Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Pathetic Fallacy

by Leigh Russell,

When I was a student (a very long time ago) I remember learning about the Pathetic Fallacy in literature, where natural events reflect human experience. It seemed to involve a lot of bad weather: Lear, a former king, naked in the tempest; storms at times of emotional turmoil in Thomas Hardy.

I was thinking about the pathetic fallacy while driving into work this morning in ominous weather. I don’t enjoy driving in the best of conditions and at this time of year I always start to feel a little nervous. What if the roads are icy and my car skids...?

This kind of anxiety may be pathetic in a different way, but being a worrier probably feeds into my writing and I wonder if a tendency for Shakespeare’s “horrible imaginings” goes with the territory of being a crime writer. Readers often ask how I think up plots for my crime novels and the answer is simple; I start with a ‘What if...?’ question, imagining a worst case scenario.
Let’s say you work in an office. One evening you are the last person to leave. As you are going to bed you recall leaving your mobile phone on your desk at work, so you go in early next morning to arrive before any of your colleagues. Entering the office you discover a dead woman sprawled on the floor. Only a few people have keys to your office, and no one admits to knowing the murder victim.

This raises a number of questions. Who is the unknown victim? Why was she killed? You were last out at the end of the day and first in next morning - does suspicion fall on you? How do the police find the killer? If you write answers to the many questions raised by the body in the office, a basic crime thriller will virtually write itself.

Of course it’s not that simple. It takes a certain type of imagination to develop a starting point like this into a plausible novel with intriguing plot twists and convincing characters, and this requires a lot of thought. So life as an author can be hard work. Following the writing itself comes the need for promotion, and success has imposed increasing demands on my time until there are times when I watch my life slipping out of control, like a car on an icy road...

As for the road ahead, if anyone had predicted sixteen months ago that I would have two bestsellers to my name by now, one of them shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award, I would have laughed. So I’m taking my journey as an author one day at a time. Who knows what the future holds?

At least my car didn’t skid this morning - although if there was any ice on the road I wouldn’t have seen it through the dense fog up ahead...

Leigh Russell is the author of the Geraldine Steel series
CUT SHORT (2009)
DEAD END (2011)


  1. Great post. I find another aspect that works into my life when I'm noodleing a new story is the absence of distractions. If I go to sleep with the earphones on I block out my story and plot. If I hit the sack and think just about my story I find new ideas fly at me. So although you are right, "It takes a certain type of imagination to develop a starting point like this into a plausible novel with intriguing plot twists and convincing characters, and this requires a lot of thought" I also think that it takes focus that sometimes is tough to find these days.

    Keep up the good work,
    Dick Hannah

  2. There's nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. I have to submit my final draft of Dead End within one week for the proof copies to be printed (so excited!) After that, I have exactly one month to send the final draft of the following book to my agent.
    In the absence of external deadlines, I set my own deadlines. Without that 'pressure' I suspect I might procrastinate endlessly...

  3. 'noodleing a new story' - that's a great turn of phrase, Dick! I think we should all devote a week to noodleing a new story. Oh well, I can't stop - I have a new story to noodle...