Hands up if you know who Delia Derbyshire is. Don’t put them down yet. Keep them up, waft them gently and imagine you are conjuring a shimmering singing sound. That’s how you play a theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. Theremins are an abiding inspiration for my guest this week; her novel centres on the life and loves of a cellist who becomes famous in the 1920s and 30s for playing this eerie, theatrical device. Her soundtrack is an ethereal mix of Portishead, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and of course Ms Derbyshire, one of the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. And I also must mention that the novel (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt) has been nominated for several awards. She is Tracy Farr and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
I’ve had this interesting question from Kathryn Lane Ware Berkowitz on Facebook.
Does it ever work to have a parallel, allegorical, fantasy-type plot going along with your story? If so, when and how should they be woven together?
Aha – the perils and joys of combining genres. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the rest of your novel is contemporary fiction. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where writers try this – with variable success.
Here’s the problem: the book ends up as two genres. And readers of contemporary fiction don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy. The same applies if you’re mixing historical fiction with your fantasy strand.
Location, location, location
Setting is important to readers – and not just in terms of place, but time period as well. It’s one of the factors that makes us choose to read a particular book – perhaps because it’s set in a place we personally know, or a time in history that interests us. Some readers are drawn to stories simply because they are set in ancient Rome, or King Henry VIII’s court, or outer space.
And this is the peril of introducing a story strand in a different setting. You introduce an element they perhaps hadn’t bargained for. And fantasy or science fiction are just about the most difficult kind of world to blend with another kind of setting.
Here be dragons…
Fantasy and SF readers relish an invented world. Part of the pleasure is getting to know the customs, social order, laws of physics, magic systems, races, what people eat…. absolutely anything might be unfamiliar. But readers of contemporary or historical fiction don’t necessarily appreciate that.
How to sneak your fantasy/allegorical thread in anyway
However, some books get away with crossing the divide. How do they do it? Here are some guidelines.
1 Establish the first genre thoroughly before you introduce the second world.
2 Get the reader so insanely curious about the second world that they’ll be dying to go there. A good way to do this is with mysteries in the master story – will the second world explain who somebody is, give clues about a murder?
3 Write the second world in a way that will appeal to readers of the first. If your first genre is contemporary, remember that’s what your readers want. The familiar. So don’t present the fantasy/allegorical events as though it’s for fans of fantasy, with plenty of rich details about the world etc. Instead, be very sparing with those details – as though you were telling them to somebody who might easily be bored by them. (They might!)
Would you add anything? What annoys you when writers introduce an allegorical or fantasy thread to a story? What do you enjoy about it? Do you want to namecheck any books that do this well? (Psst… there’s more about this in Nail Your Novel: Plot. And may I be so bold as to mention My Memories of a Future Life?)
My guest this week has set herself the task of reimagining the Trojan War and she says she couldn’t have done it without music. Her soundtrack has a stirring, epic scale with storming emotional keys, from Florence + the Machine to Thomas Tallis. More intimate pieces by Amanda McBroom and Esthero illuminated the interior lives of her Cressida (renamed Syd) and Cassandra (Cas). She is also a much-decorated writer of short stories and the editor of two cultural journals, Easy Street and The Lascaux Review. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Camille Griep.
Here’s another great discussion from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass.
What is a scene? And why does it matter to know that?
Those in the know will probably all have their own slightly different way to define a scene, but this is mine. I think of a scene as the smallest unit of a story’s events.
Like a scene in a movie, a scene in a novel will be confined within a location, or a set of characters. But not necessarily. A scene might cover a number of locations, characters and times if it’s a linking sequence, such as a journey or a flashback or a chunk of back story. So I find the most helpful, graspable definition is to think of it as a step in the storyline, or the reader’s understanding.
Why does it help to think about this?
It helps the writer break the book into manageable chunks – if you construct your novel from scenes you can think more easily about finding the optimum order for the emphasis you want. If you use a revision tool like my beat sheet (in Nail Your Novel), you can easily control the plot.
Writing in scenes helps the reader too. If you indicate the change to a new scene by a line break ,the reader will subconsciously think ‘I’ll just read to the end of this…’ which is your opportunity to build to a nice interesting change so they have to gobble up another. So scenes offer the reader a break… and then reel them right back in. Which is nifty.
Look for change So this leads us to another vital quality of scenes. Each one should move the story on in some way. It might be big or small, but by the end of the scene, something will have changed. Indeed a scene usually has a beginning, a middle and end – like a microcosm of a balanced story. Indeed, change is one of the four Cs of a great plot – curiosity, change, crescendo and coherence (more on that here).
So you should think of your novel as a movie, right?
Not necessarily. If you’re writing a genre piece, it will usually be like a movie in book form – a sequence of discrete scenes. But this might not suit you if your style is more internal, more of a continuous experience in the mind of a character. After all, real life doesn’t occur in packages; it’s a stream. Even so, for the purposes of using your material effectively and controlling the pace, it helps to build in scenes, even if you have to create artificial breaks in the prose. You can segue them together later on, in the editing stage.
But this is obvious. Why even mention it?
Ho ho. The scenes question is like most fundamentals of writing. Some writers grasp it instinctively and never give it a thought. Others don’t – and find it helpful to have it explained. Which are you? And has it helped to think about what a scene does?
Thanks for the pic seda yildirim
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?
My guest this week is a man of many guises. He’s a prolific bestselling ghostwriter with clients who include tennis champion Serena Williams, Hollywood stars Whoopi Goldberg and Denzel Washington and 9/11 fire chief Richard Picciotto. While writing the lives of others, his steady companion is the Spa channel on Sirius; whatever they play, all comers welcome. But he has three novels to his own name, and for those the choice of music was a much more particular matter. He says he finds himself drawn to artists of a singular vision, ‘a way of looking at the world that hasn’t been polished by mainstream success’. His latest novel, A Single Happened Thing, was inspired by the life of 1880s baseball player Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap – and a particular line from a song. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Daniel Paisner.
Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?
Hello! I know I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I’ve been trying to finish a rather exciting project that’s turned into a corkscrew of learning curves. It’s not quite there yet, but the end is nigh.
Which also seems an appropriate way to introduce this post. Yesterday I was back at The Guardian, teaching an advanced editing masterclass, and as usual, my students gave as good as they got. Here’s one of our discussions.
I was talking about major plot twists and how they usually made the situation worse or added a new complication. One student said could you have a nice event as plot twist?
How interesting. Well, it depends. If it s a pleasant event because it solves the character’s main problem, that would probably end the story. But if it s a stroke of luck or a turn for the better, well that might be quite surprising. The only thing you need of a twist is that it shakes everything about and makes the characters reassess priorities, or it changes the stakes. So the story could continue if this nice event sparked some new complications for the current situation. So your characters could have a lottery win or, depending on the historical period, an inheritance. And this could add fresh pressures.
Or they could fall in love – a useful happy event that can cause a whole heap of trouble.
All we ask is this: your plot twist should create more mess and struggle.
This brings to mind a problem I’ve often seen discussed …an author who is too nice to their characters. Some writers don’t seem to explore the consequences of a story situation thoroughly enough, or meet the expectations the reader has in their mind. Indeed, perhaps they’re writing simply as an act of escapism, to spend fantasy time with their characters. We have to think what makes the reader curious. It’s usually mess, struggle and complications. When that mayhem stops, so does the story.
Where does it all end?
And this brought us to another question. At what point does the story end? It’s generally when there’s nothing else to be done with the main conflict.
One student was writing about a group of prisoners, and confessed he was unsure if the ending would work. His narrator escaped, but there were no big revelations or questions answered. No resolutions either. The escape formed a natural end, but would it be satisfying?
I asked him what the narrative drive of the story was. He said it was the narrator’s experience with the other prisoners. Did he change during that experience? Definitely, he said. So once he got out, what happened? Not much, said my student, but he’s carrying the experience with him. I thought it sounded like it would work just fine.
The character has changed, he’s acquired a bunch of experiences he’ll carry with him and he’ll never forget those other people. Sometimes the ending isn’t a definite door closing, or a puzzle solved, or a foe defeated. It’s more of a blurred mark. So you have to identify a point to withdraw, where there’s a new state of stability and equilibrium.
Perhaps the characters have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but it might be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbours – and indeed the country – blame her for the deeds of her son. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.
Your characters might not slay their monsters; they might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.
There will usually be a settling, a sense that the final ordeal has caused a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:
We shall never be again as we were.
We also discussed a different problem with endings: if you’ve got multiple threads to tie, where do you position them? One student was writing a whodunit, so he had a murderer to confront, and a few other resolutions such as characters getting a promotion.
He needed to figure out a hierarchy of endings. Which conclusion has most impact? The promotion doesn’t, indeed it seems to be a nice segue into the characters’ next chapter. So it would be good as an epilogue. Confronting the murderer would clearly be the most dramatic and difficult part of the story, so that goes at the climax. It’s important that the reader experiences this final battle at close quarters because it’s been the characters’ greatest challenge. There were other subplots that needed resolutions too. They could be part of the final settling – the pieces coming down in fresh positions as the characters begin their new lives.
But! But but! Sometimes it may be more powerful to pull away abruptly. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding ends on the beach, with the rescuers looking at the feral little boys. By stopping at that point, he places the emphasis on this contrast between the ordered, adult world and the wildness that we’ve witnessed in the story. It forces us to think ‘what have I just seen’? This is an ending for the reader. An epiphany. We know the boys probably went on after this moment – they’ll have sailed back to civilisation, gone to their families, resumed school etc. None of that is of interest to the author. That wasn’t what he was exploring. He wanted to look at the animal behind humanity. And so he ended at a point where we’d see this most powerfully. In this case, the ending isn’t about events or even resolutions. It’s about making us understand and think.
There’s a lot more about plot twists and endings in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
In the meantime, let’s discuss! Have you ever used a happy event as a plot twist? Have you struggled to marshall the endings of several story threads? Have you taken a chance and ended a story in a way that’s ambiguous or doesn’t necessarily tie everything up?
I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.
Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. I don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.
If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!