The ‘strange’ art of writing unforgettably

Orwell's clock.

Consider the opening: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (1984 by George Orwell.) What makes the sentence grip a reader is that most striking clocks (at least when the book was written) only went up to twelve. By twisting that one thought, this masterful writer twists the world, and gives us the assurance of a striking story to come.

However it’s not only a story’s world that can be twisted and made surprising by a writer’s word-use. Think of how the best ideas cause the mind to linger, going over and over what was written, either because it was unexpected in its phrasing or because its ideas felt surprisingly new.

Your eyes can glaze over a cliché, but they definitely have to take time with this: ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here’ (Sylvia Plath: Tulips); or: ‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’ (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

While poetry and comedy don’t have to use sensible imagery, think how a perfectly familiar idea such as seasons passing can startle the reader simply by being unfamiliarly put within ordinary prose:

She looked out of her window and, in autumn, she saw a blazing hill of corn and orchards where the trees creaked with crimson apples; in spring, the fields unfurled like various flags, first brown, then green.

— Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains

With a single eloquent image — ‘unfurled like various flags’ — Carter makes us see the change in seasons freshly, and with startling clarity. Such imagery helps build the theme, because in her novel individuals as well as tribes are constantly warring under an empty symbology.

Of course the above are mainly literary works. Would thematically-drawn imagery written in a startling way feel right in a book about heroes fighting one another on a colossal battlefield? Or in a novel about divorce? Or in a children’s book? Hell, yes. I can’t think of a single kind of literature that couldn’t use startling imagery or surprising turns of phrase. And yet in terms of modern writing, the art of making us see things freshly is perhaps the least consciously applied technique of all.

The father of the notion of ‘defamiliarisation’ (making things seem strange) is Viktor Shklovsky, whose essay ‘Art as Technique’ suggested that familiar things are only perceived automatically, so the job of art is to interrupt this process by making the familiar seem strange. In artistic terms, such ‘defamiliarisation’ slows down sense-making and draws attention to meanings that might otherwise be overlooked. However if making us see things freshly is the mark of a great writer, it’s also a mainstay of general prose. Aren’t we all told to avoid cliché? In essence Shklovsky’s technique is about resisting the ‘dead’ feel of clichéd representation.

Another writer who provides striking (indeed at times bizarre) description is Mervyn Peake (the Gormenghast trilogy). Here’s Peake’s description of a man’s head: ‘His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet and his eyes behind the gleaming of his glasses were the twin miniatures of his head.’ Or firelight: ‘When Titus awoke the walls of the cave were leaping to and fro in a red light, their outcrops and shelves of stone flinging out their disproportionate shadows and withdrawing them with a concertina motion.’ In the case of the firelight Peake takes pains to slow the description down, only at the end of the long sentence showing that his comparison is to a concertina, by which time our brains are highly primed for recognition. Peake might well have been channelling Shklovsky in this slowing-down effect, because it certainly makes us dwell on the comparison involved.

Within the constraints of a novel’s style, defamiliarisation can be either overt and lavish or understated and subtle. Clearly Peake falls in the ‘overt’ class, particularly in his descriptions of elderly character Flay, whose arrival in a scene is often presaged by the present characters overhearing ricochet sounds (which are his old knees popping as he walks). But any time a phrase rings in mind, it’s worth asking yourself: ‘Why does this phrase work so well?’ You may find it’s not because the ideas are new or striking in themselves, but because the phrasing makes them seem sharper than expected.

We write and work in a world in which styles, characterisations and indeed entire storylines can quickly become gallingly clichéd. Whether you wish to attempt a feat of novel-length defamiliarisation or write a fantasy adventure novel, understanding how to twist an idea or concept just enough to make it seem new is in a very real way the art of all fiction. To that end, techniques like delaying meaning, increasing sentence length at an unfamiliar time (e.g. during a supposedly fast scene), or searching for fresher imagery at strategic points can help underscore a mood, tone or theme, and are always worth the effort if you want your work to rise above the morass of everyday writing.

Meanwhile one of the greatest pleasures in reading is surely the sense of discovery when a familiar meaning is newly and aptly put. It’s like a bolt of lightning that strikes the whole brain. If so, call me Frankenstein’s monster, but I want more!

simple metaphor tool

woolIt’s easy to come up with metaphors, but do they work? Let’s try.


Make two separate lists of words and word-groups. On the left, list tangible things that easily spring to mind. Now cover it while you work on the second list (or your brain, if it’s anything like mine, will try to cheat by making concepts that suit the terms you’ll be borrowing). On the right hand side, list intangible things and complex ideas.

It’s good if your tangible things are also very visual, by the way. Of course imagery can incorporate concepts, sounds and smells, but let’s go with visual for now.

Try not to ‘intend’ anything; the point is to try to surprise yourself when it comes to matching terms to ideas.

An example:

kitten ambition
tin whistle attraction
sock drawer political expediency
wool togetherness
hinge the art world
termite politics
shark suburban life
bus old age
castle preventive medicine
Siamese twins marriage
pebble envy
cellophane solitude
chocolate summer
onion death
zipper hesitation

When you’ve got your two lists, read across the page and try to find links between them.

Can ambition be represented by a kitten? It’s hard to know, so let’s see:

The kitten of his ambition toyed with the wool ball of her… Oh, crikey. That’s dreadful.

Still, I’m thinking there could be a link if I use ‘ambition’ to mean ‘desire to pursue romantically’.

He found himself studying her wool as she jerked another length out to knit with. The ball danced in his vision, tantalisingly out of reach. He wanted to grasp it, to stop her knitting, but instead he only mewed: ‘I want you.’

There’s a kitten there, surely. And ambition. And also (another word in the list!) a ball of wool. So I’d say I’ve been somewhat successful, wouldn’t you?

What can you come up with out of my list words or some of your own?

It’s fine to jump around each list, by the way. There’s no need to feel you absolutely have to stick to reading across the page, though I have to admit, ‘tin whistle of attraction’ might have something going for it.

But what can you do?

metaphor and tone

bridgeAnyone can make a metaphor. We do it all the time. For instance, we say things like ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ when we want to delay handling an issue, or ‘muddying the water’ when someone is trying to complicate an argument.

Metaphors borrow something tangible or easily understood to represent something intangible or difficult to express. Of course there has to be some thread of commonality — some sense in which this ‘borrowing’ is able to supply meaning.

For instance, you can’t successfully speak of ‘the orange rind of peace’, because there’s no  way in which the peel of a round orange fruit can be used to express harmonious coexistence.

By contrast, ‘the mouse of peace’ does have a germ of usefulness. But I don’t suggest you attempt to use ‘the mouse of peace’ as a literary metaphor, because ‘peace’ is a concept that draws its power from the great seriousness of war, while mice are small and prone to form plagues. On the other hand your intention might be comical, in which case go ahead. (Collapsing ‘levels’ like this — pairing the ridiculous with the sublime — is a staple of comic writing.)

Remember, when crafting a metaphor, it pays not to be too obvious. For instance, speaking of ‘mouse of peace’:

‘The crowd’s roar turned to a soft squeak after McCap finished his speech. Gradually figures began to scurry back into their tenement holes, leaving McCap on the podium feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Did you gain the sense there were mice in that place? I did, even though ‘mouse’ wasn’t used. In fact I felt positively overrun.

Carrying a metaphor over several phrases or sentences creates an ‘extended’ metaphor; but it’s easy to overdo. In the above paragraph so many indicators point to ‘mice’ that a reader can feel like jumping on a chair. But you can always prune some of the mouse-related terms out:

‘The crowd’s roar quietened after McCap’s speech. Gradually figures began to scurry away from the podium, leaving McCap feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Crafting metaphors in subtle ways is fun, a bit like playing peek-a-boo with ideas. Show too much, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. Show too little, and the metaphor doesn’t have any effect at all. But show just enough and the reader ‘sees’ things in a fresh way.

And best of all there’s no muddying the water!

what is a metaphor, and why use it?

‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’fox

If I said this looking at a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog I’d merely be reporting.

If I said it looking at a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent, I’d be speaking in metaphor.

The literal sentence is not necessarily more true than the foxy one. But the quick brown fox image causes the reader’s mind to linger, because its literal meaning must be unravelled from the picture.

Vitally, the metaphor provides a clear ‘picture’ in the mind, and thereby simplifies the task of description. Anyone who wants to say ‘a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent’ probably deserves being called a tired rambler also. But there goes that quick brown fox again! Jump, jump, jump. It’s made the leap over and over in the same amount of time.

And that’s why metaphors work. Because they’re fast, they’re flashy, and they linger in the mind — and because when you ‘get’ the underlying meaning, you always feel clever.

See more:

metaphor & tone

simple metaphor tool