Finding a Focus

6:00 AM

"Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the cook." 

This is a passage on page 105 of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Can we just talk about how brilliant this is?

It was funny, because I had just watched a video on speed reading and pulled out this book to try my hand at it. I'm a fairly slow reader (I like to mosey along) and I've been taking a while with this book. But when I opened it back up to this passage, I had to forget all about speed reading and stare. 

Dickens uses a technique like this earlier in the book, too. But, in case you missed it, allow me to point out the brilliant method Dickens used to capture our attention. 



The best way to word it, I think, would be finding a focus. "What do you mean by that, Hannah?" Well, I'll give you a hint. The focus is not Monseigneur, which is ironic because that's how the the first sentence begins. Monseigneur. But you can help but wondering, 105 pages into the story: do you really expect a random dude I've never met whose name I read in my head like Mo-seughasdlkfj to capture my attention and keep me reading?

The focus of this passage is not Monseigneur, but rather, something most of us are intimately familiar with and overly fond of: chocolate.

Everyone loves chocolate. So we all see the humor in what Dickens does here. He gives us integral information about this new character (who he is, what he's like, what people think of him) all by telling us about said character's relationship with chocolate. And the paragraph leaves you hanging by making us ask a question. If this Monseigneur can swallow an entire country, why is chocolate giving him trouble? Is it because he's too big to get up and get it? Or does he ... *whispers at the horrible idea* not actually like chocolate?? And the four men must hold him down in order to get him to take it? But why would he have to take chocolate? Or is he prim and proper and very specific, demanding his chocolate to be prepared a specific way?

The questions are swarming, and we have to know more. The welfare and dignity of chocolate is at stake.

If Dickens had written this passage with Monseigneur in a carriage on the way to the party he attended, we would have been much less interested and likely skimmed the important part where we learn he's swallowing France. Hiding important information in intriguing context is a good way to make those details stick in the readers' minds.

So. How do we apply this to our own writing?

When you have to get important info to readers that's not exactly what you would call enthralling, find something to focus on to catch the reader's attention. Let your voice flood through it. (Can't you can just taste Dickens' wit in this passage?)

There's an earlier scene where he uses this same concept, but with wine. That one stretched on a little too long for my taste, so be sure you tie the focus into what's actually going on in the story. For example, if you decide to talk about your main character's sister's ballet performance, make sure we know why we're being told this story. (aside from the important info that our MC has a little sister--which raises questions about why we haven't seen her yet.) How you make that focus important is up to you. Just try to tie it to the current plot or characters and weave it into the narrative. This method of storytelling almost feels like we're taking a break from the story for a bit. It's refreshing and new and potentially funny, but if you're not careful you'll have your reader scratching their head and thinking, "Why are we talking about coffee?" which everyone knows is a stupid question because coffee is very riveting and important

SO! Now it's your turn to try out this technique. Pick an object and then a current character in your book, and tell us about your character through that object.

Here, I'll give it a shot too.

Coffee is the only way Diane knew how to start her day. A vanilla cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso, made with skim milk and topped with whip? That was her life song. No matter that she had to pay the rent in two days, and she'd just used the last of her savings on that sweet, steaming cup of bittersweet goodness. No matter that her pants had been getting tighter ever since she'd discovered the shop, and the drink made for her at birth. No matter that she was late to sell Organic Freshly Frozen Popsicles day after day. She had coffee to buy, and--despite what her friends and family said--she wouldn't be Diane without it. 

So I just wrote this completely off the top of my head. I don't know exactly how it would fit into a story--maybe it wouldn't go with the plot. But it's funny enough to keep us reading, and by the end of it we know a lot of important things about Diane. She's a severe coffee addict, she has a job selling popsicles that we can pretty easily guess she doesn't care for, and she's struggling to pay her rent, which means she likely lives alone (if this is a main character, we'll find out the answer to that soon, and our appetite for it has been whetted).


It doesn't have to be an object. It could be a story from the past, a famous fairy tale, a movie, a TV show. Anything, really. Something to catch the reader's attention, and help them get important info.


What are your thoughts? Do you like this method of writing? Pick an object and write a paragraph and share in the comments! I'd love to see what you come up with! 

<3

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12 comments

  1. Wow - I never read an unabridged version of A Tale of Two Cities, but maybe I'll give it another shot. That's a really neat technique for bringing in information about a new character! It makes it more relatable, and so much more fun to read. (And it doesn't feel like an info dump!) I'm definitely taking note of this.
    And I loved your example with Diane and coffee! Great job showing us how to put this technique into action.

    ~True // atruewriter.blogspot.com

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    1. Thank you! Yes, you should definitely read the book! I'll warn you, it is kind of slow as it's not really fast paced modern writing, but it's a classic and if you go into the book knowing that, you'll be fine :)

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  2. I love this method of writing! I'm currently reading Dickens's Bleak House and he uses the same technique do describe what London covered in fog looks like, which may not seem important, but it builds the setting and establishes a vibe of mystery throughout the rest of the story. I'm thinking of using a similar style to write a project. And your example is very amusing too! :)

    -Nicole

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    1. Ooooh I want to read that! My best friend's favorite TV show is based off it. That's really cool and sounds like him!

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  3. I love this using something people connect with to help connect them to the character. I'm a coffee addict so I relate to Diane.

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  4. I guess I'm kind of meaning to do something like this one day. I saw an article on creating description (which is the one article that actually WORKS) and I believe one of the methods are similar to this.

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    1. Ooh that's sounds cool! I'd love to get ahold of that article, lol. I'm not very good with description.

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  5. aaaaahhhh I loved this! The prose in classics novels is SO clever. I've always wondered what makes it so interesting and you just gave me a little insight into it ;)

    I should probably go read A Tale of Two Cities now :P

    audrey caylin

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    1. Ah, 'tis such a true statement. I love the grace and eloquence of the old works. And yes, you should!

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  6. That's really interesting! I read AToTC a year or so ago, and I admittedly don't remember much. Just the ending. XD

    I think this would be a great exercise for when I start my editing next momth! *saves link for use later*

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    1. YAY for starting edits! I hope this will help you, or give you some ideas! :D Good luck *high fives*

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