Author Choices


Author Choices

Readers don’t necessarily realize that all along, an author is making choices. The story seems immutable and inevitable and actually speaks well of the writer’s ability to keep the reader in the continuous dream.

But I find that writers can unknowingly believe the same thing. When you’re in the throes of creation or know your characters so well that they take on a life of their own, there can be a sense of the foreordained.

But your choices have an impact that may not be immediately obvious. I want to use the British and Belgian Professor Ts, discussed in the last post, as an example.

Author, actor, director choices

First off, I know that the writer does not reign supreme in TV or films, wrong though that is. The final performance is shaped by the actor, director, etc. But for our purposes, let’s pretend that the writer is in complete control.

The Belgian Professor T has almost no facial expressions, except for a fixed slight grimace/grin like a clown before make-up. His movements are rigid and intonation flat. He makes no eye contact. He seems to have quite a severe case of OCD and/or Asperger’s syndrome.

I think that the British series decided to portray Professor T as less impaired. He has a wider, although still limited, range of emotion. He makes eye contact. His movements, while not fluid, are more a man with extremely controlled feelings rather than one unaware he has a body.

Why this makes a difference

These seem like relatively minor differences but they impact the show and, in my opinion, may even contribute to why the British series is not as fascinating as the Belgian one.

Because Brit Professor T is more connected to his colleagues (eye contact and more emotion), the supporting characters seem to have greater expectations of him for change. They pull him aside to urge him to be less awkward and more tactful.

But in the Belgian version, his coworkers have pretty much accepted him as is. He is so far out of the norm that they make little or no effort to ‘reform’ him. He is the outside observer.

I think the Belgian professor is therefore a more cohesive, if odd, character than the Brit who has one foot in the normal world and one in his own.  The Brit’s duality causes uneasiness in the viewer as you’re not quite sure what or who he is.

So, even a fairly benign choice in a character can affect its effectiveness.

An easier example

The example I just used is so subtle I’m afraid I haven’t been able to make the point. So for my sake, let’s have a more obvious one. The hero betrays his best friend on ethical grounds. The author can go any number of ways from here. The friend can see the error of his ways. Or try to get revenge. The hero might realize he’s been too judgmental. The friend might have a fatal accident as a result of the hero’s decision. Any of these choices take the novel down a unique and mutually exclusive path.

So, sometimes it can produce a better novel if you play with the idea of taking a pivotal moment in the plot and considering a different track. A huge pain in the neck but you may be surprised at how often this results in a better story.

Professor T


Professor T

Professor T is a 2015-2018 Belgian TV drama series set in Antwerp about an eccentric professor of criminology at Antwerp University. The professor, played by Koen De Bouw, is called in by the Federal Judicial Police on particularly difficult cases. This, despite having no, or offensive, people skills and a serious case of OCD which manifests itself in a need for routine and cleanliness. But it may be these very attributes which make him so valuable. Social convention doesn’t prevent him from speaking aloud truths others are afraid to voice and his obsessive focus on detail allows him to observe patterns missed by less single-minded colleagues.

Sounds like it might be a bit of a bore, no? An often silent and always awkward main character who has a tight lid on his emotions. An engaging protagonist is usually articulate and willing to share his inner most thoughts. These mechanisms connect us with the fictional character.

But this is a case of the exception proving the rule. Though often silent, when he does speak, Professor T has insights which pull together disparate events into a cohesive whole. And just as importantly, makes observations on the human condition which are both deep and impactful. The latter often through quotes from his wide knowledge of literature and philosophy.

Professor T also has extravagant hallucinations/dreams/imaginings. Students as clucking chickens, the Dean as a Roman senator, detectives as barking dogs. An intense tango with a woman he gives little overt indication of caring for.

In this clever way, the writers imply an active and interesting inner life even though none of the usual literary devices are employed. The viewer likes, sympathizes, and cares about him. And is hooked.

I was sorry there were only four seasons of the show.

Professor T, the British version

I thought, however, that all would be right with the world when a British version of Professor T was announced. Starring Ben Miller, an actor who had played a socially awkward detective in a television series called Death in Paradise. Again, a difficult role as not only can he not express his emotions (such as loving one of the other detectives) but it’s possible that he himself doesn’t know or understand how he is feeling.

A perfect actor for the role, I thought.

So, I was looking forward to the first season.

It was okay.

Not awful but not great.

Even with an excellent lead actor, similar supporting characters, some of the same plots and even the hallucinations thrown in (although not so extravagant as the Belgian production but I think that was more probably the British series wanting to do them on the cheap than the English Professor T’s imaginings being less vivid). Just okay.

Why is that? The quality of the actors? Maybe but not the lead for sure. The subtitles? But usually a program without subtitles, i.e. the Brit one, is easier to watch. Cultural differences? I didn’t notice any big ones.

But I do have a theory and it has to do with the choices the writers made in both the British and Belgium series which made quite large differences in the quality despite the similarities in other ways. In the next post, I’ll discuss the impact of author choices.

Combining Beauty of Language with Plot


Combining Beauty of Language with Plot

Last post, I was writing about The Nutshell, a novel by Ian McEwan to point out how a master craftsman can break all kinds of literary rules on the way to a compelling story. In this post, I want to particularly highlight a feat which McEwan accomplishes in this novel: his ability to combine beauty of language with a plot which has momentum.

The language

When the language is arresting and gorgeous, you want to stop and savor it. Roll it around in your mind to touch all its points of sweetness and sharpness. And there are plenty in the novel. Almost at random, I have chosen a few examples.

..the unweeded garden of their marriage (p. 13)

In my mother’s usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not synonym. For being selfish, devious, cruel. (p.15)

Usefully, each successive effort of memory removes her further from the actual events. She’s memorising her memories. The transcript errors will be in her favour. They’ll be a helpful cushion at first, on their way to becoming the truth. (p.169)

But all this savoring does in fact slow the reader down and might even almost kick him out of the continuous dream to admire. To minimize the problem, I often find that authors do one of two things. They either write flowingly and evocatively with only minimal plot or they do the flowery bit up front and then drop mostly into plot for the rest of the novel. McEwan is able to sustain both insight and plot.

The plot

Here is a plot that works in all the ways a plot should. It has forward action, suspense, and even an ending which is a clever surprise. It’s a mystery, for heaven’s sake and we keep wanting to know how it turns out.

Some of the success comes from the right pacing of the novel. McEwan knows how long he can tarry on an image or an insight and when he needs to introduce the next step in the murder plan and commission.

Writing to aspire to

I used to say that I didn’t like to read other writers’ work when I was writing because it had a deleterious effect. If the novel wasn’t very good, I’d get all puffed up and superior, sure I could do better. If the novel was wonderful, it would depress me so much that I felt it was encouraging me to give up the pursuit and get a good job.

Having realized that this was a kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot stance, I have toned it down to admiration. Something to aspire to—beauty and plot together. Right now, I’m mostly all plot. But I aspire, I aspire.

As to poorly written novels, I’m still working on my outlook. I’m trying for pity but isn’t just the flip side of superior? Still a work in progress.

The Nutshell


The Nutshell

The Nutshell is a highly acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan. It is a brilliant story which is both a fantastic flight of fancy and a sharply observed, gritty tale of murder. With the overlay of compelling comments on the state of humanity.

The plot in a nutshell

An unborn baby is the protagonist (no, that’s not a typo). By listening through the womb, he discovers that his mother-to-be plans to kill his father, John, to continue her affair with John’s brother, Claude.

The baby is outraged but helpless. He ‘witnesses’ John’s poisoning and the subsequent police sympathy for the pregnant widow (Trudy), on the assumption that John was a suicide. But the police become suspicious. Trudy and Claude decide to flee. The baby is desperate to stop them.

You can read a fuller summary by clicking the link.

The literary rules he breaks

I’ve already written how amateur writers break writing rules at their peril but here is an example of where, in the hands of an experienced writer, they can be trampled upon to great effect.

I want to concentrate on the cracked literary rules, but there are also many more exciting features. I encourage you to read a review  to get more on these aspects.

Inherently unlikely premise

Really, the story of an unborn baby—ridiculous. You’re supposed to write characters with whom the reader can identify. We’ve all been fetuses of course, but I think I may say with confidence that none of us told stories from the womb.

Impossible, and yet by the end of the first page, I’ve bought it. And the erudition of the baby who pronounces insightfully on the world he has yet to enter.  Some of this acceptance can be attributed to the authority of the author. McEwan’s mastery of the language and confidence makes it easy to fall into his world, no matter how unusual.

Both omniscient narrator and first person

The unborn baby is the first person narrator. Typically, writers should stick with one point of view. It encourages identification with the protagonist and focuses the story. But McEwan doesn’t allow the strait jacket he has chosen hold him back. He enters into every character’s mind to further the story and is a fly on the wall for events the baby could not have been present for. Again, we move seamlessly from one perspective to another, hardly noticing.

The protagonist doesn’t act

I’ve already written a post on avoiding passive observers as main characters. A protagonist needs to act to achieve his goals. He can’t just stand around wringing his hands.  Otherwise, the reader loses interest or gains impatience.

A baby in a womb. Is there a better definition of an inactive witness? Okay, he tries unsuccessfully to strangle himself with the umbilical cord, but for the most part, he can do nothing but observe. And I am right there, watching with him.

So, that’s just three rules trampled over. There are more, one of which I will go into more detail in the next post.

The Nutshell reinforces what I have said before—there are general rules for writing which master craftspeople can use with ease but also know when to break in the service of the story. You can do it also if (and only if) you have the same facility.

This primarily mechanical breakdown of the novel is not, I hope, how you experience it if you have read it or will (sorry, the tense agreements got a bit tangled up there). Because there’s a lot of fairy dust in the novel, too.

Lots of Events, No Story


Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.