Tell me the truth about love stories

Ah yes, our poor, barnacled hearts.


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.


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 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.


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!



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!


Happy New Year! What’s coming up next?

Happy New Year to you all and thank you for dropping by, so often and in such numbers. As well as happiness for you and your loved ones, I wish you all a productive, successful writing year. If, by next January, you have a regular writing practice and know roughly where your writing is heading, you will have achieved a lot. That may not sound like a lot but, believe me, it is.

Usually with my writing groups, our second term (in a sort of academic year) is about plot. It’s my favourite: we get to sit around telling each other our favourite stories and chatting about books that have stayed with us through a lifetime.

Usually whenever people look for writing advice, they’re after hints on writing dialogue, show and tell, point of view, that sort of thing. The Box of Tricks. Should I change my usual tilt and go for that now? Then, this morning, I read this.

Storytelling is not about cheap tricks and formulaic writing. It is one of our oldest and most valuable crafts. Character interests us readers first. Plot keeps us engrossed until we reach that fantastic combination of inevitability, surprise and bittersweet longing for more that is a perfect ending. It’s not about writing to a tired formula – I am all for you reinventing the wheel as often and thoroughly as you can, go for it! But if your story has hit buffers and you’re not sure why, then thinking about what has worked in the greatest stories of all time can help.

So, the Box of Tricks is going to wait. We’ll start by looking at the oldest classic plot in the book: Quest. See you here on Sunday!

Fictionalising real people

Flaubert said of Madame Bovary that she was himself. We can’t help putting something of ourselves into just about every character we create. What if the basis of your fictional character is someone you know but you don’t want them to know it?

A warning. Imagine that your book has been published and your friends are around you at your launch.

2009-06-30 19.00.13The minute they open that book of yours, many of them will scour it looking for themselves. And they’ll find themselves in the most unlikely places.

This seems to be first cousin of their belief that everything in your book literally happened to you, no matter how far your book’s world is from your life. All we writers can do is shrug and say we made it up:

‘So you killed your husband and buried him in a volcano in Borneo?’

‘It’s fiction but if you want to think that, feel free.’

‘But that sober, handsome warrior chief who’s seven feet tall and wins prizes for his shortbread, he’s the image of your husband, isn’t he?’

‘If you want to think that, feel free.’

As long as they buy your book, they can think what they like.

You do want to avoid libel though, as it’s expensive and exhausting and publishers do not enjoy it. So how do you fictionalise a real, living character?

It’s simple really: just change a few vital things.

On one side of your page or screen, jot down a few details about the real person you want not to write about: full name and nickname, physical description, age, ethnicity/provenance, education, finances/job, family status, address, living alone or not, essential elements of personality, sexual orientation, secrets and world view. A few sentences of pub conversation are enough for that last one.

Down the other side of your page, name your fictional character and take a few minutes to imagine him or her. Then, opposite the list you’ve made for the real person, describe your fictional character aspect for aspect.

Make sure that some important aspects are radically different from the real person. Two or three will be enough.

Now you are ready to do your character interviews afresh to build and discover this new person. Drill down deep, unlock those secrets and that voice, and soon you should find yourself in the company of someone unrecognisably different.

That’s all there is to it! It’s especially important to give your fictional person a different name from the real one – please don’t be tempted to give them the same initials or even the same rhythm in the name – and this exercise works especially well if you alter age, gender, education, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.

It’s worth giving a thought to why you are incorporating a real person into your novel when there are so many wonderful characters to be made up. Have a private scribble about why you feel you must write about this person. Why do they fascinate you so much? Do they encapsulate something about your story’s theme that makes their presence invaluable? Or – it’s important to be honest with yourself now – are you writing this real person into your work because you want to have the last word in some way, even revenge?

If the last is the case, your book may well suffer. My character interview shows you how to combine closeness to your characters with (towards the end) the vital detachment that keeps your story in balance and stops it straying into cliche.

Next week we’ll look at how we write about long-term friends.


Have a happy writing week!

POINT OF VIEW made ridiculously simple

You’ve been quarrying into your characters’ depths until you know them as well as you know yourself or better. What’s the best way now to give your writing a professional sheen and bypass several experimental drafts while you tell their story?

Let’s enjoy a scribble together

Think of an important moment in your main character’s story. An encounter, a fight or battle, a crucial discovery.

Take a few minutes to scribble-chat your way into your character at that moment on your page or screen until that character’s place in the scene is crowding your imagination and the writing flows freely.

Now, sit back for a moment and consider the mental jumble we all carry through every day of our lives. It’s usually a mixture of:

Our physical comfort – are we too hot or cold, our clothing too tight or loose, are we hungry, thirsty, in need of the loo or a rest?

Our wider context – have we just been sacked, fallen in love, won money, bought a car, fallen ill, wakened up?

Our mood – are we feeling excited, content, angry, fed up, exuberant, needful?

Our agenda – there is always a range of things we want at any given moment, from world peace to a burger. Which is the most pressing? Which has gone on for longest? Can you distinguish urgent and important?

Now let’s go back to your character’s big moment. Concentrate on just before it happens and let your character tell you about their mental jumble. Their worry list, how they feel, what they want and need. Blend your writing into a monologue where your character talks in his/her voice for at least 10 minutes. Write quickly and freely, let the character’s voice take you.

Congratulations. You have just written with a clear, strong single point of view (POV). And you’ve got something to edit. The more you do of this exercise, the more you’ll do it in every draft first time. It takes you where your reader wants to be.

POV is simple really. Ask yourself, ‘Whose head are we in?’ at a given moment in the story. Whose eyes are we looking through?


That’s all there is to it.

Drama on a screen or theatre stage shows us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard to help us feel what those characters are going through and it can feel real in the way being in a room with other people is real. But do we really know what they feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters do tell each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue given direct to the audience. But they could be, and often are, lying to us. (I’m thinking of Alfie or Iago in Othello.) How do we know what’s genuinely going on?

Poems and non-fiction can pull this off sometimes too but, if you ask me, fiction is far and away best at it. This single ingredient in powerful novels has changed the world.

Why all the POV fuss?

Sometimes when POV is ‘taught’ to fiction writers, the thing strays into spreadsheets and Graeco-Roman labels of almost medical complexity. We can end up more confused than when we started and that gets in the way of our writing flow.

Two things are going on what’s usually described as POV. They are linked – all storytelling is – but there’s nothing to lose in treating them separately and everything to gain.

The two elements are these:

  • Whose head are we in as we read this story? and
  • Are you as author choosing to let your characters tell the story in their own voices (as I or we: 1st person) or are they telling it through you as she, he, it or they (known as 3rd person)? This is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the big leaps into writing to a professional standard is clear use of ‘Whose head are we in’ so let’s leave the discussion of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person for another day.

What are our POV alternatives?

You can stay in the point of view of a single character for your whole story, or you can guide your readers through several viewpoints in turn. It’s up to you. The important thing is to decide and stick to it.

Advantages of one character’s POV:

  • Your story has a better chance of being immediate, clear and gripping.
  • Writing internal thoughts, hopes and dreams comes easily if you’re used to the scribble-chats we do here with characters.
  • Your character describes and judges others, which can be fun.
  • You can show the character’s voice, tone and accent without being restricted to dialogue, although a thick accent or dialect for a whole book can be off-putting.
  • It gets you as writer out of the way.
  • Your character could be honest with the reader or could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out and take the reader by surprise.

Disadvantages of a single POV:

  • Your character has to be engaging or the reader won’t stay with you.
  • You do need to know that character very well to be convincing.
  • You’re restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experience of that one character. There are ways to get information onto your page other than through that a single viewpoint (news reports, found letters, misdirected or wrongly cc’d emails etc., nosey informers about another’s behaviour, facebook, overhearing, searching another’s phone for texts etc., finding journals, bank or other statements, mistakes eg. the wrong flat) but it takes some thinking about.
  • How do you describe your character externally? The truth is, you don’t have to. Readers are surprisingly happy to make it up for themselves. It’s more engaging anyway to describe how people feel about themselves from the inside and in other people’s reactions. If you really do want the reader to see your character, please avoid the mirror scene in the first chapter, it’s been done to death.

Which single character do I choose?

We will come to that another day. Meanwhile imagine The Great Gatsby told to us by Gatsby himself instead of his slightly shy cousin, Nick. Or Brideshead Revisited told by Cordelia, the youngest member of the Marchmain family. Or The Wolf Wilder told by the boy soldier, Alexei, instead of by Feo herself. Or Pride and Prejudice told as Lydia’s story. Any of these versions could have worked brilliantly too.

Several viewpoints

The advantages of writing from the point of view of several characters are:

  • Information comes from several sources, layering on the suspense and mystery.
  • Readers can identify better with several characters.
  • We all have different truths – it feels real.
  • You avoid shoe-horning in information that a single viewpoint character could not know.
  • You can use dramatic irony more easily, where the reader knows more than a character.
  • It gives the reader a breadth of experience in terms of location, experience and company.

Disadvantages of several POVs:

First, it’s important to make it absolutely clear to the reader who we are with from time to time. We write from the top of our concentration and emotional reserves. Readers often read to relax. They might be in noisy places like family kitchens or train carriages. They may be feeling less than well or enjoying your book with wine beside them at the end of a workday.

Clarity is vital. It’s a big part of your reader’s sense of your authority as a writer: if you lose their confidence, they might well put your book down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and forget to pick it up again. It’s not just about being kind to tired readers. It’s about strong storytelling.

Many writers give characters a chapter each at a time, e.g.: Junk by Melvyn Burgess, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The character’s name makes a good, clear chapter heading. In the first three or four lines the character’s voice and thought patterns should make it obvious.

The second disadvantage of handling several POVs is the temptation to switch viewpoint within sections. Many fledgling writers swivel in and out of the minds of several characters within a paragraph, even within a single sentence. That can give a panoramic view, if it’s what you’re after, but it risks dizzying your reader, interrupting immersion in your story. It can also distract you as author from plumbing down to the levels of emotional honesty your readers want.

That said, I’ve just turned up a POV subtlety in a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a wonderful example of a success by a first-time author – hurray! – and she uses POV to bring her lovers together. Copyright law forbids me to quote at length but on page 208 of my copy, we experience the scene first through Sarah: ‘She could feel his hand on the back of her neck.’ Then six lines later: ‘For a long moment she didn’t move or speak. Then he felt it against his chest: she shook her head.’ Knitting the two viewpoints like this has the magical effect of lifting us away from one character’s mind to see the two of them and their hug. At the same time we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

  • Don’t be afraid to go in close beside your character and stay there.
  • Stay as close as you can to one character at a time. It’s more satisfying for your reader and easier for you to write.
  • By being aware of how you use POV, you can avoid dizzying pitfalls and use it to create magical effects.

Happy writing!



How to make characters feel complex, real and vital

Last night was party night here in the UK with bonfires, fireworks and beverages of one sort and another. We were celebrating the failure of a terrorist plot to blow up our Parliament in 1605, which goes to show there isn’t much new under the sun.

If you don’t have time to write, does it ever feel as if your characters have wandered away to a party without you and are too busy having fun to come back to your desk to work?

Let’s lure one of your main characters back into a scribble-chat where the two of you are chatting together like old friends while you catch it all on your page or screen. Ask your character, in their own voice and words, to finish these three sentences – quick-fire is best, around five minutes for each one:

  • I regret
  • I regret not …
  • I do not regret though maybe I should …

The essence of any of us is right there. And yes, even children have regrets.

Now it’s time to step back from your fictional character. Have a coffee or a breather outside, but not for too long. It’s time to be objective for a change. When you’re ready, step out of scribble-chat mode and ask yourself, on the page/screen as always, these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

Write freely now. Take as long as you like. While you’re submerged in writing your first draft, it can be all too easy to paint yourself into a corner where your main character is mostly nasty or all nice. Every one of us has selfless and nasty traits in our character. I know of no simpler way to ensure that our characters feel complex, real and vital than to give these two questions our deepest attention. When the Churchill Writers were writing together yesterday, I was fascinated to see them all take off in that last section and surprise themselves.

Everybody is full of nuance, contradictions and surprises.

IMG_1159 (2)

Not everyone is as nice as they seem. Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Toad of Toad Hall (Wind in the Willows, my favourite version), and Uncle Monty (in Withnail and I) for example are all monsters but they ooze generosity, charm and their own kind of sincerity. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham, who turns out to be a cad who is likely to leave poor Lydia alone, pregnant and miserable, is so charming to everyone around him that even sensible Lizzie Bennet is half way to falling for him. IMG_0314And nobody is evil all the time: even Hitler had friends.

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your fictional character, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain or wound? This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What do you as author see now that this character wants most in this story?
  • What does s/he actually need?

By now do you feel important plot ingredients pushing to the fore? A sense of everything – character, plot, theme, even place – coming together? Do you have a greater sense of what your main character is after and deserves, of how their own plot arc is taking shape? A new sense of the shape of your whole story, where it should start and end? Maybe a new idea for the title?

If easy answers don’t come quickly, never mind. Don’t bother to be conscious about this, just keep walking and pondering and all will be well. Keep writing too, exercises and your draft. What you need will come when you need it.

Next Sunday, how do we put all this character work into action? We’ll talk about Point of View and I’ll be keeping it simple.

Have a happy writing week.

Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he said, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?


As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –


you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!




and how we play it

Story-writers have a trick that people in films, television drama and theatre can only envy. We can take our readers into the minds of our characters and deep inside their emotions. While you’re reading a story or novel, you are not just walking a mile in those characters’ shoes, you’re with them every step of their biggest crises, maybe their whole lives, living and breathing it sometimes from behind their eyes. This trick happens so lightly that readers maybe aren’t even aware of the miracle but it has changed the world.

Drama on screen or in a theatre can move us very deeply but the best it can do is show us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard at helping us know what those characters are going through, and it can feel genuine. Film directors often fill the gap with swathes of music. But do we really know what the characters feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters talk to each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue to talk to us direct what they’re up to. But it’s always at a remove – we are watching it, not living it.

From the first word of a novel we are invited deep inside a character’s internal essence. Why are the Game of Thrones novels so clever? Because George RR Martin writes each chapter from the mind of a single character so, whatever horrors are going on, we live those events through that person.

Why was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre so revolutionary when it was finally published in 1847? From the beginning, we are inside the formidably honest, rebellious mind of Jane growing up and it’s a thrilling place to be.

Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) broke boundaries too in bringing truths about marriage to an alcoholic into the daylight, beautifully written and from his wife’s point of view.

It’s hard these days to understand the impact of something like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in its day (1877) about the life of a working horse in Victorian society. It has sold 50 million copies (so far) and brought animal welfare changes all over the world. At the core of the book’s success is that the story is told by the horse himself.


Whenever we have our scribble-chats with our characters, do your best to let them tell the story for you. In their own voices.

Too many first drafts have characters who all speak in the same voice. This tends to be because the writer is ‘designing’ the characters from the outside without getting inside their heads. These writers are more likely to tell us what a character is wearing than thinking or feeling.

Readers want their interior worlds. If you work through scribble-chats at letting your characters speak to you, each in their own way from their own lives and hearts, you will jump past that first draft error and find yourself in a much more vibrant fictional world with more realistic characters around you.


Think of a character, just one. Ask him how old he is and be aware of his reactions while he’s telling you. How does he feel about his age? Let him keep talking about it while you catch it on your page or screen. Stay inside his thoughts and voice. When is his birthday? How does he feel about birthdays? How did his last one go? Any plans for the next one?

You are mining for depths you never would have thought of if your character summary stopped at ‘Age: 26’.

Have a happy time!


Incidentally, I said last week that we’d be with the Churchill Writers this weekend. I got ahead of myself – that’s not until next month. We’ll do it then …

Things not to worry about

when you’re starting your novel –

The Perfect Start

To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start.’ TS Eliot

The perfect first sentence is the last thing you need to worry about. You will be better equipped to work out where you start your story, how, why and with the slant you need, after you have finished your first draft. There is no point in sweating about your perfect first sentence until then, or even later. If something wonderful comes to you, note it down but if nothing comes, don’t worry.

In Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947) the character Joseph Grand is a 50 year old city clerk, lovely man, who spends so much time honing the first sentence of his novel that by the time the plague gets to him, he has nothing written but lots of versions of it. Camus shows us cleverly how no matter how Grand shuffles his sub-clauses, the sentence just gets worse.



When you’re ready to start on your first draft, get cracking – start somewhere, anywhere – and at all costs keep going. Tidy as you go, then press on. Keep notes of afterthoughts but do not let them hold you back. Once you have a finished first draft, you have something to work on.


Your voice

Some How-to-write books talk about ‘finding your voice’ as if it’s something you need to summon up before you start on your book. Your writing voice is nothing more than the way of putting words together that’s special to you alone. It includes all sorts of things like the sort of subject you choose, your personality and tone, and your unique way of building a scene. When we hear a stray phrase on the radio and go ‘Ah yes, that’s Dickens’ even when you’re not sure which of his books it comes from, that’s you recognising Dickens’ ‘voice’.

Your voice is everything and nothing and is not something you need to think about at this stage. The more writing you do, the more you’ll settle into confidence on the page. Just let yourself get used to writing being a happy, low key place where you can play with your characters and story, gather your skills and ideas, try this or that while all the time – and you’ll hardly notice it – the flow of your words grows more and more secure. Occasionally you’ll produce something that feels right, something you know might work in your first draft. Off it goes into that first draft file, waiting for other pieces like it. In no time, your pages are stacking up, some of them spot on, some less so, but the trick is to keep writing because it’s only by keeping that flow going that the good stuff can come.

Let me tell you a secret: this way of writing, this process is very common among writers. We experiment and play with the story like this and you are no less a writer for doing it too.

Brilliant writing (‘Is my writing good enough?’)

Here’s a paradox: the less you worry about the quality of your writing and write lots around your book, the happier you will grow in the act of writing and the more likely you are to hit seams of the good stuff. Your critical faculties will have their turn later but while you’re discovering your first draft, let that wait.

Kindly criticism

Most people (some writers call them ‘civilians’) think that books are delivered to the writer’s pen or screen in minty fresh perfection in as much time as it takes them to read it. That is not the case. All published writers, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners too, redraft many times.

Just keep reminding yourself that the civilians mean well and please do NOT be tempted to show them your workings. You’re building up your confidence in your own voice with your page as your playground: an assault of fault-finding at the wrong time could kill your desire to write. The time for criticism will come; your first draft is not it.



Whenever people ask how your writing is going, thank them for asking. Say that your book is fun and it’s going well but books do take time. Did they know that Hilary Mantel took ten years to write her first book, the French Revolution one? Reassure them that they’ll be the first to know when you get a publisher and no, they’re not in your story. (They won’t believe this last bit and will be desperate to buy it when the time comes.)


Doing everything in the right order

Should you worry about doing everything in the right order? There is no right order.

Lack of finished pages

You are writing around your book like mad and have a general idea where your story might be going. In fact, it all feels really exciting and you have more confidence in it, in everything, than ever before. But you don’t feel like a proper writer because proper writers have megabytes building up of warm-as-fresh-bread, perfect pages ready to send off to an agent. You’ve got no pages at all.

Rome wasn’t built in a day or even in a whole wet weekend. Don’t worry, it’ll come.

It’s all been written before

No, it hasn’t. There may or may not be a limited number of stories we enjoy (more on this another day) but every day writers are producing something ‘new under the sun’ because never in all the millennia of human existence has anybody ever had your life. Nobody (not even your twin) has grown up in your family with your personality, your struggles and joys, in your time with your particular take on things. That brings a unique spin to everything you write. Even Shakespeare used other people’s storylines in his own distinctive way. Keep challenging yourself to write only what feels true, not second-hand or hackneyed, and keep it engaging.

So don’t be afraid. Go for it!