When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, his seat on the Pagford Municipal Council is vacated (a casual vacancy) and the real issue dividing the town heats up: whether to hold on to the poor, welfare-dependent neighbourhood of the Fields, or get it annexed to the adjacent municipality of Yarvil. Barry was the swing vote, and whoever gets his seat will determine the fate not only of the Pagford council, but also of the Fields.
We get to see the issue through the eyes of the three candidates: obese gourmet shop owner, Howard Mollison, and his jealous wife Shirley, and their son and his wife Miles and Samantha Mollison in the anti-Fields camp; through the eyes of “Cubby” Walls, the nervous, idealistic vice-principal, and his dowdy guidance counsellor wife, Tessa, who are pro-Fields; and through the eyes of Simon Price, a reclusive and abusive working-class outsider and his mousey wife, Ruth, a nurse. There are also about four or five more points of view. And here I was feeling skeptical about third person omniscient. Actually, it's just that J.K. Rowling slips seamlessly from one point of view to another.
There are about five more narrative points of view belonging to teenagers, all true to life in their own way. I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone so experienced in writing about magical teenagers should have captured so authentically the perspective of real ones.
But rather than summarize the plot or talk about the many characters of this comic tragedy, or tragic comedy, I’d like to try and answer the question What makes J.K. Rowling’s writing so vivid -- and by extension so engaging? through a close reading of a short passage.
In this snippet, Andrew Price is on his way to hack into the Pagford Council website under the alias of The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother to post a comment about his father Simon buying stolen goods and using company equipment for under-the-table jobs.
The bright-orange sign of the Internet café seemed to blaze at Andrew from a distance, beckoning him on. He could not concentrate on what Fats was saying. Are you going to? he kept asking himself. Are you going to?
He did not know. His feet kept moving, and the sign was growing larger and larger, luring him, leering at him.
If I find out you’ve breathed a word about what’s said in this house, I’ll skin you alive.
But the alternative…the humiliation of having Simon show what he was to the world; the toll it would take on the family when, after weeks of anticipation and idiocy, he was defeated, as he must be. Then would come rage and spite, and a determination to make everybody else pay for his own lunatic decisions. Only the previous evening Ruth had said brightly, “The boys will go through Pagford and post your pamphlets for you.” Andrew had seen, in his peripheral vision, Paul’s look of horror and his attempt to make eye contact with his brother.
“I wanna go in here,” mumbled Andrew, turning right.
They bought tickets with codes on them, and sat down at different computers, two occupied seats apart. The middle-aged man on Andrew’s right stank of body odor and old fags, and kept sniffing.
What I notice
Verbs: blaze, concentrate, kept asking, beckoning, moving, growing, luring, leering, skin, show, take, was defeated, must be, come, said, had seen, post, mumbled, bought, sat, stank, kept sniffing.
Lots of big actions here. In fact, the evocative verbs far outnumber the workaday ones.
Nouns: bright-orange sign, Internet café, distance, feet, sign, alternative, humiliation, world, toll, family, weeks of anticipation and idiocy, rage, spite, determination, lunatic decisions, pamphlets, peripheral vision, look of horror, attempt, eye contact, tickets with codes, different computers, two occupied seats apart, middle-aged man, body odor and fags.
I especially like the emotionally loaded words Rowling uses to describe Andrew’s dread of his father’s campaign and reaction to failure. I probably would have said something bland like, “Andrew could not rid himself of his dread of the violent reaction his father would certainly have to losing the election.”
Instead, we are led through the father’s emotions (anticipation, rage, spite) through Andrew’s lens (idiocy, lunatic).
The senses: We see the colour of the sign blazing at us, growing larger, luring, leering. We see Paul looking at Andrew. We see the tickets with their code. We hear Simon’s threat, Ruth speaking brightly, the voice in Andrew’s own head, Fats speaking to him, Andrew mumbling. We smell the unwashed man beside Andrew.
Feeling: What strikes me is that Andrew’s feelings are not named; instead, his perceptions are described. He only has to recount how the objects and people around him are behaving and we feel along with him. He doesn’t feel drawn to the Internet café—the sign blazes, beckons, lures, leers. He doesn’t feel afraid of his father—Simon is full of rage, spite and lunatic decisions and his brother Paul’s eye contact conveys horror and complicity. The man beside him in the café doesn’t disgust him—he smells like body odor and stale cigarettes.
Physical position: We follow Andrew through a few simple movements, but we feel the tension mounting nonetheless. His feet kept moving, turning right, bought tickets, sat down. It’s just enough for the reader to keep track of where he is in time and space.
Time: J.K. Rowling takes us from the present to the past through what Simon has threatened-- I’ll skin you alive. We don’t need any kind of dialogue tag because Simon is the only character who speaks so violently.
Then we get a glimpse into the past with the words “Only the previous evening” and past perfect verb tenses.
Andrew’s “I wanna go in here” brings us back into the narrative present.
bright-orange, blaze, beckon;
larger and larger, luring, leering;
previous, Pagford, post, pamphlets, peripheral, Paul.
Rhythm—start with longer-syllable words, end with shorter
alternative, humiliation (4+)/ toll;
anticipation and idiocy (4+)/ rage and spite (1);
body odor (2)/old fags (1).
Economy: J.K. Rowling is doing up to three things with any given phrase. Let’s take the first sentence: The bright-orange sign of the Internet café seemed to blaze at Andrew from a distance, beckoning him on.
We have 1) a strong visual image 2) alliteration 3) Andrew’s fear of the consequences of posting the damning truth about his father.
Or, The middle-aged man on Andrew’s right stank of body odor and old fags, and kept sniffing.
1) the seediness of the café 2) strong rhythm 3) physical discomfort added to Andrew’s emotional unease.
Even from this short passage, I can formulate several Rules of Writing
1. Don’t name feelings. Describe how the POV character perceives physical objects and people.
2. Occasionally, anthromorphize objects.
3. Strong verbs should outnumber weak (though necessary) verbs 2 to 1
4. Even when describing a character’s feelings, keep the reader grounded in place and time through a few simple actions.
5. Use present time words or actions to bring the reader back from forays into the past.
6. Pay attention to alliteration and rhythm.
7. Make your words do more than one thing.
I hope you enjoyed reading along with me. I’d love to hear what you think. In the comments below, please add your own observations about the book or the passage.