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Exploring the art of fiction

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Object Lesson

So often in crafting fiction we think about character, plot, and setting. But thinking about specific objects and placing those objects in our fiction can be a great way in to a character and even a plot point. An object can give a character something to do in a scene; we can learn about a character by the way that they think and care about a certain object; and an object’s reappearance throughout a story or novel can underscore the change that’s occurring.

Objects can carry huge metaphorical weight. Perhaps one of the best uses of an object is when there are multiple POVs at play. By allowing each character to reflect on and react to an object, we can learn about both the object and the character. A great example of this lies in Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel Remember Me Like This. A postcard reappears throughout the novel and each time that we see it, we see it from a different perspective. It ends up taking on a role of great importance in the plot, as well.

In Hannah Tinti’s novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Tinti switches back and forth between two storylines: one is the present moment, and the other recounts the history of one of the characters. Objects from the historical storyline show up in the present moment, and it’s one of the ways in which Tinti weaves together the two storylines. Tinti talks in this interview about the way her apartment looked as she was working on this novel:

Scribbled notecards, cut out pictures from magazines, and string zig-zagging back and forth as I tried to keep track of the different plot lines, characters, POVs, and objects that shift back and forth through time. I wanted Hawley’s past and Loo’s present to mirror each other, so that when Hawley falls in love for the first time, so does his daughter—and when he steals a bearskin rug as a kid, it later appears on Loo’s living room floor. It was complicated making it all work together, but in the end I started to imagine these small, connecting moments as individual stars within the larger constellation of the book.

 

Exercise

  • Write a scene or a story with a POV that shifts from character to character. Have a key object in the piece which each character considers at some point in the narrative. What can you learn about both the object and each character by changing the camera lens in this way?
  • Take a story or scene in progress. Go through the manuscript and create a list of all the objects. Assign each object to at least one character. Which objects could potentially carry more meaning?
  • If you’re struggling with an ending to a story or scene, think about the objects already in the story. How can one of those objects come back into the story in a way that shows some sort of change?

by Laura Spence-Ash