What does 3rd person mean? Why does it matter?

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter, is a central skill in writing fiction. Keeping closely inside that character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your readers with you. (This is Point of View, made easy with exercises and tips, yesterday.)

Writing in the first, second or third person, on the other hand, is a stylistic choice for you as author.

Sometimes your publisher or agent will ask you to alter from 1st to 3rd person (or vice versa) because they think it will improve the storytelling. Or maybe your own gut feeling will guide you into a change, to see if it might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.

Which ‘person’ is which?

EXERCISE

In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:

·       Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’

·       You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.

·       Write a police report of the same incident.

·       Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.

·       A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’

The first, writing as ‘I’ – that’s first person. So is the paramedic.

The police report is in the third person, using s/he.

Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.

The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.

1st = I, we, me, us.

2nd = you.

3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.

Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.

THIRD PERSON – advantages

·       We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.

·       It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.

·       An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.

Third person – disadvantage

·       A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?

EXERCISE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Wonderful Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person, yet we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.

Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).

How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.

Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.

What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?

 

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SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.

FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Dickens was very fond of it too.

First person – advantages:

·       Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.

·       Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.

·       Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, written in 1936. It is not for the squeamish but displays beautifully how you can write someone working something through in their thoughts.

·       If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you’ll find first person accounts easy.

·       Your ‘I’ can be honest (like Holmes’s friend Watson) or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.

·       Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.

First person – disadvantages:

·       Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.

·       While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.   IMG_0589EXERCISE

It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:

·       Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’

·       Is it from a single viewpoint or many?

·       Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?

·       Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?

·       Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.

As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.

Happy writing!

Point of View made easy

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 skip the need for 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?

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Baby or dad? (Yes, it’s me in the rucksack, Belfast behind us.) Mum taking the photos? A stranger strolling past?

Choose one. That’s all there is to POV.

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? Who are you choosing, as author, to lead the story to your readers? And
  • Are you letting your characters speak direct to your readers in their own voices, as I or we: 1st person? Or are you going to be the story’s channel, using she, he, it or they (this is known as 3rd person)? This I/you/he/she/we/they thing is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the biggest 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 tomorrow).

Whose head are we in – what are our 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. Otherwise, readers can lose a sense that you know what you’re doing.

ADVANTAGES OF A SINGLE 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 assesses other characters, 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 as told 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.

EXERCISE

What is your current favourite novel (written by somebody other than yourself)? Choose one of the apparently lesser characters and write a summary of the story as if that character is telling it. Be as adventurous as you like – Moby Dick told by the whale? Why not?  

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

  • Information comes from several sources, layering the suspense and mystery.
  • 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 already knows something that’s about to be revealed to 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.’ We’ve moved from her awareness to his. 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 (at last) their hug. At the same time, we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

ROUND-UP

  • 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.

More about 1st, 2nd and 3rd person tomorrow. Happy writing!

 

BOX OF TRICKS – INTRODUCTION

Whenever readers open a new book, they really do want to like it. They persist in loving books even though the world has never contained so many exciting distractions. We need to make sure we hold their attention more powerfully than ever before, or ours will slip down their busy priority list and may never rise again.

All creative work is a combination of that free flying excitement that some people call inspiration and clever use of tricks and techniques that have evolved over centuries. Composers and painters know this, so do actors, sculptors and musicians of all kinds. It’s the only secret really: the best way for our work to deserve the attention of strangers is to combine the excitement of our unique ideas with learning the craft, year after year. We need both.

What about overnight successes? Creative people in every field who ‘break the mould’? Well, it does happen but usually the mould-breakers have done their homework, put in the hours, and know exactly what tired old moulds they’re breaking.

I have no interest in forcing your story into a shape that does not suit you. All I do here is to introduce you to some accepted tricks of the trade. What you do with them is up to you. So I ask you to read this section and then forget it. Rule 1 applies: if you’re in the grip of an idea that excites you, write it fast, dump everything else and keep writing until it’s done.

If you find your writing getting into difficulties, however, and you can’t see a way out, it might be time to take a rest, be kind to yourself … and take another look over this Box of Tricks section.

Between now and the summer, I’ll be posting about Point of View (today and tomorrow), Show and Tell, through-line, dialogue (including subtext and lying), use of time and seasons, how to handle turning points, using memory and flashback, handling stakes, using hooks and links, finding your beginning and ending and choosing your title. I may think others up along the way.

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These tricks of the craft are about what makes people put a book down and stop reading. They are about how to keep the pages turning, the kindle pages swiping, until your reader has reached the ending satisfied but wanting more. Most of the tricks have been used in every classic you’ve ever read, and can help non-fiction as well as fiction. Some have been around since Homer’s grandmother, and her mother too.

That doesn’t mean they’re dull or outdated; it means they work.

We’ll start today and tomorrow with looking back over Point of View and use of 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons. Tomorrow too? Well, it’s a holiday in some places. Happy writing and if you have extra writing time on your hands, I hope you enjoy it too!

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!

The weather outside is frightful…

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

EXERCISES

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

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

Choose one. Hold it in your mind.

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

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

EXERCISE

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

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

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

EXERCISE

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

EXERCISE

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

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

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

 

How to make heroes and heroines from stuff there on your desk

The oldest plot of all could be the one where a monster torments everybody until someone steps from the crowd, faces up to the monster in an unfair fight and slays it.

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Anonymous painting of St George with his dragon from the British Library, end 14th century.

The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia is thought to be the oldest written story we have, possibly around 4,000 years old: our first great work of literature. For today we’ll leave academics to wrestle with exactly how old various versions of it are – let’s head straight for the meat of the story.

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk (about 30 km east of Samawah in modern Iraq) and, lucky guy, he’s two-thirds god and one-third man. He is too proud to listen to the gods though and enjoys his power a bit too much, especially ‘droit de seigneur’ or a lord’s right to sleep with every new bride on her wedding night before her husband gets a look in. Gilgamesh’s people call to the gods for help.

In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens showed droit de seigneur inflaming French peasants to Revolution in 1789. (There’s an interesting post about jus primae noctis or ‘right of first night’ here.) The Sumerian gods’ solution is not a guillotine in the centre of town; they send a primitive ‘wild man’ called Enkidu to live alongside Gilgamesh as his equal and bring him into line. As soon as Enkidu finds out that Gilgamesh is about to interfere in another wedding night, he sets off to teach Gilgamesh some manners and the two of them wind up in a fight. Neither wins. Instead they become friends.

EXERCISE

What an extraordinary fight scene: the toff, bent on what he thinks is his right, against the wild man brought up among animals, who knows better. What style of fighting do they each have? How does the dialogue pan out? Have a go at writing it – fight scenes are about character and dialogue much more than violence. The characters, time, context and outcome are up to you.

Gilgamesh cannot go on as he did. He needs to make a heroic name for himself somehow and hits on the idea of slaying a rude and horrible monster in the Cedar Forest called Humbaba. Enkidu hates the idea of more violence but has to follow. With the help of the gods – all very exciting – they win and bring the monster’s head home in triumph.

In Tablet Six the friends wind up tangling with Gugalanna next, the Bull of Heaven, through no fault of their own. They win and save the city, without divine help this time, and everyone is celebrating. But Enkidu foretells his own death, seen as some sort of payment to the gods for all this slaughter, and Gilgamesh is bereft.

Tablet Nine sees Gilgamesh living in the wild, dressed in animal skins as Enkidu was before they met, sharply aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend. The only cure for his grief, he thinks, is to know the secret of eternal life so he sets off on an epic quest, involving gods and many miles of dangerous terrain, until eventually Gilgamesh has his great insight. He learns that to fight human death is pointless – our happiness lies in relishing each fleeting moment of life. Our greatest joys – sharing food with loved ones, walking hand in hand with a cherished child, enjoying sensual love with a beloved – all derive from our mortality.

The poem is too long and eventful to cover all of it here. Have fun with your research if it appeals to you. Enough to say that Gilgamesh, a demi-god but all too human, slays monsters alongside his dear friend and learns humility on his way to winning the most precious wisdom of all, the richness of life.

Incidentally, a literary Indiana Jones hovers on the edge of our story by the humble name of George Smith. He’s an Englishman who rediscovered The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872. As far as I know, no-one has written his story yet.

EXERCISE

How many fairy stories can you think of where a monster is killed to resolve the story? Little Red Riding Hood? Jack and the Beanstalk? Hansel and Gretel? Any others? Choose one and write it in the high, heroic style of an ancient epic poem, just for fun. Or write it set in today’s world if you’d rather. See where it takes you.

Let’s move now to Europe around a thousand years later and the story of Beowulf. Though written in Old English, our hero Beowulf (who happens to be Swedish) is helping out Hrothgar, king of the Danes, by slaying a monster called Grendel and its vengeful mother. This wonderful epic poem dates from anywhere between 700 and 1000 AD (again we’ll leave tussles about the precise date to the academics) but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the poem was recognised as a major work of European literature. Until then, it had been the preserve of academic historians (though there is no evidence of a historical Beowulf) looking to study Scandinavian kings and place geographical boundaries. Then in the 1920s an Oxford don, none other than JRR Tolkien, had a look and the story took hold of him. He realised that here was a beautifully constructed story written with balance and passion. It was not an historical document like the Domesday Book or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was a poem.

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Why does this matter to us? Because historians had dismissed the monsters in the story as irrelevant; nobody knew better than Tolkien (a survivor of the Battle of the Somme, busy writing The Lord of the Rings) that the monsters were central to a magnificent Slaying the Monsters tale.

He made his point unforgettably in his 1936 Oxford lecture The Monsters and the Critics and Beowulf has been vital to Western literature ever since.

What was Beowulf’s story?

  • The poem starts by establishing Beowulf among his own people, the Geats in southern Sweden.
  • We join the Danes where King Hrothgar is having a marvellous new mead-hall built. But a monster has been ravaging the area for years, stealing and eating the young people each night.
  • Beowulf sets off to help with 14 of his warriors.
  • A moment of realism: as soon as he arrives, he has to explain himself to the locals or they’ll kill him.
  • He’s allowed to go to the mead-hall and explain himself again.
  • Up go the stakes as locals swap horror stories about the appalling monster, Grendel. Everything they have tried has failed.
  • Everyone agrees that single combat between Grendel and this fresh-faced Dane called Beowulf would be a good thing. Beowulf and his warriors stay in the mead-hall overnight …
  • I love this moment: Beowulf takes off his armour because the monster would have no skill against it and he must fight a fair fight!
  • Grendel slips in and eats his first warrior, even the hands and feet.
  • It’s time for the Big Fight we’ve been waiting for.
  • Beowulf and his warriors win and nail the monster’s severed arm and claw to the wall as a trophy.
  • It’s time to relax and have a party.
  • Who’s that knocking at the door? In fact, who’s knocking her way straight in? Grendel’s mother has come for revenge.
  • Beowulf has to follow her to her lair at the bottom of a swamp to fight her. No concessions this time, he keeps his armour but her toxic blood melts his sword.
  • After a colossal fight, Beowulf and his lads win and head back to the mead-hall in triumph, laden with the monster mother’s treasure.
  • After big celebrations, Beowulf and his Geats go home where Beowulf becomes king of his own tribe for fifty years.
  • Here is the story’s second part that Tolkien believed balanced the first part so beautifully: a dragon sweeps the land, Beowulf fights it in single combat but this time he’s an old man and is mortally wounded in the tussle. I can’t help wondering if this later dragon could be an image for plague or another illness, fought with heroic courage by a king so loved that to say he died in bed would be unfitting.

What Tolkien saw was that Beowulf’s story fits our basic plot arc beautifully:

Situation of appalling danger – call to heroism – inciting incident – series of mounting difficulties – crises/ battles rising to the final battle – resolution – the new future.

What else does this plot remind us of?

Theseus and Perseus? David and Goliath? Tristan and the Moorholt? Can you think of any others? It’s no coincidence that The Slaying the Monster plot has thrived in human imagination since our most ancient cultures; the more dangerous life is, the more communities cling to these stories. We are always free to play with classic structures in any way we like but it’s useful to see how this most ancients of plots has served storytellers for at least four thousand years.

Since the 19th century, it has enjoyed developing all kinds of subtleties in what feels like an almost complete takeover of the fiction world. Dracula by Bram Stoker brings us one of the most hideous monsters but one who can be beguiling and almost sympathetic. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley pulls off the extraordinary trick of rendering her monster both hideously cruel and a victim of circumstances beyond his control. In RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we have the beginnings of examination of the monster within us.

Like Beowulf, Sherlock Holmes and Watson travel to track down monsters/murderers and remove dangers to society. Parallels between Jack the Ripper and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde did not escape readers.

Many war stories (where the bad guys never bother us again), James Bond, Westerns, superheroes and sci-fi – yes, Star Wars too – all share this Slaying the Monster template including, most common of all, thrillers. Which just goes to show how flexible and useful it is, how much potential there is for you to play with.

Is it only men who slay monsters? Of course not. From warriors like the Iceni Queen Boudicca who fought the Romans and Jeanne d’Arc to Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Erin Brockovich and the #metoo movement, women have courageously spoken truth to power on all kinds of battlefields. In fiction they range through Katniss Everdene (The Hunger Games) through Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, Lucy in Narnia, Mathilda and the Trunchbull and of course Wonderwoman.

A Gender in Fiction study published its results recently, showing that women were more fairly represented in novels in the 19th century than they are now. There are so many heroine stories waiting to be written and plenty of people of all kinds waiting to read them.

Whatever you write – happy writing.

What does Maisie know about Rite of Passage stories?

Let’s start with a bit of light anthropology.

Rites of passage are community rituals that mark an individual’s progress from one stage of life to another. They can involve an ordeal of some kind designed to test the individual to the limit and communities have always had them. Once through the test, the newcomer is welcomed into the community where everyone shares a renewed sense of courage and togetherness. You can see this in initiation ceremonies into school groups and gangs, and in military services worldwide. It can make sense to test the limits of someone’s courage when your own life or that of the community could depend on it.

But a rite of passage is not always about risking life. Confirmation, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations all give family and community a chance to get together with food and dancing to bless the new development. There are plenty of less formal rites too, like a new uniform on moving up to Big School, or a stag party.

IMG_0949Each of these rites makes a statement of solidarity. It’s about joining and acceptance. Rite of Passage fiction, on the other hand, can be about resistance to blending in. It is where individuals courageously discover their own singular worth and destiny, possibly at odds with society around them.

Do I mean Coming of Age stories?

Who occurs to you whenever you think of a rite of passage story? Do you think of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or the boy in the film Shane? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Ralph in Lord of the Flies? Some young man moving from youth to manhood? Actually, anybody can feature in a Rite of Passage story, whatever their age and gender. Maisie, for example.

What Maisie Knew

Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897. Maisie is ten years old when her parents divorce and they are granted alternate custody of her for six months each. James says in his own preface: ‘The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.’ He’s rather betrayed himself in talking about the child as ‘it’ but never mind. Her parents are ghastly, unreliable and useless. Regardless of what Maisie wants or needs, they both remarry pretty quickly, as much to spite each other as anything else. Maisie’s parents continue to suit their selfish selves, leaving their gorgeous new spouses to fall in love with each other.

Where does Maisie fit in all this?

In the (otherwise excellent) 2012 film Maisie chooses to live with the beautiful, loving young couple who used to be married to her parents. In James’ novel, crucially Maisie considers this option and rejects it. Her experience is that adult relationships don’t work and she’s not going to trust this new one either. Instead she decides to spend her future with the only constant person in her life: her nanny – not the most beautiful person in the world but utterly good-hearted and steady – called Mrs Wix. It is a brave choice for the little girl to make and James describes it tenderly as Maisie’s ‘great moment’.

Here is the essence of a Rite of Passage novel: having been pushed to the limit, the character has a ‘great moment’ of realisation of what she or he most fundamentally needs – and finds the courage to act on it. Hurray for Maisie! 

IMG_E0087What are the ingredients of Rite of Passage stories?

Many of the well-known Rite of Passage stories tend to follow the classic story arc, the one that goes: Problem – obstacles – increasing stakes and crisis – battle – insight / epiphany – resolution from the main character’s own inner resources – aftermath leading to the new future.

My usual caveat, by the way: I have no interest in tying you to any formula. Forget what you’ve just read, whatever you need from it will come to you as you write. The shape of your story is up to you.

What makes it a Rite of Passage tale?

The theme. Your main character is on a journey of potentially revolutionary self-discovery at the deepest level:

  • Who is your character really?  What kind of person will they choose to be?
  • Is this the kind of life they need or will they be better off somewhere else?
  • Do they have the courage to make the move?
  • Will the character’s views of that original community of theirs ever be heard?

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) is a classic tale of conformity versus vocation, Rite of Passage and escape. (With elements in common with Jo’s story in Alcott’s Little Women.) The novel was rejected many times until the publisher William Blackwood declared it to be the first great Australian novel with (feminism aside) magnificent descriptions of the outback. William Golding also suffered many rejections of Lord of the Flies. These novels were saying the unsayable and had a tough time gaining acceptance.

Another difference from other stories is the frequency of unhappy endings. In Lord of the Flies, a naval officer arrives and removes the surviving boys to safety and we have no sense that anyone has learned anything except (in Golding’s words) ‘the darkness of man’s heart’. Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) discovers loving happiness in being with his little sister but the novel hints at a difficult future for him and does not resolve his sense of being an outsider. Salinger’s brilliance lies not just in the honest, first person style but the sly exploration of whether it’s Holden or the conformist society around him that is deranged.

Let’s take a moment to distinguish survival stories:

In a survival story, darkness descends on the main character and has to be suffered until the character is rescued or finds a way to escape. There is no sense that the character deserved or needed this experience.

In a Rite of Passage story, the dark experiences are the making of the main character and provoke the necessary decision about the future that they would not otherwise have had the strength or opportunity to make.

Anybody who endures a horrifying experience learns in the course of it. But in Twelve Years A Slave, for example, no-one would allege that Solomon or any of the other slaves needed to endure what they did to become more fully themselves.

Lord of the Flies is often held up as classic Rite of Passage but I feel that it’s actually a survival story. Ralph learns more on the island than anyone his age should know but he does not need the appalling sequence of events to become more fully himself. He remains the fundamentally decent man he was when he first put the conch to his lips.

You may well feel differently. I’m not laying down rules, just throwing up thoughts for you to consider while you work out where you draft might benefit from a little help here or there.

EXERCISES

  • What are your favourite Rite of Passage stories?
  • Why?
  • What sets them apart from other similar stories for you? Is it the character(s), the story arc and how it resolves?
  • Is the location important? Why?
  • Is there anything about this story type that rankles with you? Can you give an example or two of what put you off? And work out why?
  • Think of a couple of fictional characters, maybe from the novel you’re writing, and sketch out Rite of Passage stories based on their lives. Think about what the crisis scenes would be and where they would fit together.

Happy writing! Next week, we’ll be Overcoming the Monster.

 

THRILLED TO BITS – WHAT CAN CRIME THRILLERS TEACH US?

One of the greatest fiction genres of the twentieth century is the thriller (crime fiction) and there seems to be no sign of it slowing in its development or appeal. From a new writer’s point of view, it’s attractive because agents know what they’re getting, publishers know how to market a thriller and book shops know which section of the shelves to stock it. These things can make all the difference to a writing career.

EXERCISES

  • Take a moment to think about your favourite thriller if you have one. Why do you like it? What are your favourite moments in that book? Why not read it again, making notes? It won’t be wasted time.
  • Describe your favourite villain, dead or alive, real or fictional in a scribble-portrait for five or ten minutes. What do you enjoy about that character? What hooks you in?
  • What’s your favourite resolution or twist in any thriller? Why? How does it make you feel?
  • Why do you think we like thrillers?
  • Conversely, what do you dislike about thrillers? What puts you off most? Why do you think that is?

Let yourself free-write around this for a while, over several days if you like.

The fact is that, love or leave them, thrillers are perennially popular. Why?

  • They are often accessible page-turners. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, they can teach any fiction writer a lot about keeping readers hooked in.
  • They bring us into a world where order and justice are valued.
  • The outcome usually feels safe and moral. For a few moments at least, our world feels like a better place.
  • There are thrills and cliff-hangers along the way of course in a series of logical, though tantalising steps; we love all that. In the hands of a good author, we are in for escapism and plenty of safe thrills.

How real is Thrillerland?

EXERCISE

Have you ever had news that someone close to you has passed away? Please pass by this exercise if you need to but if you can bear it, take ten minutes or so to describe your feelings and actions at that time. Include dialogue if you’d like to. Go as deep as you want but stop any time you become uncomfortable with going into the past in this way.

Compare what you’ve written with how this is portrayed on television and film. Try giving yourself another ten minutes to pot-hole around this subject, the reality versus the conventions that we accept.

Above all, we are after emotional truth in whatever we write. These exercises will help you become alert to clichés and make your fiction stronger.

When was the first thriller?

The Bible is a great source of stories and there in the Apocrypha are two ‘thrillers’, written in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC:

Susanna is an attractive lass. On her way home, she’s accosted by two elders who say they’ve seen her having sex with a young man. They threaten to ruin her reputation by spreading the story unles she agreed to have sex with both elders. Their story is not true so Susanna calls them liars and tells them to go away and leave her alone. In no time, they have told everyone their lie and she is distraught. What can she do?

A young man called Daniel (destined for later fame) intervenes. He sets about interrogating the two elders about what they say they witnessed. She’s supposed to have been with a young man under a tree – what kind of tree? Exactly where? The elders give conflicting answers and hey presto, their lies are exposed. Susanna is free, and they’re not.

Young David (also destined for later greatness) is trying to persuade the priests of the god Baal that his mighty God is superior. The priests show David the mounds of offerings brought daily to their temple, all of which vanish in the night, leaving room for more the next day. Surely if Baal did not exist, this daily miracle could not happen so David must abandon his own God and see the error of his ways. David spends a night in the Temple of Baal. Before he settles for bed, he dusts ash over the floor around the altar laden with offerings. He prays, lies down and has an excellent night’s sleep. In the morning, the offerings have disappeared and … the ash reveals a host of footsteps belonging to the priests and their families, nipping in to help themselves. Problem solved and again the story proves that no-one is above justice.

Credit for the first modern detective story goes to Edgar Allan Poe whose Murders on the Rue Morgue was published in 1841. A pair of bloodthirsty murders seem to be unsolvable until the detective cracks it: the culprit is an escaped orang-utang, not human after all.

The story was immediately greeted as having invented an important new genre: the detective story had arrived. Despite Poe telling us that teeth marks at the scene of the crime couldn’t possibly fit any human, and that hairs couldn’t possibly be human either, readers complained that the ending was too much of a surprise. However, many of the now familiar tropes of the detective novel were firmly in place: a genius detective runs rings around the police and has his story narrated by his nice, dependable side-kick. Remind you of anyone?

Arthur Conan Doyle was a young medic at the time, which gave him useful insight into human anatomy and murder clues. He wrote sixty stories about Holmes and Watson, the first published in The Strand magazine illustrated by Sidney Paget. I love Watson’s body language in Paget’s drawing below.

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Thanks to film and television, the Holmes and Watson magic continues to thrive.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) brought a turning point in the well-made detective novel – the detective is a police sergeant this time. Dickens, never one to leave a good plot line unturned, left The Mystery Of Edwin Drood sadly unfinished when he died.

By the time the twentieth century was well under way, so was the thriller. In cinema Hitchcock was the master of suspense and spilled blood. On the page Agatha Christie led the field in the UK, Raymond Chandler in the States.

Ingredients of the perfect thriller

  • An initial puzzle, usually an unexplained corpse. Death means high stakes.
  • An all-knowing, quirky detective. He or she needn’t be officially police, in fact the more ordinary he or she is, the more we empathise.
  • A nice steady side-kick to be the reliable narrator and safe company for readers through the rollercoaster ride.
  • A lovely location always helps. In the UK locations range from Oxford to the Shetland Isles. Is where you live asking for the thriller treatment?
  • There’s the usual pattern of tension and release as the stakes rise. Serial murders – are they linked or not? – increase danger to the community.
  • A red herring or two helps stretch the story and raise the stakes: an innocent person is accused until the detective works out the truth. Unless he’s the detective in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap where (spoiler alert) he is the one who winds up in handcuffs. Which brings us to
  • The twist! The murderer is the last person we’d suspected but of course …

What makes thrillers different from other plots?

  • The hero/ine who solves the problem is not usually part of the main story. Though they can be affected by what they’ve experienced, they usually live to detect another day.
  • The puzzle story can be another type of plot altogether eg. Ghost story, quest, love story, revenge etc.
  • Murder happens in all sorts of stories, from The Orestia to Jack and the Beanstalk, without any puzzle about whodunit or whydunit. Thrillers are about solving the puzzle.
  • Although murder is high on the list of thoroughly antisocial crimes, the simplest thrillers do not go in much for moral discussion or debate about how society should respond. Usually murder just happens. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The beauty of the thriller structure is that it’s linear and beautifully straightforward. And you can pack in around that anything you like.

Where does Oedipus Rex come in?

I’ve said that Miss Marple and her crew are usually not part of the main story. The exceptions are psychological murder tales where the guilt is not in doubt; the puzzle is why murder happened. In these stories the murderer can be the narrator, a trick that is fertile ground for twists.

But the complex psychological thriller with the perpetrator as protagonist is far from new. Oedipus was given the job of finding out who killed King Laius and discovered to his and everyone’s horror that, not only was he the murderer himself but that the king was his own father. Two things about this are relevant to us:

  • Sophocles’ play was full of debate about the implications for the society of what Oedipus had done. How far should Oedipus take the blame when the Sphinx had prophesied, when Oedipus was a boy, that his destiny was to kill his own father and marry his mother and everyone had gone to considerable lengths to make both geographically and in every other way impossible? This beautiful picture of young Oedipus with the Sphinx comes from a kylix or drinking cup, c. 470 BCE, in the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican.

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  • Was Oedipus Rex perhaps the first ever thriller where the investigator is guilty of the crime? Who knows? Very few stories are new under the sun and Oedipus did not stop Agatha Christie giving us The Mousetrap (where the detective is the murderer) which has run as a play in London for 66 years and 27,000 performances so far.

Where Christie leads, we can follow. Let any of these great stories inspire you in whatever way works best, not forgetting the words of Val McDermid:

The contemporary crime novel is, at its best, a novel of character. That’s where the suspense comes from.’

Have a happy writing week!

Rags to riches

Do you know anyone who has started out in life with nothing very much and has managed to get rich? Someone you were at school with perhaps, or a member of your family? Take five or ten minutes to write a character sketch of that person. Compare how that person was before and how they are now. Look at changes in your relationship and how you feel about them. Be as personal as you like and keep to the truth of what you see and feel. It’s private, they’ll never see it.

Then take five minutes to write freely and privately about your own greatest desire. Make it something attainable at a push – not world peace, however lovely that would be – and something that would fulfil you. Expand on it to your heart’s content: what steps could you take to get it, how would you feel when you have it, how would people react to you then, why is it important to you etc. Go as deep into your emotions as you dare, and it doesn’t have to be pretty …

What is a Rags to Riches story?

The Rags to Riches plot is probably the one we hear earliest in our lives, long before we reach school. Some of the old folk tales go back a long way: Puss in Boots dates from 1729, Dick Whittington from 1605, Aladdin is 8th century (1001 Nights), and Cinderella is thought now to originate maybe 3000 years ago. Like the best plots, it runs through the core of both Testaments of the Bible and inhabits cultures everywhere. Like so many folk tales, the English story of King Arthur made the transition to Disney in The Sword in the Stone (1938 by English writer TH White), for example, where a humble little lad slips a big sword from where it’s embedded in a rock and goes on to rule as king.

Once we learn to read for ourselves, the horizon expands enormously. Dickens loved the Rags and Riches story and came back to it time and again, not least in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. On the romantic side, Cinderella develops into a thousand stories from The Great Gatsby and Gone with the Wind to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

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EXERCISE

Take a few minutes to list your own favourite Rags to Riches stories – novels, plays, films, it doesn’t matter – and make a list of your best-loved moments in them. Steep yourself in each of those moments in turn and write privately for yourself about what you think makes them work:

  • What resonates most about each moment with you?
  • Take time to examine how the moment makes you feel, on first reading and now.
  • How did the writer prepare for each moment and build towards it?
  • What feelings and expectations were conjured? Can you see how those feelings and expectations were built?
  • What temperature (stakes-wise) and tone were in the writing before and after these moments?
  • And how did the writer lead readers away from it afterwards?
  • What followed? What did you feel about that? Why?

Whenever you study a favourite novel, don’t be afraid – after your first reading for sheer enjoyment – to break it down into its smallest parts. Examine each paragraph, each line of dialogue, each half-line introducing a new character into a scene, each time a new relationship is set up – and study your responses to each part as much as to the whole. Civilians (non-writers) think our stories fall onto our pages and screens ready minted, perfect but it’s not true. Each line is worked and tussled with. So try and work out why great writers chose the elements they did, in that order. Martin Amis likened writing to playing snooker, getting a feel for the best angle and pressure of striking a ball to fire it into the pocket. There’s no need to copy or steal – just absorb from this sort of close study and what you need will come to you when the time is right.

The Dark Side

If you Google ‘Rags to Riches’, you’ll find lists of real people who have come from very humble beginnings to set up and run some of the biggest corporations in the world. This is no coincidence. Something about their early poverty drives them, as it drove Dickens. The real story is not always pretty and the Rags to Riches plot has an underside. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is the best example: thwarted in love, he sets out to bully, conquer and humiliate everyone around him financially and personally until he has created widespread misery and great loneliness for himself.

EXERCISE

Wuthering Heights is more a revenge tragedy than a love story: discuss.

Clever old Dickens shows Ebenezer Scrooge how much more there is to life than money in A Christmas Carol, one of the wittiest stories ever written.

The mother and father of all Rags to Riches stories is …

The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thomas Hardy brings it full circle: his hero Michael Henchard works his way up from being a homeless agricultural worker to commercial success and honour as Mayor, then back to poverty and drunken ignominy, breaking all our hearts in the process.

Ingredients of the Rags to Riches story:

  • We first meet the main character in childhood (or near it), poor, mistreated, forlorn etc.
  • Bullies surround the character – ugly sisters and the like, adults as well as her peers. These bullies are hard-hearted and have control of the situation which seems hopeless as far as our hero/ine is concerned. Charlotte Bronte does this brilliantly from the first page of Jane Eyre.
  • Escape is due and impossible to resist.
  • In the wide world, the hero/ine undergoes a series of tests that develop and reveal your character’s character and strength. This character is destined for a great future.
  • Like the Quest, Rags to Riches may well have a romantic subplot so that love can become the prize for other endeavours (eg Aladdin’s love for his princess).
  • About half way through the story, there is usually a major setback. Everything seems to be progressing nicely (Jane Eyre is at the altar with Rochester, Aladdin is in love with his princess and has the lamp firmly in his grip, David Copperfield is happily married to his beloved Dora) when the main character suffers an overwhelming reversal of fortune.
  • She or he must then build life afresh by their own human endeavours. No more magic or charms, no more Fairy Godmothers, they have to discover their own resources, thereby proving that they are worthy of their wealth. (Cinderella pushes forward, regardless of mockery, to claim her chance to try the golden slipper.)
  • The usual series of obstacles continues in the familiar pattern of tension and release through ever-rising stakes until
  • The final crisis brings our brave central character forward as the victor, now in charge … in place of the baddies and their crew.
  • Marriage to the beloved prince/ess crowns everyone’s happiness. All are set fair for a deservedly happy future.

As Miss Prism tells us, in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’ For some of us anyway – you can reinvent the wheel with your story while keeping a weather eye on how the old skills can help.

So can these various plot structures overlap?

You’ve spotted that Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are love stories combined with Rags to Riches. That A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with strong elements of Rags to Riches. Studying these plots is not, as I said, an exercise in putting things in boxes and keeping them there. We’re looking at the strongest classic plot lines to see if they can help your story.

By now you have a feel for story arc, for the mid-way catastrophe, for that sense of repeated tension and release through the obstacle-course middle section, for the pitch and placing of the climactic battle and its resolution, and taking time at the end to give a sense of life going forward again for your main characters in their hard-won new world. These are not cheap tricks; they have been part of story-telling’s craft for thousands of years at every level of sophistication.

The Ugly Duckling

The Rags to Riches story in its purest form is probably Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling (1844). This story took him a year to write. Please take the time to read that sentence again. It was the first of his stories not to be designated as written for children and it told something of his personal story. Andersen believed that he was of royal lineage, from the wrong side of the blanket, so his choice of the heraldic swan was deliberate. That did not stop people of all kinds everywhere relating to the story which became an immediate success.

The traditional Rags to Riches elements are there:

  • The young fledgling is tormented for being different from his family and community. He’s ugly and ungainly and everyone mocks him and leaves him out.
  • Wherever he goes, he’s bullied and belittled.
  • He feels isolated and desperate. Things go from bad to worse as he tries to escape.
  • He is on the verge of ending his life when he sees a flock of swans. Oh to have their elegance, their beauty.
  • The swans greet him as one of their own. He sees himself for the first time as what he really is, a swan, and swims off with the swans to new happiness.

There are no magic spells in this story. No Fairy Godmother transforms or dresses him. It is all about inner beauty getting its due. We long for that sort of justice and look to fiction to comfort us when it seems to be a rare thing in real life.

Justice is also part of the appeal of a good thriller … and next time we’ll take a look at the classic thriller plot.

Have a happy writing week!