Waiter, There’s a Pope in My Swimming Pool!

… I think I’m getting my idioms mixed up. Oh, well. In any case, I’m going to ramble on about one of my favorite writing techniques. It’s called- surprise!- the pope in the swimming pool.

My DH introduced me to the term, though I’d vaguely known of the concept beforehand. The basic idea is to write the scene so it focuses on a conversation between two characters, while something bizarre happens in the background, like, the Holy Father going for a dip. To make it really bizarre, have him get eaten by a shark. In a perfectly normal swimming pool.

The writer should bring the ‘pope’ into focus at regular intervals- how regular is up to you, but remember, it’s supposed to be background, not take over the entire scene. Mentioning the pope’s progress every five or six speech tags is probably about right; that gives the reader a chance to engage with the ‘main’ part of the scene- the conversation. The writer can end the scene with the pope suddenly becoming important or engaging with the characters, or allow everyone to move off-page without acknowledging each other as the specific circumstances dictate.

This technique is useful on many levels. First, the writer can introduce boring information or exposition while keeping the reader’s interest with the background event. Having two characters ramble on about the politics of their world or gossip about the relationship between other characters is fairly dull on its own. Adding a background event engages the reader and makes them want to keep turning pages.

The writer can also slide foreshadowing past the reader while the reader is distracted by said pope. By forcing the reader to divide his attention, the writer can quietly introduce things that become important later.

A funny background event can help break the tension of a serious scene, or amp up the tension by juxtaposing different emotional states. Be warned- this is tricky, and if the writer gets it wrong, it can turn the scene into a cringe-fest. I advise practicing with a throw-away scene and characters, and running it by beta readers or critiquers.

But my favorite use of the pope in the swimming pool is to make use of a setting or circumstances that the writer is unfamiliar with. I’m using it a lot lately, as my distinctly civilian self tries to write a military-heavy story (I’m convinced that when the Muses were handing out stories, they gave me the wrong one; I’m the last person who should be writing this type of book). I have no idea how most of this stuff works, so I shift the focus away from what the characters are actually doing, to whatever they’re talking about- or thinking about; this is a weirdly cerebral story. I can gloss over my ignorance, and the readers won’t know the difference- they’re going to use their imaginations anyway, might as well make that work for me. Making the pope go for a swim also helps reduce brain damage in my beta readers, who would otherwise give themselves concussions from all the face-palming and head-desking, were I to try to describe the settings more fully.

So that’s today’s weird writing technique. Have you ever used it? Ever noticed it in someone else’s book?

15 comments

  1. David Weber used it in, “Off Armageddon Reef.” In the foreground, one cleric is questioning another, while in the background, a championship baseball game is going on. (Weber has a little fun by Tuckerizing several Atlanta Braves players). The events in the game foreshadow the battles which will take place later in the book.

  2. I get the story ideas I get, because I am a lunatic, and have trained my storytelling instincts in really weird ways.

  3. Yeah, I do this myself, as part of the setting behind whatever else is going on, so it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It can be normal or weird, depending.

  4. I do it as a way of introducing the reader to what is normal in the story world. If characters are having a conversation and a dragon flies past their window, and neither of them comments on it, then the reader knows that in this world there are dragons, and they are common enough that the characters don’t find them remarkable.

    1. In my novella’s second scene, the banter is set up for character development, but I threw in a friendly wager about parts failure that introduces a primary plot motor: bad parts in a severe environment make the difference between life or death.

  5. Don’t know if I’ve used that yet, but I’m just starting, so who knows? The closest I think I’ve done so far was the tea party, but there it was more about juxaposing the apparent external serenity and sort of silliness, with the high turmoil and stress in the character’s head.

  6. There’s also the “sidekick pops up with a bad pun” and “something’s off in the background and Character B thinks it’s normal.” The former is easier than the latter, and in some cases, becomes expected. Which can be used to hide red herrings or other bits of plot-litter.

  7. I’ve used something like it in my historicals. I have an enormous spread-sheet noting significant national, local and hyper-local events broken out by year, month and date, so that I can have characters mention something significant in passing conversation, as a way of leading into Significant Plot Point/Information.

  8. Also, always have the character doing something while musing. Even if it’s of important stuff that the reader knows will play into the plot.

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