Canned Wisdom #7

Monday again. Time for another little commentary on writing:

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For last week’s Canned Wisdom, click here.

This is about expectations and about how they affect our impressions.

The picture above is of a cup of coffee. Except, it’s in a mug made of glass, and there’s a candle behind the mug, so the light plays around in the shapes in the bottom of the mug.

It’s a black coffee, because there’s no milk and no sugar in it. But it’s also not super strong, so the light from the candle comes through on the sides and tints the coffee red. It could also be the coffee isn’t actually black, but really a very dark red.

2018-03-18 17.53.41When you read the phrase a cup of black coffee, you probably won’t picture anything like what you see in the image above. Right? You already have an expectation of what a cup of black coffee looks like.

Black coffee comes in white porcelain cups, and it’s proper black – perhaps with a few bubbles from the pour on top. Put the term into a google image search. You know what you’ll see – or, well, you won’t be surprised at least.

What does this mean for us as writers?

I get two things.

The first is that readers already know what a lot of things look like, so there’s no need to describe them. It’s enough just to mention what they are.

Time for examples. Picture the following:

  • A woman hurrying to work on Monday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
  • A woman looking out her window on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
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A rubbish bin with two umbrellas sticking out of it. That’s also a story.

The two sentences are quite similar, but they paint very different pictures. There’s no information at all about what the woman looks like, and nothing at all about her cup of coffee, or how she’s dressed, but still we get an image.

Sure, the image might be vague and indistinct, but there’s something there, and there’s a vibe to it too.

We all have expectations of what things look like, and if you play to that, you can use it to great effect in your writing.

The second thing I’m getting is that things aren’t always what they seem. We all know that coffee is black, and we all know that snow is white and the sky is blue and the good guys always win in the end – right?

Except maybe that’s not always how it is. Sometimes black coffee is red, and sometimes white snow is blue, and sometimes the sky is all kinds of weird colours when the sun is setting and the clouds are on fire.

As for the good guys, well, life’s tough sometimes.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating your stories. Your readers will have expectations, and you can choose to live up to them, or to try and circumvent them. Either is fine, just try and make sure to pay attention to what expectations you’re setting for your reader.

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Canned Wisdom #7