THE POWER OF THE SPOKEN WORD
Unlike that witch on her broomstick, I believe most us at least try to think before we speak. But I’m sure all of us have experienced the odd time when we did not do so but blurted out the first thing that came into our head—and ended up variously embarrassed, horrified, remorseful, and wishing fervently that we could rewind the clock a few seconds. The trouble with the spoken word, of course, is that it cannot be recalled once it is out there, not when there was someone to hear it anyway. Not one iota of what has been said can be changed, whether it happened five minutes ago or five centuries ago. Time is unforgiving that way.
The written word can be just as fraught with danger for the impulsive and almost as unforgiving in an age of constant texting, twittering, and firing off unconsidered comments on social media sites. Sometimes it is possible to erase or edit something we wrote, even if it is only to correct a typo we notice the moment after we press that “post” button. And perhaps we are more likely when we write than when we speak to think through what we have to say and choose our words carefully before we write them down—though I know those twittering thumbs can be very itchy especially when tempers are running high.
But what about the writer of stories and novels? The written word for us becomes very forgiving indeed. We can change anything—the last sentence we wrote or something that happened seven or twelve chapters ago. Anything we like, in fact. We get to play God. Time means nothing in the creation of a story. We can totally erase something that happened six weeks ago and eight chapters back. Poof! It never happened. We can change our characters’ appearance and name, their words and actions, even their thoughts, as often as we choose. If we don’t like something they say, we can simply erase it and get them to say what we want them to say. After all, we created them. They have no existence outside our imaginations. We are in control. Right?
Hmm. Let’s call a pause right there. The answer is yes, of course. It is also no.
I know I am not unique in this. I have spoken to numerous other writers who agree. We create our characters out of the stuff of our imagination. We provide enough detail to round them out and make them seem like real beings, and we set them loose into our stories. And then what happens? Pretty soon they become separate beings with a will of their own, and they decide what they are going to say and do in the course of their story. This is why I find it impossible to plan a book ahead of time. I never know what is going to come out of my characters’ mouths when they begin to talk. I can set a piece of dialogue in motion and often do so as I love writing it, but then I just sort of sit back and let them have at it. Often the conversation goes off in a direction I had not anticipated. And often what is said changes the course of the story and establishes a theme and a message I did not see coming.
In the book ONLY ENCHANTING, for example (Book 4 of the Survivors’ Club series), I had vaguely planned a relationship between Agnes and Flavian in which seduction and a brief affair and its consequences would lead to a deeper relationship and ultimate marriage. However, when I got them into conversation several times early in the book, each time obligingly placing them in an attractive and very private setting, would they cooperate and get down to the business of having an affair? Not a bit of it! That whole segment of the book ended up with Flavian blurting out a marriage proposal that surprised both him and Agnes—and me. At that point I had to decide whether to erase his words and force him back into a more determined seduction or let him have his way. But letting him have his way totally negated everything I had half planned for the remaining two-thirds of the book. I let him have his way! Sometimes when words have been spoken aloud, even within the pages of a book, they just have to be allowed to stand. The story must be changed accordingly.
In THE NOTORIOUS RAKE, a totally unimportant minor character, a friend of Mary Gregg, the heroine, was cautioning her against encouraging the advances of Lord Edmond Waite, the notorious rake of the title. As part of her argument she asked Mary if she realized he had killed his mother and brother. I swear those words just appeared on the screen before my eyes. I had NO idea she was about to speak them. The words alarmed me to no small degree. I think I felt as Pandora must have felt when she opened that forbidden box. Of course, I was more fortunate than Pandora—all I had to do to put matters right was delete the words and carry on with my story of a perfectly stereotypical rake who needed to be redeemed by the power of love. But I had the feeling that the friend must know something I didn’t, so I kept her words without any idea of how they were going to affect the story. They turned out to be the key to Edmond’s character and to the whole relationship that developed between him and Mary. Lord Edmond Waite is still one of my favorite heroes. Did he kill his mother and brother? Well, yes—and no…
The spoken word, it seems, then, has a power of its own whether the speaker is a real person or a fictional character. When it is spoken in real time it cannot be recalled. When it is spoken in the pages of a book, it can be recalled by the author but perhaps ought not to be. Perhaps in either case we need to ponder where the words came from—and where they are likely to lead. Life is a dynamic, unpredictable, exciting process… But I won’t proceed down that road.
To one person who leaves a comment below by next Monday, October 15, I will send a signed copy of either the two-in-one edition of A COUNTERFEIT BETROTHAL/ THE NOTORIOUS RAKE or ONLY ENCHANTING–winner’s choice.
[This week’s winner is YVONNE JONES]