Thoughts on Writing

What’s buzzing?

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that anyone who has watched Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” (1967) – a film about a bored housewife moonlighting as a prostitute – will remember this scene from the movie. An Asian client with a special request pays the housewife character (played by the luminous Catherine Deneuve) a visit. He opens a small box in her face. The audience doesn’t see what’s inside; they can only hear the sound of an insect buzzing. She agrees to do what he asks of her. Bunuel never lets the audience know what’s in the box or what later transpired between the characters. When asked of the box’s contents, Bunuel would reply cryptically “ whatever you want there to be.”

This scene is amazingly effective. If Bunuel had shown what’s in the box, I probably wouldn’t have remembered this part of the film. But because he refrained from doing so, I still think of it to this day. In engineering suspense this way, Bunuel is providing fellow artists an illuminating tutorial on how to manipulate audience reaction. 

The other day, as I was helping a student with his writing – he’d been asked by his schoolteacher to write a story on the topic ‘British woman jailed over painkillers is freed from Egyptian prison” – I recalled the above scene from Belle de Jour, and immediately I knew exactly what I should do to animate his copy.

This was the introduction he had come up with:

“One day, my child asked me: “Mum, what was the most traumatic thing you have ever experienced?” I paused for a moment, making a mental note of the unpleasant incidents that had occurred in my life. The worst was the time when I was in prison. Yes, a woman like me was in prison because I carried painkillers in my luggage. My mind drifted back to 2017.”

My Belle-de-Jour-inspired rewrite of his introduction

“Mum, what is the scariest thing you’ve ever experienced?” my child asked me one day out of the blue, her wide-eyed expression indicating she was anticipating a memorable tale.

A traumatic event from my past immediately popped up in my head.

I brought that incident upon myself in a way, out of carelessness; so, the mere act of remembering it brought me shame. I’d always known, however, that one day my child would find out about it one way or another, so I might as well be the one to tell her about it now.”

In these days of short attention span, the ability to generate mystery and get your reader hooked has become even more essential. It is therefore worth the time and effort to learn how to keep your reader guessing. Other than withholding information from her strategically, you can also lure your reader by saying your main point at the outset, and then marry it with an item whose link to your theme isn’t apparent at first sight. Your reader becomes curious about how the two are related, and will read on to find out. 

I tried the second trick in a recent Apple Daily column on how Hong Kong youths will likely fare in the mainland job market. In the first section of my piece, I drew on my own experience of working in mainland:

The precariousness of my position as a Hong Konger in the mainland job market was brought home to me in the most unlikely of places.

I was in the backstage of a Miss Asia beauty pageant – this was when Asia Television was still in business – captivated by the physical charms of the swimsuit-clad contestants as they sashayed out to the stage and back when I was struck a parallel between these girls and the many brilliant mainlanders I’d met in Beijing and Shanghai: just as these girls are generally markedly more beautiful than Miss Hong Kong contestants because they are recruited from all over China (whereas most of those who sign up for Miss Hong Kong are local women ), so, it’s only natural for me to feel I can’t measure up to the cream of mainland talent in China’s first-tier cities – both the girls and those super-smart mainlanders come from a pool of 1.4 billion people.

Another tip to note: readers don’t usually like to be reminded of how tough the work world is, but by tying this topic up with beauty queens – a subject many can be expected to have a “prurient” interest in – I can use gallows humour to make a heavy issue come across as light-hearted.

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