Narrowing the lens

When I first started writing, when I was young and stupid and naive (or at least younger and more stupid and more naive), I wrote about big things.

I wrote about life and death, I wrote about the nature of existence, I wrote about the individuality of human perception. I wrote an entire novel that will never see the light of day about the futility of resistance to change.

Big things such as these are interesting and important subjects in general, and are interesting and important subjects for literature. I don’t think that’s in any doubt.

Looking back, however, I think that as a result of my preoccupation with some of these themes the lens of my narrative was fixed too high, and the characters subsequently became too small. They became dwarfed by the sheer overwhelming bigitude of the concepts within which they were being forced to operate, and they lost depth. It was as though they were acting in the story rather than participating in it. I realise now, from my privileged position of hindsight, that I was lacking perspective on what it is that makes writing engaging.

I’m still interested in big things, but over the years my narrative lens has unconsciously moved closer and closer to the characters. I now find that the most interesting way of writing about something that interests me is to pick a theme or a concept and then focus in on one or two or three characters, right up close, and examine how they deal with it. How it affects them on a personal, emotional, even spiritual level.

Using the smallest of things – a look, a kiss, a smile, what is said, what is not said – to convey something about the biggest of things.

My short story The Restoration Man, for example, is about the loss of a loved one – death being one of the bigger things that we can write about, as unless you are immortal it will affect you in an extremely significant and personal way – and whereas in the past I might have concentrated on the “loss” aspect, in this piece I concentrated very closely on one person and on his own personal experience.

It sounds like a slightly facile point, a bit state-the-bleedin’-obvious, but I think that from time to time many writers forget (or in fact have never really learned) that the most interesting thing about a story is always the people in it (unless the story is Watership Down, of course). I’m certainly guilty of this.

The big things are still important for literature to tackle, of course, but in real life big things aren’t important unless people are terrified or overjoyed or confused or beguiled by them – so why should fiction be any different?


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