Setting the scene

Currently reading The Casual Vacancy. Being a Harry Potter fan, had been wanting to read it for a while and a friend brought me her copy the other day.

I can’t decide if I’m enjoying it or not. I don’t actually like any of the characters and class is the major theme, which has a tendency to make me a bit cringe-y.

But it’s very well written. I had forgotten what a master wordsmith JK Rowling is, how effortlessly she sets a scene, how skilled she is at showing rather than telling.

Look at this paragraph, for example, where a social worker is trying to get hold of a bunch of people (doctors, case workers, etc) relating to a drug addict named Terri Weedon, but no one is answering their phones. It’s the first time we see her office:

On the basis of what she had seen that afternoon, Kay thought the time was right for a case review, to pull together those professionals who shared responsibility for individual fragments of Terri Weedon’s life. She continued to press redial between dealing with other work, while in the corner of the office their own telephone rang repeatedly and clicked immediately onto the answering machine. The Child Protection team’s room was cramped and cluttered, and it smelt of spoilt milk, because Alex and Una had a habit of emptying the dregs of their coffee cups into the pot of a depressed-looking yucca plant in the corner.

The entire office and the entire department, even is so easy to imagine from those simple few sentences. She has co-workers named Alex and Una. They are too busy and they don’t have enough space. They run on coffee and they don’t even have time to wash their cups properly.

Instead of just baldly saying that their phone is always ringing, the information is slipped in there once you’re already thinking about telephones, knowing that Kay is making calls; and instead of just being told that she’s overworked, it’s clear from the fact that Kay is pressing redial as she does other things.

Rowling’s basically just slipped you into Kay’s world rather than writing a really obvious descriptive paragraph (you know, one of those awkward descriptions that slows down a story and sets your teeth on edge and might as well have “THIS IS WHAT THE OFFICE/CHARACTER/TOWN LOOKS LIKE” written in neon right above it. Something like, say, “Kay slid her fingers through her shoulder-length red hair with highlights in a characteristic gesture of frustration as she sank down into her black office chair behind a desk overflowing with files”).

She’s even let the reader know what the room smells like, for god’s sake, without the tiniest whiff of “that’s an odd detail” or “that seems contrived”.

Rowling is just marvellous at the craft of writing. I’m jealous and inspired.

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2 Responses to Setting the scene

  1. richardMOANS says:

    I loved the dark nature of what happened as they vied to fill the vacated seat. Very, very well built characterisation. I have also just finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she writes as Robert Galbraith.
    Absolute wordsmith and hugely original. As I finished and started a bog standard thriller, I realised how much other writers rely on cliches. Take care

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