“The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” –Flannery O’Connor
I’ve often said that, as fiction writers, our goal should be to attain the same powers of perception as a detective. But now, I wonder if our call is somewhat higher.
Flannery O’Connor has some of the greatest writing advice you’ll read in Mystery and Manners. I often come back to it when stumped on how to proceed in my story or novel. She never disappoints. If you don’t have a copy of this incredible book, I’d highly recommend it. Read it with a highlighter handy.
So what does O’Connor mean when she says that we can see the world within an object? Exactly that. Each object retains a portion of something larger, it suggests more than itself. A simple bottle of water, comprised of plastic, contains the fundamental element of life within it. But beyond that, if we truly look, we’ll see suggestions of the world itself: condensation settling on the outside (water cycle), the screw-top cap (intelligent design, functionality, order), the blue label (marketing, color, emotion), a bar code (economy, technology).
Taking these elements and combining them, we see the world within the object. Our job as writers is to tease it out, to tempt it into revealing its full implications. And while I doubt any of us will write an entire novel about a bottle of water, there’s nothing to say the bottle may not play a vital role, may stand as a symbol, may suggest the world within the object, the world within your character, the world within your novel.
Observation makes fiction breathe. It’s a practice, a habit, that must be formed.