How Fiction Works

101-dalmations2For the last two years or so, the Paperhouse has been working its way through the works of Walt Disney under the alibi of the children. Getting to the urbane, jazz-styled whimsy of 101 Dalmatians was specially pleasurable. “But you have to read the book, too”, I started declaiming. “There’s this amazing bit where the humans go to have dinner with Cruella de Vil and everything’s green and red and her kitchen is described as being like a mouth. It’s brilliant.”

Here’s what Dodie Smith actually wrote and I actually read about 20 years ago:

“After dinner Mr and Mrs Dearly sat panting in the red marble drawing-room, where an enormous fire was now burning. Mr de Vil was panting quite a bit, too. Cruella, who was wearing a ruby satin dress with ropes of emeralds, got as close to the fire as she could.”

Three panting mouths, one red room – but the simile between the mouths and the room isn’t written, it was inferred by me. And even as just a faint suggestion, it was such a powerful idea that it stayed with me for decades and even turned into my favourite part of the novel. The mingling of elements in figurative language and the combination of authorial invention and readers imagination – the confidence that the reader will make the subtle jump – is part of what makes this paragraph spark and flash like Cruella’s cigarettes.