Thursday, February 18, 2010

Should We Mimic the Mundane?

mundane: of or pertaining to what is common and everyday; ordinary; commonplace.

I've had some interesting thoughts the past twenty-four hours about what I should include in my writing, and what I should not. What works, and what doesn't. I was talking to one of my friends yesterday - she's a reader, not a writer - and she made the comment that she likes it when stories include moments of the mundane, when she feels like she's experiencing more of a real-life moment than something manipulated by the writer. It makes the characters and the story feel more real to her, and actually puts her more into the world of the story.

I'm going to include two samples down below. This is a bit of an experiment, so just play along. Let me know which excerpt you prefer, and why. Think along the lines of a scene focused on the mundane versus a scene packed with directional purpose - and what makes that difference.

Nancy peeled the shrimp one by one, her fingers pinching the firm, papery-thin shells as she slid them off the slippery meat. The shrimp made a wet slapping sound as she tossed each one into a glass bowl near the sink. She closed her eyes against the sunlight shining through the window. It was yellow, but cool, and made Nancy's mind soft at the edges, made her focus on nothing and everything at the same time. It was moments like this, standing alone, the salty smell of fish and lemons hanging in the air, that made her appreciate these moments she had to herself.

Nancy peeled the ice-cold shrimp one by one, her fingers pinching the firm, papery-thin shells as she slid them off the slippery meat. The shrimp made a wet slapping sound as she threw each one into a glass bowl near the sink. She had to work faster if she was going to get dinner ready in time. Rick liked to sit down to a hot meal when he got home, and she liked to provide that for him. He did so many things for her, and this was the least she could do. She closed her eyes against the sunlight shining through the window. It smelled like the lemons she had just cut, cool and yellow. If she made this meal perfect, Rick might not hit her afterward. His fist might not feel like a hot brick against her cheek.

So, you tell me, which works better for you? Why? Do you include mundane moments in your stories, where it doesn't really move the plot forward? Or do moments like that in a story drive you nuts when you read them?


  1. The first is definately more mundane but I like it because that's all there is. In the second, it comes about but then, blam, we're hit with the reason WHY she's peeling the shrimp instead of just being in the moment with her, peeling shrimp.

    I try and have a few mundane moments in my stories, let the reader take a little breather before hitting them again with plot or story arc.

  2. I personally prefer the first one. I was still able to pick up something unsettling about it, that it was a rare moment in an otherwise turbulent life.

    The second was a little overly deliberate. It seemed forced compared to the first. I am a fan of subtlety, so maybe I am a bit biased.

  3. Definitely - MOST DEFINITELY - the first one. It lets the reader fill in the blanks; we can feel her angst and fear without the direct exposition. It just feels more intelligent, gives the reader some credit.

    Great blog, btw. Keep up the good work.

  4. I want all the people who liked the first one to read my book! :P

    For me, both of them worked. As far as moving the plot forward, I think they both do, but for different plots perhaps. In the second one, the conflict is clearer. But, in the first one I feel like I'm being set up for some interruption, a disturbance that will go against what the character is currently enjoying.

    I do love the mundane and both of these examples showcase it beautifully. The first example lets the conflict rise FROM the mundane. The second shows the conflict AGAINST the mundane, more for contrast.

  5. I'm going out on a limb here and saying both, at least to me, are pretty much the same. Both contain elements of the mundane - the peeling of the shrimp, the texture, the sounds. The second contains a bit more information - likes to have dinner ready, maybe he won't hit her - that provides the reason she's peeling the shrimp. Still, in the greater context of the story, I think either paragraph would work since the mundane is worked into the paragraph.

    Personally, I insert the mundane in my stories for the same reason your friend likes the mundane in stories: it connects me to a character. So, if a character is attempting to get a chip laden with salsa to their mouth without spilling, and then spills down the front of their shirt . . . well, been there, done that, have the stained t-shirts to boot! I think with the mundane, as with character traits - twitches, biting of lips, drumming of fingers - less is more. Throw it in every now and then, but don't drown the reader in the mundane. Does that make sense?

    Great post . . . as always!


  6. The first.

    But here's the thing. It's NOT mundane. The hints that she likes quiet time to herself foreshadow the real reason why this scene gets focus.

    If this were just a random scene, by itself, it would suck. But if this scene were spaced with other scenes, where we appreciate why this moment is important, it's NOT mundane--it's symbolically and structurally significant.

  7. I loved the first paragraph and didn't really like the second.

    When mundane things are described in sharp detail, and briefly (the moment is not long and drawn out), it makes me feel highly connected to the scene and character. I smell, hear, and feel what she is smelling, hearing, and feeling. In the context of the larger story, the conflict does not need to be spelled out for me.

    Also, something about the second paragraph doesn't ring true for me. Does a woman in an abusive relationship think to herself, "Gee, this shrimp peeling sure is nice because I'm not being punched in the face right now?" That seems fakey and heavy-handed (no pun intended) somehow. I'd expect either more subtle expository prose ("Rick would love this meal" rather than "If she made this meal perfect, Rick might not hit her afterward.") or no thought process at all--the scene itself reveals mood and suspense without requiring explanation.

    I mean, damn, this poor woman is being punched in the face. I, the reader, don't need to be punched in the face with HERE IS SYMBOLISM! in order to appreciate the moment.

    Heh... just a little domestic abuse humor there.

  8. #1. Loved it. Mundane helps us appreciate the chaotic. You have to have the ups with the downs, but they are much harder to write.

  9. They both seem a bit mundane to me, but I prefer the first paragraph just because it makes me happy. The 2nd still moved the plot forward, I think, but as Davin said... different plots. Plus, the 2nd startled me when she told of her husband's horrible habit.

  10. I like number one better, because it allows a glimpse into who the character is. The second gives a different perspective as well, but it evolves into less about the MC and more about both characters.

    The pacing of the two examples is distinctly different as well. I prefer the pacing of the first, as the second seems a bit more rushed. But maybe this is the intention, making number two more effective in that respect.

    I have avoided the mundane in my writing, particularly since I thought there should always be "movement" in the story. But reading these examples, I can see how a scene like this can really improve the writing. Thanks for this exercise - it was really neat to think about.

  11. I like both but preferred the first. This first one implies many things but the second one no interpretation is needed. It’s right there.

    I like mundane activities in some novels, but not all and definitely not when they run throughout the book. Then it seems like filler.

  12. Everyone: Okay, I'm REALLY intrigued by your answers! I thought for sure everyone would like the second one better because it tells more plot and seems more exciting.

    I also find it interesting that many of you seem to agree that both are mundane, but prefer the first because it allows more room for interpretation.

    I may beg Mr. Scott Bailey or Mr. Malasarn to let me take Monday or Tuesday of next week to follow up this post with more thoughts once everyone has commented here. Your insights are giving me some great direction for an idea I've been percolating!

    So keep the comments coming!

  13. Oh, I also like mundane activities because those activities also tell me more about the character.

  14. Southpaw: Yes, for sure! That's one of the things I want to focus on in my next post. :)

  15. Okay, while I liked them both, I think the first description gives you a lot more breathing room. I do think it depends on where that would be placed in the story. I think if we already know what the guy is like, then I would definitely go for the first. If that's how you wanted to introduce the idea of what is happening between the two of them, then the second is good. Maybe a little over dramatic but good. However, The first one would still work nicely if you wanted to hint that something is amiss but maybe not go into detail about it until a later point in the story.

  16. I like them both, but here's what hit me. The first one seemed mundane until you read the second one. Then the first one had more of an effect and seems more foreshadowing. When reading "The shrimp made a wet slapping sound as she tossed each one into a glass bowl near the sink." it had more of an effect.

    I like the mundane, especially in action and dramatic stories. They give you a breather.

  17. #1 appealed to me more because of diction. I didn't need to know the shrimp were "ice-cold" and I like the "tossed" better than "threw." Plus, in #2, there's that sunlight smelling like lemons. Huh? That threw me for a bit. I also liked the image in #1 of "Nancy's mind soft at the edges."

    #1 feels more unified.

  18. I think context has to be considered here. Both have elements of the mundane, but #1 might be from a novel & #2 might work better in short fiction where plot needs to progress at a faster pace.

    Genre comes into play too. #1 is more literary; #2 could be women's fiction, mystery or thriller.

    I think all fiction needs those "mundane" details to anchor the story in common reality and connect with the reader's own experience. How long you dwell on it depends on form and genre.

  19. So as an isolated passage, the first one is more subtly written and has a more refined feel, probably because you were trying for a strong motivation in the second one. That's probably why most people prefer it, and as I standalone passage, I do too. But in the context of a novel, I might feel differently. It really depends on what is around it. If passage 1 is at the beginning of the chapter, introducing the character to me, I would sit back and enjoy it. But if it were buried in the middle of a chapter with lots of other descriptive passages, I'd be tempted just to skim over it, and #2 would do more to get my attention and bring me back into the story. It all depends on context.

  20. Another thought -- you might want to conduct this experiment with readers rather than writers. As writers, we tend to fall in love with language and are more willing to read passages with "mundane" content as long as the writing is good.

  21. I agree that number one may be considered mundane, but I prefer it. The second paragraph seems like it's trying too hard to make a simple action into a story, when it's really meant to be a simple action.

  22. I like the first one better. I would eventually want all the info in the 2nd one, but I like the holding of the breath in the first one. Being caught up in the moment. This is a great illustration. It makes me want to rework some things in my story.

  23. I really have nothing new to add, but I wanted to throw in that I love the first one because you can almost feel that something's not right. The second one comes out and says what the first one obscures.

    That's what makes the first one better methinks.

    (OK so I did have something to add)

  24. I'm with the majority, I like the first one better. I wonder what the perception would be if you had presented the second one first, and then the action were removed instead of added...

    BTW...why did it have to be a Rick ;-)

  25. Livia: Conducting the experiment with just readers would be ideal, but I haven't found a place to do that kind of thing yet. Everywhere I hang out is just writers!

    Rick: I also wonder how this would have turned out if I had just put up #1 and asked people what they thought of it - if they thought it was too mundane. And then maybe add #2 later in the day.

    I don't know why I chose the name Rick, but I did think that you would comment on that. :)

  26. I like them both but for different things. The feel is different. One of them feels calm and relaxed and the other one feels more conflicted. I'm not sure that I view them as the same because they seem to have different agendas. They're both good--just different.

  27. The first by a mile - but not because its mundane or maybe that's it in a way. Mostly its showing instead of telling.

    If we only had the first version and knew nothing about the abuse man in her life, the reader would still be left wondering what was in this woman's life that was so horrible she had learned to appreciate the simple moments of solitude.

    And because she does mention that being alone made her at peace we know what ever drama she's experienced most likely came from a person.

    People who stop to enjoy peeling shrimp and quiet time alone are not people who have had always had an easy time with life.

  28. I really liked the first better. It was relaxing. I think the mundane is okay because a reader should be able to relax at points in the book and let their heartrate decrease, as long as the entire book is not mundane.

  29. Haven't looked at the other comments so I don't know if this was covered.

    I liked #1 because there was a sense of quiet anticipation, because I felt like something massive about to happen. It's kind of like

    It was quiet. Too quiet.

    The second one for me was all telling. Rick this, hurt that. Blah blah. I knew what was going to happen, and it made me not really want to read the rest. The first one made me wonder what was going on that made peeling shrimp so exciting for her.

  30. I don't know what everyone else has said, but I like the first one better. It doesn't smack you in the face with why she's peeling the shrimp. The second one is just too explicit, and sometimes, the reader likes to infer things on his/her own.

    Also, I don't know, I just felt like the second one was clunkier, in terms of writing.

  31. Oh, now it really depends what story you're telling here. If Nancy's just had a whirlwind of events happen to her, and the shrimp peeling is the first break she and the reader have gotten in a while, then perhaps the first is better. The second has more plot to it, and could be the beginning of a story. This kind of thing, I think, requires context. Evaluating them as stand-alones, though, I'd choose the second for having some inherent conflict.

  32. A little to this party and as usual, I am enjoying the comments ( and the post, of course) immensely.

    It's interesting to me that you would think the second one is "better."

    For me, even though both passages included the shrimp-peeling and the sensory details, the words around that action tell me what kind of story it would be.

    I liked the first one because it conveys a certain attitude, mindset. The narrator is hopeful and embraces her life. Okay, so nothing much actually happens and I don't know much about the plot, but I am enjoying the world viewed through the narrator.

    The second one caught me because of its rhythm; quick, unrelenting, until we get to the part where we find out the reason for her frame of mind.

    So: like them both.

  33. Well, the prose writing in #1 is clearly better, so on that level I prefer it. But if I came across this passage in the middle of a novel and it led to nothing--if it was just there to be a quiet patch of mundane--I'd forget it pretty quickly and I doubt it would have added anything to my experience of the book. I don't see there being any kind of tension lurking in this passage, and if your second example wasn't a version of this, I doubt anyone else would claim to see it either.

    #2 is a bit clunky, prose wise, but when I got to "She had to work faster..." I sort of sat up and paid more attention because something was actually happening.

    So, you know, it all depends on the context. The first one by itself is pretty but doesn't do anything for me except give me a moment of "oh, pretty." The second one isn't as well written but it got my attention and felt like it was part of a story.

  34. Definitely the first one, which pulled me in to the moment and then let me know how much that quiet moment meant.

  35. Most of these opinions are really surprising me, but Simon's, Scott's and Tricia's makes sense based on what I know about their writing.

  36. I liked #1 better for many of the reasons already stated (prose, flow, implications, etc.), but #2 has its merits as well.

    #1 I would expect to come across in an inspiring women's lit story of survival wherein Nancy manages to break away from an abusive relationship through much sacrifice and strife, etc.

    #2, which gets right to the conflict, I would expect to come across in a murder mystery, shortly before Nancy disappears and the police find nothing but a few drops of blood amongst the lemons in the kitchen.

    Personally, I like mundane moments thrown into the stories I'm reading, as long as they don't take me OUT of the story. They give me as a reader time to breathe and process the action, and they give insights into the characters and make them a little more real. But then, I'm the type of person who gets annoyed with tv shows where the characters never seem to need to use the bathroom. Yeah, I'm weird like that.

    Yay for mundane stuff!

  37. WOW! Such awesome, fantastic comments, everyone! This gives me some really great stuff to mull over for a follow-up post I'm going to do on Monday. Thanks for surrendering the day, Davin. :)

  38. Sorry to be lazy, but I absolutely agree with Livia. The effectiveness all depends on placement.

  39. I'm late! I'm late! I'm very, very late! I have to say that I use the mundane all the time. I find myself asking myself "How long has it been since these guys ate, slept, had a pit stop?" I definitely prefer #1 because it's beautifully written (no offense, #2, but it's true) and could lead anywhere. I like stories that lead you down the garden path then do a big reveal (move that bus!) It's just how I am.

  40. I tend to visualize scenes both when reading and writing, so a passage like the first one helps me do that. It's well written and descriptive; it hints at trouble to come without being too obvious.

    The second one does provide context for the woman's anxiety, but it's too on-the-nose for me. Like Chuck, I prefer to arrive at the aha! moment gradually rather than have it flung in my face out of the blue like some mud pie thrown by an angry child.

  41. I definitely preferred the first entry--the second was melodramatic. The first had an undercurrent of something; it felt like the everyday was masking something lurking beneath. I guess it was just more subtle than the first.

  42. The first version read better than the second.
    But let's not overwhelm the reader with detail sometimes

  43. First. The second one was too choppy, told more than showed. The first enticed me to read it. Reflective moments done well take the mundane away.


  44. The issue with "mundane" isn't that the details or moments are trivial to the plot, but that the focus is on small things. And this is not mundane. This is careful.

    Julie is right that it's about showing, not telling.

    And Livia's right that it's about context.

    Every scene you put into a novel is there for a reason. Do you need a quiet moment of pacing leading up to a slam? Do you need to build a sense of foreboding? Are you creating depth with the contrasting aspects of this character's life?

    These are all perfectly good reasons to need a scene in which the character becomes very physically aware of their surroundings on a very fine granularity. The story is still moving forward. It's just doing it on an intensely subtle plane.

  45. Thank you Victoria. That's exactly how I feel about the mundane details. You put that so well! A subtle plane...that's perfect. Thank you for coming by!

  46. I liked the second the better of the two, because I felt like I knew more about the character's life at the end of it. Still, I would probably have merged the two. Put a bit of the mundane into the second and create a balance.

  47. Dominique: You are the first person to suggest that!!!!!!!!!!!

    Sorry, that just excited me. :)

  48. I think it has more to do with what you’re hoping to accomplish. I found the first entry soothing and thoroughly enjoyed your descriptions. I found #2 jarring—effective for what I think you hoped to accomplish. A combination would work well, too.

  49. JB: I'm thinking a combination would be the best, too. Maybe I'll try and rewrite it for another post!


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