When, a few years ago, I started writing a book, friends would ask me what it was about. I’d say it was about a lot of things – a world where no one believes in anything, conspiracy theory, drugs, the lost dreams of the Sixties and Seventies – but that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted to know what the story was. In truth I didn’t have one. I thought I could write a novel based on ideas rather than character and story.
It took me a few years to come round to realising how crucial story was to fiction, and by then I had completely re-written the book (ditching ten characters and planting a bomb at the end of the first chapter). Isn’t all this obvious? It should be, but a surprising number of otherwise well written novels, full of good ideas, by fellow writers, especially those with aspirations to the literary, fall down on this one crucial feature: the story is weak.
One feature of writers’ groups, courses and peer review sites is that they tend to criticise paragraph by paragraph, sometimes line by line. It’s easy to get feedback on shifting point-of-view, telling-not-showing, the flatness of your descriptions, clumsy constructions, redundant phrases, repetition, weak characterisation, repetition, awkward dialogue, unnecessary adverbs and forced similes. What we miss out on is the development of story over the course of the book.
Story, for me, is inseparable from character. The story is what happens to the protagonist, the obstacles and temptations put in the protagonist’s way; character is defined by how your protagonist deals with them. Character doesn’t exist without story, and story doesn’t exist without character.
I’ve had arguments with other writers over character. Some believe you create characters in some sort of virtual Frankenstein lab, and you don’t let them out until all the body and brain parts are in place. Some seem to think if make them well enough they’ll whisper in you ear and tell you their tales.
I believe we only learn what characters are like when we witness them behave, when they have desires, when they have to make decisions, when they have to interact with other people. The colour of their eyes and hair are unimportant, we need to see how they function in the world, what they want, how they set out to achieve it, how they survive. The story is the structure of events that reveals all that.
These are some of the flaws I’ve seen in others’ stories. Most of them I’ve also been guilty of myself. More than once. They are the sort of things that only become apparent when you read the whole book.
- The protagonist witnesses a series of events but remains curiously unaffected by them. The character makes few decisions. (OK, there are precedents for passive central characters but successful ones are few and far between.)
- Lots of things happen, but the protagonist responds in exactly the same way each time. There is no sense of progression.
- The protagonist is clearly identifiable with the writer, but isn’t actually the most interesting character, and not really the one the story is happening to.
- The protagonist embarks on a journey or a quest, but we are never quite sure why they started it in the first place.
- There are multiple protagonists (OK you might be able to handle two, any more things start getting really tricky).
- The protagonist has a strong need, but that need seems to shift from chapter to chapter, without that shift really being part of the story.
- Too often a character does something and the expected happens. This is dull and no good for story. We don’t need to hear it. How a character deals with the unexpected is what moves a story along.
- There are chapters or sections that seem peripheral to the story. Maybe they are legacies from a previous versions, or attempts at scene setting, or the author’s favourite anecdote. Ditch them.
- The first half of the book sets up puzzles and enigmas that the author has never really worked out how to solve. Or the ending is a rush to tie up loose ends, like the detective walking on to the stage to explain everything at then end of a bad British play.
- You get to the end of the book and ask yourself, ‘now what was that all about?’
Endings are the hardest thing of all, and so often that’s what disappoints in a book which, page by page, seemed competently written. Some successful authors claim they don’t know where the story is going when they start, but the majority of writers need to know that structure, need to have some sense of where it will end before they begin.
Someone once described the ideal story as one where the readers have no idea of how it is going to end until they get there, but when they reach the end they realise that no other ending was possible.
There are some minimum requirements for stories and, without them, they become weak stories, or not stories at all. There has to be conflict, there has to be a need or impulse driving the story forward, there has to be an attempt at resolution (if not resolution itself). There also needs to be some sort of twist or at least bend in the course of the journey if the reader is not going to be disappointed.
Screenwriting theorists love to categorise these into three, five or even eleven act structures, enumerating all the points on the way necessary for movie success. We may scorn such formulaic approaches, but it surprising how stories that ‘work’ so often confirm these structures, even if the writer is an intuitive story teller who has no truck with such theories.
Of course, the conflicts in stories can be subtle, dealing with delicate psychological dilemmas rather than the threat of alien invasion. Some of the best moments in fiction occur when the author plays with narrative expectations and pushes the form to its limits, but there seems to be something amazingly resilient about story structure. It is a form we intuitively recognise, it carries a heavy burden of expectations; ignore them at your peril. Or work in a form that is not so tied to story as the novel.
Some writers have a deeper problem with story; deciding the shape of your story seems to carry with it a moral imperative, a commitment to an attitude about the world; is the anarchist/philanderer/slut/drunk/cop/doctor/cynic/miracle worker/mercenary going to be condemned or be redeemed? What am I saying about the world if my bad character is exulted or my good character suffers? If I kill off a character who breaks the rules, am I endorsing society’s mores, or just showing things as they are? Are happy endings hopelessly romantic, are unhappy endings an expression of my own personal pain? Is the book’s uncertainty, my uncertainty?
Is there a moral in your tale? Even if you don’t think there is, readers are often very keen to find one. Once upon a time in popular stories, crimes never paid. Bad men never got away with it, and if they did, they would suffer eventually, in the next world if not this one. Even now the truly-evil-one-getting-away-with-it is rare, but moral ambiguity is commonplace. Shades of grey have replaced the black and white, often part of a statement that there are no good guys or bad guys any more in a post-hero universe. It’s hard to get away from the notion that a story contains within it an attitude to what the world is really like, whether there is any justice or order in it, what are the forces that surge through it and control our lives.
Of course, good writing is not just about story. It’s also about giving depth and nuance to the characters’ desires and responses, making the world they inhabit come alive. But I believe story comes first.
Roland Denning’s novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, about a world where no one believes in anything, conspiracy theory, drugs, the lost dreams of the Sixties and Seventies is available in new 2011 austerity edition exclusively on Kindle, and in the original quaint paperback edition. There’s a story in it too. Somewhere.