Sneaky Writer Tricks: Estrangement and Disruption

So two lads with cellos do a pretty kick-ass cover of Guns’n’Roses Welcome to the Jungle in this youtube clip. As a fan of string instruments and the Gunners, I encourage you to check it out before we move on, ’cause it’s going to be relevant:

Let me be completely honest here: this kind of thing rocks my world, and it kind of demonstrates one of the sneaky writer tricks I often mention to people in writing workshops: try to find a way to make the familiar strange.

Everyone has their own definition of what makes great art, but mine has a lot in common with a Russian theorist named Victor Shklovsky who basically said that the role of art was estrangement – taking something familiar and making it alien so that the viewer is forced to re-examine it in a conscious way.

Shklovsky essentially argues against the automatism of perception – the process where something has become so familiar that we no longer after actually think about it – and uses art as a disruptive force against it (if you’re interested, I wrote a longer post about this back in 2009, and you can find Shklovsky’s original essay reprinted online in a whole bunch of places).

A good cover version of a song is essentially the modern manifestation of this theory – they take a song that’s become so familiar that it blends into the background, then make you revisit it and re-examine it. It’s one of the reasons my all-time favourite song is The Paradise Motel’s cover of The Cars Drive, which takes one of the most twee three minute pop-songs you’ve ever heard and lays out the heartache and longing at its core by using muted vocals and slow, sweeping string movements.

It’s rare that I actually sit down and think about this in a conscious way while drafting, but it has happened. Mostly it’s a useful tool for figuring out when something is generating the necessary…well, for lack of a better word, let’s call it juice. If you can get people caught up in a familiar trope or activity, getting them focused on engaging with the familiar, you can generate more interest in what’s going on when the familiar elements are disrupted in some way.

On a macro level, a disruption of whole-scale expectations that forces an interesting re-examination of can power a whole story if you get it right (see Horn). On a micro level, taking the familiar and making it alien can give momentum to a scene where the action is otherwise small-scale and seemingly unimportant (see the opening paragraph of The Birdcage Heart).

It’s also a pretty kick-ass writing exercise, if you’re finding yourself stuck and unable to get into a scene – look for the ritual or unthinking behaviour. Getting dressed, cooking dinner, sitting down to watch a movie after a hard days work. Hand writing. Driving the car. It doesn’t really matter. Just sit down and start describing the things a character does without being conscious of it.

Sooner or later, you’ll find a moment where something goes wrong and disrupts the activity, and that’s where things start to get interesting…

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