An Off Stage Question

I was wondering about the point in the last post where David Nicholls mentions the impact of having important event happen ‘off stage’ and their impact being made greater when viewed from the perspective of their subsequent impact on characters’ lives — the example he used was a wedding in One Day.

It raises an interesting point about the distinction between author and narrator and the limits of narrative voice. A narrator can act as voice that’s independent of the author — being a first person fictitious character or unreliable or a different gender or even a wine bottle (in the case of Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine).

But it’s the author who makes the crucial decisions about which parts of the characters’ stories are related in the text — such as where to start and end, the timescale of the novel, which plot events and interactions with other characters are represented and so on. These decisions are crucial for all novels, but the plots of genres such as mysteries and detective fiction hinge on precise choices about what the author shows. For every saga that stretches over decades, there are novels that concentrate action into one day, like Ulysses.

There’s a huge amount of debate in creative writing classes and on writing blogs about narrative voice but sometimes it seems these underlying structural elements are less discussed, perhaps because they’re much more abstract and can’t be illuminated by textual analysis. The plot itself gets a fair amount of attention. Although it’s more difficult to teach by analysis of passages in novels, the principles of plotting and the enigmatic narrative arc can be found discussed in plenty of books and blogs.

But having an established plot is not quite the same as deciding how to show the plot action to the reader. David Nicholls, once he came up with his concept for One Day made it fairly simple for himself — he showed events that happened on that one day, even though life-changing plot points occurred on other dates. For most novelists, the decisions about what to reveal to the reader are much more potentially difficult to choose.

This might be my biggest problem at the moment — that I can write at such length about so many incidents that are connected to my novel’s plot that I end up combining the detail of the novel-in-a-day approach with the scope of the saga (well, I don’t see my plot lasting longer than a year or so but that’s still a lot longer than a day).

I’m not convinced about the ‘less is more’ approach to this sort of dilemma, which seems to be the standard sort of advice that’s given but I’m sure a lot harder to apply successfully as it depends on the recipient of the advice having the skill to retain all the ‘more’ while discarding all the ‘less’ . If I cut out everything that’s not directly plot-related then I’d lose a lot of what I enjoy about the writing, such as humour, and it would be a different sort of book entirely. It looks as if I’m going to have to resign myself to producing a long-ish book.

While I’ve been musing about how the novel seems to be lengthening overall, there is a particular issue that I’m wondering about that relates to both point-of-view and revelation of plot. I alternate point-of-view between two characters, male and female, although not equally, probably about 60-40. This has its issues in terms of ensuring that important plot events can be witnessed or experienced feasibly by the character whose point-of-view is being used. It can also, however, be used to withhold information.

I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to use this withholding of the reporting of direct experience for one character to allow its discovery later in the plot by the other character’s point-of-view.  It’s not crucial to the overall narrative arc but I’d like to introduce a temporary relationship for one of the characters which the reader will know has happened but only through the perspective of the character who isn’t involved in that relationship (if this makes sense). Then later this character discovers more about what happened — and this has a bearing on the overall plot.

My question is simply whether the reader would be satisfied by this selective revelation of information through use of point-of-view. Would they say ‘If we were told her point-of-view about event X then why didn’t we find out about event Y at the time — and not later?’

My instinct is that this is probably OK and selective revelation like this occurs all the time in books I read but, obviously, don’t analyse in this sort of depth. But if anyone has any ideas about this, especially if it looks like ‘cheating’ then I’d be fascinated to read any comments.

Infinite Universes

I watched an edition of Horizon on BBC2 a few weeks ago which attempted to discuss the utterly bizarre nature of what we perceive as reality once it’s considered by physicists — quantum, astro- and various other varieties. (It’s available to view again on iPlayer until 15th March.)

Many people are familiar with the ‘unreal’ concept that, under quantum theory, a particle can be in two places at once and can cease to exist and then re-appear and all kinds of weird behaviour that seems to be the exact opposite of what people like me, with an ‘O’ level in it, understand about physics.

I was reminded of this programme when I saw this page of writing ‘top-tips’ retweeted by Emma Darwin (whose ‘Itch of Writing’ blog is linked to on the sidebar). It’s by Irish author Joseph O’Connor and seems to be aimed at an Irish audience (but, of course, many of the finest writers of English come from that country) and is on Blake Friedmann’s website (the Blake being well-known Twitterer Carole Blake).

The tips are all very sensible. I thought the last one — about knowing who you’re writing for — was very useful for new writers as the ‘democracy of the creative writing workshop’ (or some may say tyranny) sometimes gives the impression that it’s possible for a writer to connect with every reader — or at least the dozen or so strong opinions who tend to be on these courses. People have different tastes and if a writer removes everything that doesn’t get a positive reaction from every person in a workshop then he or she is likely to produce something so bland that no-one will love it. Workshops are great for getting feedback on technical writing issues from most participants but it’s not likely that more than a handful of participants will really get excited by each writers’ work — no matter how outstanding the quality. So O’Connor is right to advise people to write for a specific reader or small number of readers.

The point that most resonated with me, however, is the start of tip number five — ‘Make Something Happen’. If his first two sentences are concatenated as ‘Stories are…records of the exceptional’ then it perfectly sums up a point that I think is lost in the workshopping culture. It also reminds me, returning to the Horizon programme about the bizarre but apparently perfectly plausible, infinite universes theory.

This suggests that, despite its unimaginable vastness, our universe is only one of a massive number (infinite in theory) of co-existing universes where, because of their infinite number any variant of any event that we might think of has actually occurred in some parallel universe.

It sounds odd but an example from my novel might illustrate it: take as a starting point the one day James gets fired. Every event subsequent to his firing over which he makes a decision or is affected by the actions of other people or things may ‘split off’ into its own parallel universe. So in one universe he might get the train home immediately, in another he might head to the pub with his mates and in another he might decide to go and buy the painting from the artist he met the night before. The first two scenarios are much more likely but if I wrote about events in the parallel universe where that version of James now exists then it would be less interesting than following the universe in which James strikes up with Kim.

The same goes for all plot events — there are often many choices a novelist and his or her characters make but, in general, the most interesting stories are those which follow the parallel universes of the unusual choices — or in Joseph O’Connor’s words ‘records of the exceptional’.

Of course there needs to be a degree of plausibility and too many random events will make a reader feel cheated but the main source of credibility should be whether the character would behave in the way that the novelist chooses. For important drivers of the plot, it’s almost required that the character chooses an option that, while still credible, is less likely than the choice he or she would normally make. The day that’s really interesting is when your main character’s boss decides to fire him rather than all the days he doesn’t.

It’s the debates over plot and character that seem to be most problematic about writing workshops. Most people will come with an idea of the stories they want their novels to tell. These ideas may range between teens having their souls taken over by ancient evil spirits or they may be about unrequited love where most of the action occurs in a character’s imagination. Some are fantasy or magic realism, some are comic, some are totally realistic — but they are all stories to be told that require a suspension of disbelief from the reader, albeit at different levels. Central to this bargain of the suspension of disbelief is the concept of storytelling — i.e. reading is not a co-operative, interactive experience. The danger of workshopping is that the readers approach each others’ writing from a completely artificial perspective — that the story can be changed to match their personal preferences — ‘I think the character would appear nicer if he didn’t leave his wife’.

As with the point above about writing for a select group of readers, the novel has to be about what the author cares passionately enough to devote the massive amount of time required. While films now have endings changed by the initial reactions of advance screening, not even Hollywood seems to create its films solely by focus group.

One Day

‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.

I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.

One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)

These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).

I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.

The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.

Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.

Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.

Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.

Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.

Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.

Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.

I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.

Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.

Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.

It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.

I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.

Spooked at City University

I was watching Spooks last night and jumped up off the sofa, not at any cliff-hanging drama, but because the terrorist from ‘Azakstan’ who was after a deadly nerve agent that could kill everyone in London in a week, was walking up the stairs at the entrance of City University in Northampton Square. He wandered off down the long corridor towards the small snack bar in the direction of the lecture room in the Drysdale Building we used with Emily in the spring term!

Then the Section D cavalry charged in after him and the action had transferred to the Tait building where I’d had my Intermediate Fiction class with Heidi James in summer 2009. A shootout then followed around the long corridors that we had to walk around to find the toilets when we turned up on alternate Saturdays between January and March this year for our workshops with Alison. In fact, in one scene Sophia Myles looks like she’s about to burst through the door of the gents, which would have been interesting. The bad guy eventually finds the scientist he’s looking for in the actual room where we had our tutorials — or at least an identical one on a lower floor!

City University provided a good 5 or 10 minutes of locations for the programme, including a number of sinister looking stairwells and fire escapes (that are normally used to access the library!). In the end the suspect climbs out on to the university roof.  It was quite a novel experience to see such familiar surroundings used in a plot that involved Russians, chemical weapons, separatists and as much else as is normally crammed in. It can be seen on the iPlayer for the time being. The City University locations appear at just over 22 minutes in.

It underlines the point in an earlier post that fast-paced editing can make almost any location appear intriguing or exciting.

I thought the episode used a few devices which were the wrong side of implausible. The power of the resident computer geek to rescue the plot from impractical dead-ends and to keep it speeding along has often been pretty unbelievable but a separatist from a ex-Soviet state got off a Eurostar unnoticed (of course French intelligence were far too slow off the mark) and all Tariq needed to do find him in central London was to run some sort of ‘probabilty algorithm’ and then some face-recognition software against hundreds of live CCTV cameras to locate him within a few seconds.

This begs the question that if it’s so easy to identify and locate the bad guys then why do they keep popping up and threatening world civilisation in episode after episode — surely they could run a few algorithms and feed a few intelligence photos into their face recognition software and they’d be able to pick them all of the streets at will?

I doubt whether there’s enough computing power in the world to carry out the identification that tracked down the suspect immediately to Charing Cross tube station — which apparently has 6 platforms. I thought this was an error because it only two lines serve the station (Bakerloo and Northern) but I forgot about the disused Jubilee Line that terminated there until the extension was routed via Westminster in 2000. However, seeing as they’re closed off from the public (and you’d guess from Azakstani terrorists too) then it seems likely that this line in the script was probably just thrown in from a tube reference book without much thought.

According to Wikipedia these very platforms are likely to have been the ones used in this episode for filming the tube train scenes (quite handy as they wouldn’t have even needed to alter the signs!).

Spooked by Heartbeat’s Demise

I was rather gutted (as footballers say) a week last Sunday by the transmission of the last ever episode of ‘Heartbeat‘.

No really — this isn’t meant to be a piece of wry irony. I enjoyed the programme, and admired in many ways, its comfortable Sunday night formula of mostly gentle drama and character-based comedy.  I only started watching it about 1996/7 when it had been going a couple of years when I was bogged down at the weekends doing a part-time MBA course — it seemed to be a non-demanding distraction and it reminded me of ‘The North’.

This was in symbolic terms — I’m a Lancastrian and I’ve never even been to the interior of the North York moors (although I think 25% of my genetic make-up may be from there) but it reminded me of outings and school trips to the Yorkshire Dales and so on. ‘Heartbeat’ itself also seems to use many of the elements of the classic late 70s series — ‘All Creatures Great and Small. (I sometimes wonder if my love of the English pub dates back to Tristan’s (Peter Davison) adventures in The Drovers’ Arms, which made a big impression on me in my early teens.)

What really grabbed me, though, was that while on the surface ‘Heartbeat’  appears to be all whimsy and sentimentality, it could treat its characters with merciless brutality. The Niamh Cusack doctor character developed leukemia and I wondered how she was going to be cured – and then she suddenly died – which was genuinely shocking. Many other lead characters have met gruesome ends – in explosions, shootings, falling off railway bridges and so on. We were left on tenterhooks as to whether Oscar Blaketon would survive his impalement on a piece of agricultural machinery.

With a long-running series it’s often necessary to change the cast in this sort of way as actors leave (or get ill or die) but this leads to a type of plotting that isn’t normally available to the novelist or dramatist – to kill off your principal character well before the end. In the 80s series ‘Robin of Sherwood’, which I still think is the best Robin Hood series ever due to Richard Carpenter’s liberal infusion of Celtic mythology, I was also stunned to see Michael Praed’s Robin get killed by the Sheriff’s men – ‘that’s not meant to happen!’. They then used a Doctor Who type regeneration to get the next actor into the role, which I didn’t think worked particularly well.

‘Heartbeat’ is also a good example of how the plot can often be an almost perfunctory piece of machinery. The supposed lead characters – policemen, doctors and nurses usually – seem to act out their roles mainly to elicit some reaction from the large cast of secondary, but more permanent characters, usually sat around the bar of the pub.

There was almost always a comedy sub-plot involving the ‘mechanical’ character  – originally Bill Maynard but later Geoffrey Hughes and ending with  Gwen Taylor. Sometimes the two plots ran totally separately – the characters in each never interacted – which was again quite bizarre.

So I think ‘Heartbeat’ was more than a small part subversive – the more so because it seemed so conventional – and there’s quite a lot of ‘Heartbeat’ that has made its way into the Angel.

Of course many of the characteristics of long-running drama series are shared by soap operas – long standing characters, anchored settings, traumas and plot points occurring almost as in real life rather than by dramatic convention and so on.

Some people have said that there are soapy elements too in my novel extracts and I agree to some extent – and also bearing in mind the point that some soaps are examples of exceptionally good dramatic writing that are worth aspiring towards — and I like the emotional directness that’s often exposed in soaps where characters are pushed to breaking point (the drawback for soaps is that these events happen implausibly often to the same characters) .

In ‘The Angel’ I have a pub setting and a small cast of characters who will inter-relate closely. What I’m finding is that I’m working with a nod towards the soap genre rather than try and write something that goes in the opposite direction (e.g. a pub where the most exciting thing that happens is someone cleaning the beer lines every week).

One of my first blog postings was on the plotting of ‘Spooks’ last autumn – and this is another series which regularly kills off its key characters — except for the perennial Harry who’s always wondering about leaving. I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Sophia Myles character develops (I loved the Doctor Who episode where she featured as Madame de Pompadour) as I never really liked Hermione Norris’s Ros.

‘Spooks’ returned again this week. Graeme A. Thomson (author of ‘Under the Ivy’) tweeted a review on The Arts Desk website which described the series as something like ‘last week’s newspaper headlines fed through a scriptwriting program’.

I tend to agree – the characters dialogue has to be short and punchy because if it was any more contemplative then the issues involved would be so ponderous and loaded with politics that each episode would turn into a moral treatise. But the dialogue is not really the point about ‘Spooks’ — it’s an excellent example of how fast-paced plotting (and editing) can transform the mundane. Apart from the one spectacular explosion per series, almost all the scenes are on anonymous London streets, in ‘The Grid’ or somewhere pretty dull like the bridge of a container ship — all intercut with stock footage of places like the Freemason’s Hall on Great Queen Street (not the real Thames House).

Yet it all works brilliantly on its own terms (like ‘Heartbeat’) which means it doesn’t matter that the scenarios are complete nonsense and the script seems to have been written by people who are fortunately unencumbered by any knowledge of computing or the internet.

It’s a bit of a salutary lesson to what I’ve been writing recently — which has been pages and pages of two characters explaining how they feel about each other. I’m not sure whether in the end I’ll take a hatchet to this dialogue but it does help me explore what the characters are feeling. If I leave much of it in, though, it will probably take the reader as long to read about two characters talking over breakfast than for a plot for London’s imminent destruction to be planned, discovered and foiled in ‘Spooks’!

The Narrative Center

As mentioned in the last post, I just spent a very long weekend in Center Parcs (staying until late Monday afternoon. trying to get most value for money).

I’ve been to all the Center Parcs in the country although the one at Elveden in Suffolk the most often (about four times) — and would go more often if it wasn’t so ludicrously expensive. This is quite odd as I normally like holidays to be as independent and away from hordes of other people as possible — I much prefer self-catering cottages in the wilds of Wales or Gozitian villas to big hotel complexes.

The concept of entering a fenced-off compound, surrendering your ability to ‘escape’ because your car is parked (as in my case) literally a mile away and spending three or four days there with over 4,000 other people hell bent on a good time would normally be an anathema to me. And yet…

Like Disneyland or well-run theme parks like Alton Towers, there seems to be something quite re-assuring about these closed, contained, managed worlds. I can pretty cynical about most forms of entertainment and yet I found myself happily paying out extortionate prices — like £10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved £96 for a weekend hiring 5 bikes by strapping our own precariously on the car and spent more time looking in the mirror to check they hadn’t fallen off than I did looking forwards down the A11).

As far as I could tell, almost everyone else that I’ve ever encountered there has a similarly good time — again something that seems to happen at Disneyland, even to the most embittered sceptic. I was prompted to wonder why. It goes beyond the obvious factors like things generally working properly and having good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company of John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone a whole company training programme ‘Making Memorable Moments’ similar to the ones I used to do at BA when that company actually had good customer service). (It might be possible to spot my MBA training in the interest in customer service and operations management there — I’d love to write a thesis on how these places work.)

But what does this have to do with novel writing? On a psychological level, I think there are some startling similarities. A comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made  (commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster) seems very relevant. She said of reading the opening of a novel that ‘you must feel you are in good hands’ as a reader — and this is exactly what places like Center Parcs do. Well-written fiction has an authorial assurance (distinct from the narrator) that, ultimately, makes the reader feel safe — part of a contract in the reader suspending disbelief and also a guarantee that the time invested in reading will result in a satisfying experience.

Note that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ have the same etymological root. And so this is at Center Parcs and Disneyland — there’s an invisible sort of authority that derives from the exclusivity of the community — everyone’s paid a lot to be there so that’s a social leveller and they are literally gated communities where causes of social anxiety can be excluded. In Center Parcs case various design features ameliorate the fact that thousands of other people are also on the site: the accommodation is cleverly laid out so neighbours don’t overlook each other; the forest setting deadens the noise levels (and mobile phone signals!); and the absence of cars eliminates a source of status and also creates an environment which is a bit otherworldly (a bit like that created in fiction).

Center Parcs is also interesting when considered against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses the knows that physiological and safety needs need to be covered before the higher needs are fulfilled. It brings to mind an interesting quotation that I read recently in the Economist Blighty blog about wider society:  ‘the ultimate purpose of politics and the state [is]: the protection of people from each other.’ I’d argue that the attraction of novels to many readers, especially but by no means exclusively in non-realistic genres, is the sense of escape from anxieties about other people’s actions in the disordered ‘real world’.

Belonging/social needs are generally covered as people are on holiday with family or friends. However, the popularity of activities, like my doing archery or the tree-climbing that I blogged about below, is certainly associated with achieving self-esteem (overcoming fears, demonstrating ability). Some of the activities even inch towards self-actualisation — having a massage in the spa is very nice and I even got up at 6.30am on a Sunday to be educated by a wildlife ranger — going round looking for deer and birds (we spotted a little owl — which is apparently good going).

Also, as mentioned in a previous post in the context of rollercoasters, much of what we choose to do in our leisure time fits a classic narrative structure, which separates the experience from the inertia and continuity of real life — films, plays, music all tend to have beginnings and ends with middles arranged into some sort of anticipated structure. The same applies to holidays — there’s travel there and back and packing and unpacking, acclimatisation and so forth — although holiday companies seem to have been slow to realise the narrative. A subsidiary of my ex-employer, Thomson Holidays, has stumbled in its current TV advertising on the parallels between drama (films/plays) and a perfect holiday experience ‘authored’ by an expertly directed cast.

One re-assuring facet of holidays, planned activities and instances of fiction is that there is a planned end — in real life we never know when the end is.

A need for narrative structure must be somehow hard-wired into the human brain and is no doubt exploited intuitively by effective fiction writers. As a novel has an all encompassing narrative arc and many smaller arcs within that structure, so does the holiday experience. Even such basic events as a meal in a restaurant follow a set structure — and the more satisfying and memorable a meal the more likely it is to have an expectation setting opening and a satisfying resolution.

The more complex activities that I did at Center Parcs are similarly organised. A well-delivered massage certainly follows a pattern that ends with a rewarding, relaxing denouement. The tree-trekking starts with a briefing then has a series of 9 ‘acts’ of rope obstacles to be negotiated between trees (a place to pause) — tension is gradually built up as the obstacles rise higher above the ground. Then there’s the climax of suddenly descending at speed down the zip wire. You negotiate the course yourself (as you would read a book) but there’s always the re-assurance of the authority of the instructors in the background — like a safe, authorial presence — as with reading a book, it can be thrilling and feels perilous but you know it’s ultimately safe.

The Center Parcs Aerial Adventure could be quite an effective, if unorthodox, model for the plotting of a novel as it seems to tap into the same basic human psychology.

Also, many of these participatory activities are a little like a performance and perhaps it’s not surprising that I mentioned in the last post that I was struck that one of the climbing instructors reminded me of my character Kim — both are acting, to an extent, in some sort of artifice. It reminds me of the surreal line in ‘Penny Lane’ (that Ian MacDonald thought was one of the most truly avant garde lines The Beatles ever wrote) — ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway’.

Addressing Deficiencies

Getting back to ideas for The Angel, I think I may have plugged a bit of a hole in the plot and balanced out the characters a bit by considering introducing a male admirer of Kim when she moves to The Angel. This chap will be actively sought out and encouraged by Emma (in some matchmaking activity reminiscent of her Austen namesake). Emma won’t rest until she’s paired Kim off with someone. Of course, the person she tries to pair Kim off with will be totally unsuitable, although the relationship will develop to an extent which will make James terribly jealous — and when James thinks they’ve slept together then he’ll be extremely agitated. It will be something of a dip in their relationship when he sees Kim having some sort of a relationship with someone who he used to think of as a friend but, in this context, sees as something of an arsehole. He’ll realise how trapped he his himself.

This person will probably have been a friend of James’ but they’ll fall out — and, because James is ostensibly a happily married man — he’ll have to find some other reason to vent his fury. Emma will try and coach the relationship on regardless — she’s the sort of person who thinks any outcome is possible, given the right sort of motivation.

Kim will confide a few things to James about how this chap is an utter philistine but that she’s initially flattered by his attention. Then Kim will start to notice a few suspicious danger signs that maybe the new boyfriend’s attention is beginning to wander — perhaps to someone who’s more receptive of his charms?

I’ll need to flesh this chap out — any suggestions as to his name and other personality features would be gratefully received. Perhaps with this character another piece of the jigsaw is falling into place?

Life is a Rollercoaster

Actually I’m not such a fan of Ronan Keating’s song (even though it was co-written by Dido/Belinda Carlisle/Stevie Nicks Svengali Rick Nowels) but I was struck on a visit to Alton Towers on Friday about the parallels between rollercoasters and narrative in fiction.

Theme parks are strange places: they’re physical manifestations of the human desire to be entertained that is normally fulfilled mentally by books, films, TV — even other art forms like painting and music. It’s probably no co-incidence that theme parks tend to re-use the narrative of familiar stories and fairy tales to bridge the gap between engineering and customer experience. The most successful rollercoasters and rides have some sort of story invested in them — whether it’s a general theme, such as riding the Congo River Rapids,  or something more specific, such as the recent rebranding of Alton Towers’ Spinball Whizzer as Sonic (the Hedgehog) Spinball. (This involved the theme park painting the ride blue and putting up a statue of Sonic the Hedgehog outside the ride — and they had the nerve to describe it on their park maps as ‘New’.) There’s a genuinely new ride at Alton Towers, which has a strong narrative theme — they brand it ‘Th13rteen’ and it apparently has some associated story about wraiths. (I don’t know the story to that one as I’ve not been on it).

Disneyland in its various manifestations is an obvious example of the connection between stories and narrative and these kind of rides.

On first thoughts, it seems like it’s an unlikely connection between the engineering of a steel rollercoaster and a narrative story but there are many parallels. Often novels are analysed by sketching a simple line graph that might represent something like intensity of plot events. This often looks like a sine wave on an oscilloscope but also quite like a rollercoaster: a narrative needs some variation in its pace so there are peaks and troughs. The classic Hollywood screenplay is constructed with plot points about 25% and 75% of the way through the script so conforms quite well to the pattern.

A rollercoaster is similar but must also work within the laws of physics, which tends to mean that it starts with a steep climb to charge the cars with potential energy, which is then discharged through drops with gravity bringing the heights of the curves closer to the ground as the ride goes on. However, this is not always the case and several rides will use traction in the middle to supplement the energy — as log flumes tend to do. The best rollercoasters will play tricks with the riders’ expectations — either by some sort of disorientation or sensory deprivation (like being in the dark).

The thrill element of the rollercoaster will exploit the riders’ sense of physcial danger. I’ve not been on Oblivion at Alton Towers but this seems to be a classic example of fear as the car teeters for a second or two sixty feet above a near vertical drop into a tunnel that’s about another 60ft deep underground before plunging  down underground. While the people on these sort of rides are obviously physically involved, they also know that there should be absolutely no danger. I would guess that a lot of a novel’s (or film’s) appeal is the vicarious engagement the reader has with the characters who will usually be in some dangerous predicament (physical or emotional). In the end the reader knows it’s only a story, in the same way that they know a rollercoaster is safe, but the skill of the author/designer is in trying to conceal that artificiality.

There seem to be a lot of parallels between coasters and narratives — they’re a continuous line of events designed to thrill or entertain by managing and subverting expectations that are quite primordial in the human psyche. The riders of a rollercoaster and readers of a novel will willingly surrender themselves to the skill of the designer or writer in the expectation of receiving gratification that derives from being temporarily removed from the ‘real world’ and having their norms and expectations challenged.

Something Borrowed…Leads to Plugging Some Gaps

The end of my last extract, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to read on Saturday, had a fire scene in The Angel. For some reason I was looking around on the internet for fire and ice imagery and came across some references to a classic novel which has a couple of fires. I decided to ‘borrow’ a bit of the action, although the original language was definitely not in keeping with the tone of what I was writing.

Here’s some selected parts of the source — no need to worry about quotation as it’s very out of copyright:

‘I hurried on my frock and a shawl: I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand…I [was] amazed to see the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, became further aware of a strong smell of burning…in an instant I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep. “Wake, wake!” I cried. I shook him but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him…I rushed to his basin and ewer…both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug,  baptized the couch afresh…the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr Rochester at last.’

This gave me the idea to have Kim empty ice on James to try and wake him, although my fire wasn’t dramatic enough to have flames inside the room:

‘ She coughed. The air stank. The smoke detector at the end of the hallway bleeped incessantly. She ran to the top of the stairs. Catching an orange glint in corner of her eye she stopped and looked out of the window. She saw flames through the outside glass door of the function room…”James. James. Wake up. Wake up. There’s a fire.” Kim shook him hard…flames were licking at the thatched roof…Turning the bar sink taps on full, she grabbed two bar towels and plunged them into the water. She picked up a plastic bucket and filled it from the ice machine. Carrying the bucket, she rushed upstairs, pressing a wet towel to her face. In her room she found James had put on his jeans but had then fallen asleep again on the bed. The thatch was now ablaze outside the window…Kim threw the ice in his face. “Get up you stupid man. There’s a fire. I’m not leaving you here.” As he awoke, a finger of black smoke entered the bedroom.’

I guess almost every writer who’s ever read Jane Eyre will probably have consciously or unconsciously borrowed something from the novel but it was quite fun to do. No one noted on any of the scripts that they’d spotted it, although had I got to read it out then perhaps it may have been more obvious.

I think there’s a bit of a Jane Eyre archetype in the plot of the book. While James isn’t really a Mr Rochester, Kim is going to be coming from somewhere different (Germany) to London and then will meet James and fall out and reconnect with him later (perhaps?) but I think her St. John Rivers phase will come before James. Hold on! That’s given me an idea for the sort of character she can hang around with in London — a supporting character and a bit of sub-plot that I noted I was lacking with the post-its.


I adapted Emily’s suggestion about using index cards to plot novels (and do various other things) by using post-it-notes on a conference room wall in our offices. It’s not as permanent a reminder as having index cards arranged on a corkboard at home but it was quite useful for seeing how the plots were working out. I went way over the 12 suggested plot points — with 44 for Burying Bad News and 32 for The Angel.

For both novels I seem to have two main points of view so I used different coloured ink for either: red for Frances/James and blue for Sally/Kim. There were a couple of general plot points in each which I wrote in black.

Here’s how Burying Bad News looked:

Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
Post-It-Note Storyboard -- Burying Bad News
The picture’s probably too small and reduced in definition to read but it shows a few deficiencies — Sally’s story carries the narrative mostly in the first half, to be replaced by Frances’ towards the end. I think I need more resolution for Sally and more introduction for Frances. Seeing as what’s represented on the board is a little less than double what I’ve already written, which is about 50,000 words, then adding in the extra will probably take me substantially over 100,000 words in total — so making me less than half way through. Mmm.
Here’s the Angel:
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
Angel Post-It-Note Storyboard
This has a more symmetrical feel to it and it’s nicely balanced around two plot points about 25% and 75% through the story (like the classic Hollywood screenplays that I was trained to write at UCSB). I feel like I’m still short of sub-plot for this and I’ve only really got three well developed characters who could sustain a love triangle through the first half of the plot but Emma seems to disappear afterwards. More minor characters are required but there’s some good themes coming through with some juxtaposition of art/sex/money/food and drink.
I only had this stuff on the wall for about half an hour so I took photos to preserve the display. I’ll need to come back and do it again but it was a useful exercise in taking stock so far.

Feedback on Synopses

I had my one-to-one tutorial with Emily and she was happy to go through both synopses — although this made it quite frenetic as we only had ten minutes to cover both.

I was most surprised that she liked both synopses equally — both “had legs” she said. This was was interesting as I had thought one was a lot stronger than the other — or at least one was more developed to the extent of a lot of the synopsis actually having been written.

The most vivid synopsis was the one that was the newest, although it had plenty of flaws, such as the lack of development of a potentially interesting character — Emma the status conscious girlfriend who gets the elbow somehow. This was also picked up by my friend Kathy (who’s doing an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University) who also kindly read through the synopsis.

I was a bit worried that the pub setting of what is currently called ‘Pub Story’ would be thought of as humdrum but Emily thought it potentially rich and entertaining.  The newer synopsis also had an immediate ‘inciting incident’ (the point at which the reader is invited into the story) that set the tone for the rest of the novel. The ‘Burying Bad News’ synopsis was much more confused as it was difficult to work out at which point the reader was going to be pulled in. This probably reflects the indecision that comes with having written substantial parts of this novel already — I’m really not sure whether it should open chronologically or in ‘media res’. 

Both synopses failed in some of the most important aspects — they didn’t communicate effectively what I’d planned for the novel. One example was setting. I’d planned to use as settings a combination of London and the area around where I live (literally Midsomer Murder country — it’s filmed all round here and people are surprised it’s not the West Country or Cotswolds but Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in reality).  The setting is obviously pretty vivid to me but I didn’t get this across at all in the synopsis — and clearly the setting is appealing in general or else Midsomer Murders, Morse, Rosemary and Thyme and all the rest of these dramas (loads of them) wouldn’t be filmed round here.

So I think I’ve learned a lot about synopses and hope to work on the two to correct the flaws. I see it needs to do a lot but the most important is to hook the reader with the inciting incident and set the tone. Also, elements such as setting and a vivid sense of character are just as important as plot. I have different jobs to do with either synopsis.

For ‘Pub Story’ I need to think more about the actual plot  and characterisation and I’ve given this a lot of thought and come up with some interesting ideas for Emma and to link her in to some of the other characters. I’ve thought some more about Kim and also about the need for a better title — preferably something that can work as a pub name and a metaphor for the story in general. I’ve decided that ‘The Angel’ might be good — and it’s a nice reference to the tube station just up the road from City University too.

‘Burying Bad News’ is slightly more problematic as I have to rejig what I already have rather than have the freedom to think of new ideas. However, the questions that Emily raised are more problems with the synopsis than the ongoing work itself — I need to make it more obvious that the story is told from the perspective of the two women and that the role of the MP is more of a foil than anything else. I also need to tick a few more boxes as regards the genre — it’s a thriller rather than a detective story (as the detectives are fairly peripheral).

So quite a bit of revision to do to the synopses but I’m fairly encouraged that the ideas themselves are appealing. One point that Emily made was that they both had plenty of character in opposition and potential for conflict — which is the basis of any dramatic action.

Plotting Spooks

When it comes to pacy plotting, Spooks on BBC1 is pretty good. It’s also quite a model of editing what are, in essence, pretty bland scenes together. ‘The Grid’ is basically a dark room with a few tables and computers and that’s where at least 30% of the action happens. The exterior action is mainly shots of people walking down streets intercut with other shots of people sitting in cars or also walking down streets. Then there are very ordinary looking safe houses on Peckham council estates and disused warehouses where all the villains threaten to remove bodily parts from the heroes. No wonder they like to stick in a spectacular explosion every so often. When you realise the action is largely banal and repetitive it shows that the dialogue is very clever in transforming the mundane into a cliffhanger — and quite a bit of it can be classed as ‘telling’ — ‘he’s got a dirty bomb in that suitcase that will kill half of London’ suddenly gives a whole new meaning to another shot of a bloke walking along a street with a bag. It’s very clever and makes good use of the characters being hard-bitten secret agents to ensure they never let the dialogue-driven pace flag with sentimental asides.

Another good example of well-structured ‘plots’ are in the more classy reality series like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Restaurant’. These are edited into little dramas with a very clear narrative arc — the obstacle or challenge is defined, the contestants try to overcome the obstacle, they succeed or fail and then have a short review of how they performed with the help of Raymond or Siralan to ensure they take away some self-knowledge. The climax is the firing but there’s a short period of resolution and reflection afterwards. You can almost set your watch by the plot points on ‘The Apprentice’ — about 7 minutes for the task to be set, 12 minutes or so when they’ve decided how they’re going to organise themselves, 20 minutes when they first start blundering into disaster, 30 minutes when the outcome of the task is teetering between success and failure, on about 37 minutes they’ve finished and prepare for the boardroom, at 52 minutes someone’s getting a roasting, 56 minutes when someone gets fired, then there’s the taxi ride.