It’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. And this may be the only time in my life I use that phrase without entendre.
What I’m talking about, since entendre is out of the question, is the extra stuff that goes into a story. The scenery, characterization, action and so forth that isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary to the story, but which lifts the piece from workmanlike to good – or if your name is Terry Pratchett or Dave Freer or Sarah Hoyt, freaking brilliant. Technically a lot of it is foreshadowing, either of future plot or character, but it really serves more purpose than that – and it can be any size at all, from a single word all the way up to scenes and even chapters.
Pratchett’s latest book, Dodger, has a magnificent example of a single word. In this case, the name of a dog. When I first read the dog’s name, I had the reaction most moderately well-read readers would have – er, what? Surely not?. When, despite the name, the dog developed as a very… doggy… character whose main characteristic was the canine version of Foul Ole Ron’s Smell, the name faded into the background of the piece as just a name. Until near the end of the book, Pratchett drops the punchline. Yes, I nearly sprayed the pages.
This didn’t need to be there. The dog could have been named anything, or even not been there, and the story would have worked just fine. But with it, it becomes memorable.
That’s the small size. For the larger size, the opening paragraph of Dodger is another good example. In terms of plot and character, the whole paragraph could have been deleted without losing anything. In terms of pulling readers into the setting it’s without price.
The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellows for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up – regurgitating, as it were, the debris of muck, slime, and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats, and worse; bringing back to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying toward the overflowing and always hospitable River Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that , try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.
Evocative, no? You can feel the water beating down, and you want to get your feet up to keep them out of the disgusting stuff that’s coming out of the overloaded drains. If you’re like me, you can smell it (and you rather wish you couldn’t). That kind of detail is the sort of thing that really shows the difference between the merely good and the brilliant: it’s not just describing a heavy rainfall. Without anything mentioned about when the story is set, you know that it’s not set in modern times. The language is just slightly old-fashioned, and the detritus (no, not Sergeant Detritus) washed out of the drains is not what would emerge in a modern flood. Modern Western cities are cleaner than that, as a rule.
Sure enough, the next paragraph opens with a carriage. A two-horse coach with a squealing wheel. That’s ample to drop the time-slot into the 1800s somewhere, when London was a major city, had mostly paved roads, and was a huge place. A few side comments about peelers and the wars place it somewhere in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign. Meeting a sharp-eyed fellow by the name of Charlie Dickens is just gravy.
Similar levels of description happen all through the book, in ways that work in perfectly with the characters and perspective. A mansion gets described not in the technical terms of what it’s got in it, but by the way a young man who’s done his share of thieving would see them – namely target rich environments, and what is the deal with having so much useless pretty stuff that it’s got to take someone forever to dust it all every day? He’s doing them a favor taking it off their hands… It’s a lovely example of hiding the future twists in the open by having them just be there as part of the verbal scenery as it were.
Simply put, Pratchett is working magic, only instead of gestures and talk to distract his audience from what he’s really setting up, he’s using words. And that’s rather more difficult to do.
Sarah pulled the same trick in the novel she’s snipping once a week on her blog: way back near the start there was a casual mention that the hero is doing something so illicit that no-one would do it even when the Crown Princess disappeared twenty years earlier, then the action hit to distract readers from the key information that there’s a missing princess and highly placed dirty deeds. As a result, when the reveal came quite a long way further in, it wasn’t a surprise. The dirty deeds are still unfolding, because Sarah hasn’t finished the book, and of course it’s not as polished as Dodger, since she’s posting slightly cleaned up first draft as she writes it. But the layering and the misdirection is all there.
I shouldn’t have to give examples for Dave – aside from anything else, if I tried I’d end up citing the whole bloody book. He’s that layered, that clever, and just that damn good. Just go buy his stuff and read it. Then buy Sarah’s and read that.