Monday, February 18, 2013

Five Ways to Handle Stuff and Other Nonsense

A guest post by John Yeoman, @yeomanis
Can a story be perfect? If any novel approaches that condition, it must be The Franchise Affair (1948) by Josephine Tey. I’ve just read it with spellbound wonder.

But then, many of Tey’s novels would be Booker candidates today. That’s odd, because she breaks so many story-writing rules. For example, her novels are full of ‘stuff’ - long-winded descriptions of setting. The Singing Sands, unfinished at her death, wanders all over the Scottish Highlands without much happening. Yet Tey writes so well, the reader enjoys the scenery and stays with the story.

Lesser writers - which include most of us - can’t risk that kind of digression. Setting kills. Get to the point. Tell the tale. Still, how do we convey all the ‘stuff’ that’s vital to our story? Those details of context that our reader has to know?

Here are five easy ways:

1. The naive stranger

A favourite device is to have a stranger ask a naive question. “‘Sir, why is the village school built next to a jail?’ Old Tom smiled. ‘It’s a long story,’ he began...”

Only, don’t make the story too long!

2. The helpful gossip

Whenever that great rival to Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke, was presented with a village mystery he - and his foil, Jervis - would dine in the local pub. Inevitably, a garrulous maid or landlord would volunteer a vital clue.

Postal workers, shopkeepers, doctors, priests and other community insiders are great volunteers of background ‘stuff’. (But avoid prurient old ladies who lurk behind curtains. The world has room for only one Miss Marple.)

3. The ‘official’ tour guide

If somebody is playing host, they can plausibly entertain their guests with anecdotal histories. A tree on a hill, a book upon a shelf, any object that draws attention to itself can provoke a story.

‘My grandfather carried this with him at the Somme...’

A tourist brochure, newspaper clipping or public poster can also disclose 'stuff' in a casual way, without disrupting the narrative. ‘Official’ information appears to come to the reader unmediated by interpretation, so it has a high truth value.

This can usefully mislead the reader - say, in a mystery story - where the official information, accepted by everyone, turns out to be wrong.

I have just had great fun writing an historical mystery tale (soon to be on Kindle, Amazon permitting). It proves, indisputably, that Queen Elizabeth I of England was not a red head. The records are wrong.

4. The chance remark

The amateur way to add setting is to drop in a big slab of retrospection:

‘I remember when my mother dandled me on her knee and told me the terrible story of the Forbidden Wood...’

A little bit of dandling goes a long way. It may provide a welcome comfort break between peaks of drama but too much puts the reader to sleep. Instead, let the background details unfold in dialogue, by way of chance remarks.

“‘You don’t want to go there,’ the garage attendant said as he checked my oil. ‘They never did find her body.’”

Further remarks can develop that back story - and any small event whatever can cue a chance remark.

For example, an old-timer notices builders excavating a field. He complains to a friend, in a casual remark, that the idiots seem to be taking no precautions to protect the archeological relics. Their ensuing dialogue can disclose, casually, some key event that had occurred in that field four centuries earlier.

Dialogue has energy. It breaks up the paragraphs. And it’s more powerful than a sleepy ramble down memory lane: ‘He gazed upon the field and his mind drifted back four hundred years...’

Of course, retrospection can also bring energy to a story, provided it’s dramatic and brief. Like dialogue, it's a wily way to weave action into information.

‘Sally ran to me across the Netherfield, heedless of all danger. My heart lurched. Farmers had not dared to plow that accursed place, sacred to the devil, since the Black Death came to Ashwell in 1348.’

5. Break it up with action

If granny really must dump the whole history of the family on the reader, break it up. Add conflict or action. Perhaps an exasperating child keeps changing the subject. Or a pet cat gets tangled in her knitting.

While granny copes with the distractions, the reader will stay with the story - if only to see the wretched child or cat get their comeuppance.

When I wanted my 16th century heroine to reveal her scandalous past, to her husband-to-be, I had her pose in front of a portrait painter. At her every juicy revelation, the painter dropped his brush. The distraction broke up her monologue.

Of course, it messed up the carpet too. I hoped that the reader had as much fun as I did, listening to the painter's curses as the paint spread.

‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to be nonsense. We need ‘stuff’ to create a context. What the reader doesn’t need is a lot of digressive details that are unrelated to the plot and that they’ll never remember anyway.

As Emily Dickinson wrote (in a different context): to ‘tell all the Truth you need to tell it slant’.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:



Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humour, some of them intended to be humorous.
Image: Flickr: Kalavinka