Careers In Word Smashing Part II
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.