I’m sure most writers have heard this advice at some point: write from the known to the unknown. The theory is that this grounds the reader and avoids confusion.
When I was analyzing Virginia Woolf’s “Between the Acts” for my MFA craft essay at Lesley University, I noticed that she often did the reverse. I loved the disorienting effect and the immediacy this gave to the narrative.
Early on in “Between the Acts” the child George is examining a flower when a monster rushes out of the trees.
“Then there was a roar and a hot breath and a stream of coarse grey hair rushed between him and the flower. Up he leapt, toppling in his fright, and saw coming towards him a terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on legs, brandishing arms.
“Good morning, sir,” a hollow voiced boomed at him from a beak of paper.” Virginia Woolf “Between the Acts”
A moment later we discover the monster is actually an elderly man, and then we learn that the elderly man is George’s grandfather, and finally we’re told he’d looked like a monster because he’d cocked his newspaper “into a snout.”
Moving from strange to the familiar means we, the readers, experience the same bewilderment and terror as poor George who, in the grandfather’s eyes, is too much of a scaredy-cat and needs toughening up.
Who hasn’t thought they’ve seen something bizarre and the next instant realized it’s not that at all, it’s something quite ordinary and mundane?
I remember falling asleep in my high school library and waking up to find a gorilla rising up between the table I was sitting at and the opposite bookcase. In fact it was a teacher (one who terrified me) who’d been crouched down, looking for a book on the bottom shelf. I woke up as she stood up and, seen from the back, her hair, swept into some sort of knot with a clasp, looked just like a gorilla’s face coming at me.
There is a wonderful brief perceptual shift from ‘unknown to known’ in Lisa Moore’s “Caught”:
“Slaney saw three men on bicycles with dining room chairs. They had removed the cushions and put their heads through the wooden frames of the seats, the legs sticking up in the air, so they could steer the bikes and pedal at the same time. Moving furniture out of the flood waters.
“Two men had walked past him with a giant square of sky and cloud, a mirror they had scavenged unbroken….” Lisa Moore “Caught”
What Slaney sees first is not a mirror but “a giant square of sky and cloud.” Here the disorientation is just for a split second.
And it happens at a crucial moment. Slaney is at a time of change, of realizing things aren’t what they seemed, what he’d believed. He has to adjust to seeing things differently.
Seeing a square of sky and cloud reflects Slaney’s state of mind. He longs for freedom (sky and cloud). But the sky and cloud he sees are confined in a square. In that moment is he suspecting or fearing that he might lose his freedom? (You’ll have to read the novel to find out whether he does! Highly recommended!)
These perceptual shifts, where your character sees something unfamiliar in an ordinary object or person, can help bring his experience alive in a very individual and immediate way, and at the same time expose his fears, hopes and desires.
Have you seen any examples of this in your recent readings, or used a perceptual shift in your own writing?