It must be a month ago that I started thinking about writing a blog post on the difficulties of writing about sudden events, which was something highlighted by Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday in walking in Wales, and with historical fiction writers Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden in the Mani peninsula in Greece.
The thoughts about ‘suddenly’ have come and gone in that time, but I realised that in my own writing I tend to use a change of viewpoint to denote that something is about to happen. In fiction, a sudden event can feel unbelievable if it just pops up without warning, and the result is that it often makes the reader laugh – very much like someone jumping out of a tree and shouting ‘boo!’
So the sudden event needs to be foreshadowed in some way. Often sudden events are heralded by a noise: a bang at the door, the sound of musket fire, the cries of an angry mob. Sudden events in the middle of a scene are harder to manage, than at the beginning or end of a scene where white space can help isolate and give impact to the incident.
But one of the effective ways to do this is to shift viewpoint. Here’s an example;
‘William gave a sudden lurch forward and pushed her into the water.’
Now remove the ‘sudden’ and foreshadow it with a change of viewpoint.
Bird’s Eye View
The cry of a gull caught her attention. She looked up. Their two figures would be like dots, she realised, two dark smudges on the edge of the rolling green, where the white line of the cliff cut into the blue of the sea. The gull swooped, hoping for food.
Without warning, Wiiliam lurched forward and pushed her into the water.
Magnifying Lens View
Alice saw the change in his eyes, the way the irises opened out into round circles. A wave of uncertainty. He blinked once.
Without warning, William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.
Far Distance View
Mrs Rogers shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. Two figures stood on the edge of the cliff. A man and a woman; the man was hatless; the woman’s skirts billowed in the wind. They arrested her attention because they weren’t looking out to sea, but at each other.
Without warning the man lurched forward and pushed the woman into the water.
Far Past View
She had the impression of standing on the back of an ancient animal. She almost expected to feel it breathe. Time slowed. He was looking at her with a strange, amused expression.
Without warning, he lurched forward and pushed her into the water.
Far Future View
A pause. Years later she would wonder why she hadn’t felt an ounce of warning.
That one minute her feet were on solid ground, the next; William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.
Of course these are extremely crude examples, without any novel to give them context, but the principle of shifting the viewpoint seems to de-stabilize the reader and make the sudden event feel more natural. The important thing is to provide a context, so the sudden event flows naturally from the preceding text, although still remaining sudden. Try it, and see if it works for you.
But – Character Reaction is Key
The sudden event need not be explained, but the character reaction must be short, quick, visceral. It is this that makes the event seem sudden and brings the reader along with you. Try using strong verbs which contain a sense of movement, and aim for clarity and precision.
A rush of air.
Her back slapped into something hard. A shock of cold sucked the air from her lungs. Her feet thrashed in the heavy dark until her head broke water, eyes stinging, into the cries of the gulls. Through the blur of salt, she tilted her head up to squint against the sun. Where was he?
The cliffs were empty.
Notice also the amount of white space around the sudden event.
The picture for this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich.