ALL BY YOURSELF
One of the biggest faults in stories by less experienced writers is that they are about extremely isolated people – people who start off by being isolated and don’t end up making much contact with others.
This is not, in itself, a bad idea. There have been many wonderful stories about people without friends or allies. However, there have been many thousands more unfinished, in-the-shit stories about people whose lives are so inward that it is very difficult for anything around them to turn into a story.
A typical mistake for a learning writer to make is to write about someone who is essentially an isolated version of themselves. You could call this a Me v. The World story, or a Righteous Story. The central person is the only person we meet whose views come anywhere close to a. the truth of the situation and b. the views of the writer.
Particularly if the Righteous Story is told from a first person viewpoint, it can be extremely monotonous and risks being extremely boring.
Why? Because there’s no essential drama. There is nothing out of place. The central person is right and the world is wrong, that is all. No change or movement can occur. One wrong location the person visits is much like another. It can be pretty, or well-described, but it’s equally uninvolving. The person in the right has no particular place to go. They just speak of their situation.
As with the Routine Day story, if this kind of monologue is to be readable, the event has to be in the language itself.
Literary aside 1: The novels of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) often are entirely made up of furious monologues by Thomas Bernhard-like men, who get extremely angry at the state of their lives but do very little about it beyond getting amusingly angry. As example would be Wittgenstein’s Nephew. What happens in a Thomas Bernhard novel is an explosion of entertainingly furious language. A plot summary of what happens in any of them would be pointless. Thomas Bernhard is a writer’s writer. If you’d like to see his influence at good work, read Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.
Literary aside 2: Examples of successful novels with extremely isolated people at their centre would be Richard Matheson I am Legend; Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat; J.G.Ballard, Concrete Island; Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Patrick Rothfuss, The Slow Regard of Silent Things; Rupert Thomson, The Insult; Daniel Quinn, Ishmael; Laline Paul, The Bees; Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark; Gilbert Adair, A Closed Book; Ian McEwan, Nutshell; Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea; Paul Sayer, The Comforts of Madness; Pincher Martin; The Man who Folded Himself; David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Charles Willeford, Cockfighter; Ann McCaffrey, The Ship Who Sang; Hubert Selby Jnr, The Room; Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
BUT ENOUGH OF THAT
My suggestion here is that, for the moment, you make it an absolute rule not to have a central person whose views are your own and who is proved, by the events of the story, to be completely in the right.
Mouthpieces are dead, storywise. If they are right, and the action they are involved in proves them so, then they have no reason to change.
If they are right going into paragraph one, there is nothing for them to develop towards – they are statues erected to your own moral impeccability. You may try to move them around within a story, but it will be like shifting statues around on a stage to try to make a play – to the audience, they will appear heavy, mute, unamusing, ridiculous.
Avoid statues. Every person in a story should be capable of change. If they are not not capable of changing their attitude, then at least they should be capable of changing from alive to dead. Statues cannot die.
NOT ONE PERSON, NOT ALONE
One of the simplest ways of bringing a statue to life is to break it in two, to see how the two halves relate to one another.
Instead of writing Me vs the World, have your story centre around two people, people who are very different to one another, and whose approach to any particular problem is likely to be very different.
By doing this, what will you create?
LAUREL AND HARDY
How the action progresses, in your two person story, will now depend upon dialogue and action, not monologue and decision.
Exercise: You are going to write about the same basic situation, but do it twice. The situation is this. Someone is being chased by a group of things that want to harm them. They come round a corner, run down a narrow alley and find themselves confronted by a high wall. The things can be heard getting closer. What does the someone do?
In the first version of the story, the someone is an isolated person, they are also the narrator of the action. This version begins, ‘I ran round the corner and down the narrow alley.’ It continues from there, for a page.
In the second version, the someone is two people who have only just met. They are still working out who is top dog. Also, this version is narrated in the third person. It begins with the names of both characters, ‘So-and-so and Thingy ran round the corner and down the narrow alley.’ It goes one from there for a page, or two, if you feel like it. No need to get to the end.
Quite possibly, you’re the kind of writer who could never see themselves writing anything as crass as a chase sequence. This solution to the statue problem would work just as well for a couple paying a trip to the supermarket to buy soap powder, or for two children trying to decide what game to play.
Look back at your story-start. Is one of the reasons it broke down that it happens to an isolated central person, very similar to yourself, who doesn’t need to change and who only interacts with less important people?
Be honest – have you written a person or erected a statue? Is what happens decided by people doing and speaking or by one person thinking and thinking some more.
One of the easiest ways to make your stories easier to complete, to get them out of the shit, is to stop allowing them to be anything like monologues.
For a while, at least, as an experiment, I’d like you to take the attitude that –
‘EVERYTHING IS DIALOGUE’
‘Not it’s not.’
‘Well, let’s see…’
Note: These blogs have been going up for a while. I’m interested to hear your feedback, so am inviting comments on this page. Let me know what you think – Anything I’ve missed? Anything you’d like more of?
Also, if you notice any typos or mistakes, missing bits or duplications, please let me know.