Wright’s Writing Corner: Dickens’ Trick



Dickens' Trick: Using action in description: “There is not just a kettle on the fire, it is boiling over.” "Horses at the cab stands are steaming in the cold and stamping. When people enter a room they are sneezing or hiding something in their pockets."

Hmm…this one is hard to write about because, while I love this idea, this tip is here to remind me to try it, not because I have mastered it.

So, this installment will be short.

The issue is that a scene is more interesting of something active is going on. The more active an action, the more dramatic and attention-drawing. A room with a kettle sitting on the counter is not as active as a room with a kettle on the fire. A room with a kettle on the fire is not as active as a room with a kettle boiling over.

I have not mastered this yet, but I have learned a related lesson. Scenes only come alive if there are two things going on at once. One trick for doing this in a scene that is mainly conversation is to have some kind of unrelated physical action going on at the same time—travel, a meal, cleaning, something. The dialogue can then be balanced by intriguing physical behaviors: walking too fast, stopping to tie a shoe, spreading arms to catch one’s balance on a rickety rock. The juxtaposition between the conversation and the effort to complete whatever the physical task is adds to the tension and drama of the scene.

I have another personal rule that is a bit like: “There is not just a kettle on the fire, it is boiling over.” But this would not apply to most books. I will share it with you, nonetheless:

If it can be done with magic, use magic.

When I was a kid, I always hated the fact that the fantasy books I read had almost no actual magic in them. Oh, they would talk about magic. They would hint at magic. One or two magical things might even happen. The rest, however, was just an ordinary story. Occasionally, there might be a fight scene with some magic flying, but that was about it.

For my Prospero’s Daughter series, I established the rule that if I could think of a way the characters could accomplish a thing using magic, they would use magic. If there was a choice between walking to the corner store for milk or teleporting there…well, who would walk if they could teleport, I ask you?

After all, why do we read fantasies, if not to be dazzled by fantastic wonder?

So, to conclude, when a you write a scene where a character walks into a room, do not settle for something mundane, such as a kettle on the fire. Instead, make it a magic cauldrons that is boiling over so vigorously that the colored smoke pouring from its bubbling surface is changing the knickknacks on the mantelpiece to birds.