THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

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

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

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

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

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

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

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

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

EXERCISE

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

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

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

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

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

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

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

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

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

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

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

Happy writing!

Finding your way around my blog

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

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

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

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

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!

 

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!

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.