Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Plot 2 - Rags to Riches

One of the most popular stories of all time is Cinderalla. The ordinary, apparently insignificant person steps into the limelight and shows that they are special. It's the structure behind The Ugly Duckling, My Fair Lady, The Sword in the Stone, Bridget Jones, the 1980s bonk buster Scruples and this scene from King Creole  At the risk of over-selling the point, there is a similarly satisfying scene at the end of Strictly Ballroom.

Christopher Booker makes the point that this story also appears in the Bible - Joseph the Dreamer becomes Joseph the great leader.  And the rags to riches story is associated with the fairy tale ending, which can be sugary and twee. (For my money, they should have cut the Strictly Ballroom scene at the end of Scott and Fran's dance and missed out the group dance-athon to 'Love is in the Air'. Now that's what I call cheese.)

But the feel-good factor varies - both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are rags-to-riches stories in which the suffering far outweighs the happiness.  (Jane Eyre was famously only able to marry Mr Rochester after Charlotte Bronte blinded him; she (almost certainly) killed off M. Paul in Villette. Happy endings weren't Ms Bronte's thing.) Frequently, these stories begin with the childhood of the protagonist, and show that they need to ovecome dark forces aligned against them - the Ugly Sisters in one form or another.

The classic form of this story falls into three sections - the protagonist's fortunes seem to imrpove for a while  (Jane meets Mr Rochester, they fall in love and are about to marry) then there is a huge setback (he is married to Bertha Mason) and then there is a gradual return to good fortune again (Jane's equilibrium is restored when she meets her cousins, but she is drawn back to Thornfield Hall, apparently by supernatural forces or a deep instinct that Mr Rochester needs her).

Hollywood likes to run the rags to riches story as the classic Tale of the Arist, in which the artist is ignored for years and is eventually rich, famous and united with their True Love. This may be responsible for the misguided idea among some wannabe writers that this is the inevitable late stage of a writing career. If so, I am still in my Ignored period, and not expecting to be united with the Booker prize any time soon.

There is of course a dark side to the Rags to Riches story - there is a dark side to everything. The biopic which ends not with success but the artist falling victim to drugs and/or sycophants and groupies is one example. Riches aren't always what they seem - the pursuit of money and success can be an empty quest.  But what we are talking about here is plot, and as a plot device the tale of the poor, obscure, plain Jane who wins the handsome prince has been told a thousand times - and will be told a thousand more times.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Beating the monster

Herewith  Plot Number One. Among the oldest stories we have is Beowulf, the tale of a lone hero who fights a mighty monster in its lair. Christopher Booker points out that this ancient myth has almost exactly the same plot as the rather more recent Jaws: hero, monster, water, gore.

The earliest example of the 'overcoming the monster' story dates back even further than Beowulf: the Epic of Gilgamesh is more than 5,000 years old. The key to this plot is that the hero must challenge some embodiment of evil. It can be human, or similar to human - a witch or a giant. It can be animal or mythical beast - a wolf or a dragon. And it may threaten a community, or even the whole world. It may, as an optional extra, harbour some great treasure or a hold a 'princess' captive. And this evil has to be overthrown.

The hero must confront the monster, often with special weapons or with a borrowed magic power. Battle is joined in the lair: cave, forest, sea, or other enclosed place. A terrible fight takes place. At one point, it seems there is no way the hero can win. Then, there is a reversal of fortune and he outwits the monster and makes a thrilling escape. The monster is slain,and the hero takes the booty, or marries the damsel in distress.

'Overcoming the monster' is a Hollywood staple. The modern archetype in the modern monster myth is James Bond. What Plot Number One lacks in subtlety it makes up for in special effects, whether they are provided by CGI or a travelling minstrel telling a story in the firelight.

This plot encompasses thrillers, Westerns and war films. At it heart is constriction versus freedom; imprisonment versus liberty. Tomorrow - plot number two - Rags to Riches.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

To plot - or not?

A good plot is, my agent once said to me, like wearing really good underwear. It gives structure and coherence to your work. Plots are certainly essential in some genres - thrillers and crime novels in particular. The old-school, well crafted novel is likely to be built on solid foundations.  (Or an expensive set of bra and knickers.)

But literary fiction is often more reliant on language, ideas and intellectual audacity than plot. I studied for my MA at Brunel, which favours solid plot construction. At UEA, still the creative writing equivalent of Oxbridge, plot is seen as somewhat middlebrow.

When I think about books I have read, what do I remember? Atmosphere, often, and character and scenes. In Bleak House, the brilliant opening and its depiction of foggy London. In Pride and Prejudice, the character of Lizzie Bennet with her razor wit and fine eyes. In The Girls of Slender Means, Selina Redwood squeezing through the tiny attic window with the Schiaparelli  dress.

But I do remember plot. Both Affinity and Fingersmith turn on audacious and ingenious plot twists, and so does The Woman in Black. Sometimes plot can sneak up and change the whole meaning of a novel - English Passengers does this superbly and made me weep. Plots can be stunningly well executed - as in The People's Act of Love, or tragically simple, as in The End of the Affair.

I also suspect that, like me, many writers are intimidated by the idea of constructing plot. It always struck me as the Maths homework of fiction writing, the boring bit, something that you might be picked up on or ridiculed for. And yet, as I have gone on with my writing, and my reading, I have become more and more interested in how and why plot works, and the different approaches taken by writers from Charles Dickens to Julian Barnes.

So the next seven posts will be a digest of Christopher Booker's seminal tome The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories. I hope you'll find this useful to read, and I'm sure I'll learn a lot myself.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


Telling stories is a lot older than the paper book, and the effect of digital technology on this ancient art is going to be interesting. Not, as some commentators seem to suggest, terminal.

Yesterday I went to Writing in a Digital Age, a conference run by The Literary Consultancy and the Free Word Centre which highlighted some current trends. There was a good cross section of views: Robert Kroese, a self published US novelist whose Mercury Rises novels have been picked up by Amazon; a panel of international writers and poets chaired by Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta, and (the highlight for me) a smorgasbord of agents and editors given seven minutes each to summarize their approach and pitch their views.

The agent/editor slot was a piece of inspired programming. Each contributor was the prisoner of their own slide-show, required to keep pace with the changing images. They revealed more of themselves and their true passions than any group of publishing professionals than I have ever seen before (and I am a veteran of these gigs) and it was great to see/be reassured that traditional publishing may be undergoing seismic change, but still has much to offer both the would-be writer and battle-weary mid-listers like me.

While the conference raised more questions than it answered, it was a fascinating and surprisingly inspiring day. I suppose this surprised me because my suspicion is that digital might be unicode for 'tekkie faddism' in which originality is overlooked in favour of formulaic and genre-throttled dead cert fiction. (Which usually ends up being just as much a hostage to fortune as any other kind.)

But the message, coming loud and clear from all concerned, was that digital writing may offer new platforms for fiction and new routes to readers, but it is not a quick fix in literary terms.

Just to be completely old school for a moment, Thomas Carlyle described genius as 'a capacity to take infinite pains' and anyone thinking of self-publishing in the e-universe would do well to have this maxim pinned over their desk. Turgid narratives, editorial inaccuracies and Awful Covers are all marks of the hopeless amateur.

And the words come first - and last. As Kroese pointed out, digital success is no more accidental than success in traditional publishing. You need to work for it - and you need to spend time not just writing the best possible book, but presenting it in the most professional possible way.