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Learning From the Greats -- by Charlie Aylett

Are you familiar with the mantra ‘learn from the greats’? Are you, like me, wondering where all these blog posts sharing this knowledge have gone to?

I’m sure there are bloggers out there who are doing this, but I haven’t come across them -- have you? (Please share!) So, I thought I would give it a shot.

If you've ever wanted to know more about technique, this blog may well uncover some secrets you should know. But be warned - this is only part 1.

Now, fiction techniques are not something that jumps out at you from the page, not unless you are an experienced writer, and often not necessarily even then. And who wants to read a new book they're excited about in that analytical way anway? Not me, that's for sure. However, when it comes to a much loved book that never tires, wallowing in all its nooks and crannies is actually a joy.

One of my favourite novels, Girl With a Pearl Earring, seems to be an unending pool of learning for me. Anyone who knows me on CC will have heard me bang on about it often enough that if I squint really hard I might be able to detect an eye-roll. Yes, chaps, here we go again! But seriously, I thought a longer study of the book would help to understand why it's rated so highly, and explain a few tricks that casual readers might not have spotted.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the film and intend to, you may want to look away now.

Let’s start with tension and suspense, as this book has oodles of it, and I find it is extremely difficult to master in creative writing.

I know this book isn’t for some; it relies completely on the interaction of the characters to create friction rather than there being any big plot turns to heighten tension. And yet, herein lies its magic, and why I love it so much.

So deeply carved are the characterisations by the author that the cast are like a box of flints, each tilt of the container rubbing them against each other. You know that at some point they are going to spark up and set the house on fire. How does Chevalier achieve this?

One of the most striking ways, to me, is by Griet’s observations and – perhaps more importantly - her interpretations of the body language of the people around her.

In the first pages she notes her mother’s warning look, Catharina’s hair being a little wild and uncontained, reflecting the woman’s nervous countenance and setting up an expectation in Griet's mind (and the reader's) that she will be unpredictable and definitely troublesome. Then there’s Catharina’s reaction towards Griet herself – strong hints of jealousy of a girl she has only just met and knows nothing about. It is evident that there is friction between the married couple already, though we don’t know exactly why.

All of this is then juxtaposed with Griet’s own internal friction: keeping control.

Everything around her reflects her lack of control in her circumstances — Catherina’s unruly hair, her mother arranging a job she knew nothing about, her father’s accident. The only thing she has any control over is her own appearance, and the vegetables she’s cutting for dinner. This rub of opposites injects tension from the start. And it only builds upwards from there.

Once she arrives at her new residence and place of work this friction through body language is continued: the troublesome child who thinks she can be insubordinate; the established housekeeper who sees Griet as a threat; the mother-in-law who senses trouble on the horizon from the outset. Even though Griet knew nothing about the job until the day before, even though the household were looking for a new maid, Griet is not made to feel welcome. Far from it.

Further into the book, Chevalier builds on this friction by introducing a secret into an already tense household. Griet is asked to go on errands for her master knowing full well it will cause trouble with the mistress, if she knew. The use of Vermeer’s eldest daughter as a spy helps heighten the suspense and points all directions towards Griet’s ultimate demise.

This creation of anticipation is one of the most powerful tools a creative writer can use for suspense, and yet I think for many writers is very often overlooked.

I'm going to repeat that: The creation of anticipation is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use for suspense.

All these techniques are what gives the story its backbone – we know the bad is coming but still we read on to see how it is that Griet will meet her downfall.

Donald Maas states in his book The Fire in Fiction that tension is created through contrast, and this novel demonstrates that in every crack and corner.

So, how does Griet react to how she is treated? Let's just take a little detour first, as there’s some aspects of her character we need to underpin.

Flaw and Belief

Obviously she wants to do her job well -- her family relies upon her now -- but with her internal character flaws of orderliness and control, plus her own secret belief that the job of a maid is beneath her, she begins to unintentionally engineer her own downfall.

You may wonder how it is we know she believes the job is beneath her, but when she leaves her family home the first day to go and live at the Vermeer’s house, before she has even left her own street, we know it.

Her father’s job was snatched away from them by means of an accident at his workplace. For her to blame him for the family’s bad fortunes would be something no loving daughter could consciously do. Also, and perhaps a consideration by the author, the reader wouldn’t sympathise with a character so callous. So, instead of having Griet consciously think this, Chevalier shifts the burden of malice onto an external, unspecific body: the neighbours.

It is what Griet suspects the neighbours are thinking about her family – that her father lowered their social standing – that brings to the surface what she really feels deep down inside. Yet she would never in an instant entertain this as her own true feeling. And, although we already know her father was part of the Artists’ Guild of Delft which, to a lesser writer, would be enough to inform us that Griet is a cut above a maid, Chevalier uses this deeply buried opinion to go one step further in compounding that fact.

On the surface, it seems like a brief, throw away comment, but that one sentence, I would argue, is one of the most important in the book. It grounds us in Griet's emotional perspective, and embeds us in her corner of the world. We understand more profoundly that she has been brought up in a standing higher than just a maid, that her aspirations were set beyond such a position, that she feels she is too good for it, and that she is going to have to re-adjust her expectations to suit her new life. But can she?

This belief that she holds inside her -- a belief that no one else recognises, or, if they do, values -- fused with her other flaws, works against her. She demonstrates her attitude by disciplining the insubordinate child in her first few minutes of starting the job (her need to control and her core belief in play) -- something a maid of her low standing would never have the audacity to do -- and thus makes an enemy.

So, you see, her flaw, based on her belief, creates actions with dire consequences, and dire consequences lead onto more actions, more tension and more pressure.

 (If you want to know more on your character’s flaw and how their internal core belief affects plot, read The Plot Whisperer, Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master.)

So, back to how she reacts towards her treatment, bearing in mind the above.

Her existence in the house swings between two areas: the need to do a good job and be obedient, and her need to take control and conduct herself consistent to her upbringing. Initially, she tries to accommodate the household, even attempts to discreetly 'manage' them so as to avoid trouble, but also because she just can't help herself. These are the early signs of what will eventually lead to her dismissal.

For all her prudence and attempts at diplomacy with those who surround her, she undermines her own efforts by doing things that a normal maid wouldn’t dare do. She never openly admits to it — even to herself; another sign of deep characterisation and POV because to do so would have been most unbecoming for a young girl of that period — but secretly she enjoys that she is deemed special. Initially, this is because of the skills she brings to her job, but then escalates when she becomes subject of the painting. Because of it, she takes bolder and bolder actions.

Eventually, this boldness, this choosing of which rules she shall adhere to, this controlling nature, puts her in an untenable position. Her core belief of being better than she is, which fuels her internal desire to return to a higher social class, prevents her from removing herself from its danger -- the danger being her losing her virtue.

In other words, the whole time she poses for the painting, she gets a little taste of her desires. And yet, participating in those desires, even on the smallest scale, would result in losing her virtue (perceived or otherwise) and never attaining what she secretly holds dear: return to status. (And that brings us onto metaphor, theme, and symbolism. But that will have to wait until the next part.)

When writers talk about using conflict in stories, this is what they mean. Conflicting interest, undermining needs against desires. What a character needs to do for the greater good vs what they need to do to survive. And the list goes on.

Conflicts, contrast, looking for the opposites, even in subtle ways (go back and read the beginnng of this study) will all contribute towards more tension and suspense.




Charlie Aylett blogs at, reads a lot of short fiction for The Colored Lens, sometimes runs a flash fiction challenge, and recently created her first online class (though certainly not her last) -- Short Stories: The Beginning, The Middle, The End. Check it out here!



Posted by Charlie Aylett 15 May 2016 at 01:15
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Responses to this blog

Paulpowell 22 Feb 2017 at 16:42  
The author confuses me starting at the fifth paragraph. The topic/title is 'learning from the greats'...but then the article/essay is apparently all about 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. This a contemporary book and movie. How can it be argued that this work is 'one of the greats'? Has it stood the test of time? Fresh off the daisy, seems to me. Still in circulation, still being marketed and promoted, still being advertised, still making money for some media conglomerate. Not that 'length of time' is the only test, but it's a big one.
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Chica__45 11 Nov 2017 at 12:38  
It's a saying, "learn from the greats", however, there's only so much we can learn from Mark Twain or Jane Austen as the style as changed a lot since their time. "girl with a pearl earring" is a modern classic. It may not be as old as time, but it's still a classic, just like how Harry Potter and Hunger games are modern classics.

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