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!