Posts Tagged The Guardian
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?
Yesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)
When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.
Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’
Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).
In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.
Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)
Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader
In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.
In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.
Two habits to unlearn if you write novels
Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.
Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.
This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.
Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message
Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.
Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.
For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.
Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)
So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:
- – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
- – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
- – be lengthy
- – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
- – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work
There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.
And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.
Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?