Monday, March 2, 2009

Classical Strings (Part 2)

One of the other use for those odd details, the seemingly insignificant ones, is when they turn out to either play a much more pivotal role, or when they take an ordinary object and present it in such a way that it challenges our expectations. For the former I think of those little clinic sub-plots on "House." For a while you could guarantee that House's "ah-ha" moment would come from the patients he was seeing in the hospital clinic. There would be something about them that would trigger the right thought, and voila, the principle patient for the week was saved.

(They stopped using this device so consistently as the seasons progressed, which I felt was good because they were starting to overuse it. You have to know when to let something go even when it's working. Preferably while it's still working and before it becomes stale a trite.)

The latter prompts me to think of Stephen King. Now King is of course the master of turning the ordinary into something else. (St. Bernard's, for example, or a rose. Not clowns. Clowns were already evil so forget that notion.) But the one that comes particularly to mind wasn't the central character or bad guy but rather an almost secondary device in the book that could have easily been filled by something else - the sparrows of the Dark Half. Now aside from being the book that taught me the word "psychopomp" - a word that to this day remains one of my favorites - it has also prompted me to never quite look at sparrows the same way again.

King didn't, to the best of my knowledge, make up the role of sparrows. He just took one of the lesser known of the classic psychopomps and elevated it to center stage for a bit. But it's one of those things where you look at something - in this case a sparrow - and have a certain set of expectations (sparrows aren't particularly threatening outside an Alfred Hitchcock film I don't think). Which then get stood on their head.

These sort of things can also be used to flesh out the details of your character. If your character has a guitar, for example, odds are the reader probably expects that character to play rock and roll or country (especially if the readers are Americans). You could go half the book with the guitar unplayed and the assumptions unchallenged, only at a pivotal point to reveal that in reality, the character carries the guitar because they play classical guitar. It's not the sort of thing that just springs to mine, unlike if the character carried a violin or had a cello on the deck of their cabin.

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