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.

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!

 

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.