Tony’s Writing Tips: Ignore that Elephant in the corner

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

Adam poured himself some juice. “Is this orange? Did they change the ingredients?”

This silly piece of writing is an example of what writers call “The Elephant in the Room”.

Elephants, are of course, very hard to ignore. Unless your characters are wearing blinkers or earmuffs, having someone throw something major into your story and then not have anyone react to it is generally not a good idea.

Your character got up last night and shot someone, and all you want to know is if there’s extra butter with those scrambled eggs. At which point, your readers will start to wonder what the gubbins are you talking about, and why aren’t you talking about what’s really going on here.

Think of the facet of your story as a spotlight aimed at a darkened stage. There it is, shining away on the box on a table. The thing you want your characters to talk about is in that box – why Adam’s mother shot his father. And what are you doing? Shining your spotlight wayyyy over there, talking about scrambled eggs. Why do we care about scrambled eggs? We keep looking back at the box, no matter how hard you don’t want us to.

The other side of this is where magic and misdirection comes in. When you dim the lights to shine it on the eggs, we don’t see the stagehands swooping away the box and bringing the elephant on stage until the lights come back up – in my example, perhaps Adam pulls his own gun while we look away. Then we want the characters to talk about something else, while we do some magic in the dark.

But, the thing with “EITR” is that this misdirection is never given to a reveal. In my example, no one would ever mention the shooting again. If you cut away to focus on something else, fair enough; but remember to cut back to what your readers are thinking about:

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

He poured himself some juice. “So you shot dad, huh? About time.”

“I thought so too.”

If you don’t do this, you’ll have a pachyderm of problems on your hands.

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