an accurate representation of the spoken word, because it can’t be. That’s no failure on your part – the written word is simply a completely different medium from the spoken word. But actually this difference offers you freedom. You don’t need to slavishly reproduce actual spoken conversations with all their digressions, mis-pronouncements and ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. You can hop in and out of the dialogue you’re bringing to the page, lighting only on the bits that are useful for your story. And although your dialogue isn’t ever going to be real, you can make it feel real, using your writerly skills and judgement. Remember that people don’t always speak in full sentences, neatly answering each other’s questions. Remember that different characters would use different sorts of words so that they have distinct ‘voices’ on the page. Many people use what I loosely term ‘phonetic-y spelling’ in their dialogue to create an illusion of reality – but this has its drawbacks: it slows down the reader, so that what is gained in authenticity can be sacrificed in fluency and fluidity. Above all, read your dialogue aloud to check how it flows.
2. Using jump cuts in your scenes: Similarly, however diligent you are, you can’t replicate lived experience on the page. So, don’t try. For example, if you’re writing a party scene, you don’t need to show your characters arriving, finding a parking space, ringing the doorbell, putting their coats upstairs, coming back down to get their drinks, etc. Be clear with yourself why it’s important for the reader to be there at that party: what do you need to show us? Perhaps it’s something specific that happens during the long party evening, or it could be a particular exchange between two characters. Just show us the important bit, and don’t worry about the car-and-coat-parking – we’ll take it as read (no pun intended …) that all that has happened. In other words, embrace the jump cut! The reader We, is well-acquainted with sharply edited scenes from film and TV and is happy to accept it in books.
3. What to include in your story – and what to set aside: Something similar goes for your choice of events to make the spine or shape of your story. Remember that it is a choice. I cringe to recall how, many years back, I tried to argue the corner for a weak ending to one of my novels. It was, I said to my editor, how it would happen in real life … My editor gently said, “But it’s not real life, Suzannah. It’s a novel.” I shouldn’t have needed reminding – yet to this day I do have to remind and reassure myself of this. Understandably, and quite properly, we writers are anxious that what happens in our stories shouldn’t strain credibility or feel contrived. We don’t (usually) want the nuts and bolts to show. That’s particularly so for those of us who are fictionalising events that are a matter of the historical record or personal recall. But again we need to be mindful that – put simply – we are taking life and putting it into a different and particular medium: into words – and a limited number of words, at that. The relationship between ‘reality’ and fiction isn’t and can’t be – and indeed shouldn’t be straightforward. There isn’t a perfect fit. There’s an unbridgeable gap between ‘real life’ or ‘truth’ and fiction – and actually that’s the beauty of it because that’s where we, as writers, come in. That’s where our work begins.
Suzannah Dunn is teaching our next 3-month online novel-writing course, which starts later this Spring and is still open for applications.
We also have a 3-month London-based novel-writing course, taught by Charlotte Mendelson