Epics – why do we love them so much?

For as long as we humans have sat together telling stories, by the fire or the summer sunset, we’ve had a huge appetite for epic stories. Every culture has them, stories like The Arabian Nights, Wales’ Mabinoginon, Israel’s Exodus story, Spain’s Cantar del Mio Cid, Ireland’s Sweeney, Bran and Couhoulain for example, sometimes dating back to the Bronze Age. They can be national crossovers like Beowulf, written in Old English but telling a story of Danes and Swedes. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table borrow heavily from the French Chanson de Roland. A cracking story is a cracking story, wherever it is set.

Hollywood knows a great genre when it sees one and has spun millions out of excellent versions of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A Game of Thrones reached huge audiences through HBO. Epic authors are the superstars of fiction writing, so what can we learn from them?

Why were epics first written?

The oldest epics were around long before most people could read or write and would be recited to an audience by a professional saga teller. In Ireland’s post-Roman period, for example, the ollam, or arch-poet, would train for at least twelve years and at any given time would hold 250 ‘prime sagas’ in his head and around 100 secondary ones. These sagas were in rhyme (easier to learn) and would improve in the telling over the years, as yarns and stories do.

What were they for?

Usually ancient epics had something at their centre about a community in crisis. Courageous heroes saved them all from Monsters and were welcomed back among grateful loved ones with feasts and treasure. The heroes themselves might have been sitting in the audience. It’s more likely that the sagas were looking to heroes of the past to excite listeners for new battles ahead.

What are an epic’s ingredients?

Epics are usually long but it’s about much more than the word count.

  • The story should be grand in scope and theme. A girl leaving home is a Coming of Age story – Joan of Arc’s leaving home is epic. Teenager Joan leads the French army into war, thanks to divine guidance, and withstands torture by the enemy English before they burn her at the stake. Joan’s personal story and martyrdom symbolise the clash between the two nations.IMG_2036
  • An epic can have several grand themes, spanning the whole range from the nature of true love or the experience of exile through discovering personal integrity to sheer survival, and they are all bigger than any single character.
  • There’s usually a quest of some kind in there and a great journey.
  • A large backstory influences the present.
  • Political elements are strong, such as the emergence of a new nation or resisting conquest.
  • The events have greater importance than any of the characters.
  • Which is not to say that the characters should be bland – the reverse is true. It’s in a wide range of realistic characters, each with their own complete journey, that we can all find ourselves and a true epic finds resonance through many generations.
  • Epics are capable of gripping whole communities and their success often lies in timing, in their coinciding with a community’s need.

EXERCISE

What are your favourite epics? Here are a few titles to get you started: War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Earthsea, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost and of course Harry Potter.

Taking your favourites in turn, give yourself ten minutes or more to have a scribble-chat:

  • What do you love most about these stories? Generally, and in particular.
  • Who are your favourite characters? Why?
  • Make a list of your favourite moments, taking as long as you like. Are your chosen moments similar in any way? If so, why do you think that is? (There is no wrong answer.) Choose one or two favourite moments and write yourself into them for as long as you like – be one of the characters or the author, it’s up to you.
  • How important is the geographical place to you? Think of a scene you love and describe the place where it happens in all the detail you can remember. Some of that detail might be yours alone, it doesn’t matter. Just be there and feel the place around you.
  • Do your favourites leave you with a debate going on in your head, asking where do you stand on this or that? Take some time to chase those themes around on the page. Enjoy discussing them with yourself. There is no need to come to any conclusions, just let the arguments breathe into your writing and you may find characters coming to you, wanting you to tell a new story.

Let’s look at some epics more closely, starting with one of the oldest in Western literature. In many ways it’s the most surprising and can teach us a lot.

Homer’s Iliad

I grew up with my darling dad telling me Homer’s great stories at bedtime. By the time I was eight years old, I adored Odysseus’s weird sense of humour and was in love with the Trojan hero Hector.

What makes The Iliad epic? A Trojan prince called Paris fell in love with Helen, a Spartan princess of great beauty who happened to be married to one of the most powerful Greek kings, Menelaus, and took her home with him to the city of Troy (in present day Turkey). Menelaus wasn’t best pleased and called on a treaty with all the other Greek kings that if one of them had to go to war, they’d all join in support. The Iliad is the story of the gathering of the Greek armies, their ten-year war with the Trojans and how eventually a long siege of Troy came to an end, all told through the prism of the climactic final weeks of the siege.

Homer is thought to have written the poem around the 8th century BC, about events that are reckoned to have been the 12th century BC.

If you think that’s far too long ago to be intense or exciting, please think again. This story is packed with vibrant, contrasting characters, amazing jinks in the plot, heroism and failure on both sides, and timeless understanding of poor human bipeds like us struggling through our lives.

Did I say timeless? Let me give you an example of how Homer strode right into my life as if he were writing his stories that very day.

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When the various paramilitaries promised ceasefires in the Northern Irish Troubles in 1994, poet Michael Longley (a Classics graduate from Trinity College, Dublin, like my father) wrote Ceasefire. It was published in The Irish Times and rocked Ireland north and south back on its heels. Longley chose to write about the closing moments of The Iliad when the Trojan King Priam, Hector’s father, visits the Greeks’ greatest warrior Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s mutilated body for loving funeral rites. Achilles has defeated Hector in a duel of the best and, in high rage about the death of his own close friend, has been desecrating Hector’s corpse by dragging it around the city walls. With both Priam and Achilles exhausted by years of war, it’s a scene of reconciliation, not just of handshakes in suits but of eating together and feeling each other’s suffering. In the final lines, Priam says these almost impossible words:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Not many of us would dare to rewrite Homer but, like Longley, you too can take these timeless characters in their ancient scenes and reimagine them for your own life and time.

More about what we can learn from these great epics next time. On a scale from one to ten, how obsessed with Harry Potter am I? About nine and three quarters.

Have a wonderful writing week!

The weather outside is frightful…

This week in Europe, the weather has been busier than usual, hitting us with heavy snow and longer periods of sub-zero temperatures than we’re used to. It’s been a time of crises, travel disasters and unexpected fun. How does weather affect our fictional characters and how can we use weather in our storytelling?

EXERCISES

Treat yourself to five to ten minutes of free, private writing about anything you like: yourself and your week, your characters, your book and what you hope for it, why you write and what you love about it

When you’re (ahem) warmed up, turn your thoughts to weather. We all live in some sort of weather all the time so let’s think about rain, lightning, storm, strong winds, mist, fog, scorching sun.

Choose one. Hold it in your mind.

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  • You are walking, moving in this weather. Doing something. Take a minute or two to imagine it through your body. Feel the light in your eyes, the heat or lack of it on your face, air moving around you, how your clothes feel on your body.
  • Imagine you and this weather are in a place you know well. Look around you in this imagined place. Notice how the weather is affecting the place, how people and animals behave in it. Keep scribbling/typing as you go.
  • List at least 5 words or phrases that describe your chosen weather for you in that place. Enjoy being there and let the exercise take you wherever you like. 
  • List another five. Expand. Be specific. Be accurate.
  • Read over what you’ve written – is there anything there that you have ever seen somewhere else (such as ‘raining cats and dogs’ or ‘blowing a gale’)? Score it out. Delete.
  • List another five.
  • Underline the best 5 of all.
  • Which 3 are the best of those five, the most arresting & specific? Those are the ones you use.

You don’t need to go through this each time you describe something – it’s just training – but it is what you’re after. Try the exercise again in idle moments until this sifting to find the best word comes to you automatically.

EXERCISE

Find a chapter or section of your draft, something you’ve written a while back, where characters are busy getting on with the story but there is no mention of any weather. It’s easily done in a first draft, you’re keen to get on with the action and, sitting at your desk, it can be easier to think in terms of indoors than out.

Take a moment to imagine your way back into that chapter, thinking especially about the time and place of it. What would the weather usually be for those characters on that day in that place? Well, it’s time to think up something unusual for them, a bit more challenging – winter sun, sudden gusts of wind, heavy rain – and rewrite your section. I don’t mean just inserting a few words here and there – take the time to reimagine and rewrite your scene with the weather interfering and rearranging things. Weather can bring people together in unexpected ways, make them drop things or run, be late, it can break tension or split up a promising encounter.

Your new weathered version could be the one that qualifies for your final draft, maybe not, that’s up to you. The exercise may well deepen the reader’s experience and help you jump a plot problem or two.

EXERCISE

What is your favourite book? If you have it handy, open it anywhere and see how the author uses weather. It’s impossible to imagine Wuthering Heights without mighty gales on the moor and ice around that ghostly window, Pride and Prejudice without muddy walks, Moby Dick without deathly storms, Wind in the Willows with no sunlit picnics or Bleak House without Dickens’ extraordinary description of fog in Victorian London and its court system.

EXERCISE

Finally, any time you are outside, take a few moments to notice the weather. Be extra aware of what you see around you: how does it makes you feel and behave, how does the air feel on your face and as you breathe, how do your clothes and footwear feel in this weather, do you feel like dancing and jumping or curling up in bed? Study how it makes other people behave too. And wildlife – one of the extraordinary things about a fresh fall of snow is that even birds fall silent.

Close observation and selecting your best words (editing out the lazy options) are as important to your writing as cracking on with your draft. Have a happy time with both.

After slaying all those monsters last week, I found myself deep (very deep) in research about epics from Homer to Tolstoy and Rowling. What makes something epic? Where did they originate? How have epics evolved to the present day? Epic writers are the superheroes of storytelling – join me back with them here next week!

 

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.

 

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!

 

 

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!