Reading to Write: Roald Dahl 0 Comments

Reading to Write: Roald Dahl

It’s no secret that we look toward the work of other writers as a source of inspiration. Whether it be for guidance in style, genre, dialogue or plot, deep down we’re all quietly hoping that emulating their voices will help us uncover our own.

Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected brought me out of my writing rut. I was doing that thing that I’m sure many of you do as well: turning ideas over in my head and being frustrated that I’d heard them all before. Where were my unique plotlines? My quirky, yet somehow still believable, characters? Even the settings that came to mind just felt so overdone: a dinner party, a train, an international hotel.

But if you read Dahl’s short stories, you’ll find that the familiar isn’t your enemy after all. The most important thing I learned from Tales of the Unexpected is implied in its title: even if something sounds familiar, you can always make it uniquely, and unexpectedly, your own. So the next time you’ve got writer’s block or are struggling to come up with a whizz-bang distinctive idea, turn that tired old tale into something awesome using some simple tips from Dahl.

1) Familiar settings are your friend.

The most compelling stories are often the ones that are happening around us. One of Dahl’s strengths is drawing on settings that we all intimately know, from the habitual familiarity of the daily commute to the shared experience of living in a certain place. It’s been said that you should write about what you know, so why not where you know? This is especially helpful if you struggle with establishing a convincing setting in the first place. Once you’ve successfully grounded your reader, it opens up more space for you to concentrate on other things: plot turns, character development and conflict. And it will all feel a lot more natural.

2) Attend small and intimate parties.

When writing a short story, it’s usually best to keep your cast small. This is because the form itself restricts the length of the piece and, by extension, the time in which you can develop your characters. You want people to care about and feel connected to those in your story, so give your readers the chance to learn about them. This is reflected in many of Dahl’s works, where he focuses on just two or three main characters and introduces others very selectively. In ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, the narrative centres on a woman who murders her detective husband. Indeed, even he is a part of a select group of supporting roles (including the shopkeeper and other detectives) that serve to amplify and develop the protagonist’s situation. What we can learn from this: if the story can function without a character, try taking them out. Make sure everyone has a purpose and help us understand that purpose.

3) Insert personal experiences into lives of characters.

One of my favourite stories in Tales of the Unexpected is ‘Galloping Foxley’. In it, the main character, Perkins, recognises a man on his train as the prefect who used to terrorise him in school. Perkins’ recount is vivid, and it is fascinating to read about the British boarding school tradition of younger pupils becoming personal servants to the most senior boys. In fact, the tale is based on Dahl’s childhood. That explains why it reads with such authenticity! Of course, that’s not to say that these experiences can’t be learned through thorough research, but look to your own life for ones that can be used in your writing. If you’re having trouble with making your characters feel real, what’s more real than human experience? It’s interesting, it’s genuine and you’ll be telling a part of your own story as well.

Now for some Dahl-inspired writing exercises:

  1. You’re taking your daily commute to work when a figure from your past appears on the platform. They sit opposite you in the carriage and, slowly, you realise that they don’t recognise you. The memories come flooding back. What happened between the two of you and what are you going to do about it now?
  2. You’re at an international hotel, for business or for pleasure, when someone comes up to you and makes a strange bet. What about them catches your interest? What is the bet, and why do you accept it? How does it end?
  3. You’re hosting a dinner party. One or two of your guests retire for the night and, as you’re passing by their door, you hear something that completely changes your perspective of the night so far. What had happened before this? Who are they, and what is their secret?

Let us know how you go! Hopefully this gets things started and helps you get right back into your writing groove.

Note: Of course, these aren’t the ironclad rules of writing. You absolutely can set your short story in an exotic or fictional location, have a wide variety of characters making an entrance and create experiences from scratch! But if you’re stuck for unique ideas, these suggestions aren’t a bad place to start.

Michelle Li (20) is a Melbourne-based young writer. She is on the editorial committee for Voiceworks, subedits creative writing for Lot’s Wife and runs a quarterly medical student publication. Her work has been published online and in print, including a digital anthology by Penguin, and she was recently the joint recipient of the inaugural Monash Prize. Her interests include politics, film, short fiction and brunch. Send her cheeky messages at @michelle_li.

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