I’ve been thinking about the small changes that our lives hinge upon – the life changing events that don’t seem like it at the time. Laura Barnett’s book, The Versions of Us, is all about a chance meeting that does or doesn’t happen, or more accurately, happens twice and doesn’t happen once. You follow? I almost didn’t. Weaving three different versions of the love story between central couple Eva and Jim into one book, Barnett got me thinking about what kind of events can be life changing for characters in a piece of writing.
The answer is anything. Walking to work a different way. Buying a pair of trainers. Watching a television programme you fancied. Speaking up when normally you’d stay quiet. Reading a book lent to you by a friend. Even staying up those extra ten minutes to finish a blog post. You don’t expect anything to come from the event beyond the immediate impact – owning new trainers, enjoying a new book. But it starts something, maybe ignites some inner passion you didn’t realise you carried. And suddenly – You’re off to great places! Today is your day!
One thing I like to do when I sit down to write is a little writing exercise to get warmed up – it’s something I picked up from a creative writing course I did a few years ago. This exercise is from Margaret Geraghty’s book, The five minute writer, and it’s called ‘Change your life – buy a new pair of jogging shoes’; it fits in perfectly with this post, so I thought I’d share what I came up with:
Years later he will tell them that a broken microwave changed his life. Right now, Nathan’s life consists of sitting alone in his flat, absently picking at the fraying cuff of his black jeans, and trying to summon up the energy to find some food. He can see the streetlamp outside his window, casting a pool of eerie orange. Work kept him late, of course.
If he doesn’t get something to eat soon… His stomach rumbles a warning, an opening salvo of nausea to come if he doesn’t get a move on. Should have picked up some food on the way home, he thinks, but then he’d have missed the train again. He rubs a hand through his hair groggily, drags himself up off the sofa, and plods heavily over to the fridge. It’s usually full – his flatmate is a bit of a foodie – but the food on offer looks a lot more like ingredients, he notes uneasily. There is one sad looking ready meal crammed in at the back, and he reaches for it.
The microwave is broken. He could put the ready meal in the oven, but it takes an hour, and he’d like to get some sleep before he has to go back to work for another 12 hours.
Through the haze of tired thoughts, he remembers something his flatmate said about ready meals… What was it? He scratches at his three day stubble. That was it – you can cook an omelette in less time than it takes to reheat a dubious lasagne.
Alright for him to say, but was it really that simple? You have to put the ingredients together, in the right order, add the flavours carefully, get the temperature right on the pa… Come on Nathan, he thinks. Just do it. For once, don’t over analyse. Things are never as difficult as you think they are.
He slips his phone from his pocket, pulls up a recipe for omelette, sucking his bottom lip as he does so, blinking blearily at the screen and letting the tide of hunger bury his doubts. Nodding as he reads, he reaches into the cupboards, pulls out what he needs; eggs, cheese, ham. Some dried herbs. He sets the frying pan on the hob and gets to work.
Taking a seat at the small kitchen table, he looks over his masterpiece. It’s golden, and crispy, and smells full and satisfying. He attacks it with a fork, the cheese melting unctuously down his chin. It’s balm to his soul. Although, perhaps next time if he added some tomatoes, or maybe even some garlic button mushrooms… For the first time in a long time, he feels a spark of excitement, of newly discovered pleasure. Picking up his phone, he starts browsing the website that had the omelette recipe…
From this point, we can imagine Nathan’s life unfolding; his fledging passion for cookery pushing him to cook for himself, he becomes healthier, maybe loses a lot of weight, perhaps he decides he wants to turn it into a career, become a chef or a food blogger or anything he chooses. We can throw obstacles in his path – disapproving family members, difficulties with his job, his lack of experience. All of that from a broken microwave and an omelette.
I think the trick to getting this device right is to subvert the reader’s expectations – unlike real life, when a mundane event occurs in a character’s life you know it’s going to be crucially important further along in the book. If I were going to turn the snippet above into a full story, I’d have to make the conflict really unexpected in order for it to be interesting. Maybe you think the book is about Nathan becoming a master baker, but it turns into a space opera, galaxies going to war, the earth in danger of destruction over his lemon drizzle cake!
Maybe not – but this has been a fun little exercise, and I’ll definitely be looking to incorporate what I’ve learned into Greyspace (which I’m currently rereading so I can do step 2 of the Snowflake design – coming soon!)
P.S. My life changing moment was deciding to send an email 😉