Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Shrimp Discussion - All About the Mundane

I apologize in advance. This post is not a "shrimp-ish" post - more like a king prawn post. But I hope many of you find it interesting! What I have to say here is in response to the comments on my Thursday post about the mundane in our writing. I was quite surprised with the comments and reactions to the two examples I provided! I'm going to re-post those examples here in case you missed reading them before.

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.

Now, my original expectation was that everyone would like the second one better because it spells out more clearly where the tension is for Nancy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that 27 out of 36 of you preferred the first one! While 8 of you were either undecided, said it depended on context, or you said both. Only one of you flat-out chose the second one!

First, I'm going to share a few of the responses:

Davin... 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.

Beth... 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... it's NOT mundane--it's symbolically and structurally significant.

Anne Rallen... I think all fiction needs those "mundane" details to anchor the story in common reality and connect with the reader's own experience.

Simon... This kind of thing, I think, requires context. Evaluating them as stand-alones, though, I'd choose the second for having some inherent conflict.

Scott Bailey... 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.

Carla... Reflective moments done well take the mundane away.

The Obvious
After reading all 36 comments several times, it was obvious that people don't like to be told what the conflict is. That's fine and dandy. Showing is always better than telling, and I must agree that the second example is mostly telling. Tension and conflict should almost always be shown. What surprised me, I guess, is that most everyone who liked the first one, liked it because it let the reader infer almost everything. Like one of you suggested in the comments, if I hadn't put the second example up to tell about Rick, the first one doesn't infer hardly anything except that something's off-kilter. And that's enough, most of you say. Which is very interesting to me...I'll explain why in a minute.

I'm Confused
Davin says above that both contain the mundane, but that the first one lets the conflict rise from the mundane, which to me is like Carla's comment that states when mundane elements are reflective they work.

Beth argues that the first one isn't even mundane at all because there's foreshadowing that brings it significance and focus. That to me, is like Davin and Carla's comments about the mundane working because there's another element working with it.

Anne says we need those mundane moments to make the writing feel more real, and I'm wondering if she means just simple mundane things like the characters sitting down to rest, using the bathroom, etc., or something else?

And Simon...well, Simon, you are with Mr. Bailey in saying that you like the second one because it has more obvious story and conflict. Both of you write literary work, so I find it interesting that you two seemed to gravitate more towards the obvious conflict piece rather than the one which most people said infers more. To me, the first one feels more literary for many reasons, and so I'm left utterly confused at the moment.

The Mundane as a Device
I think I might understand why Simon and Scott say they prefer the second - because, quite simply, stories need conflict, and that conflict needs to be clear from the start. This was the response I was expecting from everyone, so it surprised me when more of you preferred the more subtle of the two. I know it all depends on context, and even genre, and I must remind you that this was just an experiment. I don't think any of us can truly say whether a mundane element in a story works or doesn't work until we've seen it in the full context.

I think the main conflict in a story probably shouldn't come about from mundane elements. I've seen it done, but only by very skilled writers. Faulkner rings a bell, although I haven't read him in awhile....

Oh My! is that ... LITERARY?

Yes, I'll open a can of worms here and suggest that when the mundane is used as a device and actually pushes the story forward, it makes the story more literary. Yes, literary. Davin and I were talking about my post on Thursday, and we both expressed frustration that although many of our readers have expressed in the past - quite strongly - that they think literary writing is usually boring and dry and focused mostly on the writing, most of our readers on Thursday actually liked the more literary of the two examples. At least I think the first one is more literary, and not because of the pretty writing! But because it leaves so much open for interpretation, implies that something important lies in the mundane details, and nudges the reader to examine and think about the text.

Davin even said in his comment (jokingly I think, but I still take him seriously) that he wants everyone who liked #1 to read his book. I agree with him. Davin's book is filled with beautiful language and what seems like the mundane. It's one of the things I love about his writing. Davin graciously let me share this scene from Rooster:

She went back out to the yard and finished pruning her roses. Then, she turned on the hose and filled the circular troughs she carefully dug out around each of her plants in the beginning of the previous year. When Mr. and Mrs. Harvey walked by in matching jumpers with their bent-hipped Newfoundlander, Nui waved cheerfully. Then, something bright and yellow caught her eye. A ripe grapefruit hung low on the tree in her neighbor’s yard.

The windows of the house were dark and the driveway was empty. Nui crept over to the fence, stepping on the end of a cinderblock leftover from the remodeling. She reached her arm over the vees of rusted chain link and plucked the grapefruit from the tree. It lay heavy in her hand. A spray of fragrant mist drifted up from the peel as she dug her thumbnail into it, scrolling a coil up off the veiny flesh. When she ate a segment, the meat burst deliciously over her tongue. It was the best grapefruit she ever tasted.

I'll leave you with this: Maybe nothing we put in our writing that actually works is mundane. If it were truly mundane, it wouldn't work. I like how mundane activities for the characters make me feel more connected to them, and I like how the mundane can help a story feel more quiet and relaxed, but I think I'd have to argue that if we put truly mundane things into our writing, it would bore our readers to death.

John wiped his mouth off with his cloth napkin and then quietly excused himself from the table. He made his way through the crowded restaurant to the men's restroom where he washed his hands and returned to his seat. He resumed his conversation with the beautiful woman across from him.

Now that's kind of boring.


  1. Mundane is very comonplace. Humdrum. I see nothing like that with these two examples. On the contrary. I read them as exactly the opposite. The first one makes me appreciate those rare moments I have to myself. And that is definitely not mundane.

    The second one makes me worry about her. it's tense, but the first one is my favorite for the reason I stated above. It puts me in a place where I love to be, if for only a few minutes.

    And yeah, the example with John is kinda boring, if you don't read other things into it. Which I did. Why did he wash his hands? He obviously had already eaten. He had wiped his mouth with his napkin. Hmmm, very mysterious. =)

  2. Is the John paragraph boring or telling? Does it imply that John might have OCD tendencies and has to wash his hands immediately after finishing a meal?

    Sorry, couldn't resist . . .


  3. Oh, nicely done, Glam--an apt recap and analysis of the conversation. I agree with your conclusion: the mundane has to work with the story, or it doesn't work. Most of the time the minutiae of walking across rooms, opening doors, chewing food, etc. will simply bog things down. But where they illuminate character, or provide contrast, or respite, they're nigh essential.

    As for the last example? Boring, yes. But I have a vivid memory of a scene from Wrong Information is Being Given Out at Princeton by J.P. Donleavy in which the main character uses the bathroom. Vulgar, but memorable. So even that can work. :)

  4. Well, context is everything. I was curious about the hand washing guy and in the context of the whole it could be very telling of something about John. I'm okay with humdrum probably because I'm kind of nosy.
    Besides most of real life is pretty mundane and to describe it as such for one's characters makes it realistic.

  5. To me, mundane does not necessarily mean boring. It's simply a succession of typical events. Davin's grapefruit example was mundane, but joyful too. It made me love grapefruits somehow, even though in reality I don't like them much. The last example you posted was most definitely a dull, uninteresting sort of mundane. It the type of thing that seems absolutely pointless to write, unless in following paragraphs it tells WHY he went to the restroom.

  6. Hmm. This is interesting, but I'm going to suggest that the basic experiment is flawed. We're all supposing that Examples 1 & 2 are from the same story. But suppose they aren't. Suppose there is no abusive character named Rick who shows up in the first story. Is there still an undercurrent? Suppose this passage is not offset by some kind of tension or conflict, that it only exists for its own sake? Then what?

    I will say that if we're choosing between two versions of the same scene in the same book, I am heartened that most people chose version 1, because it is more subtle and there's hope (yay for literary writing)!

    The thing about Davin's scene from Rooster is that--in the context of the book--it's not mundane. Nui is pruning her roses, yes, but she's just been on the phone getting the news that her husband's brother has been murdered. This is how she reacts to that news: she goes on about her business and then feasts on a stolen fruit, because the news of her brother-in-law's death is good news to her, while the reader knows it will be bad news to her husband, so there's a pile of conflict and irony in the scene. Which leads me to agree with your final conclusion, that passages which work are not mundane at all. The activity of the character in the scene might be mundane, but the passage itself had better not be boring.

  7. Going to have to agree with Scott that if the scene works it isn't mundane because it reveals something about the character.

    I didn't get a chance to participate in the original post, but I would've picked the first paragraph as well. The second graph tells information, whereas there should be a scene that shows it instead.

  8. I would make one small change:

    John wiped his mouth off with his cloth napkin and then quietly excused himself from the table. He made his way through the crowded restaurant to the men's restroom where he vomited and then returned to his seat. He resumed his conversation with the beautiful woman across from him.

    Now it's a scene :) :)

  9. "because, quite simply, stories need conflict, and that conflict needs to be clear from the start."

    I don't think the conflict necessarily needs to be clear from the start. I think in a lot of fiction, the conflict can be amorphous for a long time. The first example, for me, begins to uncover that sort of amorphous conflict. We don't know exactly what it is, but I brought to it the belief that some conflict was beginning.

    I'll disagree with Scott B. barely by saying that I didn't assume that Rick was part of the first example, but I do agree with him that the first paragraph only works if there is SOMETHING following it (or preceding it).

  10. "I don't think the conflict necessarily needs to be clear from the start. I think in a lot of fiction, the conflict can be amorphous for a long time."

    I'll agree that the conflict doesn't necessarily need to be clear from the start, but I think that in order to be interesting dramatically, the drama still needs to be there, in some form. I didn't see any conflict in Example 1, if taken out of any context. It's fine writing, but I think people are maybe reading conflict into it that isn't there. If the scene went on in just that same manner for page after page, it might be entertaining and well-written and still have no conflict and not move the story forward at all.

    I'm going out on a short limb and saying that a careful examination of well-written fiction will reveal that the basic conflict of the story is there from the very first page in some form, even if it's very subtly presented. Are we both arguing the same side of this, just from separate angles?

  11. ...and by "the drama still needs to be there" I of course mean, "the conflict still needs to be there." D'oh!

  12. What in interesting conversation! I agree, with your last statement that the truly mundane is boring. I thought again about the mundane scene we commented on after reading this post. The words context and grounded stood out to me. Mundane can ground a scene to seem "real". When mundane tasks are shared with the reflective element I find that in context is when it takes root. I imagine the scene as a dusty mirror of a late scene (perhaps foreshadowing)that reveals more. The reader wonders what is really going on here, and later can see it more clearly. These revelations to the reader give them satisfaction. At least they do me. A famous writer once said, don't "tell" that something is mysterious or horrible, let the reader see it for themselves. Mundane can be an interpretation of the scene, not just the activities therein.

    I love Davin's style.

  13. Scott, I think we're on the same side of this. Nevertheless, watch out for banana peels on your way home. I play dirty.

  14. Carla, you get to be #107 in my fan club. :P

  15. Robyn: Haha, I've been thinking about your comment all morning - how much you could read into John washing his hands!

    Scott: I'm glad you didn't resist! Now I'm thinking about a story for a John.

    Simon: I have never heard of that movie, book? that you mention. Interesting!

    Arlee: In actuality, I just had John go use the bathroom and wash his hands - I just didn't say that he used the bathroom. I should have! Now everyone's reading into this poor guy's actions! Oh well. I like what you say about being nosy - it just shows that every reader is different and likes different things in what they read.

    Erin: Yeah, my intention was that John's going to the restroom was just that - going to the restroom and nothing comes out of it. I agree with you, though, that mundane doesn't necessarily mean boring.

    Scott B. Okay, okay, I have a flawed experiment. My intention, and I should have said this to begin with, was that it was the same scene, just told in a different way. So in that sense I'm glad you're heartened with everyone choosing #1.

    And yes, I'm in total agreement about Davin's grapefruit scene. In context it is SO powerful and says so much about Nui, but taken out of context it doesn't hold nearly as much weight. I think for a better experiment, I should have written an actual story for each example, something that wasn't taken out of context. Oh well. At least I learned something!

    Crimey: Glad you've chimed in today! I think mundane is fine as long as it reveals something plot or character wise that moves things along.

    Andrew: LOL!!!!!!! Okay, that's great. Definitely the beginning of something interesting!

    Davin: I think you're right, and I did jump to a conclusion there with saying that conflict has to be clear from the start. I just think it needs to be clear EVENTUALLY, and not too far into a story. Like I said with Scott, I think this would have been better if I'd actually written two flash fiction pieces that weren't taken out of context.

    Scott B.: I think you and Davin are arguing the same thing. I think that my first example is a good start for a story, but I think in order for it to work I'd have to introduce the conflict more, little by little, even if it's extremely subtle. I like what you say about the "drama still needing to be there, in some form."

    Carla: Great comment, thank you! I like your description of the dusty mirror - that's perfect. I think that some mundane things might not mean much until later reflection, and that's sometimes the writing that I like the best - when a light bulb turns on on a second read-through and I get what the writer was so cleverly doing!

    Davin: Just save the banana leaves for your cover. ;)

    What number am I in your fan club?

  16. Ivana: I didn't mean to sound so critical! I think the results were surprising and interesting, which made me think something like, "Ooh, we should've tested for this and done it this way." I like the idea of writing the same story in two radically different ways, though.

    I wonder if it's not really a question of mundaneness (is that a word?) so much as it's a question of subtle versus direct presentation of conflict? Which is an interesting thing to come out of how you originally framed the question. Anyway, I don't know. In my post tomorrow, I think I'll just talk about bunnies and daffodils. We're all agreed on bunnies and daffodils, I hope?

  17. Scott: It depends on how you present the bunnies and daffodils! Whatever you do, make it short. I think I scared off half our readership today.

  18. Oh, i and I didn't think you were being too critical. I really think my original intention for this post subject took an interesting turn that's going to help me with my writing as I revise Monarch. I will finish that damn novel one day, I promise. I'm going to send you a hardcover copy from lulu with some cool cover on it. You'll have to read it then. :)

  19. I'm agreed as long as everyone loves bunnies and hates daffodils.

  20. Davin, you hate daffodils? They aren't my favorite. I love calla lilies. :)

  21. Bunnies and daffodils have been done. Haven't any of you read Watership Down? Tsk!

  22. Watership Down is a most excellent book.

  23. Including the mundane brings a real sense of reality, in my opinion. I like to do that too, to have my characters making very discreet observations, etc. Great post!

    I got the anthology yesterday. It looks great!!!

  24. There is something else I like about the first shrimp-story example, besides it being show-y and not tell-y. The writing teases my senses and makes me feel viscerally connected to the scene.

    The second example is more abstract. It's explaining more dramatic conflict, which teases the frontal cortex as I follow the plot.

    Maybe the like/dislike partially depends upon where in the brain we like to be tickled?

    I'll bet that's why my husband is bored by fiction but loves reading technical articles on mechanics... while I'm bored to tears by that stuff and love fiction.

    Davin's selection includes both kinds of interest. There is a lot of rich sensory description, but also hints at what's going on in the larger context. "It was the best grapefruit she ever tasted" implies so much more than "It was yummy" and suggests that the things that were mentioned leading up to that sentence (from the glimpse of the low-hanging fruit to the sneaky way of obtaining it, and maybe even everything before that) are connected to her pleasure in eating the stolen fruit.

    In Davin's selection, even clearer than in the first shrimp paragraph, I can feel a larger context looming at the periphery, even if I don't know quite what it is.

    In my opinion, a good book needs juicy sensory description and "pretty" writing that simultaneously has a function of creating a necessary mood and/or moving along the plot. It doesn't have to be in an obvious way.

    Without poignant description, I feel disconnected from even the most shocking tale. And without anything going on for a long time, even the most deliciously described world gets boring. I guess I'm needy for all kinds of stimulation happening at once.

    As an aside, I find it interesting that the same needs don't hold true for film. I just saw "Avatar," and although the plot was a total cliche and entirely predictable, the 3-D visuals were so amazing that the long movie held my attention just fine. I have a harder time reading stuff like South American literary novels with lenghthy flourishes of beautiful prose and nothing much happening.

  25. Jennifer: YAY for getting the anthology! I can't stop looking at mine, hehe. Thanks for stopping by, and for your great support.

    Genie: Thank you for your fantastic comment! I agree with you that great writing needs BOTH of the things you've described. Pretty writing is only so great for a short period of time - it must have more meat to it, and I think Davin's example really shows that, especially when you read it in context.

  26. This was one of the difficulties I had with the initial question - the idea of what is mundane. Instead of arguing it then however, I accepted your definition of the word and it's use in the passages. Reading your last bit however, maybe I should have spoken up. I don't believe any of the writing has been mundane, as your final example shows. Oh, and if that's an example of Davin's writing, I seriously need to get his book. I really liked that excerpt.

  27. And see, this is why I loved your first example so much. You are anything but boring, Michelle.

  28. Oh, but I like the supposed mundane (ya, I know, ironic for a fantasy writer). Like you, I believe the mundane is elevated to a greater position in fiction, and can, at times, be made into something extraordinary.

    Anyway, I actually preferred the first of your examples. Yes, the second gave us more details, giving us a better understanding of the conflict--but that doesn't all have to be made available to the reader in one paragraph. Too many details can be overwhelming. I liked the way the first paragraph allowed the reader to step into the moment, to feel it. It is making something mundane, the act of preparing dinner (and shrimp at that, which, by btw, is frigging delicious), into something extraordinary. I could see working the conflict (abusive husband) into the next series of paragraphs which would make that first paragraph bittersweet, and therefore all the more striking after the fact.

  29. Personally, I enjoy reading the mundane. I do however think there is a time and a place for it. I've always been amazed when a writer takes a simple moment and creates a vivid scene.
    In high school I had to read a short story that held a description of a girl eating an orange. While it sounds mundane it was so beautifully written that it showered me with emotion and imagery. Also, the way in which the girl ate the orange gave insight into her culture and life. It was beautiful and useful.
    Also, I think some of the "mundane" moments in life can speak to one's character or provide contrast between individuals.

    Anyway, loved the post!

  30. Eric: Yes, Davin's book is very much worth reading! Yes, speak up next time. :)

    Laura: Hah. I beg to differ, but if you insist I'll believe you for a moment. I wonder if what's we project on the mundane that makes all the difference - not necessarily what the writer puts into it.

    Carol: Great comment, thank you! And yes, shrimp is the BEST!

    Kelly: Now I'm dying to know what you read about the orange! That sounds incredible, and a perfect example of what I'm trying to illustrate here.


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