Thursday, 15 February 2007


Apparently, there are many safety valves available to the writer, including tears, laughter and dreams.
There is another, and it is one that Jo Rowling knows well: Familiarity.
Familiarity = Comfort.
Provide the students of Hogwarts with sweets, feasts, sympathetic teachers, roaring log fires and four-poster beds in toasty dorms, picturesque surroundings and sturdy stone walls, and you have something to return them to once they have been cast into all manner of perilous situations. Familiarity increases the threshold for danger.

Familiarity also provides what I refer to as reality anchors.
Reality anchors are essential when writing fantasy or science fiction.
I learned this valuable lesson in my first ever rejection, in which the agent kindly explained that he had trouble immersing himself into my world. I had written unapologetically, even brazenly, overwhelming my reader in a relentless assault on his senses - on his imagination. I opened with sky kittens and star chimneys, moulding an unfamiliar world inside the reader's mind. And I gave no explanation for these things (at least, I did not explain the nature of these fantastical creations until the last act), and I did not see fit to assist the reader in visualizing these things.
I weighted the balance heavily towards the unfamiliar.
If I had created such an unyielding universe, it was not because I had wrung each drop of imagination from my head, it was because I had not grounded this with reality anchors - with the familiar.

Consider the opening to Peter Greenaway's disturbing The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (pic above). Curtains part and we are in a carpark. But there is little to reveal the whereabouts or timeabouts of this carpark: the vehicles are generic affairs, and the characters' costumes offer few clues. Once inside the restaurant, itself an eclectic amalgamation of styles and fashions, we are none the wiser. In contrast, we only need to watch the opening to Working Girl to understand immediately that we are in New York (hello Statue of Liberty) sometime in the eighties (soundtrack, hairstyles, fashion, etc.).

Routine and repetition go some way to offering familiarity by way of anticipation. The reader may feel secure: with the routine comes the expectation of a place that does not threaten or impose or, at least, something known (experienced before).
Similes, too, help the reader to alchemize something alien and intangible into something familiar and tangible. In this way, Marci's gamma-orb (what the ..?) is like a bronze egg (ah, I see!).

During my search for some manner of optimal ordering guide, I have learnt to respect the reader's heart-rate - to release the stress from time to time using a number of tools - and one of the best and most simple of tools is familiarity. And now I understand why JKR might devote a lengthy paragraph to gossiping schoolkids walking down a set of stone steps.

No comments: