THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

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Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

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By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

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This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!

Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

DIALOGUE 3: SUBTEXT AND LYING

SUBTEXT

John Mortimer said that translating opera libretti felt strange because they used subtext so little. Each aria is like a pop song where a character’s true feelings come pouring out, usually to let the audience know something important that can’t be said to the other characters.

Subtext is about things that are felt but not said. Things we keep to ourselves.

EXERCISES

  • Write a scene where one character wants something but can’t say so, and the other is unaware of it. If you already have one in your draft, have another go at it from scratch, bringing in what you learned last week about writing dialogue.
  • Write monologues for a scene where one character wants something but doesn’t say, and the other character is aware of it. They can be people who live together or work together, or would like to.

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FIND OUT THE TRUTH

A way to find the truth of what your character is, or is not, saying is in writing practice monologues for them before you start your drafting. It can feel circuitous when you long to get stuck into the real writing but it’s actually a short cut that can bypass several drafts for you. (I learned this trick from studying drama writing.) Take a few minutes, before you start into your chapter, to spend time with each of your characters and ask how they’re feeling just before the action in your chapter begins. Write down everything they tell you – in the usual scribble-chat way – for at least ten minutes and let them surprise you. When the writing begins to take on a life of its own, keep going as long as you can.

Have you planned an ending for the chapter? Write a monologue like this for each character just after your ending too. It will deepen the emotional truth of your writing and turn up plot solutions you may not have dreamt of.

The thing about good writing is that it’s a bit like what Tim Minchin said about happiness: the more you examine it, try to hunt it down, the more elusive it will be. Try listening to your characters in this way and see what turns up.

 

Go through the monos you’ve written and highlight the best lines, the ones that stand out. Those can be valuable lines of dialogue right from the heart.  

Some characters have more forthcoming personalities than others. And sometimes even the most open people want to keep certain things to themselves. Have a scribble-chat with each of your characters about where they are about all this. Let them tell you what they would never tell anyone else in the world. There is the heart of that character. Your reader will sense it and want to know, eventually, what it is. Even if you didn’t think it was important to your story, it probably is.

LYING

We all do it, of course we do, we adjust the truth now and again to make ourselves look and feel better, or get out of a tight spot. Some are more successful at it than others and it’s a rare few who resist lying at all.

HOW DO WE LIE?

  • In what we say,
  • and do not say. Silence can be a lie too.
  • What we do. Body language is a very useful writer’s tool, often more truthful than words but it can lie too, Judas’ kiss being a perfect example.
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  • Like silence, absence can give a false impression.
  • Expert liars often have badges of excellence to give them a look of reliability or worthiness. Sadly, their sheep’s clothing can include charity work, hospitality, offers of help and positions of social authority. It doesn’t stop them being liars.

Lies have their own story arc. They change the future as well as the past. So it’s a good idea to plot your characters’ significant whoppers to keep track:

  • When is the reader first aware that a character is lying?
  • When are the lies found out? What is the very best place for that discovery to happen, in the best interests of your story’s stakes?
  • There are many plot devices for revealing truths, ranging from emails sent to the wrong person to phones falling into the wrong hands.
  • What do other characters’ reactions to lies reveal, discovered and not?

Lies are at the heart of all our interactions. Sometimes ‘white lies’ gently smooth our interactions; other lies can be profound and disruptive betrayals.

  • Who are your favourite liars in fiction and in reality?
  • How do they get away with it, if they do?
  • How do they pull off the trick of being known liars but still likable/lovable, if they do?
  • How do you feel when you discover that someone you rely on has lied to you?
  • Have you ever told a lie and not regretted it? How do you feel about that?
  • Have you ever told an important lie and not been found out? How do you feel about it?
  • Which of the characters you are currently writing tells most lies? Why? How do the other characters react?

Your scribbles about this should perhaps hit the shredder afterwards but it’s worth taking time to work out how you feel about such a big part of human life, and how it affects your characters.

Happy writing!

Dialogue – how to keep it real

What does dialogue do for your novel or story?

  • It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
  • It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
  • Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
  • You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. IMG_2214The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
  • Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
  • Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
  • Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
  • You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
  • Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.

How close is written dialogue to real conversation?

In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.

The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.

If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.

If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.

DIALOGUE & CHARACTER

What is revealed in the way we speak?

  • Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
  • Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
  • Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
  • Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
  • Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).

Each character also arrives in every scene with:

  • Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
  • Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
  • Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.

EXERCISE 1

Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …

For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.

EXERCISE 2

Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.

Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.

Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.

EXERCISE 3

People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!

Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.

First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.

The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.

There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.

The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.

EXERCISE 4

  • Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
  • Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
  • Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
  • Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
  • Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
  • Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879 IMG_2210
  • Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.

See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.

Happy writing!

 

 

Ten top storytelling tips from Homer

Last night Achilles and Hector were duelling it out again on British television. Achilles’ roar was as alive as ever. What is it about Homer’s storytelling that makes it work so well after nearly three thousand years? Can we bottle it and have some?

This week let’s look at The Odyssey, a work that has been recast and rewritten maybe more than any other in human history. What can we learn?

  1. It’s a perfect quest

The quest is the simplest plot structure of all. Your main character wants and needs something urgently and goes to the ends of the earth to get it.

After ten years, the Trojan war is over and Odysseus can finally set off for home. He didn’t want to be at war in the first place: when Menelaus came gathering all the other Greek kings for support, Odysseus’s young wife Penelope had just given birth to a son, Telemachus, so ‘wily’ Odysseus pretended to be mad to escape the call-up and sowed salt into his fields. It didn’t work. Menelaus knew him too well; he had to honour the one-for-all treaty and go.

To say Odysseus gets a bit lost on the way home from war is an understatement: his journey takes him another ten years through lethal seas, mythical terrain and an inner exploration that has kept readers, filmmakers and academics rivetted ever since. In his The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says, ‘there is no more complete and profound version (of a quest) than The Odyssey’.

  1. It’s two perfect quests

As JS Bach knew, we love a bit of counterpoint where two tunes fold together into a more beautiful combination than either one of them alone, and the same is true of storytelling. If you can do two things at once in your story, try it. The first four books of The Odyssey are about the quest of Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) to find his missing dad. His quest mirrors his father’s and both combine in the powerful ending.

  1. Start in the middle

Homer’s two great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are both thought to have developed from a tradition of epic tales recited orally. If you have an audience full of good food and chat, wine and flirting, you need to start well, as any after-dinner speaker can tell you. So, the Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to start ‘in media res’, Latin for ‘in the middle’. Horace said that was the proper starting point for an epic, or indeed any story.

You don’t need to start in the high crisis of a battle but it’s important not to hang around. Above all, do not begin with undigested slabs of character biography, no matter how much Dickens got away with it. Your readers will wander off, as I expect diners did thousands of years ago.

Homer (whoever she, he or they were, nobody knows) could have started The Odyssey story with the beginning of the Trojan war, or with scenes of victorious Greeks waving the big man off afterwards. Or while Odysseus is facing one of his tests. Below is JW Waterhouse’s painting (1891) of Odysseus resisting the Sirens …

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Instead, we begin at the point of maximum distress for the three main characters:

  • Odysseus has just managed to escape seven years of miserable captivity with Calypso and is telling his story (after a meal) to his saviours before they help him on his way back home. Let’s absorb this for a moment – almost all of what we know as The Odyssey is told in flashback.
  • If Penelope were a widow, she’d be quite a catch so her home fills up with men jostling to persuade her into marriage. She holds them off, refuses to choose, still hoping darling Odysseus will make it back to her, but there’s a grisly stand-off going on around her while the ‘Suitors’ eat her out of house and home, help themselves to the servant girls and generally make the whole place hell.
  • Their son Telemachus can’t endure this wretchedness at home either. When Menelaus lets him know that Odysseus is being held captive, Telemachus heads off to save him.
  1. If you can do two things at once, why not three?

The Odyssey and Iliad are both double-layered. The ancient gods play active roles, champion their own favourite humans and set up traps and mischief for ones they don’t like. Homer invented this, by the way. This is not how Greeks of the time thought about their gods – it’s a storytelling trope.

When the Trojan prince called Paris falls in love with Menelaus’s wife Helen and steals her away to Troy, that is Aphrodite at work, igniting the story of The Iliad. It’s the goddess Athene who supports Odysseus against Poseidon, a sea god who has it in for him.

Zeus (top god in this pantheism) calls a ceasefire on godly interference in the Trojan war after Hector’s duel with Ajax, then lifts it to release the final stage.

This godly layer of the stories is usually left out of adaptations these days but it’s a pity to lose such mighty divine characters throwing their weight around.

  1. Magic realism is as old as time

You can have reality mixed with witches, cannibals, giants, gods, rocks that shift around, sea monsters, all at the same time. We have always loved it.

  1. Homer’s theme winds through every segment

What is The Odyssey’s theme? The need for home and peace? The struggle of an old soldier to find his way back into civilian society?

Classicists contend that the theme is really ‘xenia’. It means hospitality – sharing food, welcoming strangers, listening around the table – with elements of peace and shalom.

Breaking the rules of xenia brought unhappiness and violence in the Ancient Greek world; xenia could bring foes together in peace as we saw last week with Priam and Achilles.

Every element of the Odyssey story has xenia at its core. Calypso is all about glorious sensual hospitality, except that she won’t let Odysseus leave.

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Arnold Bocklin’s painting (1883)

Polyphemus eats his human guests – what more gross abuse of hospitality can there be? Penelope’s ‘Suitors’ are overstaying their welcome, if they ever had one, and are abusing her generosity. On the other hand, when Odysseus finally reaches safety, he is nourished and looked after, tells his story in an entertaining way and, when the time is right, his hosts help him safely on his way – perfect xenia. For a more about this, I recommend Emily Wilson’s wonderful new translation, the first ever by a woman.

  1. Your characters can be as complicated as you like

Odysseus is a powerful athlete and an old man, a beggar and a king, victim and aggressor, adulterer and adoring husband, a liar we trust, heroic ‘city-sacker’ and somebody who did not want to go to war. In The Iliad, even fearless Hector tried to run away at first rather than duel with Achilles. Homer knows all our hearts and sees into all our conflicting corners.

There’s no need for your characters to be consistent. If you do your character work well, you’ll know how to play their different shadows.

  1. Tricks to identify characters

In the long academic debate about who Homer was or whether the poems were initially oral or written, a key clue to their oral heritage lies in what are known as Homer’s epithets. You’ll have heard maybe of the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘wily’ Odysseus, ‘prudent Penelope’. Aphrodite is always described as ‘laughter-loving’ even when she’s wounded on the battlefield.

The ancient storytelling bards used epithets to give them time to think while the story bowled along. (This was discovered by Milman Parry, an American classicist who rocked the world of Homeric studies when he published his studies of Serbo-Croat oral balladeers in 1960.)

We can use tricks too to help readers conjure up our characters quickly. I’m thinking of Blind Pugh’s tap-tap-tap, Bill Sykes’s dog, Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’. A kind of code is dropped into the reader’s memory so that slabs of description don’t have to hold up your story.

  1. The best stories have family at their centre

Though we think we’re 21st century sophisticated people, the human heart hasn’t changed all that much in three thousand years. The best stories have family at their centre.

  1. The best stories can come from strangers

As Emily Watson says in the final paragraph of her introduction, kindness to strangers can lead us to the best stories too.

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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!

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!