It is a privilege to be read. We ask readers to trust us : to give us an hour or more of their lives. In a world filled with many distractions, that’s a tricky ask. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your language: without a story, there is a finite amount of time in which you can hold the attention of your readers. Which is why plot is so important.
A story keeps a reader involved. At the Hearth Arts Centre in Horsley we recently put on an event called Haunted. In the dark days of Northumbrian winter, two superb actors, Stephen Tomlin and Janine Birkett, read tales of the supernatural. The room was lit only by tea lights and a couple of stage lamps.
As I was involved in promoting the evening I was anxious for it to succeed. But it was soon clear that the readings were very popular. I watched as the audience bowed their heads as they listened to Stephen and Janine. It was clear they were deeply involved.
It took me back to Ponteland Infants School when a favourite teacher, Mrs Nelson, used to read us a story. Or later in my school days, when another teacher, Mr Copeland, read us stories by Damon Runyan. A story holds us: it helps us forget the stress of everyday life.
But a story has a particular structure. It’s this:-
A story is a character, in pursuit of agoal, who overcomes obstacles of increasing difficulty as they succeed, or fail, to reach that goal.
In the film Billy Elliot the central character wants to succeed as a dancer. We know Billy succeeds because the last scene shows him going onstage at the Royal Ballet. He achieved his goal. In addition, he achieved his dramatic need by being reconciled with his dad, who is in the audience. So he achieved his goal (the thing he wanted) as well as his dramatic need (the thing he didn’t know he wanted but which we, the audience, did know.
So your character should want to do something. If he succeeds it’s an up ending. If he fails it’s a down ending.
In either outcome he or she is changed.
Why does this hold our attention?
I think it’s a matter of brain chemistry. As writers we deal in two substances:-
Cortisol – the stress hormone – helps us empathise about a character and care abpout their fate.
Oxytocin – the love chemical – is our reward when we follow a character’s story and see them survive and succeed.
In telling us a story we first capture our readers by getting them to care about our characters. Once they do, they want to know their fate. Will they succeed in the pursuit of their goal? Or will they fail?
Will they? Or won’t they? It’s the same question which keeps us glued to a sporting event or a real life drama.
Will they? Or won’t they?
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.
But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
I lead a writing class at the Hearth, in Horsley. Writers of all levels of experience are very welcome. The new series of classes starts on Thursday 10th of January 2019. We meet each week between 6pm and 8pm. If you’d like further details email me on email@example.com
Drop in to any session and meet the other writers – we’re a friendly bunch!
The opening of Footsteps of the Hunter – the new Kitty Lockwood novel.
A strand of spider web blows in the breeze, curling like a soft whip.
Hitting a rise, the bike lifts off, spokes spinning above the carpet of pine needles that cover the forest floor.
Two miles done. Three to go.
The wind hisses through the treetops. He hits a steady rhythm, heart and lungs working together. Serotonin and dopamine kick in, taking him to the happy place. His feet lift at each stride, light as air. Cares fade away as he weaves between the trees.
Ahead of him a branch creaks and a shadow swings between the pines.
The first thing Trevor sees is the feet. Purple, bloated flesh turning and swaying into his path. He rears back and the bike tumbles. His face hits the earth, left cheek nicked by a spur of tree root. Blood splashes his arm, runs down his skin and falls from his fingertips.
Trevor untangles himself from the bike and feels for the cut. Above him, the body twists on a length of thin blue twine. The man is naked. A man aged around thirty, Trevor guesses. The head is hunched over the shoulders. He forces himself to look at the face. Blowflies crawl between the stretched lips. The flesh is mottled, white and a shade of ripe mulberry. The cheeks are marked by scratches – claw marks, perhaps. Trevor struggles to his feet, holding out his hand just at the moment the wind pushes the body towards him. His fingertips brush the flesh.
‘Fuck!’ Trevor falls against a tree trunk. Sweat slips down his brow. He fumbles in the pouch strapped to his wrist, finds his phone and turns to make the call. The body twists at the edge of his vision.
‘Which service please?’
‘There’s a man. Hanging. He’s hanging from a tree.’
‘OK, sir. Is he breathing?’
‘He’s dead.’ Trevor bites his lip. He steals another glance at the body. ‘Nope. He’s topped himself. Definitely dead.’
‘Can you give me your name please, sir? And the number you’re calling from?’
Trevor gives the number. He bites his lip, anxious that he might laugh.
‘What’s your name, sir?’
‘Speed. Trevor Speed. Trevor Charles Speed.’
‘Thank you. Is it OK if I call you Trevor?’
‘Yes. Of course.’ ‘Thank you, Trevor. Now if you can just give me the address we’ll have someone with you as soon as possible.’
‘Address?’ Now the nervous laughter does spill out. ‘Tricky.’
‘As soon as you do that, Trevor, we’ll send someone to you.’
‘I’m on my bike. In the woods. There isn’t an address.’
‘Which wood, Trevor?’
‘It’s a forest. It’s Kielder forest. It’s fucking huge!’ *
I’m very chuffed that Cars Just Want to be Rust has been chosen as the subject for the very first book club session at the marvellous Thought Foundation in Birtley. You should soon be able to find details on the Thought Foundation website.
Tony Glover is a writer and film-maker, born in Northumberland.
He has published two crime novels, Cars Just Want to be Rust and The Luxury of Murder.
The third book in the Kitty Lockwood series, Footsteps of the Hunter, is published in 2018.
His radio play, Just a Trim, won a Sony
Radio Award and earned Tony the title of BBC North Playwright of the Year.
In 2007 he won the Northern Echo New Novelist of the Year award.
Irene’s Story, a film about bi-polar disorder, won a Millenium Award.
His film Posh Monkeys won a Royal Television Society award and was promoted by the British Council at the Angers, Munich, BAFTA, BP Expo and New York film festivals.
His stage plays include Chase Me I’m Chocolate, Slappers (staged at the Unity Theatre Liverpool) and The Stars that Surround Us (staged by Cloud Nine Theatre Company at Newcastle Playhouse). Sticky Fingers won the People’s Play award and was staged at the People’s Theatre.
Year of the Tiger was filmed by Wildcat Films for Yorkshire Tyne Tees.
I Want My Baby, devised and produced with young people from Greenfield Arts Centre in Newton Aycliffe, recently won an Impetus Award.
Tony was a visiting lecturer at the University of Northumbria from 2009. He has taught a variety of courses both undergraduate and MA. He currently teaches Creative Writing at the Hearth Arts Centre in Horsley, Northumberland.
‘So’ is the biggest word.
If you write with your ending in mind you should know where your narrative is headed. Though you may decide to change the ending later, you are writing with a destination in mind. Citizen Kane will die and we’ll know what ‘Rosebud’ means. You would not think of telling a joke without knowing the punchline.
So a story should be a logical chain of cause and effect. Each incident should be caused by the previous incident, or some event which happened earlier in the narrative.
The word ‘so’ will lead you from the inciting incident through to the denouement.
In the legal drama The Verdict, for example, Frank Galvin, the character played by Paul Newman, is humiliated when he is thrown out of a funeral. A mourner recognises Frank as an ambulance chaser, a lawyer who only preys on the vulnerability of grieving families.
This humiliation leads Frank to realise how low he has fallen – he’s a drunken bumbler with a failed career and a failed marriage. These days he holds court in the local bar, rather than in court.
To recover his self esteem, Frank decides to fight the Catholic Church and the medical establishment over a case of medical negligence. A wrong dose of anaesthetic has left a young woman in a coma. The church is willing to settle out of court and compensate the family.
But Frank decides to fight the case. He is humiliated, SO he decides to try to win back his dignity and self respect.
When you get blocked in a story it is often because the logical next step is missing. Perhaps you don’t know what will happen next, or how to move towards the denouement.
This is where ‘so’ comes in: This happens, so this happens, so this happens…
The computers on a returning spaceship tell the crew stop at a passing planet. So…
The computer wakes the crew. So…
The crew go down to the planet, where they find mysterious eggs. So…
One of the crew, unwittingly, returns to the spaceship carrying an alien within his body. So…
As the crew eat their last meal before returning to sleep, the alien hatches out. So…
There is a hostile alien at loose in the confined space of a ship. So…
Only one woman is left. So…
Ripley must defeat the alien alone. So…
…the biggest word.
Some years ago I played sax and congas in a band called the Sabrejets. We used to carry our kit around in an old blue ambulance that once belonged to the NHS Blood Transfusion Service. We would gig in Teesside or North Yorkshire and drive back to Newcastle, often late at night, the kit stashed in the back, along with two of the band, drummer Sandie La Rocque and guitar/vocalist Carlos ‘Fiery Gob’ Magee. Three of us used to sit in the front of the van – my brother Chris (aka Kid Glover), Martin Craig (aka Diesel La Fume) and myself, at the wheel – (aka Antoine Legris).
In the early hours of the morning, around one or two am, we were driving back from an engagement in Middlesbrough. It was a summer night. the skies were clear and the visibility good. At that time of the morning the roads were almost empty. There was certainly nothing on the road when the incident happened. We were driving through Felling on the A184, just beyond Heworth Metro station, heading north to Newcastle. We were starting to think about our warm beds. But we were all wide awake, though quiet. It was that dead time of the night.
The road which passes the Metro station is a dual carriageway. The road, as I said, was empty. We were driving – slowly – along a straight piece of highway. Suddenly the steering wheel whipped around to the right and the van swerved over. In a moment I found myself driving along the fast lane. It was the oddest sensation, as if someone had grabbed the wheel and wrenched it around.
‘What was THAT?’ I shouted.
Martin said he thought he saw a child run from the side of the road and dart in front of the van. But Martin was sitting too far away to have taken the wheel. He swore he had not touched it. As I felt the wheel turn I was looking down – I saw nothing holding the wheel except my own hands. We were all shocked and feeling a little shaky as we drove the final couple of miles home.
I met Martin the other evening – at a Beverley Knight gig – and we started to talk about that incident. Martin told me about this passage, which comes from Charles Shaar Murray’s book about John Lee Hooker. Hooker’s friend, Eddie Kirkland, was talking about their life on the road :
‘We made some long trips man.’
‘Well, I did all the drivin’,’ says Kirkland. ‘A lotta nights I drove all night long to get a place. We’d leave Detroit and wouldn’t stop till we got to Macon, Georgia. No sleep. The only times we’d stop was to get a cup a coffee, stop in Nashville sometimes. We’d stop for a few hours because we made a lotta good friends in Nashville. Most of the time Hooker would stay up with me all night and talk, sometimes he’d get tired and go to sleep. He’d always sit in the front seat, never in the back. At that time we’d see ghostses on the highway…’
He’s not kidding. And he says it wasn’t simply the effects of lack of sleep either.
‘No, that’s the way it were. That was for real. He’ll tell you hisself. We saw a lotta ghostses on the highway, in different places that we travelled to, and that was back in the ‘50s. Nowadays, you don’t have too many people sayin’ that they seen ghostses. Me and him we both seen ‘em. We seen ‘em man, cross the highways man, jam the brakes an’ shit, get out and there be nobody there.
Eddie Kirkland in Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, by Charles Shaar Murray