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 …

IMG_2103

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.

IMG_2102

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.

IMG_E2099

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.

IMG_E1759

Forgive my graphics please – drawing has never been my best thing!

A story arc is not symmetrical like an arch: the highest point is closer to the end than the beginning. Any dips or slackening in the arc’s line are where your reader will put your book down and wander off to find something more interesting to do.

Let’s take a closer look at some of our most familiar plot structures. For this I lean not only on my own reading over the years but on the late Christopher Booker’s masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots. If you were ever to find me alone on a desert island, the chances are my free copies of the Bible and Shakespeare would be gathering dust among the sand dunes and I would be deep in The Seven Basic Plots. Not that I agree with Booker that there are only seven basic plots or that they are necessarily the ones he identifies, but I love the way he analyses and debates it all.

QUEST

Quest is one of the oldest plot structures in the world. There’s no need to fetch it a rocking chair and slippers though, it’s very much alive and filling cinemas and bookshops. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classical quest in the old style and so is Erin Brokovitch. Aeneas and the tribes of Israel are on quests for new homes every bit as much as the rabbits in Watership Down. Gulliver’s Travels, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Treasure Island (the buried treasure), Frodo taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the Taken films – what do they all have in common?

The ingredients of a great quest are a priceless goal far away, a questor with an overwhelming desire to up sticks and go and get it, surviving many perils and obstacles, internal and/or external over a long journey, before eventually the goal is achieved.

Let’s develop this a little:

  • The quest should be really important – life or death in some way or other. In the stories of the tribes of Israel and Watership Down, for example, the whole community will be wiped out unless a new home is found.
  • The quest has great urgency. There is no choice but to go now. ‘To boldly go’ and seek new civilisations here and there is not nearly pressing enough to be a quest.
  • Leaving to go on the quest requires considerable self-sacrifice but it’s inevitable.
  • Even starting on the quest can be dangerous. For example, in Treasure Island, Jim is in deep danger before he’s even left his mother’s pub.
  • The hero usually takes companions with him/her or gathers them. Even Dick Whittington has his cat. An exception is Lancelot whose spiritual quest for the Grail (as penance for his adultery with Guinevere) is solitary.
  • A pattern ensues of near-fatal ordeals alternating with periods of respite – tension followed by resolution prompting danger again in ever-rising stakes.
  • Alien terrain is usually involved, real or figurative, where the hero/ine is far from home.
  • Monsters (Polyphemus, harpies, auks) and temptations (Dido, Circe) abound and there can be a visit to the underworld (Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; Odysseus meeting Achilles)
  • Sometimes there’s help from a wise old man or woman, ranging from Tiresias to Obi Wan.

Once the quest has been achieved – Odysseus makes it back home to Ithaca, the Watership rabbits find a suitable new warren, Lancelot glimpses the Holy Grail – is the story over? You’d think so but no. That does not satisfy our need, honed over countless centuries, for the best in story-telling. In fact, arrival is only half way. Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca at the end of Book 12 out of 24. The Watership rabbits spend the second half of their story securing the land in a battle, and finding and wooing female rabbits before they can settle with them and call the place home. Lancelot sips from the Holy Grail but must spend time as a hermit, and train and live as a priest before he is allowed to see Guinevere’s face again, while he’s officiating at her funeral.

Poor Lancelot. I imagine his grizzled smile as he confides that he found honour at last at that funeral and that his quest, though testing him to the limits of his endurance, simultaneously broke and healed his poor, battered heart.

All quests end happily, one way or another. That sounds sweeping but if there is not some sort of happy resolution, the story just isn’t a quest. Could it be that the quest’s real theme is not achievement of the goal at all, whatever it is, but learning to appreciate home, honour, security, wholeness? Love?

Love creeps in surprisingly often at a quest’s end as a symbol of that wholeness, a blessing on the story’s other endeavours. Romance may have been very far from our hero’s mind but it’s part of Quest’s ancient pedigree that he is rewarded with ‘the Princess’ in return for his labours as well as everybody’s applause. (In that historic way, the questor is male in the early tales and ‘the Princess’ is handed over as a trophy whether she likes it or not. Usually, in the hands of an expert storyteller, we have been prepared for this being a love match for them both and she’s as thrilled as he is.)

That’s not the only template of course. Odysseus’s quest for home after the Trojan Wars takes credit for being one of the oldest novels in Western literature but in many ways Homer breaks the mould while he sets the standard. Odysseus’s ‘Princess’ is not some young beauty he hardly knows: she’s his wife Penelope who has been loyally waiting for him through his ten years of war and another ten years of wanderings. Did he wander by the shortest route? No, but after all his shenanigans with love goddesses and what have you, after he’s hauled his boat onto the shore and rested his eyes on his home sunset for the first time in so long,

2016-05-17 20.32.58

all Odysseus longs for is to be home in his own bed with his loving wife, and for them to grow old together. But first he has to win her again as if they were youngsters.

As I said last week, these thoughts are not flat-pack instructions or patterns for knitting identical jumpers. Take from them what works for you and go ahead, reinvent the wheel as Homer did.

Which brings me to LOVE STORIES. Love is as essential to us as food and water and what a palaver we often make of it. Next week we’ll look at how the structure of love stories has mutated over the centuries. You’ll be able to absorb the variations and make them your own.

EXERCISE

Choose your favourite quest story – page or screen – and write freely about why you like it so much. Why do those particular characters work in that story? Where does the action begin? What is the most heart-breaking moment? Does a main character undergo any change in the story or learn anything life-changing? What hooks you into it all? Why?

Happy writing!