‘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
A friend once said to me ’Creating art is like dropping your pants in public. If you aren’t brave enough to do that, you should do something else.’
He was talking about making music, though the idea applies to writing too. In writing fiction your real personality ‘leaks through.’ Writers reveal themselves in their work. When I wrote Cars Just Want to be Rust one of my early readers said of the central character, Kitty Lockwood, ‘Well, she’s you, isn’t she?’ I was shocked. Had I simply invented my own avatar? Would all my prejudices and foibles be revealed? It’s that sort of fear which leads to self censorship. We all want to be loved. If not loved, then liked, or at least respected. We want to retain our dignity. We want friends to think we’re decent people. We’re warm, caring people who don’t make loud noises or frighten the horses.
So there is a temptation to stick to safe topics: to tailor the subject to the safe and acceptable. But self censorship is crippling. It hobbles a writer, preventing them from examining difficult subjects or creating characters who are repellent or weak. I was discussing Alan Bennett’s The History Boys with the writer Fiona Veitch Smith. ‘Of course, it couldn’t be produced now,’ she said. The central character of The History Boys is Hector, an eccentric teacher, who delights in knowledge for its own sake. But Hector is discovered sexually fondling a boy and his latent homosexual inclinations emerge. The teacher in the film version was played by Richard Griffiths. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, such a relationship is seen as sinister and predatory. The sympathy the audience feels for Hector would be tainted. There would be a temptation to write less than the truth.
When I worked in prisons I discovered that nobody considers themselves to be ‘evil’. While inmates allow they may have committed foolish, or regrettable crimes, they consider themselves to have been forced into such behaviour. I taught a young man who had run over a policeman who had forced him into it. ‘It was his fault! He was gonna arrest me!’ Real life villains such as Hitler or Radovan Karadzic look upon their crimes in a similar way – sad, but what else could they do? Even people who do evil things do not regard themselves as villains. Which is an important thing to bear in mind when creating your characters. Good people can do bad things: bad people can be sweet, merciful, even kind. Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are not rotten to the core – if they were that would be somehow less frightening. So don’t self censor – be brave – dare to explore the dark side. It does not mean you are evil. Writers are not the characters they create.
I was pitching radio play with a heroine who was a traveller. The producer said ‘I think we’d rather have such a play written by a member of the Romany community.’ That comment suggests that a writer can only create characters of which he or she has personal experience. So if you’re a woman, you can’t write about men. If you’re old, forget writing about children. Most stories we know would never have been written. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, would not have created Captain Hook. Barrie, you see, was not a ’member of the pirate community…’
I’m very glad to see that the sixth series of the French crime drama, Engrenages (Spiral in the UK) is in production. It’s so well written and constructed. A set of sub plots is woven into a mystery which is resolved during the length of the series. The look is distinct, the acting superb. We care about these characters – Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), Gilou (Thierry Godard), Tintin (Fred Bianconi), Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos), even the crooked lawyer, Josephine Karlsson ( Audrey Fleurot) engages our sympathy. These are flawed characters, living and working in a grubby, corrupt world where the political and the criminal worlds mesh and entwine. Yet the respect and affection between the members of the team is just as real, just as authentic as the betrayals and double dealing. I love the series and the way it combines the political world with crime drama is an inspiration.
When someone asks me what I do I mumble that I’m a writer. Sometimes the next question is the brain twisting ‘So have you written anything I’ve read?’ But the most common question is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ My answer is ‘Out of my head.’ But finding ideas when they don’t make a spontaneous appearance is something which interests me.
Writing a story in any medium is a journey. I have a few ways to find the tricky first step.
1) People watch. Observe people without judgement. Try to empathise, however unappealing you may find them. Few people believe they are evil, or venal, or corrupt. They find a way to justify their behaviour. Speculate. Try to look into their past and imagine how they got to be the person they are. What was their childhood like? Which events formed their worldview and shaped their character?
2) Setting. I return to some places time and again in my mind’s eye. I often picture a grove of trees in Durham ; a street in Sienna, a rooftop flat in the Marais. I have no idea why these places come to mind – perhaps they resonate with events that took place there. You will have similar places in your own mind’s eye. Write down notes about these evocative settings. Try to capture the way these places affect your senses – sight, sound, scent, touch and, if it’s appropriate, taste.
3) Listen to music. I find instrumental music to be the best – I can’t have anyone cluttering up my mind with their words – it gets in the way! I need access to the voice in my head. So I listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. Another favourite is the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt or Julian Bream – something like Recuerdos de la Alhambra. If it must have words, then something like Bailero from “Chants d’Auvergne” by Joseph Marie Canteloube – nice tune and I haven’t a clue what they’re singing about. For the same reason I listen to FIP Radio – good music, but the DJs talk in French, so it’s not distracting.
4) Keep a notebook close to hand. Carry one and keep one by the bed. If you can’t find one, write your idea on a napkin or fag packet. Otherwise, you’ll forget it….
5) Tell yourself a story while you are falling asleep.
6) Write about your passions. Why do you enjoy collecting socks or extreme ironing? Think of your hero or heroine. Give them a similar passion.
7) Freewrite. Choose a subject and write continuously for a while without lifting your pen from the page. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Don’t censor yourself – just write. This way you access your subconscious and often surprise yourself, discovering ideas you didn’t know you had.
8) Walk. It’s so important to switch off the everyday concerns and access your mind’s alpha state. There is something about the rhythm of walking which does this. I find it helps if you are blocked.
For example, you may have a great beginning but don’t know how to end the story. Stories are circular. The central character will end up in the same place – geographical, physical, situational – but everything will have changed. They possess new knowledge, or skills, or have been changed in some way. Walking frees the mind and allows you to examine all the possibilities. Write them down.
Before they float away…
Phil tilted his head, seeking the sound of his son’s footsteps in the empty house.
Sue turned to the estate agent, furrowing her brow.
‘He was here a moment ago!’
The agent nodded, peeking at his wristwatch.
Phil hurried from room to room. Each had ghosts – cupboards, tables and chairs draped in sheets.
Beyond the gallery lay the master bedroom. Phil peered through the bay window, his heart ticking.
The lawn was a tangle of weeds bordered by oak and Scot’s Pine.
Something moved, beneath the trees.
Phil murmured his son’s name.
Jamie stood alone.
A breeze sighed through the pine needles, lifting the swing.
Phil rested his hand on his boy’s shoulder.
The knotted ropes, green with age, screeched against tree bark.
‘A swing! Climb aboard, kiddo. I’ll push.’
Jamie glanced at his father. ‘Maybe…’
His gaze fell to the empty seat.
‘When she’s gone,’ he whispered.
I’ve just submitted an iStory called The Swing to Narrative magazine.
The challenge is to write a complete story which can be read on a phone. The limit is 150 words – an interesting challenge. I find that one of the most enjoyable tasks is editing my work – keeping meaning and sense yet conveying that in the most economical way . The Swing is a ghost story – I’ll be uploading it on here and possibly on the Rudham Books site soon. https://rudhambooks.com
The Luxury of Murder is the second book in the Kitty Lockwood story and is out now on Rudham Books, (ISBN 9780993400308).
I’d like to thank Rod and Fiona Veitch Smith for their generous support and hard work in publishing my first book, Cars Just Want to be Rust, on Crafty Publishing. My second book is published by Rudham Books and is available on their site and through Amazon.
I’m currently working on the third book in the series. The working title is Kitty 3, as I can’t decide between A Caked Up Bizzy Wagon, Northumberland Blues or Those Are the Dead People. A tricky decision. All suggestions are welcome…
The wife of a nightclub owner is attacked by her pool. Kitty Lockwood becomes certain the wrong man is in custody. How far is she prepared to risk her own life to find the real culprit?