"When you hear hoofbeats, think horses; not zebras."
Probably one of the best lines from the Dr House series. Surely, one of the most popular, isn't it?
Dr. Theodore Woodward, professor at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine (thanks to Wikipedia for that information) actually coined it. Basically, the meaning behind this is to never think about something bizarre at first: think about the obvious and “normal” prior to anything else.
That could, and it well should, be a basic rule of thumbs for writers, too.
Why should you ever let something completely obvious be replaced by something that isn’t.
Well yes, plot: one can get that. But is it essential to be extravagant? Does it really matter all this great deal to step out of the box?
Yes, it does. And also: no, it does not.
When one writes a story, when it has to edit and edit again and work on the plot and the characters, one does not take inspiration from extravagance. On the contrary: the opposite.
Anybody takes some inspiration not from reality - writers are able to create their own reality - but rather from “normality”, from the quotidian.
So, here one’s talking horses: not zebras. There’s nothing wrong with zebras; as a matter of fact, there’s nothing wrong neither with unicorns, for what it’s worth. Still, horses are always important. There are simply more of those, we’re all used to seeing one of them and most of the time if we hear hoofbeats we think about them. And the surprise to see a zebra instead could be nice, in a zoo or a safari or in the wild, maybe; however, it would be weird to go to a grand station to see a cop onto a zebra: it wouldn’t feel nice and normal, would it?
So, at this point the real question could be: “Hey, why the heck should I seek normality in a world and a story I create? Why can’t I craft every single piece of the puzzle myself?”
The answer would be: “Well, because you can’t, to start.”
Writing a story, whatever story that would be, needs horses: it needs “normality”.
Even Tolkien, when creating one of the most complicated and intriguing and fascinating worlds that literature has ever seen, infused the quotidian and normality and, for that matter, also a lot of horses (no metaphors here, there' are really a lot of horses).
We, as humans, need to have in every story something we can relate to and feel similarity with.
Arda is a fantastic world: Lord of the Rings is mystical and breath-taking, but it would lack something in that world if there weren't so many aspects of everyone’s life in it.
We cherished the love-story between Arwen and Aragorn. We cried when Frodo travelled for the undying lands, parting with Sam. We felt sorry for the betrayal of Saruman like we were the one who he failed.
All those things are, when you really take off all the fantasy and the main plot, something quotidian that each human experience: love, nostalgia, sadness, frustration, happiness, sorry, grief, regret, contentment and fear and courage.
Tolkien didn’t create those sentiments and feelings. He took it from our world, from the everyday world.
He sure coated them with a bunch of adventures and obstacles, but he took them from us.
He was precise, too. He didn’t alter sentiments. He just created the story to arrive at them.
That is where geniality and talent reside. Taking normality and making it extraordinary.
What does that mean for a writer who aspires more?
Take it this way: it wouldn’t seem natural, therefore normal, to have a merciless assassin as a character with no human characteristics and no human sentiments all throughout the duration of the text: it would be distant and cold. Nobody would feel related to that, and almost anyone would despise a character like that.
However, put the story into the outer space, narrate about friendship and let the people see the change of that character, let them see that there’s some kind of humanity and feelings into that character and you would have a franchise: Rocket from “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one of the best things there’s out in that realm of stories.
It’s easy to narrate friendship, to write about it and talk about it. We know what friendship is, or at least, what it should feel like.
The surrounding story matters, of course: it is indispensable to have a great plot and grand stories to tell, but what resonates into the mind of readers is not just the story: it’s the normality, the connections they feel with it.
If readers hear hoofbeats, they expect horses, not zebras. They want normality. Possibly theirs.
If you want to write about normal real world people who ride a bike every day to go to work, they won't have an expensive, over the top bike: they’re normal, they’re going to have possibly a beaten up chunk of aluminium on two wheels.
You must let your readers know their frustration and boredom on taking those crusty bikes; if those people were happy, it would feel off. And it’s fine if you want them to be happy about their situation but you’ve got to give a reasonable and understandable cause for that or your reader will look at the page and see extravagance but not a connection, whether this is positive or negative.
One must feel something. The reader must wear the same shoes of those people riding the bike, and then he decides whether to mock them or to pity them: if completely feels their boredom or the opposite; but readers must feel a connection with their normality, with what they actually know.
Nothing could be more difficult than writing about the quotidian and the normality, while making it feel exceptional.
Nothing like the obvious can achieve wonderful goals.
A plot without human sentiments, without what we consider being normal, would just be a description.
Show horses, not zebras to your readers. Let them hear plenty of hoofbeats and then give them a horse and make them feel comfortable. Not confused and mocked.
For the writer who aspires more, the writer who wants to reach the mind of readers, there’s nothing more difficult, and yet more spectacular and beautiful, than to give the quotidian life and experiences, but coated with adventures and marvellous stories all around.
The beauty of creating a reality or a world different from ours is that we can alter the rules of it and achieve the wildest dream. A temporary escape route that lasts while reading.
The beauty of giving to normality a higher status, treating it as magnificent, is that we connect with others and give them not just an escape route, but a solid way to bridge the gap between stories and their life.
Writers give long-lasting memories through normality and everyday feelings.
We write for others to feel better in this world without needing to take an escape route every time in another one.
We better the world. We write stories. We create lives.