How to make heroes and heroines from stuff there on your desk

The oldest plot of all could be the one where a monster torments everybody until someone steps from the crowd, faces up to the monster in an unfair fight and slays it.

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Anonymous painting of St George with his dragon from the British Library, end 14th century.

The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia is thought to be the oldest written story we have, possibly around 4,000 years old: our first great work of literature. For today we’ll leave academics to wrestle with exactly how old various versions of it are – let’s head straight for the meat of the story.

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk (about 30 km east of Samawah in modern Iraq) and, lucky guy, he’s two-thirds god and one-third man. He is too proud to listen to the gods though and enjoys his power a bit too much, especially ‘droit de seigneur’ or a lord’s right to sleep with every new bride on her wedding night before her husband gets a look in. Gilgamesh’s people call to the gods for help.

In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens showed droit de seigneur inflaming French peasants to Revolution in 1789. (There’s an interesting post about jus primae noctis or ‘right of first night’ here.) The Sumerian gods’ solution is not a guillotine in the centre of town; they send a primitive ‘wild man’ called Enkidu to live alongside Gilgamesh as his equal and bring him into line. As soon as Enkidu finds out that Gilgamesh is about to interfere in another wedding night, he sets off to teach Gilgamesh some manners and the two of them wind up in a fight. Neither wins. Instead they become friends.

EXERCISE

What an extraordinary fight scene: the toff, bent on what he thinks is his right, against the wild man brought up among animals, who knows better. What style of fighting do they each have? How does the dialogue pan out? Have a go at writing it – fight scenes are about character and dialogue much more than violence. The characters, time, context and outcome are up to you.

Gilgamesh cannot go on as he did. He needs to make a heroic name for himself somehow and hits on the idea of slaying a rude and horrible monster in the Cedar Forest called Humbaba. Enkidu hates the idea of more violence but has to follow. With the help of the gods – all very exciting – they win and bring the monster’s head home in triumph.

In Tablet Six the friends wind up tangling with Gugalanna next, the Bull of Heaven, through no fault of their own. They win and save the city, without divine help this time, and everyone is celebrating. But Enkidu foretells his own death, seen as some sort of payment to the gods for all this slaughter, and Gilgamesh is bereft.

Tablet Nine sees Gilgamesh living in the wild, dressed in animal skins as Enkidu was before they met, sharply aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend. The only cure for his grief, he thinks, is to know the secret of eternal life so he sets off on an epic quest, involving gods and many miles of dangerous terrain, until eventually Gilgamesh has his great insight. He learns that to fight human death is pointless – our happiness lies in relishing each fleeting moment of life. Our greatest joys – sharing food with loved ones, walking hand in hand with a cherished child, enjoying sensual love with a beloved – all derive from our mortality.

The poem is too long and eventful to cover all of it here. Have fun with your research if it appeals to you. Enough to say that Gilgamesh, a demi-god but all too human, slays monsters alongside his dear friend and learns humility on his way to winning the most precious wisdom of all, the richness of life.

Incidentally, a literary Indiana Jones hovers on the edge of our story by the humble name of George Smith. He’s an Englishman who rediscovered The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872. As far as I know, no-one has written his story yet.

EXERCISE

How many fairy stories can you think of where a monster is killed to resolve the story? Little Red Riding Hood? Jack and the Beanstalk? Hansel and Gretel? Any others? Choose one and write it in the high, heroic style of an ancient epic poem, just for fun. Or write it set in today’s world if you’d rather. See where it takes you.

Let’s move now to Europe around a thousand years later and the story of Beowulf. Though written in Old English, our hero Beowulf (who happens to be Swedish) is helping out Hrothgar, king of the Danes, by slaying a monster called Grendel and its vengeful mother. This wonderful epic poem dates from anywhere between 700 and 1000 AD (again we’ll leave tussles about the precise date to the academics) but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the poem was recognised as a major work of European literature. Until then, it had been the preserve of academic historians (though there is no evidence of a historical Beowulf) looking to study Scandinavian kings and place geographical boundaries. Then in the 1920s an Oxford don, none other than JRR Tolkien, had a look and the story took hold of him. He realised that here was a beautifully constructed story written with balance and passion. It was not an historical document like the Domesday Book or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was a poem.

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Why does this matter to us? Because historians had dismissed the monsters in the story as irrelevant; nobody knew better than Tolkien (a survivor of the Battle of the Somme, busy writing The Lord of the Rings) that the monsters were central to a magnificent Slaying the Monsters tale.

He made his point unforgettably in his 1936 Oxford lecture The Monsters and the Critics and Beowulf has been vital to Western literature ever since.

What was Beowulf’s story?

  • The poem starts by establishing Beowulf among his own people, the Geats in southern Sweden.
  • We join the Danes where King Hrothgar is having a marvellous new mead-hall built. But a monster has been ravaging the area for years, stealing and eating the young people each night.
  • Beowulf sets off to help with 14 of his warriors.
  • A moment of realism: as soon as he arrives, he has to explain himself to the locals or they’ll kill him.
  • He’s allowed to go to the mead-hall and explain himself again.
  • Up go the stakes as locals swap horror stories about the appalling monster, Grendel. Everything they have tried has failed.
  • Everyone agrees that single combat between Grendel and this fresh-faced Dane called Beowulf would be a good thing. Beowulf and his warriors stay in the mead-hall overnight …
  • I love this moment: Beowulf takes off his armour because the monster would have no skill against it and he must fight a fair fight!
  • Grendel slips in and eats his first warrior, even the hands and feet.
  • It’s time for the Big Fight we’ve been waiting for.
  • Beowulf and his warriors win and nail the monster’s severed arm and claw to the wall as a trophy.
  • It’s time to relax and have a party.
  • Who’s that knocking at the door? In fact, who’s knocking her way straight in? Grendel’s mother has come for revenge.
  • Beowulf has to follow her to her lair at the bottom of a swamp to fight her. No concessions this time, he keeps his armour but her toxic blood melts his sword.
  • After a colossal fight, Beowulf and his lads win and head back to the mead-hall in triumph, laden with the monster mother’s treasure.
  • After big celebrations, Beowulf and his Geats go home where Beowulf becomes king of his own tribe for fifty years.
  • Here is the story’s second part that Tolkien believed balanced the first part so beautifully: a dragon sweeps the land, Beowulf fights it in single combat but this time he’s an old man and is mortally wounded in the tussle. I can’t help wondering if this later dragon could be an image for plague or another illness, fought with heroic courage by a king so loved that to say he died in bed would be unfitting.

What Tolkien saw was that Beowulf’s story fits our basic plot arc beautifully:

Situation of appalling danger – call to heroism – inciting incident – series of mounting difficulties – crises/ battles rising to the final battle – resolution – the new future.

What else does this plot remind us of?

Theseus and Perseus? David and Goliath? Tristan and the Moorholt? Can you think of any others? It’s no coincidence that The Slaying the Monster plot has thrived in human imagination since our most ancient cultures; the more dangerous life is, the more communities cling to these stories. We are always free to play with classic structures in any way we like but it’s useful to see how this most ancients of plots has served storytellers for at least four thousand years.

Since the 19th century, it has enjoyed developing all kinds of subtleties in what feels like an almost complete takeover of the fiction world. Dracula by Bram Stoker brings us one of the most hideous monsters but one who can be beguiling and almost sympathetic. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley pulls off the extraordinary trick of rendering her monster both hideously cruel and a victim of circumstances beyond his control. In RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we have the beginnings of examination of the monster within us.

Like Beowulf, Sherlock Holmes and Watson travel to track down monsters/murderers and remove dangers to society. Parallels between Jack the Ripper and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde did not escape readers.

Many war stories (where the bad guys never bother us again), James Bond, Westerns, superheroes and sci-fi – yes, Star Wars too – all share this Slaying the Monster template including, most common of all, thrillers. Which just goes to show how flexible and useful it is, how much potential there is for you to play with.

Is it only men who slay monsters? Of course not. From warriors like the Iceni Queen Boudicca who fought the Romans and Jeanne d’Arc to Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Erin Brockovich and the #metoo movement, women have courageously spoken truth to power on all kinds of battlefields. In fiction they range through Katniss Everdene (The Hunger Games) through Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, Lucy in Narnia, Mathilda and the Trunchbull and of course Wonderwoman.

A Gender in Fiction study published its results recently, showing that women were more fairly represented in novels in the 19th century than they are now. There are so many heroine stories waiting to be written and plenty of people of all kinds waiting to read them.

Whatever you write – happy writing.

What does Maisie know about Rite of Passage stories?

Let’s start with a bit of light anthropology.

Rites of passage are community rituals that mark an individual’s progress from one stage of life to another. They can involve an ordeal of some kind designed to test the individual to the limit and communities have always had them. Once through the test, the newcomer is welcomed into the community where everyone shares a renewed sense of courage and togetherness. You can see this in initiation ceremonies into school groups and gangs, and in military services worldwide. It can make sense to test the limits of someone’s courage when your own life or that of the community could depend on it.

But a rite of passage is not always about risking life. Confirmation, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations all give family and community a chance to get together with food and dancing to bless the new development. There are plenty of less formal rites too, like a new uniform on moving up to Big School, or a stag party.

IMG_0949Each of these rites makes a statement of solidarity. It’s about joining and acceptance. Rite of Passage fiction, on the other hand, can be about resistance to blending in. It is where individuals courageously discover their own singular worth and destiny, possibly at odds with society around them.

Do I mean Coming of Age stories?

Who occurs to you whenever you think of a rite of passage story? Do you think of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or the boy in the film Shane? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Ralph in Lord of the Flies? Some young man moving from youth to manhood? Actually, anybody can feature in a Rite of Passage story, whatever their age and gender. Maisie, for example.

What Maisie Knew

Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897. Maisie is ten years old when her parents divorce and they are granted alternate custody of her for six months each. James says in his own preface: ‘The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.’ He’s rather betrayed himself in talking about the child as ‘it’ but never mind. Her parents are ghastly, unreliable and useless. Regardless of what Maisie wants or needs, they both remarry pretty quickly, as much to spite each other as anything else. Maisie’s parents continue to suit their selfish selves, leaving their gorgeous new spouses to fall in love with each other.

Where does Maisie fit in all this?

In the (otherwise excellent) 2012 film Maisie chooses to live with the beautiful, loving young couple who used to be married to her parents. In James’ novel, crucially Maisie considers this option and rejects it. Her experience is that adult relationships don’t work and she’s not going to trust this new one either. Instead she decides to spend her future with the only constant person in her life: her nanny – not the most beautiful person in the world but utterly good-hearted and steady – called Mrs Wix. It is a brave choice for the little girl to make and James describes it tenderly as Maisie’s ‘great moment’.

Here is the essence of a Rite of Passage novel: having been pushed to the limit, the character has a ‘great moment’ of realisation of what she or he most fundamentally needs – and finds the courage to act on it. Hurray for Maisie! 

IMG_E0087What are the ingredients of Rite of Passage stories?

Many of the well-known Rite of Passage stories tend to follow the classic story arc, the one that goes: Problem – obstacles – increasing stakes and crisis – battle – insight / epiphany – resolution from the main character’s own inner resources – aftermath leading to the new future.

My usual caveat, by the way: I have no interest in tying you to any formula. Forget what you’ve just read, whatever you need from it will come to you as you write. The shape of your story is up to you.

What makes it a Rite of Passage tale?

The theme. Your main character is on a journey of potentially revolutionary self-discovery at the deepest level:

  • Who is your character really?  What kind of person will they choose to be?
  • Is this the kind of life they need or will they be better off somewhere else?
  • Do they have the courage to make the move?
  • Will the character’s views of that original community of theirs ever be heard?

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) is a classic tale of conformity versus vocation, Rite of Passage and escape. (With elements in common with Jo’s story in Alcott’s Little Women.) The novel was rejected many times until the publisher William Blackwood declared it to be the first great Australian novel with (feminism aside) magnificent descriptions of the outback. William Golding also suffered many rejections of Lord of the Flies. These novels were saying the unsayable and had a tough time gaining acceptance.

Another difference from other stories is the frequency of unhappy endings. In Lord of the Flies, a naval officer arrives and removes the surviving boys to safety and we have no sense that anyone has learned anything except (in Golding’s words) ‘the darkness of man’s heart’. Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) discovers loving happiness in being with his little sister but the novel hints at a difficult future for him and does not resolve his sense of being an outsider. Salinger’s brilliance lies not just in the honest, first person style but the sly exploration of whether it’s Holden or the conformist society around him that is deranged.

Let’s take a moment to distinguish survival stories:

In a survival story, darkness descends on the main character and has to be suffered until the character is rescued or finds a way to escape. There is no sense that the character deserved or needed this experience.

In a Rite of Passage story, the dark experiences are the making of the main character and provoke the necessary decision about the future that they would not otherwise have had the strength or opportunity to make.

Anybody who endures a horrifying experience learns in the course of it. But in Twelve Years A Slave, for example, no-one would allege that Solomon or any of the other slaves needed to endure what they did to become more fully themselves.

Lord of the Flies is often held up as classic Rite of Passage but I feel that it’s actually a survival story. Ralph learns more on the island than anyone his age should know but he does not need the appalling sequence of events to become more fully himself. He remains the fundamentally decent man he was when he first put the conch to his lips.

You may well feel differently. I’m not laying down rules, just throwing up thoughts for you to consider while you work out where you draft might benefit from a little help here or there.

EXERCISES

  • What are your favourite Rite of Passage stories?
  • Why?
  • What sets them apart from other similar stories for you? Is it the character(s), the story arc and how it resolves?
  • Is the location important? Why?
  • Is there anything about this story type that rankles with you? Can you give an example or two of what put you off? And work out why?
  • Think of a couple of fictional characters, maybe from the novel you’re writing, and sketch out Rite of Passage stories based on their lives. Think about what the crisis scenes would be and where they would fit together.

Happy writing! Next week, we’ll be Overcoming the Monster.

 

Thank you, Loose Muse in Winchester

Monday evening’s event in Winchester’s Discovery Centre (aka public library) was excellent fun – thank you to everyone who turned out on a chilly evening and especially to Sue Wrinch who organises Loose Muse so deftly. It was an honour for me to hear the wonderful open mic readers and to read alongside Jacqueline Saphra whose poetry I admire so much.

Sue Wrinch writes up the evening here.

IMG_1840Because of the weather, I stayed the night in Winchester and spent Monday afternoon, as far as I could, in the company of Jane Austen who came to Winchester for urgent medical attention in her last days and died in College Street. She was 41 years old.

Thanks to her brother Henry’s connections, she was buried in the cathedral. She lies among bishops, soldiers and other powerful members of the community, one of precious few women. Like the other women, her floor plaque describes her by reference to her family men.

IMG_E1835Henry Austen has been criticised for not mentioning her writing in that first memorial of hers but, standing there, I realised that he was probably guilty only of conformity in emphasising her sweet character instead. Who knows what pressure he was under from powers that be in the cathedral who felt they had conceded enough in allowing a woman to be buried there at all? Anyway, it wasn’t long before a second memorial was added – if you look up from the floor to the outer wall, you’ll find a pretty brass plaque – and for a third to follow in the form of a stained-glass window describing St Augustine as … St Austin.

I’ve been a fan of Jane Austen since my teens when it was common for men as well as women to list her among their top five writers. She teaches us writers several things:

Not to throw away our early writings. Most of what we read by Austen was written in her twenties and, crucially, rewritten in her mid to late 30s.

We won’t always be in the right place and circumstances to write. While Jane and the family lived in Bath, apparently she wrote nothing. The move to Chawton (sixteen miles outside Winchester) loosened the burst of writing and rewriting that was so sadly cut short by her final illness.

Do keep going and relish every scrap of encouragement, wherever it comes from.

Happy writing.

THRILLED TO BITS – WHAT CAN CRIME THRILLERS TEACH US?

One of the greatest fiction genres of the twentieth century is the thriller (crime fiction) and there seems to be no sign of it slowing in its development or appeal. From a new writer’s point of view, it’s attractive because agents know what they’re getting, publishers know how to market a thriller and book shops know which section of the shelves to stock it. These things can make all the difference to a writing career.

EXERCISES

  • Take a moment to think about your favourite thriller if you have one. Why do you like it? What are your favourite moments in that book? Why not read it again, making notes? It won’t be wasted time.
  • Describe your favourite villain, dead or alive, real or fictional in a scribble-portrait for five or ten minutes. What do you enjoy about that character? What hooks you in?
  • What’s your favourite resolution or twist in any thriller? Why? How does it make you feel?
  • Why do you think we like thrillers?
  • Conversely, what do you dislike about thrillers? What puts you off most? Why do you think that is?

Let yourself free-write around this for a while, over several days if you like.

The fact is that, love or leave them, thrillers are perennially popular. Why?

  • They are often accessible page-turners. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, they can teach any fiction writer a lot about keeping readers hooked in.
  • They bring us into a world where order and justice are valued.
  • The outcome usually feels safe and moral. For a few moments at least, our world feels like a better place.
  • There are thrills and cliff-hangers along the way of course in a series of logical, though tantalising steps; we love all that. In the hands of a good author, we are in for escapism and plenty of safe thrills.

How real is Thrillerland?

EXERCISE

Have you ever had news that someone close to you has passed away? Please pass by this exercise if you need to but if you can bear it, take ten minutes or so to describe your feelings and actions at that time. Include dialogue if you’d like to. Go as deep as you want but stop any time you become uncomfortable with going into the past in this way.

Compare what you’ve written with how this is portrayed on television and film. Try giving yourself another ten minutes to pot-hole around this subject, the reality versus the conventions that we accept.

Above all, we are after emotional truth in whatever we write. These exercises will help you become alert to clichés and make your fiction stronger.

When was the first thriller?

The Bible is a great source of stories and there in the Apocrypha are two ‘thrillers’, written in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC:

Susanna is an attractive lass. On her way home, she’s accosted by two elders who say they’ve seen her having sex with a young man. They threaten to ruin her reputation by spreading the story unles she agreed to have sex with both elders. Their story is not true so Susanna calls them liars and tells them to go away and leave her alone. In no time, they have told everyone their lie and she is distraught. What can she do?

A young man called Daniel (destined for later fame) intervenes. He sets about interrogating the two elders about what they say they witnessed. She’s supposed to have been with a young man under a tree – what kind of tree? Exactly where? The elders give conflicting answers and hey presto, their lies are exposed. Susanna is free, and they’re not.

Young David (also destined for later greatness) is trying to persuade the priests of the god Baal that his mighty God is superior. The priests show David the mounds of offerings brought daily to their temple, all of which vanish in the night, leaving room for more the next day. Surely if Baal did not exist, this daily miracle could not happen so David must abandon his own God and see the error of his ways. David spends a night in the Temple of Baal. Before he settles for bed, he dusts ash over the floor around the altar laden with offerings. He prays, lies down and has an excellent night’s sleep. In the morning, the offerings have disappeared and … the ash reveals a host of footsteps belonging to the priests and their families, nipping in to help themselves. Problem solved and again the story proves that no-one is above justice.

Credit for the first modern detective story goes to Edgar Allan Poe whose Murders on the Rue Morgue was published in 1841. A pair of bloodthirsty murders seem to be unsolvable until the detective cracks it: the culprit is an escaped orang-utang, not human after all.

The story was immediately greeted as having invented an important new genre: the detective story had arrived. Despite Poe telling us that teeth marks at the scene of the crime couldn’t possibly fit any human, and that hairs couldn’t possibly be human either, readers complained that the ending was too much of a surprise. However, many of the now familiar tropes of the detective novel were firmly in place: a genius detective runs rings around the police and has his story narrated by his nice, dependable side-kick. Remind you of anyone?

Arthur Conan Doyle was a young medic at the time, which gave him useful insight into human anatomy and murder clues. He wrote sixty stories about Holmes and Watson, the first published in The Strand magazine illustrated by Sidney Paget. I love Watson’s body language in Paget’s drawing below.

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Thanks to film and television, the Holmes and Watson magic continues to thrive.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) brought a turning point in the well-made detective novel – the detective is a police sergeant this time. Dickens, never one to leave a good plot line unturned, left The Mystery Of Edwin Drood sadly unfinished when he died.

By the time the twentieth century was well under way, so was the thriller. In cinema Hitchcock was the master of suspense and spilled blood. On the page Agatha Christie led the field in the UK, Raymond Chandler in the States.

Ingredients of the perfect thriller

  • An initial puzzle, usually an unexplained corpse. Death means high stakes.
  • An all-knowing, quirky detective. He or she needn’t be officially police, in fact the more ordinary he or she is, the more we empathise.
  • A nice steady side-kick to be the reliable narrator and safe company for readers through the rollercoaster ride.
  • A lovely location always helps. In the UK locations range from Oxford to the Shetland Isles. Is where you live asking for the thriller treatment?
  • There’s the usual pattern of tension and release as the stakes rise. Serial murders – are they linked or not? – increase danger to the community.
  • A red herring or two helps stretch the story and raise the stakes: an innocent person is accused until the detective works out the truth. Unless he’s the detective in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap where (spoiler alert) he is the one who winds up in handcuffs. Which brings us to
  • The twist! The murderer is the last person we’d suspected but of course …

What makes thrillers different from other plots?

  • The hero/ine who solves the problem is not usually part of the main story. Though they can be affected by what they’ve experienced, they usually live to detect another day.
  • The puzzle story can be another type of plot altogether eg. Ghost story, quest, love story, revenge etc.
  • Murder happens in all sorts of stories, from The Orestia to Jack and the Beanstalk, without any puzzle about whodunit or whydunit. Thrillers are about solving the puzzle.
  • Although murder is high on the list of thoroughly antisocial crimes, the simplest thrillers do not go in much for moral discussion or debate about how society should respond. Usually murder just happens. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The beauty of the thriller structure is that it’s linear and beautifully straightforward. And you can pack in around that anything you like.

Where does Oedipus Rex come in?

I’ve said that Miss Marple and her crew are usually not part of the main story. The exceptions are psychological murder tales where the guilt is not in doubt; the puzzle is why murder happened. In these stories the murderer can be the narrator, a trick that is fertile ground for twists.

But the complex psychological thriller with the perpetrator as protagonist is far from new. Oedipus was given the job of finding out who killed King Laius and discovered to his and everyone’s horror that, not only was he the murderer himself but that the king was his own father. Two things about this are relevant to us:

  • Sophocles’ play was full of debate about the implications for the society of what Oedipus had done. How far should Oedipus take the blame when the Sphinx had prophesied, when Oedipus was a boy, that his destiny was to kill his own father and marry his mother and everyone had gone to considerable lengths to make both geographically and in every other way impossible? This beautiful picture of young Oedipus with the Sphinx comes from a kylix or drinking cup, c. 470 BCE, in the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican.

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  • Was Oedipus Rex perhaps the first ever thriller where the investigator is guilty of the crime? Who knows? Very few stories are new under the sun and Oedipus did not stop Agatha Christie giving us The Mousetrap (where the detective is the murderer) which has run as a play in London for 66 years and 27,000 performances so far.

Where Christie leads, we can follow. Let any of these great stories inspire you in whatever way works best, not forgetting the words of Val McDermid:

The contemporary crime novel is, at its best, a novel of character. That’s where the suspense comes from.’

Have a happy writing week!

Rags to riches

Do you know anyone who has started out in life with nothing very much and has managed to get rich? Someone you were at school with perhaps, or a member of your family? Take five or ten minutes to write a character sketch of that person. Compare how that person was before and how they are now. Look at changes in your relationship and how you feel about them. Be as personal as you like and keep to the truth of what you see and feel. It’s private, they’ll never see it.

Then take five minutes to write freely and privately about your own greatest desire. Make it something attainable at a push – not world peace, however lovely that would be – and something that would fulfil you. Expand on it to your heart’s content: what steps could you take to get it, how would you feel when you have it, how would people react to you then, why is it important to you etc. Go as deep into your emotions as you dare, and it doesn’t have to be pretty …

What is a Rags to Riches story?

The Rags to Riches plot is probably the one we hear earliest in our lives, long before we reach school. Some of the old folk tales go back a long way: Puss in Boots dates from 1729, Dick Whittington from 1605, Aladdin is 8th century (1001 Nights), and Cinderella is thought now to originate maybe 3000 years ago. Like the best plots, it runs through the core of both Testaments of the Bible and inhabits cultures everywhere. Like so many folk tales, the English story of King Arthur made the transition to Disney in The Sword in the Stone (1938 by English writer TH White), for example, where a humble little lad slips a big sword from where it’s embedded in a rock and goes on to rule as king.

Once we learn to read for ourselves, the horizon expands enormously. Dickens loved the Rags and Riches story and came back to it time and again, not least in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. On the romantic side, Cinderella develops into a thousand stories from The Great Gatsby and Gone with the Wind to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

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EXERCISE

Take a few minutes to list your own favourite Rags to Riches stories – novels, plays, films, it doesn’t matter – and make a list of your best-loved moments in them. Steep yourself in each of those moments in turn and write privately for yourself about what you think makes them work:

  • What resonates most about each moment with you?
  • Take time to examine how the moment makes you feel, on first reading and now.
  • How did the writer prepare for each moment and build towards it?
  • What feelings and expectations were conjured? Can you see how those feelings and expectations were built?
  • What temperature (stakes-wise) and tone were in the writing before and after these moments?
  • And how did the writer lead readers away from it afterwards?
  • What followed? What did you feel about that? Why?

Whenever you study a favourite novel, don’t be afraid – after your first reading for sheer enjoyment – to break it down into its smallest parts. Examine each paragraph, each line of dialogue, each half-line introducing a new character into a scene, each time a new relationship is set up – and study your responses to each part as much as to the whole. Civilians (non-writers) think our stories fall onto our pages and screens ready minted, perfect but it’s not true. Each line is worked and tussled with. So try and work out why great writers chose the elements they did, in that order. Martin Amis likened writing to playing snooker, getting a feel for the best angle and pressure of striking a ball to fire it into the pocket. There’s no need to copy or steal – just absorb from this sort of close study and what you need will come to you when the time is right.

The Dark Side

If you Google ‘Rags to Riches’, you’ll find lists of real people who have come from very humble beginnings to set up and run some of the biggest corporations in the world. This is no coincidence. Something about their early poverty drives them, as it drove Dickens. The real story is not always pretty and the Rags to Riches plot has an underside. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is the best example: thwarted in love, he sets out to bully, conquer and humiliate everyone around him financially and personally until he has created widespread misery and great loneliness for himself.

EXERCISE

Wuthering Heights is more a revenge tragedy than a love story: discuss.

Clever old Dickens shows Ebenezer Scrooge how much more there is to life than money in A Christmas Carol, one of the wittiest stories ever written.

The mother and father of all Rags to Riches stories is …

The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thomas Hardy brings it full circle: his hero Michael Henchard works his way up from being a homeless agricultural worker to commercial success and honour as Mayor, then back to poverty and drunken ignominy, breaking all our hearts in the process.

Ingredients of the Rags to Riches story:

  • We first meet the main character in childhood (or near it), poor, mistreated, forlorn etc.
  • Bullies surround the character – ugly sisters and the like, adults as well as her peers. These bullies are hard-hearted and have control of the situation which seems hopeless as far as our hero/ine is concerned. Charlotte Bronte does this brilliantly from the first page of Jane Eyre.
  • Escape is due and impossible to resist.
  • In the wide world, the hero/ine undergoes a series of tests that develop and reveal your character’s character and strength. This character is destined for a great future.
  • Like the Quest, Rags to Riches may well have a romantic subplot so that love can become the prize for other endeavours (eg Aladdin’s love for his princess).
  • About half way through the story, there is usually a major setback. Everything seems to be progressing nicely (Jane Eyre is at the altar with Rochester, Aladdin is in love with his princess and has the lamp firmly in his grip, David Copperfield is happily married to his beloved Dora) when the main character suffers an overwhelming reversal of fortune.
  • She or he must then build life afresh by their own human endeavours. No more magic or charms, no more Fairy Godmothers, they have to discover their own resources, thereby proving that they are worthy of their wealth. (Cinderella pushes forward, regardless of mockery, to claim her chance to try the golden slipper.)
  • The usual series of obstacles continues in the familiar pattern of tension and release through ever-rising stakes until
  • The final crisis brings our brave central character forward as the victor, now in charge … in place of the baddies and their crew.
  • Marriage to the beloved prince/ess crowns everyone’s happiness. All are set fair for a deservedly happy future.

As Miss Prism tells us, in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’ For some of us anyway – you can reinvent the wheel with your story while keeping a weather eye on how the old skills can help.

So can these various plot structures overlap?

You’ve spotted that Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are love stories combined with Rags to Riches. That A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with strong elements of Rags to Riches. Studying these plots is not, as I said, an exercise in putting things in boxes and keeping them there. We’re looking at the strongest classic plot lines to see if they can help your story.

By now you have a feel for story arc, for the mid-way catastrophe, for that sense of repeated tension and release through the obstacle-course middle section, for the pitch and placing of the climactic battle and its resolution, and taking time at the end to give a sense of life going forward again for your main characters in their hard-won new world. These are not cheap tricks; they have been part of story-telling’s craft for thousands of years at every level of sophistication.

The Ugly Duckling

The Rags to Riches story in its purest form is probably Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling (1844). This story took him a year to write. Please take the time to read that sentence again. It was the first of his stories not to be designated as written for children and it told something of his personal story. Andersen believed that he was of royal lineage, from the wrong side of the blanket, so his choice of the heraldic swan was deliberate. That did not stop people of all kinds everywhere relating to the story which became an immediate success.

The traditional Rags to Riches elements are there:

  • The young fledgling is tormented for being different from his family and community. He’s ugly and ungainly and everyone mocks him and leaves him out.
  • Wherever he goes, he’s bullied and belittled.
  • He feels isolated and desperate. Things go from bad to worse as he tries to escape.
  • He is on the verge of ending his life when he sees a flock of swans. Oh to have their elegance, their beauty.
  • The swans greet him as one of their own. He sees himself for the first time as what he really is, a swan, and swims off with the swans to new happiness.

There are no magic spells in this story. No Fairy Godmother transforms or dresses him. It is all about inner beauty getting its due. We long for that sort of justice and look to fiction to comfort us when it seems to be a rare thing in real life.

Justice is also part of the appeal of a good thriller … and next time we’ll take a look at the classic thriller plot.

Have a happy writing week!