Posts Tagged We Need To Talk About Kevin
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?
1 If the focus is on the events, you’re better off with third person – most commonly this is historical fiction, family sagas, epic fantasy, crime, thrillers. If the story is more about the characters – and the events might seem insubstantial compared to the psychological journey, first person is generally best.
2 In first person, you see the world and all the other characters as the character does. It’s especially useful if the character may not be sympathetic or has dubious qualities – such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. First person lets you add layers of irony and unreliability – all part of the fun.
3 If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, be consistently unreliable from the start. Don’t turn them suddenly unreliable half-way through.
4 Whose POV do you show? With character-based novels, the same events told by a different person would make a different book. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother in a confused, conflicting relationship with her son. Kevin in the same novel is a child growing up with a mother he knows hates him. Which story do you want to tell?
5 First-person narrators might be aware they’re telling the story, like Eva in we Need to Talk About Kevin, or they might be experiencing the events in real time with no sense of explaining themselves – like Carol in My Memories of a Future Life. (And I chose first person because her experience is more important than the events.)
6 The narrator isn’t always the protagonist – Dr Watson narrates Sherlock Holmes, showing someone extraordinary through his more sane, relatable eyes – yet preserving the mystique of his more remarkable moments.
7 Usually the first-person narrator doesn’t know the thoughts or feelings of other characters, or what happens when they are not present. Writers of first-person narratives have to make use of letters, chance conversations, listening at a keyhole, online eavesdropping – without being cliched. However, Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones writes a first-person narrator who spiritually snoops on the private moments of others. Ghosts do that.
8 You might have filter characters for some or all of the story, like Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy to first-person Mr Lockwood.
9 Sometimes there is a central character who is the story’s exclusive viewpoint, but the novel is written in third person. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a story of multiple adulteries seen through the eyes of a child. James chose third person because he wanted an innocent who notices far more than she has the vocabulary to describe. This is sometimes known as limited third-person.
10 Third person can show a godlike view of many characters, but it’s usually better for the novel to focus on the thoughts and feelings of just a few characters – subjective viewpoint. Decide whose heads you will get inside – and stick to that main cast. Less important characters can be shown from outside through their dialogue and actions. If you suddenly add the intimate POV of another character late on in the novel that’s very dislocating – although you might just get away with it if they’re a long-lost sister who we’ve been curious about.
11 Crime novels and thrillers, which are generally more about plot than character, get away with introducing new characters, in close up, anywhere in the story. They will often devote a chapter to a character who is about to meet a sticky or spectacular end, narrated so we share their thoughts and feelings. Or they introduce a new assassin half-way through. This works because the main hook is the events, not the characters.
12 Most scenes are better if written from one character’s POV. But what if you’re narrating in third person and you have put two key characters together? You can either narrate it all from a more distant perspective, trusting the reader to understand the tensions. Or you could shift point of view. Yes, honestly, you can if you…
13 Use POV shifts with care. The best way to do this is to start the scene from one character’s POV and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action so that we know we are tuning into a different person’s experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again.
14 You can have alternating first-person chapters, first and third, so long as you establish the pattern early on and do it consistently. And you have a good reason.
15 You can mix omniscience and subjective view. In Lifeform Three, I have a hybrid of omniscient narrator and limited third person. The narrator is never a character (but is me the storyteller), is able to talk loftily about some parts of the world that the main character doesn’t know, but aside from that is glued to the main character. I made strict rules – the narrator knows about the world in general but does not know about the main character’s history or what happened to him before the story started. Some fairy tales are like this.
16 You can do what you like, really, so long as you make your boundaries clear. Write in second person if you must, or plural instead of singular – although you do risk wearing out the reader. Unless you’re writing about Siamese twins.
Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully
There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.
This is the list I rustled up:
1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)
2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)
3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)
4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)
5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)
6 James Bond
7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)
8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)
9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun
11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)
12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers
13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)
14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes
15 Purdey (The New Avengers)
I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.
Only one character?
In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.
A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.
To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?
Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.
What about Lizzie Bennett?
Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.
No character operates alone
No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.
Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?
So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.
Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’
Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.
Dickens and du Maurier
Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.
At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.
Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.
Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.
A terrible memory for names
How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.
Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)
Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)
- Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
- If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
- Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
- As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.
Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe