Writing a novel? Welcome to my new series of posts, covering everything from structure and technique to making readers care about your characters. I supervise creative writing PhDs at Aberystwyth University, and in this blog I'll be addressing some of the challenges that often arise – as well as providing solutions
So let's dive straight in. If you've already started your novel, you'll know that things that sound easy often turn out to be unfathomably tricky. What about taking your character from one room to the next – it should be the simplest thing in the world, right? But how often has your hero or heroine made it no further than the first door, before getting profoundly stuck? Detail's usually the problem – how much to provide. Do you mention her fingers reaching for the handle? Should you describe her fingers (slender, stubby, pale)? Does she step around the door? Or through it? (If the latter, hasn’t she just broken several inviolable laws of physics?). Do you need to point out that she’s closed the door behind her? Help!
Here are a few tips for taking your character over the threshold.
Resist the temptation to narrate every stage of mechanical action. Keep things simple, as Michel Faber does in his new novel, The Book of Strange New Things (2014):
He opened the passenger door and joined her inside. (p. 101)
As soon as you mention "door", much of the action associated with it – such as opening or closing it – is implicit. Actually, there’s usually no need to mention doors at all. Here’s Faber again:
Side-by-side they walked out of the building, into the darkness. (p. 100)
For sure, sometimes a door presents an opportunity to establish mood. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014):
After slamming Vinnie’s door, my feet brought me here. (p. 15)
In general, though, consider treating entrances and exits through doors like you would "he said" and "she said" – they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Here’s a good example from Stephen King’s Under the Dome (2009):
Ginny held the door for him. (p. 673)
Having said all that, you may wish to break your own rules, and perform a stylish pirouette at the threshold. Here’s one from my historical crime novel, The Cunning House (2015):
She strode to the door, her hand obscenely small as it closed around the handle. (p. 130)
I’ll end with another example from The Cunning House, to illustrate how doors offer good vantage points for observing other characters. The viewpoint is Junior Prosecutor Wyre’s:_
Miss Crawford merely nodded, stepping out of her doorway as she was, bare-shouldered, no pelisse. He watched as she went past him, one tiny hand on the dark iron railings. Rose’s shoulder blades were smooth and fluted, whereas hers looked like two harmonic arches of a harp, with muscles for strings. (p. 286)
So here's me, making my own exit. Till the next blog post ...