Monthly Archives: April 2019

Is Storytelling a Science?

Will Storr is a journalist and bestselling ghost-writer. He also runs workshops on how to write narrative, and has written a book based on these workshops – The Science of Storytelling. His theory is that the key to a good narrative is not the plot or structure, but character, preferably flawed. He isn’t the first to be fascinated by this (Aristotle was also keen on ‘tragic flaws’). But Storr believes that our evolution has depended on our ability to ‘read’ other people. Hence a misreading – or unexpected changes – in character is, in his words, ‘the single secret in storytelling.’

He offers a helpful process to achieve this to the aspiring writer:

  1. Locate your character’s ‘sacred flaw.’
  2. Imagine what might have caused this.
  3. Keep the two in play as your story progresses (as, e.g. Shakespeare does in King Lear).

Like Susan Hill (see my blog last Sunday), he sees the role of the storyteller as giving us ‘hope that we might not be quite so alone, in that dark bone vault, after all.’

Some critics feel his book has a lot to offer the tyro writer. Others feel his process is over-simplified. Where, for instance, is the scope in his model for irony; for the reader’s ability to laugh at a character’s lack of self-knowledge? In looking to free the aspiring writer from formulaic plot-based writing, has he instead set up different constraints with his concentration on the tragically flawed character and his / her damaging back-story?

I think we can all agree that character IS important in any story. But the aspiring writer still needs to look at the full range of human behaviour and create characters (and plots) accordingly. It is still a lot of hard graft and there is no magic bullet – even if some of the great story-tellers make it seem simple!

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The Queen’s (or her heir’s) English?

The Prince of Wales was in the news last week. As he is often written about, that fact is not, in itself, newsworthy – at least not for a blog about writing and writers. What drew literary minded people’s interest was his letter to President Macron after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in which he used a number of Americanised spellings, namely –ize instead of –ise. The prince’s fuddy-duddy reputation as a traditionalist was under threat – had he fallen under the influence of his new American daughter-in-law? Was he trying too hard to be ‘down with the kidz? Was ‘Western civilization’ (as he wrote) under threat from his expressions of sympathy for the French in this ‘most agonizing of times’? As one British woman living in France tweeted, ‘Lovely sentiments, but not impressed by the Americanisation of spelling here. Are we British or what?’

Well she, monarchists at home and abroad, and pedants everywhere can relax. The prince was being both British and traditionalist. He has been a longstanding user of –ize rather than –ise, and has the full support of established lexicographers. An article on the website of the Oxford Dictionary points out that while it is now believed that –ize is only correct in American English, it has been in use in Standard English since the fifteenth century, when there was no such thing as American English. The prince’s writing style, in fact, is traditional with knobs on.

Some publishing houses in the UK still use –ize as their preferred house style (the Oxford University Press, for example, who prefer it because of its origins in ancient Greek.) So, we Brits can choose which way to spell words like realise or organize. But it is best to be consistent and, of course, adhere to the recommended house style if you are lucky enough to get a publisher.

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Writing – a solitary occupation that brings people together?

Whilst on holiday last week I read I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. This is her grimly compelling novel about the relationship between two small boys; one a bully, the other his victim.

In a postscript she summarised the origins of the story. She had rented a remote cottage where she could work uninterrupted on finishing another novel. Her tranquil surroundings inspired her – the beautiful surrounding countryside including a nearby wood, the unusually hot weather, and two small boys who she often spotted when out on her daily walks. These boys seemed like great friends, unlike the two in her novel. But they provided the germ of an idea for a new story. By the end of her sojourn, she had written the opening chapters of I’m the King of the Castle, and outlined the rest of the plot in her notebook.

Although the book is about children, she wrote it with adult readers in mind and, what she thought, were adult themes exploring evil, isolation, and a lack of love. However it has often been a set book for school exams and seems to resonate, to an alarming extent in her view, with the fears and pro-occupations of teenagers. It was written before the era of social media, but the account of bullying by one child leading to another taking their own life, is thoroughly modern.

She admits that it is a ‘dark’ book, even though it emerged as an idea in a beautiful place, and many people have written to her to tell them how much they dislike it. My copy, picked up in a charity sale, looked unread, a friend warned me that I would not like it, and I did find it an uncomfortable read. But other people have been gripped and have told her: ‘That’s what it was like for me. [Your story] made me realise I haven’t been alone.’

This, she feels, is one of the reasons why she and others write novels: to make some people realise that they are not, after all, on their own. Or, as the seventeenth century poet, John Donne, put it – albeit in a different context, ‘No man is an island.’

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Super writing tips.

These aren’t my super tips. They are from Joe Norman, whose book – The Super Tutor: The Best Education Money Can Buy in Seven Short Chapters, is published this week.Luckily for us, two chapters are devoted to writing and here are some of the tips he comes up with.

In the chapter on how to hone your writing style he recommends splitting your allotted time into three parts. First try staring out of the window a lot without really thinking about exactly what you want to say, followed by examining your thoughts – perhaps making a few rough notes, but not actual sentences.

Next, when you get round to the actual writing, try writing as you speak – find you voice, in other words. Though, if you don’t like your own voice, you can always aim at being a cleverer, wittier, version of yourself. As Cary Grant once said, ‘I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.’ Writing by hand can force you to think harder and to cut out waffle and padding words like ‘very’ and ‘really.’ Use ‘said’ in preference to any other word relating to speech, and avoid exclamation marks.

Having spent the second third of your time writing, you should spend the last third checking it, at least to start with. As Hemingway said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’

In his chapter on how to write fiction, Norman says there are only three kinds of sentence: action, dialogue, description. ‘You don’t have to use them in equal amounts, but if you don’t know what to write you could simply put the letters A,D,D down the left hand side of a blank page of paper, then write a sentence (or paragraph) of action, followed by dialogue, followed by description.’

And repeat.

And repeat.

He quotes Aristotle who says there are only three acts to a story: beginning, middle, and end.


as David Mamet puts it:

Act one – stick your hero up a tree.

Act two – Throw rocks at her.

Act three – Get her down again.

Norman recommends eavesdropping on people in public places to get a grasp of authentic dialogue.

His tips are aimed at exam taking school students and their parents, and may strike the aspiring adult writer as a bit simplistic. But he is a highly paid ‘super tutor,’ so his methods must work for a lot of people. If you are stuck with writer’s block, or struggling to move your story along quite as you want to, one or other of his ideas may work for you. Personally, I’m going to try the staring out of the window suggestion.

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