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.
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.
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.