Being a Better Writer: Making the Mundane Engaging

Greetings readers! Welcome to another Monday in which I am not present. I’m writing to you from the past, using perhaps the best-known means of time-travel, so that you can have this post on a day when I am very likely still busy and away in Alaska.

Maybe not. We’re reaching the part of the scheduling now where I may in fact have returned, but also may not have. I’ve become quantum!

Those of you that know how awful and interpretation that is may begin plotting my death now.

Anyway, regardless of my current limbo, let’s talk about writing. There’s no news I can talk about, since I’m in the past, so we’re just going to dive write in and talk about today’s topic: the mundane made awesome.

The idea for this post came to me on a rewatch of the new Dune movie (which is utterly fantastic). There’s a moment in the flick (minor spoilers) where the Duke and his entourage go out on a flight to actually watch a spice-harvesting operation take place (and if you don’t know what this is, definitely consider reading the book, seeing the film, or both). But here’s what struck me about this scene: it could very realistically be a documentary of some kind.

In fact, it almost is. The characters circle the spice harvester while a character explains to both them and the audience how the process works, what the job is like, what the crew is doing or watching out for, etc.

In other words, it’s very much the picture of exposition, and fairly mundane exposition at that. In our world, it would very closely be the equivalent of explaining how a dump truck works on a construction site. Which is about the most mundane thing ever, right?

Save that on this rewatch, I realized how invested everyone in the room was in this scene. I sat back, looked at the crowd, and all of them were hanging on every word coming out of the exposition character’s mouth.

There’s a reason for that. Despite this being the equivalent, at least taken flatly, of watching a documentary explain how a dump truck works, there is a reason no one in the room was bored, but instead fascinated by this explanation of, in-universe, something that was largely ordinary.

The story had made the mundane engaging. Taken something everyday and bland, and presented it in a way that was fascinating to learn about.

So let’s talk about how they did it. And then, of course, how you can do the same in your own writing.

But hold up! We can’t just dive in all at once. We need to break down a few things first. I do want to spend a moment analyzing what I meant by “mundane” above. Because without the knowledge of our starting point, it’s going to be very difficult to make the journey to our destination.

So what is “mundane?” Well, the most common definition is “lacking interest or excitement” but that doesn’t entirely fit with what we’re talking about, since we’re talking about scenes in books. Lacking interest or excitement isn’t specifically what we mean—or a lot of people really—when they talk about “mundane.”

No, they don’t just mean boring, but quite often “everyday.” Because the new is interesting and unique, even in passing. The everyday? The standard? That’s mundane. We know it, it’s there, it’s been there, and we’re over it.

So then what comes of this when we talk about scenes in a book, for example, being mundane? Or to be more precise, when we ask how we can make that mundane engaging?

Well first, when we say that a scene in a book is mundane means that it’s everyday or ordinary to the setting. Like the spice harvesters going out and collecting spice. That is, to the setting, a regular thing. Everyday (if you’re thinking “But not to me” you’re ahead of the game, and good instincts). As a consequence of that thing being everyday therefore, in the setting it is lacking in interest and excitement.

So basically, a mundane scene when we speak of writing is something that isn’t at all out of the ordinary in universe, but it is getting attention anyway despite technically lacking interest and excitement in the setting. That’s what it is … but somehow writers are able to make what, in example amounts to a training video interesting and fascinating. Those of us who have been in similar situations with our writing, presenting the usual, or the bland, like important setting elements that don’t on the surface seem that interesting, might wonder how authors pull this off.

And, in case you were thinking of that scene from Dune and saying “But wait, doesn’t something interesting happen when the worm shows up?” technically yes, but what keeps things interesting before all that? When we’re just watching scenes of the harvester doing its thing with a voiceover talking about it?

There’s a couple things, actually, but I’ll give you one of the biggest ones right up front: The characters are treating it as fascinating and interesting, and are themselves paying close attention.

In the context of the scene, there are a few reasons for this, the primary being that as they have made clear to the audience, their survival depends on how these harvesters work. They need them functioning and functioning well to do what’s been asked of them. So every word that the exposition fairy gives them (it’s not an actual fairy, just a term) is important to them and they need to listen, because their survival depends on knowing how this stuff works.

So because the characters find it fascinating and interesting, we as the audience are more inclined to agree and empathize with that interest. In addition, and multiplying this effect is how much we care about the characters. If we like the duke, and want to see him succeed, then paying attention to how this mundane machinery operates becomes much easier: The character we care about is invested in it, therefore the audience will tend to be as well.

See, excitement is contagious. I might not care much about, for example, kitchen cabinetry, outside of wishing to one day have a kitchen with cupboards. However, I can appreciate and enjoy a master of the craft talking about it with great excitement. When our characters are interested in something, even the mundane, the audience also is drawn along like a moth after a flame.

So, between understanding what this mundane element means to our characters, as well as seeing how invested they are in it, and audience can be drawn along for the ride. Even if it’s something that the audience already knows about and understands, it can still be entertaining to see the characters they care about learn.

A quick side note here: All of this, from knowing that the characters are interested in something, to seeing their interest, to the explanation at hand, are only improved by showing the audience. Don’t tell them that the characters are excited, or at least don’t just. Show them. Have a character’s face light up, or show that they ask a quick question wanting to know more. Watson or not, show the audience, if possible, what the exposition is talking about. Dune does this by giving viewers a cool spectacle to latch onto with the massive harvester. Books can do this too, showing the reader the thing that the exposition is talking about.

But there’s another side to this. Character investment and interest is the biggest one, so we talked about that first. But there’s another angle to consider, and that is that while the characters may consider things mundane—or at least some of them—they may not be mundane to the audience. And as long as you don’t treat our approach to the audience as if the material is boring and dry, the audience can be easily fascinated by what to them is new and unusual.

For example, we do not have spice harvesters on Earth. Those things are pretty titanic and unusual from our eyes. Even if the characters were bored and shoving it aside, there would no doubt be people in the audience that would want them to come back to it because, you know, it’s a giant freaking sand-mining machine. That’s just cool.

Actually, let’s talk about cool for a second and go back to spectacle. Make whatever mundane thing you’re describing sound awesome, and readers will often dig into it. Don’t sell whatever it is short. Sure, a monster truck is just a truck with oversized tires if I want to sell it short, but it’s also a monster truck. There’s an element of spectacle there I can leave out or include. Combine that with being new and unknown to the audience, and how you present the mundane is definitely going to have an effect.

Are you talking about a saddle in your horse novel? Show us why the saddle is cool. Don’t sell it short. Sell it awesome. Present it in a way that highlights the “cool factor” for your audience. What makes it noteworthy? What makes it important?

Things in our setting might be mundane to our characters, but even if they aren’t invested we can still use words and phrasing that excite the readers a little, or tease them with the view so that they wonder what’s going on. We don’t perhaps need to drop a paragraph of exposition about why this giant rock-mover exists, but painting a picture of “It’s doing something and it’s massive” can add flavor even if the character we’re following doesn’t bat an eye.

Last but not least—and this is going to sound a little weird—but make sure that what you’re talking about has meaning. In other words, make sure that we’re not just describing something to the audience to fill pages, but rather to do something for the experience. Whether it’s adding to the scene the reader is painting in their mind, a background hint at how this world works, a teaser for the twist … anything. Whatever it is, it should have a point, from answering a question about how the world works if the reader thinks about it to being a Chekhov’s Gun or Armory.

It shouldn’t be there to just be there. It should have meaning to the story you’re trying to tell, be that setting the scene and location, or tying into the character’s survival. Something.

When a reader knows that even small details like this can later be important, they’ll be interested.

So, let’s recap. The best way to make the mundane engaging is have characters that the audience cares about who are engaged in the mundane thing for one reason or another. Fascination for many is addictive, like yawning. Get the characters into it, and/or give them reasons to be.

Then show that interest. Compound it with spectacle. Show that spectacle as well.

Last but not least, make sure that the mundane we do present has some sort of meaning you can justify, a reason why the audience would want to experience it.

Work at it. Play with it. But make that mundane awesome.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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