14th September 2012

Little did he know…

Emma Thompson: Stranger than Fiction

Last Saturday night, having completed chapter ‘4 from end’ of current adult novel WIP, I got stuck two paragraphs
into chapter ‘3 from end’.  I sat up until gone midnight angsting.  In two hours I added one sentence.  I drank two whiskies… you do the maths!  I was getting nowhere so I went to bed in the hope that I’d wake with the answer.  Sunday morning, woke up, still no idea.  My problem was this: should the two characters in this scene have a conversation, or not? And if they did, how much should it reveal?

I was pondering this in the kitchen, when suddenly it occurred to me, that it was all to do with ‘little did he know’.  If you have seen the wonderfully amazing film ‘Stranger than Fiction’ where a man, Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell), hears the voice of a narrator, Karen Eiffel, (played by Emma Thompson), narrating to him, and comes to realise he is one of her characters, you will know all about ‘little did he know’.   Literary expert, Jules Hilbert, (played by Dustin Hoffman), raises this point in the film.   I won’t say any more as it is an amazing film for writers and I would hate to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it.  If you haven’t, I recommend you do so, immediately!

‘Little did he know’ is third person omniscient. The narrator knows something that the

Will Ferrell: Stranger than Fiction

character doesn’t.  My current novel WIP is told in the 1st person and everything, therefore, is seen through the eyes of the protagonist.  So… let’s backtrack to my ‘3 from end’ chapter.  The protagonist has been given a clue to something.  He suddenly realises what is about to happen.  But, if he realises what is about to happen, the reader will also know what is about to happen.  The thing is, the reader isn’t meant to know.  The reader is meant to know in the final chapter.  If I take away the clue he has just been given, the plot won’t move forward in the way it’s meant to.  Therein lies the problem.

Then I realised, what I need is a ‘little did he know’ moment.  So, how do I get from where I am to a ‘little did he know’?  I can’t say ‘little did he know’ because this is 1st person, not 3rd (I do hope you’re still following), but can I trick the character, and therefore the reader, into thinking one thing and therefore keeping the element of surprise until the final chapter?  I didn’t think I could.  I chatted to myself for about twenty minutes in the kitchen… ‘if he does this then this can’t happen… what if he asks her this…. but if he asks her that then the reader will know….’ yes, well, you get the picture!

So, it all comes back to the point I was stuck at second paragraph in.  Does he verbalise his thoughts, which will require a response from the other character, or does he keep them to himself?  And I realised that if he verbalised them and she answered, the whole thing would fall apart.  There would be no ‘little did he know’ because he would know!  Thus, the conversation could not happen… phew! Also, he has to be mislead by his own thoughts in order to mislead the reader. Oh yes!!!  And thus, I now have a completed ‘3 from end’ chapter which sets me up, exactly as I had wanted, for the penultimate chapter… little did I know!

If this post has plaited your brain a tad, I apologise profusely.   If it hasn’t and it has got you to think a little about ‘little did he know’, then hoorah hoorah hoorah!

Has thinking about a film or the structure of another book helped you come unstuck in your writing?

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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22 Responses to 14th September 2012

  1. Kate says:

    I loved this post, sounded so much like a situation I would find myself in. I’m always narrating the next part of my story, or potential parts in my head.

    I shall check out the film as I haven’t seen it.


  2. Hi Kate! Oh you must. It’s an amazing film for writers. I’ve watched it four times since Spring. It’s the only film I’ve ever watched which is like reading a book – it’s amazing! I’m glad I’m not the only ‘kitchen rambler’ (Phew!) 😉

  3. Jo Carroll says:

    Must check out that film.

    And I, too, niggle away at my characters – often when I’m out for a walk. (Though when I’m travel writing the character is me, and I’m noticing things that might be funny when written down and scripting that in my head!)

  4. Martin Day says:

    Abi, thanks for the insight into the workings of your mind – I can almost hear the cogs turning and can certainly feel the heat from here. My own parables are all written in such a way that the reader sees what the character doesn’t – As a kid I was taken with the lyric of 10cc’s ‘I’m not in love’ for that same quality (as explored in my blog ’10cc and a charming transgression’ -http://www.shallowdeep.com/blog/?itemid=10 ). So I never had to navigate the same sort of problem that you have done.

    Thanks too for the ‘film review’. I may even have that one recorded somewhere, but have never watched it because the one-line description always left me feeling like I wouldn’t be able to suspend my disbelief for it – but I will check it out now.

  5. Jenny Alexander says:

    Well phew, Abi – thank goodness you found your way through the maze! Onwards and upwards now, for the end is in sight (I love that part in the process). Now I’m going to order the film 🙂

  6. So glad you figured it out (and can’t wait to read it!!). I know exactly what you mean because I’m having the same problem with limited third person, too… when to reveal and how while still keeping little did he know in mind. And I agree, Stranger than Fiction is one of my all time favorite movies. For movies about writers, in the same league as Finding Forrester and (the newest) The Words. So fun watching other writers, I agree!

    • Our writing is in sync again, Julia. It is limiting isn’t it, and sometimes challenging… did I say sometimes? 😀 It is a great film isn’t it? I haven’t seen Finding Forrester or The Words so I’ll look out for both of those films – thanks for the tip off!

  7. Nadine says:

    I love that show, because of the concept. Emma Thompson is one of my fave actresses, and Will Ferrell is a riot!

    I get you, though. Sometimes it’s good to talk things out loud to ourselves. I find that it brings so much clarity. So glad that you found a way to make it work. Looking forward to when you share that you’ve finished it. 🙂

  8. Hi Nadine! So glad you’ve seen the film. I love Emma Thompson too! It is good to talk through it isn’t it? Verbalising your thoughts seems to help untangle them somehow, and so much goes on in our heads with writing, I think this is why we need to do this sometimes. I often find that when I’m talking about a plot problem to someone else, or about any dilemma, as I’m speaking, the answer comes to me!

  9. Emma Pass says:

    I always look to the structures of films and other books when I’m stuck – it helps so much! And I had to switch my WIP from first person single POV to first person multi POV after getting into difficulties with the narrative when it was told only through one character’s eyes. This is why it’s so important for writers to read – and read widely (as well as watching films!). Seeing how others do it is what gives you the tools to get yourself out of trouble. Great post, Abi, and I’m glad you got unstuck!

  10. Yep, you’re so right, Emma. I always analyse what works in other writer’s work and what doesn’t. Of course, a lot of that is subjective, but it makes me more certain of what will work for me. Glad you liked the post and hoorah to unstuckness! 😀

  11. POV is an important subject to get your head around. I had to change one of mine for similar reasons, couldn’t get the information across I wanted to!
    Regarding talking to your characters or about them, or working through storylines out loud is common…though I tend to do it in the car on the school run etc…and get strange looks when I get that Eureka moment and shout ‘Yes!’ and hit my hands on the steering wheel in delight (and yes, I have hit the horn by mistake during one of those moments!).

  12. Ha ha! Can just picture that, Lisa 😀 School run is a perfect time for that, isn’t it? I write half my blog posts in the car (when I’m parked up, of course). It’s perfect quiet time to come up with ideas.

  13. Hee hee! Well done you! I have a netbook for in the car – quite handy… when I remember to take it with me 😀

  14. wendyfreckles says:

    This is exactly why wine is required for writers, Abi! Which I thought was the best tip ever – one I will never forget and always stick to. And after a bottle I sailed through your blog tonight. I need to do some extra curricu revision on POV. Read that JKR changed it in her novels in a few chapters.

    Talking and more talking where I act out the options in pretend conversations def works for me. Bring out the Emma Thompson in you! Then review and choose.

    I too often discuss plotlines with hubby and son and bingo sorted! Funny how that happens. You solve it yourself by asking others and don’t actually need their help in the end. Loved this post. Thank you. And now the Olympics and summer hols over I will have to catch up on the older ones to where I last read up to.

  15. Aw, thanks Wendy. That talking out loud thing – you’re spot on! You don’t need the answers as verbaslising the problem seems to rectify it. Wine… oh yes! *fills glass* 😉

  16. You’re so right that verbalising a problem often helps to work it out. I’ll bounce plot ideas off my wife who doesn’t then get a chance to tackle my problem because I’ve solved it just by saying it aloud. And as for your (now resolved) dilemma that’s one of the probs with 1st person – you can only tell the story from their point-of-view . . . but that can open you up for all kinds of surprises which, for me, is so much fun. In fact, all my novels so far are in 1st person. Oh, and remember – your 1st person narrator doesn’t have to be completely reliable. They can keep things from the reader, and they can lie to themselves.

  17. Interesting that all of yours are in 1st person, Dan. I generally go for 1st person too. I like that concentrated insight into a person’s thought and the sense of immediacy. Yes, you are so right about your protagonist not having to be reliable and lying to themselves – in fact, that’s kind of how I resolved the above problem in the end. Phew!

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