I'm covered in flour - it would take too long to explain...

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

My 'how to write' series, from the lofty position of the self taught.

In this series of articles, I’m going to use a joke to illustrate on some of the oft-talked about principals of creative writing.

Jokes are a story in microcosm, but still contain all the elements needed in a narrative to make it work. Jokes – the conflict, the struggle and the pay off – a beginning, middle and end, stripped down to their most essential form. If you can pull off a good joke, you can pull off a good story. So, here’s the joke, and forgive me if you’ve heard it before -

A man goes up to the doorman of a nightclub.
‘You can’t come in,’ the doorman says, ‘you’re not wearing a tie.’ The man goes back to his car and searches around for something he can use. All he finds is a pair of jump leads, so, in desperation, he ties them around his shirt’s collar in place of a tie. When he goes back to the nightclub, the doorman eyes him suspiciously.
‘Alright,’ he says, after a while. ‘You can go in – just don’t start anything!’

Boom, boom! Now, let’s isolate the elements of this joke that illustrate the key aspects to consider when writing any piece of fiction, no matter the length.

1) The conflict – You need to establish your world, who’s in it and what’s at stake as soon as possible to create the conflict. Here we have the man, the doorman and a nightclub. These are very simple terms, but each conveys something to create the conflict.
The Nightclub tells us the time of day, and the relationship between your characters. You have the doorman, whose very name indicates he is an authority figure, a literal gatekeeper, who is keeping our hero, the man, from his goal. We never know the name of the man or anything about him, but we can still relate to him because we can see he’s denied access to something he desires by an authority figure, so we’re on his side. Even better, because the wearing of a tie is an affectation, which in itself is meaningless - a tie is a symbol of status but serves no practical purpose as something like a hard hat might when entering a building site, we feel his situation is unjust. This makes him an ‘everyman’ who we can feel sympathy for, because we’ve probably all been denied something we want by an authority figure in the past. We have a conflict, and have picked a side.

2) The struggle – the hero tries to overcome. We can tell that he’s desperate to enter the club, because he's desperate to find a tie. He searches his car for anything he can use, and this at once marks him out as a man willing to problem solve, to give 'it' a go - and also increases the conflict – because effort indicates that to him, the goal of the nightclub is worth the struggle. He might be tilting a windmills, the struggle might not be one we would bother with, but the act of his struggle is engaging.

Then, he finds the jump leads, and sees a way forward, a way that another person might not have seen. This is key because now there is a hope. It’s a desperate hope, because who would really accept a pair of jump leads as a tie? So we have tension, will the struggle work, will his lateral thinking save the day after all? Doubt in the mind of the reader means they are engaging with the struggle, you are creating that ‘edge of the seat’ sensation, and it means that they care about your character and his fate.

            3) The pay off – All the best stories play with the expectations of the reader in some way. If the bouncer just waves the man through or sends him packing because he's not wearing a tie but had jump leads round his neck, where’s the joke? What makes this joke funny, if it can still be funny after we’ve analyzed it to death, is that the doorman subverts expectation by coming onside with the hero, in fact, he could almost be said to take control of the story with his witty quip – at the last moment bringing a great deal of colour and personality to his role, and it leaves the reader surprised and, we hope, delighted by the unexpected nature of the outcome.

Ease right? Well no, not at all, that it why a good joke is hard to find and a good story equally so, but I hope that by this, simple example, you have an idea what the three stages of story demands of the writer – conflict – struggle – pay off/twist.

In my next article, I shall look at the same joke and use it to show how actions speak louder than words when creating character.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Authenticity is a slippery eel....

I am currently working at fever pitch on the novel for which I have a full manuscript request (I'm just underlining it because that news never gets old!) - which is set in 1939 to 1942.

What I've been pondering though is that parallax error between historical fact and historical fiction - or rather, how the collective subconscious perceives an historical period, compared to how the historical researchers and academics see a time, and which makes for the better read?

To give a couple of examples, I'm not writing a bodice ripper as such, but it's a popular genre - and often features a beautiful heroine in roughly the 18th century -  shall we say around 1780 - and you probably get a handsome highway man who's really the son of a Duke, or a scandalous countess with gambling debts and so forth - and a jolly good romp would be had by all.

But, if one reads into social history and consults documents of the time, would the characters concerned be as attractive if they were shown using the beauty preparations of the day, such as eyebrows made from mouse skin (grey was a popular colour for ladies hair), not to mention face cream made of puppy fat and large cut outs of galleons made of leather and stuck to the face. In those days, one or two teeth at adulthood still together in working order was considered a pretty good show, but it's not the impression we have from countless TV dramas where contemporary actors all have a fine set of gnashers, unless they are playing characters roles when snaggle tooth smiles are acceptable.

Think Vikings - never wore horned helmets until Hollywood said they should, indeed, a huge amount of Norse culture as been swept aside to present them as pillaging villains from 'The Vikings' to Mike the Knight - but would people buy an altogether more touchy feeling Viking story? 

In the end, I suspect it's mostly a case of the quality of writing, that a good author will create a good and believable world, and unless one is taking huge liberties with real events ( while pretending otherwise) then a little historical license is probably allowed - never letting the truth get in the way of a good story and all. It's interesting to ponder if the books we like to read are the ones which give us the image of the past we are familiar with, and because it's one we are familiar with, we deem them authentic - where as book that are researched up to the eyeballs can, on occasions, feel less authentic not because they are, but because they go against the grain of public perception, however wrong that perception is.

Of course, that is the ultimate attraction of historical novels that once one slips beyond living memory, then lots of things are up for grabs, it is always a best guess scenario - and even within living memory perception of events is a slippery eel indeed. The past is another country, and the best novels are like the best travel guides, they should make you feel you've been there and, when you turn the last page, wish you will be allowed to return some day.

In case you're wondering, the photograph was taken in 1944 at the liberation of Paris. Or it's supposed to be - there is some argument as to whether it was taken at the time, or staged a little while afterwards before the barbed wire was removed - or even staged in the 1950's as war nostalgia began to set in and memory softened. So, it's either two lovers sitting watch together and making a stand against fascism, or two actors paying tribute to and idea of themselves the French would rather acknowledge, then images like this - but both could be the seed for a hundred different stories.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Eight titles in search of a book

Do you ever do this? Come up with titles which sound amazing but you've no idea what the book is? I have a note book full of titles yet to be attached to books, though often the title does a lot of work for you by suggesting not only the genre and setting, but perhaps even the reader it might appeal to and a hint at the cover art.
After all, if you read a title 'The last husband on the shelf' you might imagine the front cover with a slightly cartoon image of a woman, probably in her late twenties, with the title written in pink script, slightly embossed, with maybe a touch of silver?
Though, if you cut it to 'The Last Husband' that has a hint that it might be a thriller, or even a horror classic - white letters ( again slightly raised) - somehow even more horrific if it's shortened further to-

THE HUSBAND - where you can almost imagine the bi-line 'until death do you part?'

Anyway - here are a few more - if you feel inspired, why not comment on what the genre, characters and even setting you think these ones might be, and who knows, maybe they'll some to life one day?

Mr Montague's bicycle.

Dream sliders.

Everything I'm not.

The baboon's revenge on the collective unconscious.

Execution city.

The Nightingale floor

The trials of Bunbery Rudge.

A house on a mandarin shore.