Things That Matter

Yes — things. The Venetian blinds, the car, the refrigerator. I’ve been dipping into The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. (It’s a college textbook. I bought the third edition used, because it was half the price of the new edition. College textbook editions are a sham and a disgrace, but that’s a topic for another time.) Sellers includes a short section on the use of objects in stories and poems.

Objects can reveal a great deal about what’s going on in a story, and in an unobtrusive way. Your character opens the refrigerator and finds only a wilted head of lettuce and some cheese covered with mold. Right away your reader understands that in this story — in the lives of your characters — something has gone bad. Someone is being inattentive, or is not being nourished. Something is festering. That information leaps out of the refrigerator.

If the Venetian blinds are broken, so that they can’t be closed properly, we know that the character is concerned about how he or she is being seen, or is trying to keep secrets and failing. If your character drives a rusted-out Volkswagen Beetle, his or her character is being portrayed in a concrete (and economical) way; if the car were a Maserati or a Chevy truck with mag wheels, we would be getting quite a different sense of the character.

Sadly, this technique is available only to writers who write realistically about the present day. If your novel is set in the future, or on another planet, or in Medieval Europe or ancient Egypt, you won’t have access to this way of conveying meaning. If the wearing of a red sash (or the failure to wear it) says something meaningful about the character, you’re just going to have to spell it out. If you don’t, your readers won’t get it.

Yes, we can use marks of affluence. The fellow in Medieval Europe whose horse has a bridle with silver buckles is obviously a nobleman (unless he stole the horse, in which case the incongruity between his clothing and the bridle would be worthy of note — or is he a nobleman disguised as a peasant? that could be interesting too). But what kind of nobleman is he? Generous? Arrogant? Insecure? There are no objects in his world that can give the reader hints about this. Or rather, there probably are such objects, but the reader will have no way to guess their meaning, because the reader isn’t familiar with the culture.

This may be why so much genre literature is shallow — and why the best mystery novels are less shallow than novels in other genres. What is the writer of a Medieval epic or a Regency romance to do? Facial expressions and tone of voice will work for a while, but after a few pages they become dull.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “No ideas but in things.” This insistence on the concrete applies more to poetry than to fiction, I suppose, but it’s worth bearing in mind. I’m not suggesting that the parallel “No emotions but in things” is a valid idea — merely that some of the emotional resonances of a story can profitably be lodged in things.

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