The Eureka Moment
Staring out of the window is what I often have to do as part of my job. And today, the worst part, the staring bit, is here again. A runway of blank white paper stretches before me. I’ve delivered a new novel, and while I’m waiting for editorial notes on that I start thinking about what I’m doing next. Today I need a new plot. I have my themes, my locations and my characters. What I don’t have is the motor that will bring all of these things into play.
So I walk. I talk to people. I read and research, and surf the net. I look for clues in human behaviour. This morning I decided to look at the key scenes mentioned in a superb book published by Octopus called ‘The Little Black Movie Book’ – it’s certainly not little, having a startlingly broad range of scenes which annotate important moments in the history of film.
Well, not important so much as memorable. So to help jump-start me, I’ve been matching up the scenes under discussion with equivalent YouTube clips. In Chabrol’s ‘La Ceremonie’ based on Ruth Rendell’s ‘A Judgement In Stone’, the twist – the motor, if you will – to the murder plot is given away in the film’s first five seconds, but somehow you miss it. It’s right there in front of you, but shot from a distance, a beautiful directorial touch. The moment is so natural, so ordinary that it doesn’t assume huge significance until much later.
This is a key element in understanding how a plot works; it’s there like a skeleton, and sometimes you see it but most of the time it’s hidden beneath the fabric of the writing. Perhaps half a dozen times in the past I feel I’ve come up with something truly startling. Often I feel I’ve missed the target I set myself, and it’s not until much later that I can understand how or why. Recently a reader complained on Amazon that ‘Nyctophobia’ was not realistic – not because it featured the supernatural – but because the lead character didn’t immediately use Google to uncover the history of her house. I replied that a/ it would have been really boring for the reader and b/ as someone who virtually lives online, I know you can’t actually find everything you need on Google. Perhaps I’d have considered the point, though, if I’d discussed it with other writers?
But of course we don’t do that.
Why don’t writers share anything with one another? The other night I had a drink with Lloyd Shepherd and Suzi Feay, and we talked writing. Lloyd’s latest, ‘Savage Magic’, is his third historical mystery, and looks to be the best so far. Suzi I used to work at Time Out, and she’s writing books these days. But we tend to talk about everything under the sun other than the physical process of writing. It’s not because we’re being secretive, but perhaps because the act itself is weirdly private.
I do believe in Eureka moments, those blinding flashes when it all suddenly makes sense. We want to believe in them. There’s a moment in ‘The Imitation Game’ when the Eureka moment hits Alan Turing and you know it’s fake, but how much more pleasurable to think it might have been like that – it’s just that inspiration never comes from where you’d expect. I’m happy to believe that WS Gilbert was nearly struck on the head by a falling Japanese sword, which gave him the idea for the Mikado – it still didn’t write such sparkling, clever lyrics for him!
The Eureka moment may provide the ignition, but you have to take the vehicle on the full journey, and that’s where the hard work is.