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Sunday, April 18, 2004

Storytelling 

As promised yesterday, some random thoughts on storytelling.

My father has led an interesting life and done a lot of interesting things, but he has no real talent for telling a story. For example, he once told me a story about a car he was driving in the late 50s, that broke down outside of Florence in Italy and the mechanic couldn't fix it. So my dad fixed it himself with a piece of chewing gum and the car got him and an army buddy all the way back across the Alps, to Hamburg and then back to London. That was his story. Only after questioning him about the unusual route did I find out that they went via Hamburg in order to deliver another friend's Alsatian dog. Then, even better, he revealed that the very large dog developed altitude sickness in the Alps and became delirious, and was maybe even hallucinating! So, to recap, my dad got a boat over from Libya, drove through Sicily, Italy, across the Alps, Switzerland and Germany, an hallucinating Alsatian on the back seat, and the only thing he thought worth mentioning about the journey is that he fixed the car with chewing gum.

Some people have it, some people don't, and if you don't have that knack for spotting a story, you'll never be a writer. It's the same thing Graham Greene was talking about in that oft-quoted phrase, "In the heart of every writer is a splinter of ice". You may witness a terrible accident, and like everyone else, you'll be horrified, but a part of you will be taking in the details and seeing the story's potential. Jim also made a similar point in his comments to my "genre" post yesterday, about how he saw things happening around him, saw the potential, and crafted them into a story.

So far so good, but just as important as spotting a story is the art of conveying it to the reader. Again, some people have a natural ability to do this, but it can be learned and, more crucially, it can be unlearned. Very successful writers, or those lauded for being experimental, can become so complacent that they assume readers will plough through the early chapters in the certain knowledge that it will deliver in the end.

Equally, novice writers will forget that the reader doesn't know what's coming. A couple of times a year I return to Lancaster University to talk to would-be writers. I'll tell them about the importance of grabbing the reader from the outset and never letting them go. One student nodded and then told me that his book started slowly but it was okay because it really grabbed the reader by the throat in Chapter Three!

Obviously, I'm not saying you have to open with an explosion. But when the casual browser in B&N picks up your book, the first line should make them read the first paragraph, the first paragraph should get them to the end of the page and by the end of the first page they should want to buy the book. You can only achieve that by wooing your reader, by engaging with him or her just as you would if you were telling a story by the fireside or in a bar. The reader is your audience and in one way or another, you're there to entertain.

And that in a way, leads on to something Jen said in her comments about GB84. She says -

But one should suffer while reading art.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. On the one hand, yes, art will often take you to places you don't necessarily want to go. But the best art compels you to suffer. The very best art focuses even more strongly on the telling of the story, it makes it easy for the reader, it lures you in, then delivers its punches through a velvet glove. Even the most harrowing novels should seduce their readers, because the difficulty should be in the content of the story, not in the reading of it.

Finally, I'm aware that I'm preaching to the converted here. I've read short fiction by many of the people who visit Sarah's Id, and it's clear that none of you need tuition in the art, certainly not from me. But I'm continually disappointed to find books that have been praised by the critics and yet fail at this most basic level. Those of us who get published are incredibly lucky, part of a very small minority of people who get to create for an audience - the least we can do in return for such good fortune, is have the good grace to make our readers want to turn the page.

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