The course of true love stories – plot basics

The best love stories are more than morality tales. They deal with fundamental questions about our community and what that community should fairly demand of us.  The greatest love story of them all is probably Romeo and Juliet, written by Shakespeare and enjoyed by lucky Londoners in the 1590s, about young lovers who fall in love on a glance and are kept apart by their warring families. Their deaths together shock everyone into accepting peace.

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Community requires obedience to the law in respect for others. Biology however likes a bit of variety and throws in some unexpected passion now and again to strengthen our genetic make-up. So, forbidden love, defying boundaries, has been with us for centuries ranging from Paris and Helen, Ruth and Boaz, Abelard and Heloise to, who knows, Eve and the snake.

What’s the essence of a good love story?

  • Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again.’ Happy days. Notice that the lead figure in this old expression is the ‘boy’ or man. As I said last time, this corner of the fiction playground is not just for girls.
  • Falling in love is instant and overpowering for both lovers. If we go back to the classic story formulae, that moment is the ‘inciting incident’ compelling the story forward. Life can never be the same again.
  • The loving couple will give each other something of fundamental value for life, even if they can’t be together. Their love is a once in a lifetime chance for completeness without which the characters are lost. Austen’s Persuasion is a leading example of this.
  • The lovers learn that love is about more than pheromones. They genuinely ‘get’ or understand each other. This week I found myself watching Room At The Top, an 1959 film based on John Braine’s excellent novel. It’s not about shenanigans in a penthouse – the title comes from the phrase ‘There’s always room at the top’ for able people – but about how Joe Lampton tries to make his way in a world of connections and vested interests that are stacked against him. He plays two women against each other and ends up married to the young, rich one. Happy ever after? His climactic scene delivers him the insight that with the older woman he is truly known and could be lifelong happy. But he rejects it. As he and his young wife drive off from their marriage, we see years ahead of misery for them both.
  • A political context raises the stakes as well as bringing on a wider theme (Dr Zhivago, Dido and Aeneas, A Tale of Two Cities).
  • In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used street violence between the young men to raise the stakes to life and death levels. It also challenges Juliet’s love to her core when she discovers that her darling new husband has just killed her beloved cousin Tybalt.

Why do we warm towards love stories, whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live? Because it soothes are our loneliness, removes briefly the disjointedness in our lives? Or reinforces the happiness we’re blessed with?  We’re human, we move toward warmth.

Types of love story

We love it whenever we hear that Grandma and Grandad fell in love at school, stayed married for seventy years and died within a month of each other. That satisfies our deep need for stability. But in fiction we like obstacles, preferably ones that raise our heart rate good and high. This is where forbidden love comes in:

  • Love triangles – tried and tested from the earliest times (Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, anything with Zeus in it) through the 19th century (Anna Karenina) and 20th (Brief Encounter, Bridges of Madison County, Doctor Zhivago) and still alive and well today;
  • Sleeping with the enemy (Romeo and Juliet);
  • Love that is otherwise socially, politically or morally impossible (Pride and Prejudice, Dido and Aeneas, Antony and Cleopatra, the story of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride);
  • Love rejected when one rises in status and rejects the real love (Wuthering Heights, Gatsby);
  • Love otherwise torn apart by circumstances (Jane Eyre);
  • Unconsummated love (Gone with the Wind, A Tale of Two Cities, The Snow Goose);
  • Two characters who meet through work or similar, can’t stand each other and learn to love each other (African Queen, Guys N Dolls, The Philadelphia Story, Austen’s Emma and its marvellous film spoof Clueless, anything with Jennifer Aniston in it).

That last one fills cinemas regularly these days. See how small a part it plays in the whole picture?

It’s all what you want to make of it. Go ahead, try a new mix.

What about structure?

Set up the characters in their unfulfilled lives. Bring the lovers together. They notice each other and their connection becomes apparent. Their love faces whatever obstacles you can think up until both characters reach the necessary climactic insight about themselves as part of the process of deserving each other. They come together again – happy ending.

More about The Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey is the story of an old soldier’s quest for home after a decade of dreadful war. His tests vary from keeping his ships safe from crashing rocks to escaping the clutches of a love goddess. Escaping a love goddess? Yes. There’s a marvellous bit where he explains to the goddess that, for all the delights of living with her, what he actually needs and wants is to be with his wife Penelope. He longs to grow old with her and watch the mortal furrows spread on her face.

When Odysseus arrives home, his old dog Argos’s last act is to snuffle around Odysseus’ feet in recognition of his master, and fall dead at his feet. Does this convince Penelope that he is her long lost husband? No. She is being tormented by gangs of ‘suitors’ who are taking over the place, being nothing but trouble, and the last thing she needs is another one lying to try and jump the queue. Odysseus’ longbow is so massive that no-one could string it but the man himself. She asks him to string it now, and he does. Is she convinced? No. He must tell her something that no-one else in the world knows but the two of them. He whispers to her that he made their marital bed himself from the living oak of a single tree. Now she has no doubt who he is and welcomes him home. His travails are over at last, and so are hers.

They have already been married at least twenty years. They are not young. She did not run to him the moment he staggered through the door, as he probably hoped. He had to win her over afresh and did it not with his words or strength but with that wonderful secret about their love. All exquisitely romantic and not, in my view, bettered by any other writer since.

Time and again we use stories to explore what is the best, sustainable kind of love and what isn’t. And how far wealth brings us happiness, which is where love stories overlap with another great plot structure, Rags to Riches. More of that next week …

Happy writing.

Tell me the truth about love stories

Ah yes, our poor, barnacled hearts.

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We might as well start with Cinderella

Cinderella has been loved and retold all over the world for over 3000 years among humans of all kinds and genders. In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen gave it a makeover during the Napoleonic Wars (taking a comic side-swipe at some lazy romance stories around her at the time). The film Pretty Woman (1990) rebooted it, Bridget Jones gave it another contemporary twist in 1997 (having started as a newspaper column) and since 1999 the play and film Mamma Mia has been showing that it can work for middle-aged people too. Any good plot structure can stand another version.

The genius of the Cinderella story is most explicit in Pretty Woman. No, I don’t mean the scene where the snooty shop assistants are obliged to grovel to her, though that’s part of it. It’s when the Richard Gere character arrives at her flat (top storey of course, like a fairy tale tower), he climbs up her fire escape with flowers and jokes that he’s come to rescue her. She skips out of the window and down the steps to hug and kiss him. ‘Your white knight is here to rescue you,’ he goes, ‘what happens next?’ Julia Roberts gives him a level look and says, ‘She rescues him right back’.

In this Cinderella it not just that she is rescued from the kitchens (or in her case street life) by all his princely money. It’s that they rescue each other, and are right for each other, regardless of their places in society.

But love stories have not always taken that shape. The Ancient Greeks had a strict formula for their romantic stories: a heterosexual young couple, both equally beautiful and aristocratic, fall in love. Before they can marry, each of them must face a series of tough tests of mind, body and spirit (equally tough regardless of their gender). Only when they’ve been tested enough and are seen to deserve each other does the genre allow them to marry. Happy ending.

The Three Drinks

In an Irish folk tale called The Three Drinks (Sinead De Valera, Irish Fairy Tales, 1973) a mother of three sons hears that a rich, local beauty called Ina the Fair has launched a singing competition to find a husband. An old woman turns up at their home asking for hospitality and offers a magic potion as her thanks, saying that the potion will guarantee success with Ina the Fair. She makes it clear though that the potion only works if the person who takes it works hard.

The sons line up to try the potion and have a crack at the singing competition. With the potion each one is left a list of chores to do.

The eldest is idle: having taken the potion, he just laughs at the list of chores. Off he goes to sing for Ina and everybody laughs back at him. The next son is distracted by all and everything; he downs the potion and off he goes. But on the way, he sees a rugby match and can’t help joining in. Next he’s off helping somebody else. Nice lad but it doesn’t get the chores done, does it?

The youngest son faithfully does his work before he goes to sing for Ina the Fair. Happy ending? You’d think so but … He does indeed sing like a lark and everybody’s impressed, but Ina won’t have him. Why? He’s too poor! (And maybe he should have had a wash after doing all those chores.) Away he goes heart-scalded, and decides to better himself. In no time he’s a rich man, doing well.

The old woman turns up at his door again. She has some important news for him, that Ina the Fair rues the day she sent him away and is miserable without him. He thinks for a moment what to do, then he takes off his brocade jacket with gold buttons and his finely tailored breeches, puts on some old rags and off he goes to sing to her again. This time she’s dying to marry him, rags and all. He’s chuffed to bits and agrees. She’s even happier of course when she discovers that he’s a rich man now; money always helps. But the point is this: it’s not until they’ve both survived their troubles that they deserve each other.

Tristan and Iseult

Many of these ancient stories took form long before they were written down. The love story credited with being Western literature’s first is Tristan and Iseult.

It is a remarkably complex story with too many shafts of painful reality to be rooted purely in ‘legend’. Like all the oldest tales, there are several versions that blend in and out of each other. Its origin is generally credited to two French poets in the twelfth century but early echoes have been discovered all over the place from Ireland to Spain to Belarus. I’m a great fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s version written with enormous tenderness for children in 1971.

In brief, the ‘courtly’ version is as follows:

A war between Ireland and Cornwall is settled when Tristan kills the Irish champion, the Morholt, in single combat. He is healed of his near-fatal wound by an Irish princess he doesn’t get to see. We readers know that her name is Iseult. Back home in Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle King Mark is set to marry Princess Iseult to seal the new peace and, now that Tristan is well, he is sent to collect her. Among her wedding gifts is a magic potion to drink with her new husband to seal their love and marriage. During their voyage, a storm threatens them all. Tristan and Iseult drink the potion together (who wouldn’t?) and fall in love …

Brimming with new love they may be, but Iseult has no choice but to go ahead with her arranged marriage to King Mark and tries to forget Tristan. But there he is at court, large as life and ever so handsome, and in time they can’t help but start an affair. Mark’s knights find out and the lovers are sentenced to death.

Tristan is locked in a tower before his execution and, hero that he is, manages to escape. Iseult’s sentence is more revolting: she is to be thrown among lepers and then burnt at the stake. Just in time, Tristan (disguised as a leper) saves her and they run off into the woods together.

There they live together for four years. This is an odd section of the story – they live on berries in a non-world of their own making – until King Mark passes by on a hunting trip. He visits their hut while it’s empty and leaves a trace to show Iseult that she’s been discovered. She decides she has no choice but to go back to Mark and be his wife again.

Tristan is married off by arrangement to a Breton Princess. She is another Iseult, known as Iseult of the Fair Hands, and Tristan starts life in Brittany. The lovers stick with their marriages, although we learn that Tristan is unable to make love to his wife.

There are several versions of Tristan’s death. It’s clear that he was one of the bravest warriors and was never going to make old bones. My favourite is that Tristan joins in sword play with his brother-in-law and is mortally wounded. No-one but Irish Iseult (Mark’s queen) can save him as her healing skills are unmatched, and she is sent for. On its return, her ship is to show a white sail if she is on board, a black sail if she has refused to come.

Tristan lies dying. His wife Iseult of the Fair Hands keeps watch on the horizon. A ship appears. Tristan asks what colour the sails are. She tells him they are black.

It’s a lie. Iseult arrives with her bag of herbs and potions but Tristan has already died broken-hearted without her. Iseult throws herself on his corpse and breathes her last. They are together at last in death and are buried together where, tradition has it, columbine grows from her grave and honeysuckle from his (or vice versa, or it might be hazel) entwining for the rest of time.

What traditional elements of Western love stories are established here?

  • The couple falls instantly and helplessly in love and remain in love with each other all their lives – the coup de foudre is an over-powering, once in a lifetime event;
  • Their love faces a series of obstacles, in this case the lovers’ duties to their arranged treaty marriages and their communities. They try to do the honourable thing and stay away from each other;
  • Life is incomplete for each of them without the other and always will be (‘Ni moi sans vous, ni vous sans moi’);
  • Only in death can they find perfection together.

Mark and Iseult of the Fair Hands are innocent victims in this story but lose our affection when they commit appallingly callous acts: Mark’s sentence on Iseult for her adultery and Breton Iseult’s black sail lie.

Prepare for a shock:

In most of the world’s communities even today, falling suddenly in love – the coup de foudre – is not seen as the route to happiness at all. On the contrary, it’s reckoned to be a temporary madness which can threaten everything the community holds dear. The fundamental question for Tristan and Iseult is whether they should serve the needs of their communities or of their own hearts. That is why their period of isolation in the forest is so important: without your community, life is fundamentally arid. The difficulty is that without love, life is arid too. 

Tristan and Iseult don’t need to earn each other’s respect: for them, being slave to the potion is enough. It’s our respect they must earn before they can unite in death.

If you have characters who are in love, try inviting them – separately, in turn – for a scribble-chat. That’s where you get together like old friends and you let the character chat loosely with you while you write it all down, as deep, free and wide as a river without editing at all. Let yourself be surprised by what comes.

Your character is in love with X. Ask:

  • Why did you first notice X? What was it about X that made you linger?
  • How did you first make contact?
  • How did X behave during your first meeting?
  • List the things you love most about X, in order of importance to you.
  • Is there a place that’s special to you both? Real or made up? Describe it please.
  • Do you have any code words or nicknames just for the two of you?
  • Do you own anything belonging to X? Describe it.
  • Write X a love letter. It’s entirely private and may never be sent: what would you really like to say?
  • How would you like your future together to be?
  • How do you see things really panning out?
  • Have you been in love before? If so, how does this time compare? If not, is love how you thought it would be? What’s different?
  • How do you think other people see you? Your parents? Your friends? X’s friends? Strangers in the street?

You can have a scribble-chat like this with your lovers at many stages of their love. One of the dynamics of story-telling is dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters, and you can play with your characters’ and readers’ expectations to roll your storyline around. In One Day, David Nicholls uses missed opportunities and timing to break our hearts. The Rhett and Scarlett storyline in Gone with the Wind does the same. There are countless examples.

In today’s Western world, love stories have come to be seen as ‘chicklit’ or female fodder but that is a late twentieth century development. Throughout the centuries there has been no shortage of smitten male protagonists ready to die for love, from Tristan and Lancelot through Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to of course Romeo himself. This corner of the fiction playground is not just for the girls.

More about Romeo and Juliet next week. Happy writing!

The QUEST for a perfect story

Last week’s post gave us a feel for a traditional story arc – the lift-off from normality to a challenge, stakes rising in crescendo to the most exciting, potentially harrowing place in the story, the place of crisis where something vital is realised, something won, before things rest back towards a new, richer normality.

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Forgive my graphics please – drawing has never been my best thing!

A story arc is not symmetrical like an arch: the highest point is closer to the end than the beginning. Any dips or slackening in the arc’s line are where your reader will put your book down and wander off to find something more interesting to do.

Let’s take a closer look at some of our most familiar plot structures. For this I lean not only on my own reading over the years but on the late Christopher Booker’s masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots. If you were ever to find me alone on a desert island, the chances are my free copies of the Bible and Shakespeare would be gathering dust among the sand dunes and I would be deep in The Seven Basic Plots. Not that I agree with Booker that there are only seven basic plots or that they are necessarily the ones he identifies, but I love the way he analyses and debates it all.

QUEST

Quest is one of the oldest plot structures in the world. There’s no need to fetch it a rocking chair and slippers though, it’s very much alive and filling cinemas and bookshops. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classical quest in the old style and so is Erin Brokovitch. Aeneas and the tribes of Israel are on quests for new homes every bit as much as the rabbits in Watership Down. Gulliver’s Travels, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Treasure Island (the buried treasure), Frodo taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the Taken films – what do they all have in common?

The ingredients of a great quest are a priceless goal far away, a questor with an overwhelming desire to up sticks and go and get it, surviving many perils and obstacles, internal and/or external over a long journey, before eventually the goal is achieved.

Let’s develop this a little:

  • The quest should be really important – life or death in some way or other. In the stories of the tribes of Israel and Watership Down, for example, the whole community will be wiped out unless a new home is found.
  • The quest has great urgency. There is no choice but to go now. ‘To boldly go’ and seek new civilisations here and there is not nearly pressing enough to be a quest.
  • Leaving to go on the quest requires considerable self-sacrifice but it’s inevitable.
  • Even starting on the quest can be dangerous. For example, in Treasure Island, Jim is in deep danger before he’s even left his mother’s pub.
  • The hero usually takes companions with him/her or gathers them. Even Dick Whittington has his cat. An exception is Lancelot whose spiritual quest for the Grail (as penance for his adultery with Guinevere) is solitary.
  • A pattern ensues of near-fatal ordeals alternating with periods of respite – tension followed by resolution prompting danger again in ever-rising stakes.
  • Alien terrain is usually involved, real or figurative, where the hero/ine is far from home.
  • Monsters (Polyphemus, harpies, auks) and temptations (Dido, Circe) abound and there can be a visit to the underworld (Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; Odysseus meeting Achilles)
  • Sometimes there’s help from a wise old man or woman, ranging from Tiresias to Obi Wan.

Once the quest has been achieved – Odysseus makes it back home to Ithaca, the Watership rabbits find a suitable new warren, Lancelot glimpses the Holy Grail – is the story over? You’d think so but no. That does not satisfy our need, honed over countless centuries, for the best in story-telling. In fact, arrival is only half way. Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca at the end of Book 12 out of 24. The Watership rabbits spend the second half of their story securing the land in a battle, and finding and wooing female rabbits before they can settle with them and call the place home. Lancelot sips from the Holy Grail but must spend time as a hermit, and train and live as a priest before he is allowed to see Guinevere’s face again, while he’s officiating at her funeral.

Poor Lancelot. I imagine his grizzled smile as he confides that he found honour at last at that funeral and that his quest, though testing him to the limits of his endurance, simultaneously broke and healed his poor, battered heart.

All quests end happily, one way or another. That sounds sweeping but if there is not some sort of happy resolution, the story just isn’t a quest. Could it be that the quest’s real theme is not achievement of the goal at all, whatever it is, but learning to appreciate home, honour, security, wholeness? Love?

Love creeps in surprisingly often at a quest’s end as a symbol of that wholeness, a blessing on the story’s other endeavours. Romance may have been very far from our hero’s mind but it’s part of Quest’s ancient pedigree that he is rewarded with ‘the Princess’ in return for his labours as well as everybody’s applause. (In that historic way, the questor is male in the early tales and ‘the Princess’ is handed over as a trophy whether she likes it or not. Usually, in the hands of an expert storyteller, we have been prepared for this being a love match for them both and she’s as thrilled as he is.)

That’s not the only template of course. Odysseus’s quest for home after the Trojan Wars takes credit for being one of the oldest novels in Western literature but in many ways Homer breaks the mould while he sets the standard. Odysseus’s ‘Princess’ is not some young beauty he hardly knows: she’s his wife Penelope who has been loyally waiting for him through his ten years of war and another ten years of wanderings. Did he wander by the shortest route? No, but after all his shenanigans with love goddesses and what have you, after he’s hauled his boat onto the shore and rested his eyes on his home sunset for the first time in so long,

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all Odysseus longs for is to be home in his own bed with his loving wife, and for them to grow old together. But first he has to win her again as if they were youngsters.

As I said last week, these thoughts are not flat-pack instructions or patterns for knitting identical jumpers. Take from them what works for you and go ahead, reinvent the wheel as Homer did.

Which brings me to LOVE STORIES. Love is as essential to us as food and water and what a palaver we often make of it. Next week we’ll look at how the structure of love stories has mutated over the centuries. You’ll be able to absorb the variations and make them your own.

EXERCISE

Choose your favourite quest story – page or screen – and write freely about why you like it so much. Why do those particular characters work in that story? Where does the action begin? What is the most heart-breaking moment? Does a main character undergo any change in the story or learn anything life-changing? What hooks you into it all? Why?

Happy writing!

 

PLOT – WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

In an early episode of A Game of Thrones, Old Nan says that old stories are like old friends: we need to visit them now and again.

Certain favourites keep cropping up – Beowulf, Cinderella, Perseus, Jonah, Noah, for example – stories that go back thousands of years across countless cultures. The best stories feel as if they meet a need beyond entertainment and escape, and bring us in some mysterious way a sort of psychological ‘retuning’. They bring a sense of satisfaction and wholeness.

Why study plot?

Now and again in my writing groups, somebody will say that this plot stuff doesn’t apply to them because they don’t want to write to any formula. That’s understandable – we all want our work to be fresh and original, we want it to be us. I agree that copying other people’s work has limited value if you’re already sure of your own voice and intention. Even if you haven’t.

Besides, studying plot can feel as if we’re trying to put into boxes things that shouldn’t always be in boxes. So I ask you, as I ask everyone in my writing groups, to treat this post as a bit of fun. Read it lightly and then forget it. Let it circle in your dreams along with whatever else you’ve read over the years. If you ever need anything from it, it will come to you in its own time.

For example, if your draft’s finished but there’s a vague sense of reader (or writer) dissatisfaction, or you feel that it’s somehow fallen apart and you are not sure why, you just might find a solution here…

A man walked into a bar … and found the ingredients of a good story. Good stories usually have:

  • A hero or heroine or both. Even the humblest joke has a man walking into a bar or a chicken crossing the road. Story-making starts with character, which is why character has come before plot in this blog.
  • An imaginary world: the chicken’s road, the man’s bar, Cinderella’s kitchens, the Starship Enterprise, Lizzie Bennet’s home full of sisters. Non-fiction sets out to lure readers into its world too.
  • Something that unsettles the present and has to be acted on. Mr Darcy arrives in the shire. A quiet housewife is invited to join the French Resistance. Lucy Manette must set off to Revolutionary Paris to recover her father after his release from the Bastille.
  • Now for the exciting bit: a series of conflicts, obstacles, uncertainty, thrills. The rollercoaster middle part. Non-fiction is not exempt: The Double Helix and Longitude are excellent examples. Check their sales figures if you would like proof.
  • Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood magnate who put the G into MGM, used to say, ‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis’. There is usually some sort of climax where the story’s obstacles are at their most extreme. The main character faces her biggest possible choice or test. This does not have to be an epic battle with thousands of auks – Mole, Ratty and Badger find their own challenges in a comic battle against the weasels in Toad Hall. In one of my favourite novels The Descendants, a peaceable sort of guy discovers that his dying wife was having an affair, so he tracks down his wife’s lover. Another writer might well have written a round of fisticuffs in the street. Kaui Hart Hemmings is subtler than that.
  • Somehow (more about this later) the tussles resolve into an ending and a new beginning. If things come to a sudden halt in the middle of the battlefield, readers tend to feel as if they’ve been left dangling – they long to be settled into a sense of life going forward again.

Is there such a thing as a formula for surprise? Can be. Quite often actually and I’m sure you’ll recognise this one:

  • The main character is shown in his normal world.IMG_1159 (2)
  • Something is unsatisfactory, hurting or threatening him and other people. It can be external danger or an inner dysfunction whereby the hero is doing the hurting.
  • ‘The inciting incident’: something happens that forces change. The bandits have become so dreadful that the peasants persuade the cowboy to help them and Yul Brynner sets off to find the other Magnificent Six. Mole drops his paintbrush – Hang spring cleaning’. A digger is heard in the distance, coming to destroy the rabbits’ warren. There’s no turning back.
  • The main character realises exactly what it is he wants and forms a plan to get it.
  • Forces of opposition gather (and those who help Our Hero to resist them). One obstacle can be that the main character himself refuses first of all to take up the challenge. (The ‘Call to Heroism’ was not invented in Hollywood, by the way – Homer’s Odysseus tried to avoid call-up to the Trojan War by sowing salt into his own fields, pretending he was mad. It didn’t work.)
  • The succession of conflicts ensues. The stakes rise and keep rising.
  • There’s a climactic crunch scene where the main character is forced to crack wide open. To get what he wants, he must do the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do. The emotion is overwhelming for character and readers.
  • The battle brings an epiphany to your character, an insight about what sort of person he really is. He is forced to recognise his greatest need (ta-dah, something you know about from your work with the character questionnaire). He acts on that insight …
  • The worst is past and life can return to normal. But it is a new normal, things have irreparably changed. 457587_10150986744197470_2016124434_o The character ends at a higher or lower level of fulfilment, depending on how far he’s changed and accepted the insight.

Thank you to a tutor from the Soho Theatre & Writers’ Centre for much of the detail in this template, shared many years ago on an Arvon Foundation course.

In my many years of attending writing courses here and there, I have come across many of these formulae. There’s usually something useful in each one. I have no interest in taking you through the Hollywood screenwriters’ usual five-act structure with this particular encounter required on page 13 or that on page 42. If that appeals to you, I wish you well with it but this blog is about novels and novelists are freer. We can take the best from all these options and make them our own.

This last one, I will call the problem-solving formula – I came across it on a course many years ago about writing for children:

  • life is unhappy for the main child character and/or other people;
  • the main difficulty gets worse and worse;
  • until we reach (the tutor called it this, I kid you not) the ‘plateau of awfulness’;
  • this goes on until everybody’s in tears and it all looks hopeless;
  • somehow the main child character (nobody else) solves the problem from her/his own resources;
  • everybody’s happy and grateful.

This problem-solving formula has the virtue of simplicity – you can develop it any way you like. It’s the backbone of children’s classics from Animal Farm and Black Beauty to the adult worlds of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Does it fit any of your favourites?

It always unnerves me when people start taking written notes in my sessions because this is not about studying or taking tests. It’s about developing a feel for the shape of a powerful story arc, for who drives the story forward, about pace and stakes, and how a story comes to a close. Read plenty, short stories and long, think critically about what you’re reading and feel how these templates described here might have a part to play for you.

These lists are no more than the scribbled drawing to guide paint onto the canvas, the invisible armature that supports the clay while a sculpture is being made, or a shoe’s last or mould.

EXERCISE – 10 minutes

To save you from feeling that too much analysis is going on, choose one of your favourite themes: love, death, fear, life, happiness, sadness, joy, grief, birth, greed, peace etc. Treat yourself to ten minutes of free writing about what it means to you, utterly privately, just for you. You can imagine you’re chatting with one of your characters about it if you like, or just let rip. For as long as you want.

Between now and the spring, we will look at a series of classic plot structures – love stories, thrillers, rags to riches, rite of passage, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, and epics – starting next week with one of the oldest of all, the quest.

Have a happy writing and reading week!

 

Happy New Year! What’s coming up next?

Happy New Year to you all and thank you for dropping by, so often and in such numbers. As well as happiness for you and your loved ones, I wish you all a productive, successful writing year. If, by next January, you have a regular writing practice and know roughly where your writing is heading, you will have achieved a lot. That may not sound like a lot but, believe me, it is.

Usually with my writing groups, our second term (in a sort of academic year) is about plot. It’s my favourite: we get to sit around telling each other our favourite stories and chatting about books that have stayed with us through a lifetime.

Usually whenever people look for writing advice, they’re after hints on writing dialogue, show and tell, point of view, that sort of thing. The Box of Tricks. Should I change my usual tilt and go for that now? Then, this morning, I read this.

Storytelling is not about cheap tricks and formulaic writing. It is one of our oldest and most valuable crafts. Character interests us readers first. Plot keeps us engrossed until we reach that fantastic combination of inevitability, surprise and bittersweet longing for more that is a perfect ending. It’s not about writing to a tired formula – I am all for you reinventing the wheel as often and thoroughly as you can, go for it! But if your story has hit buffers and you’re not sure why, then thinking about what has worked in the greatest stories of all time can help.

So, the Box of Tricks is going to wait. We’ll start by looking at the oldest classic plot in the book: Quest. See you here on Sunday!