Monday, 18 January 2016

Week Thirty: The Suitcase of Story

While waiting to start my next novel, a thriller whose plot has not yet taken full shape, I've written a speculative screenplay. A sixty-minute screenplay for television, to be precise - the pilot episode of what would be a Victorian paranormal detective series if anyone could ever be persuaded to make it. Bizarre, ambitious, and entirely unlikely, but a set-up I've had in my story suitcase for several years now, and this was its chance to shine.

Writing in another medium after more than two dozen full length novels is an experience I thoroughly recommend. It means stepping outside your comfort zone if you're a confirmed novelist, but you don't step outside it unaccompanied. Writing a screenplay employs the same basic skillset and structural understanding you bring to a novel, it's just that everything revolves around image and nuance via dialogue, rather than prose description, and there's no way to convey internal monologue, bar intrusive subtitles, or something that takes their place - such as, in the case of Reginald Perrin thinking about his mother-in-law, the flashed image of a trotting hippo.

I was concerned at first that I would find myself flailing about in alien territory after the first few pages. Screenwriters seem to use so much off-putting technical jargon: turning point, beat, crossfade, intercut, slugline, controlling idea, pay-off. What I found though, thankfully, was that I was still able to bring the suitcase of story to writing for the screen.

It's a battered old suitcase now - I've had it since I was a child, writing absurd fantasy novels on an attic typewriter - but it has everything I need in there: beginnings, middles, ends, character building, scene structure, dialogue, story arc, and more than a few scraps of plot ideas to keep me going. It even has a false bottom where I keep emotional truths and the resonant detail.

But what's my logline, FFS?
So the thing I have learned about the difference between screenwriting and novel-writing - and please remember that I am a novice at the former - is that story is paramount, whatever the medium. Some narratives, it is true, may be easier to tell as a film, others as a novel, others as a radio or stage play, I expect. But all have this one common thread of story, above all else.

So what is 'story'?

When we were small children, someone probably sat us down and told us our first stories, either from a book or their own imaginations. If we listened, and did not pick our noses instead, we were whisked somewhere else, to a place beyond ourselves where we could suddenly see our own lives in the distance and thereby gain some strange new perspective on them. And to a large extent that is what story is: a way not merely to entertain and divert the bored self for a few hours, but to allow us to see ourselves in a fresh way, to weigh our lives against another's, our character flaws and strengths against theirs, and so perhaps find new - and better! - ways to live.

Chapter One: As soon as the blonde walked into my office, I knew she was going to be trouble ...
All stories follow a common path. They begin somewhere we can all identify with - the ordinary or common ground of an everyday existence. They develop into an adventure or quest that forces us away from the common and into the extraordinary, where every new choice is an effort and a trial, yet nonetheless we start to feel ourselves stretch for the next step up. Finally they often conclude by bringing us full circle to see how far we have come, allowing us to mourn hardships and losses, then celebrate the victories and lessons learnt along the way.

As writers, rather than dwelling too much on getting the jargon or the handshake right, we write best when we bring everything back to story. Story is about character under pressure, yes. But it's also about plot, about action and reaction, about the difficulty or sheer number of steps taken along the journey. Character shows us how each person responds to these challenges in their own unique way. It tells us which way a character will turn at the end of a scene, just as the Russian sub captain always turns to starboard in the bottom half of the hour in Hunt For Red October. So the characters we choose to follow our plot paths need to be special, to stand out as unique, or at least have the capacity to become special under duress. If not, why on earth have we chosen them?

If you're halfway through writing a novel, but your story suitcase is looking a bit threadbare, the best way to replenish it is by engaging with story via reading a book or watching a film or television drama. Sometimes a story that is very different from the one you are working on will turn out to be precisely what you need in terms of inspiration and energy. Films in particular can be useful because they are less likely to shroud story structure in other, more complex elements as prose or a television series so often do. So we may see, with sudden clarity, how to fix structural problems in a novel by grasping how a film-maker has overcome them. Equally, witnessing the complexity of character-building in a novel may lend gravitas and resonance to a few lines of dialogue in a screenplay. Mix up your mediums, have some fun with it, learn something new!

What's in your story suitcase? And what does it say about you as a writer?

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