Careers In Word Smashing Part II

Reading & Writing

I tend to look at all writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, novel, TV series, film and stage play, as stories. For me, a story must have enough structure and linearity to provide the reader/viewer with satisfaction. After that anything else can be added; thematic power, surreality, musical numbers, I don’t mind. You had me at story.

Why do we stay with stories? To find out what happens. This holds true from ‘Anna Karenina’ to the ‘Shit Town’ podcast, from ‘Cinderella’ (especially that story) Cervantes to Stephen King. There are exceptions; Proust, Brigid Brophy, humorous works where the pleasure comes from getting from one page to the next. But there aren’t that many.

You don’t have to approach writing from this point of view, however. In his excellent book ‘Balancing Acts’, Nicholas Hytner commissions new plays by subject matter or even a good title. ‘We need a climate change play, and nobody’s looking at Iraq’, he’ll say, and interested playwrights submit ideas. You can do that – why not?

It’s certainly the way I approach the Bryant & May series. ‘the subject of urban loneliness is interesting’, I think, or ‘the next one should be set in the transitional phase of the 1960s’. I don’t think, ‘this is about a crazy killer who sets out to kill bankers.’ When I look back at earlier novels I don’t really remember whodunnit, and nor do you, probably. What you recall is what I want you to recall – a place, characters, set pieces, a touching moment. But the story must also conform to a structure you feel comfortable with.

I love experimental literature, but the only two I can think of in the crime genre are Patrick McCabe’s ‘The Face on the Cutting Room Floor’ and Keith Ridgway’s ‘Hawthorn & Child’. In crime novels everything is pretty well explained, everything resolved, so that the solution to the mystery becomes the point. In ‘Hawthorn & Child’ almost nothing is resolved or explained. If anything, you end up with more questions than when you started. This is not an easy trick to pull off, and will polarise your readers.

But let’s take two writers who aim squarely at the mainstream. Robert Harris is a consummate storyteller who writes with great discipline. He’s someone I would call a ‘male writer’ in that his subjects, which range from the life of Cicero to alternative 20th century history, perhaps have more male appeal in the same way that, say, Jane Gardam, a superb novelist, writes from an overwhelmingly female perspective (I’m sure you’ll have opinions about this).

Harris ratchets up our need to find out what happens next. A novel should be a window to a world that one can’t quite open far enough. In ‘Pompeii’ he has a smart underlying idea; that wealthy Romans were the Kardashians of their day. The story is told through an aquarius (basically a plumber) who has to work out what’s killing fish and draining the fountains while dealing with angry landowners – and because we know the ending the tension becomes unbearable.

In Phillip Pullman’s miraculous ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy the author presents us with a free-spirited girl called Lyra living in a chimerical Oxford that quickly proves not to be our world. But because it feels familiar at the outset, we go along with the premise so easily that our world, when it appears, feels alien.

In fact, nothing in Pullman’s universe is to be trusted; friends are enemies, worlds collide, a boy and a girl from different parts of the universe can be in love in different dimensions. Nor is the language trustworthy; the Harry Potter books are clear and undemanding, with a number of invented words which are signposted, whereas Pullman blurs all the lines. The worlds he creates are complex, so there are no easy answers. Nor are his books aimed at a single age group. To add further complications, he’s based his story arc on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, a work few people seem to have actually read.

But Pullman tells an irresistible story. You want to find out what happens next. When Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories – which are little more than dainty character sketches – were adapted as ‘Cabaret’, there needed to be a storyline, a spine on which to hang to flesh of prewar Berlin. There was already a play, ‘I Am A Camera’ by John Van Druten, that majored on Sally Bowles, the enigmatic English girl who briefly appears in Isherwood’s sketches, so it made sense to place her at the centre of the story. But how do you create tension? By making her wilfully unaware of the escalating political situation until she is finally forced to acknowledge it.

Stories, stories. What happens next? If you don’t ask yourself that, be sure your reader will.

7 comments on “Careers In Word Smashing Part II”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    The title “I am a camera” actually flags a lack of structure given the rest of the sentence. “with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” As well as flagging that the author isn’t clear on how cameras work.

  2. Roger says:

    The narrator isn’t clear on how cameras work, Ken Mann, which raises doubts about everything else they say.
    Jean Ross, the inspiration for “Sally Bowles”, was very aware of what was happening in Germany; it was Isherwood who didn’t know what was going on.

  3. Anne Billson says:

    A long time since my early 20s, when I read Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time (the Scott Moncrieff translation) but I do remember there IS a story, albeit a long, drawn-out one with lots of digressions – some hugely entertaining, some which seemed a bit boring to me at the time, but which would probably mean more to me now, if I were ever to find time in my life to reread it again now (doubtful, as there are still so many books I want to read for the first time).

    I read the Chatto & Windus edition, which was 12 volumes, and one of the things I vividly remember is taking ages to finish the first couple of volumes, but my reading speeding up as I advanced through the others, till it almost became unputdownable. The best bit, though, is that there IS a narrative pay-off at the end, where everything about time, memory and change clicks into place as satisfyingly as in any detective story.

    Proust is also a lot funnier than people (who probably haven’t read it) give him credit for, though it was 15 years before I got a running joke that had mystified me at the time; in the 1980s, while listening to La Juive, an opera by Fromental Halévy, I belatedly realised the gag turned on a reference to the first line of one of the arias. So there were almost certainly a lot of other allusions that went over my head at the time.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I started to read Remembrance… but I just couldn’t drum up any interest and felt I’d have to be really desperate for reading material to try again. Perhaps I should.

  5. admin says:

    I wonder if authors leave clues for themselves or their readership?

  6. Brooke says:

    leaving clues… isn’t the question why is the author writing (at all and particular works)? For whom? Mass audience, the in-crowd, critics, people who are seeking other perspectives?

    To echo Anne B., I bumped into Proust at an early age and was fascinated by his portrayal of the interior life. When I re-read his work in college (when one is roiling internally) I was deeply moved by his ideas about memory and how we “know things” in an ever changing world.

    I’m no longer interested in the linear male crime/detective story or the female feeling version. But Pullman might be worth trying–cautiously. The “story arc” of Paradise Lost is the biblical story–no plot surprises and we know how it ends. Having recently re-read PL and listened to Ian McKellen reading, I say it’s a really bad poem–story interpretation is creaky at the joints and too strong traces of Milton, the propagandist .

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    your right about the murderer in most cases, the characters are usually the main thing I remember but of all the authors I do tend to remember the killer from is Agatha Christie. cases in point The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, even ones like Endless Night.

    There is a crime novel where it’s in doubt even if a crime has taken place and is never really resolved, but since I can’t remember the name of it, it rather proves you’re point.

    A lot of in jokes are usually for the benefit of both, or there will be a nod to an influence so an author thanks to that source. So a bit of both here.

    I guess with clues in crime novels they are there to fool or help the reader, so mainly for the reader.

    In some books it’s not so much the story, which can be quite dull or overly complex for no good reason, but the what next. Is the journey entertaining, does it make me want to look round the next corner or will I leave this trip at the next stop. As Frank Carson once said, ‘It’s the way I tell ’em.’

    Wayne.

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