Choicest Cuts: Bleak House (Part Two)

After the previous episode, it’s time to look at some more quotes from Bleak House and see how you can use them to inspire you in your own writing.

Reminiscing Characters

“A family home,” he ruminates as he marches along, “however small it is, makes a man like me look lonely. But it’s well I never made that evolution of matrimony. I shouldn’t have been fit for it. I am such a vagabond still, even at my present time of life, that I couldn’t hold to the gallery a month together if it was a regular pursuit or if I didn’t camp there, gipsy fashion. Come! I disgrace nobody and cumber nobody; that’s something. I have not done that for many a long year!” So he whistles it off and marches on.

Whether you’re a bachelor by choice, a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven or just waiting for that special someone, these feelings are probably familiar to you. Some people are just born to be single their whole life, and while they may have feelings like these, there’s nothing wrong with being single or having these thoughts. In fictional characters, it adds realism, pathos. Give your characters an extra dimension, and don’t be afraid to have them ruminate on some deeper things, even if they’re usually of the happy-go-lucky sort.

Candlestick-wards

This comes in the category of inventing your own words.

Miss Volumnia rising with a look candlestick-wards,

Candlestick-wards. It’s a word that doesn’t exist, yet you instantly know what it means, and you feel it really should have existed long before. Don’t be afraid to play around with words and combining parts of existing words if necessary. Just as long as it’s clear what you mean.

Hilariously Distracted

“Thank your ladyship,” says Mr. Guppy; “quite satisfactory. Now—I—dash it!—The fact is that I put down a head or two here of the order of the points I thought of touching upon, and they’re written short, and I can’t quite make out what they mean. If your ladyship will excuse me taking it to the window half a moment, I—” Mr. Guppy, going to the window, tumbles into a pair of love-birds, to whom he says in his confusion, “I beg your pardon, I am sure.” This does not tend to the greater legibility of his notes. He murmurs, growing warm and red and holding the slip of paper now close to his eyes, now a long way off, “C.S. What’s C.S. for? Oh! C.S.! Oh, I know! Yes, to be sure!” And comes back enlightened.

This is just another way of making your characters feel more real. This Mr Guppy is having quite a hard time making sense of his own notes, a feeling that’s added to by the circumstances surrounding his meeting with her ladyship. Dickens masterfully paints Guppy’s confusion here by not only having him stammer and moving about nervously, but also having him walk into some birds and actually apologizing to them. I’m sure most, if not all of us, have at some point walked into something, even an inanimate object perhaps, and apologized when there was really no need to. It’s what humans do. Human beings can be awfully silly at times, so there’s really no need to exclude every single trace of silliness from our writing, as if the transfer to a page turns people into perfect robotic Hollywood actors.

Pain for Bones

Consider this bit of fantastic writing, as an ill boy describes his own symptoms:

“I’m a-being froze,” returned the boy hoarsely, with his haggard gaze wandering about me, “and then burnt up, and then froze, and then burnt up, ever so many times in a hour. And my head’s all sleepy, and all a-going mad-like—and I’m so dry—and my bones isn’t half so much bones as pain.

The whole first part of this already manages to capture so well the sort of feelings ill people may go through. Fever can do strange things to a body, not to mention to a mind, and that’s all noted here. But the real clincher comes at the end: “my bones isn’t half so much bones as pain.” It’s tragic, really, for the person feeling this, but man, what an interesting way of putting it. People, no matter how sick they are, can still have moments where they’re so lucid that they might say truly brilliant things. Perhaps being ill has their minds more focused. In any case, it’s a really good metaphor.  Do think out of the box when it comes to metaphors, and try to get into your characters’ minds, see what sort of things they would say. If they’re ill, think back to when you were ill, whether you were in a hospital bed before or after surgery, or at home, lying on the couch with a cold.

Embrace Controversy

“Now, is it not a horrible reflection,” said my guardian, to whom I had hastily explained the unavailing efforts of the two women, “is it not a horrible reflection,” walking up and down and rumpling his hair, “that if this wretched creature were a convicted prisoner, his hospital would be wide open to him, and he would be as well taken care of as any sick boy in the kingdom?” “My dear Jarndyce,” returned Mr. Skimpole, “you’ll pardon the simplicity of the question, coming as it does from a creature who is perfectly simple in worldly matters, but why ISN’T he a prisoner then?” My guardian stopped and looked at him with a whimsical mixture of amusement and indignation in his face. “Our young friend is not to be suspected of any delicacy, I should imagine,” said Mr. Skimpole, unabashed and candid. “It seems to me that it would be wiser, as well as in a certain kind of way more respectable, if he showed some misdirected energy that got him into prison. There would be more of an adventurous spirit in it, and consequently more of a certain sort of poetry.”

Oh my… that Mr Skimpole… did he really say that? How shocking!

And you know what’s most shocking about this? Not the fact that he actually said it, but that sometimes, some of us actually think shocking thoughts, and we shock ourselves while we’re at it. Indeed, we try to immediately banish those thoughts from our minds, perhaps even pray for forgiveness, but the truth is, people think and say controversial things all the time. We, as writers, shouldn’t be afraid to show that. We do need to pay attention to how we show it, in what light. If, like me, you believe writers should show what’s morally good (and that in itself is a hugely controversial opinion, I am aware of it), you need to be careful about how to frame these controversial thoughts and sayings. Just don’t avoid controversy altogether, because then you might as well not write at all.

A Hundred O’Clock

(I hope I got the capitalization in this subtitle right, by the by.) …parenthetical asides aside, let’s just look at this hilarious expression:

“Why, I said about ten.” “You said about ten,” Tony repeats. “Yes, so you did say about ten. But according to my count, it’s ten times ten—it’s a hundred o’clock.

Isn’t that just priceless? I’m tempted to use this in real life. “Uh, didn’t we have an appointment at eleven? It’s more like eleventy-one o’clock now!” Okay, so I’m not as funny as Dickens… but then, few people are, I’m sure.

He said, she said

There are people who say you should exclusively use “said” in dialogue tags. Those people are dead wrong, as this fine bit of writing shows:

To which Mr. Weevle returns, “William, I should have thought it would have been a lesson to YOU never to conspire any more as long as you lived.” To which Mr. Guppy says, “Who’s conspiring?” To which Mr. Jobling replies, “Why, YOU are!” To which Mr. Guppy retorts, “No, I am not.” To which Mr. Jobling retorts again, “Yes, you are!” To which Mr. Guppy retorts, “Who says so?” To which Mr. Jobling retorts, “I say so!” To which Mr. Guppy retorts, “Oh, indeed?” To which Mr. Jobling retorts, “Yes, indeed!” And both being now in a heated state, they walk on silently for a while to cool down again.

There’s a lovely rhythm here, and using “says” would just kill it. Sure, don’t overuse words like “exclaimed”, “whispered”, “ejaculated” and what have you, but you don’t have to stick to just one word if you don’t want to. That’d be like a painter painting with just one colour.

Throwing People

Mrs. Smallweed instantly begins to shake her head and pipe up, “Seventy-six pound seven and sevenpence! Seventy-six thousand bags of money! Seventy-six hundred thousand million of parcels of bank-notes!” “Will somebody give me a quart pot?” exclaims her exasperated husband, looking helplessly about him and finding no missile within his reach. “Will somebody obleege me with a spittoon? Will somebody hand me anything hard and bruising to pelt at her? You hag, you cat, you dog, you brimstone barker!” Here Mr. Smallweed, wrought up to the highest pitch by his own eloquence, actually throws Judy at her grandmother in default of anything else, by butting that young virgin at the old lady with such force as he can muster and then dropping into his chair in a heap.

Okay, this needs a bit of context. Just a bit. Mr Smallweed has this thing where, whenever his wife mentions money, he gets all nervous and throws something at her, usually a cushion. That’s at home, though. When in a carriage, like here, without anything suitable to throw, you just reach for the first thing you might use as a missile. Judy, in this case.

It’s a great running joke throughout the book, and there are two lessons for you here. One, include running gags in your books. Two, if you’re writing comedy, nothing’s too bizarre. Not even having old geezers throw young ladies at their wives.

Ouch!

I said it was not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great, unless occasionally when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.

See, writing is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes you just feel like writing about something in society that frustrates you. Don’t resist that urge, because there are plenty of other people out there thinking the same thing. Sometimes they’re just waiting for, and in need of, a confirmation of their thoughts in writing.

Hopefully you’ve got some good ideas for your own writing. If so, don’t thank me, thanks Mr Dickens. And please join me next time, for the final part of the first instalment of Choicest Cuts.

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