Sunday 27 March 2011

Might as well watch something good...

He said, “She’s coming round tonight and I have to choose the movie. But I’ve already seen everything good. You watch a lot of foreign films, aren't there any good ones? One that would impress her?”

I said, “What do you mean ‘impress her’? What is it you want to trick her into thinking?”

“That I’m cool. You know, like I know what’s what and what’s going down. But nothing too heavy, I don’t want her bursting into tears. At least, not until we’ve had sex. And none of that black and white crap you're always watching.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Well, if you want cool, you should watch Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. It’s bright and breezy."

“But if you want something a little more dark and sultry...

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Book Autopsy 2: A Love Story


In my last post I analysed the first chapter of Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying, but to be honest this was something of a soft target. As a thriller it naturally follows most of the 'rules' of contemporary literature popular with creative writing teachers and how-to books. Starting off with a hook, keeping pace high, using action to move the plot, these are all fairly standard for the genre.

My dissection of the first chapter still revealed some interesting things, but I think it would be even more intriguing to take the same approach with a book from a completely different genre: Romance.

Monday 21 March 2011

Chapter One Analysis

I'm going to take the first chapter of a successful novel and break it down to see how the author hooks the reader, what information he feels is necessary at this point of the story, how he approaches things like POV, character and voice.

The book I've chosen is A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, Stepford Wives). A 237 page, tightly written suspense thriller, it is a commercial novel but with many unconventional touches, extremely well plotted with some very clever twists and turns. It was his first novel, which is also one of the reasons I chose it. Chapter One is just over four pages long.

There will be the spoilers. 

Chapter 1 starts with these lines:
His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all. Hate erupted and flooded through him, gripping his face with jaw-aching pressure. That was all right though; the lights were out.

On the surface this gives a very clear indication of his mood.  In fact it tells the reader directly that 'he' is angry and blames 'she'. The writing is visual and the last line gives a nice sense that he's hiding his feelings, but in many ways this would seem to be a overly 'telling' start. But as we'll see, it isn't. 

Wednesday 16 March 2011

The Weird Bunch

So, I was staring into space and I noticed that the middle shelf of my bookcase is a strange mix of genres (click twice on the photo for a better view). Over on the left it's mainly fantasy books that I've had since I was a kid. I used to have a lot more but I gave them to charity. I just kept the ones I really loved, although I don't read them any more. Fritz Leiber's Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser series. Michael Moorcock's Elric, the baddest hero ever (won't catch him saving any cats). Two Narnia books — A Horse and His Boy is certainly my favourite, not sure why I kept Prince Caspian. Some very well-thumbed Tolkien.

I also have quite a few odd books. The novelisation of Harold and Maude. Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin from when he was doing silly stuff not suitable for the New Yorker (a sample line: These were not the average "contented" cows. They were cows born for trouble.)

Sunday 13 March 2011

Take my advice

I enjoy reading “how to write” type books. Whether they're on fiction, screenwriting or plays, by established writers explaining their method, or by somebody you’ve never heard of revealing their secret formula for instant success. I find the subject fascinating — but just because their system works for them doesn’t mean it’s going to work for me.

I tend to write all night, with plenty of coffee and hard boiled eggs for sustenance. At dawn I stop everything and go jump in my private lake, cutting through the water like a fart-powered  torpedo.
—Stephen King

The problem with most of these sorts of books is this:

Wednesday 9 March 2011

The Rewriting Blues

You get to the end of your story, you start rewriting. You show it to some people who all think it has promise, they like this and that about it. It’s not perfect, but you already knew that. You keep working on it. You trim, you hone, you tinker. Weeks, months — it’s slow going, but it’s improving. One day you finish. Hurrah!

Most people are encouraging. Some people point out flaws, but they aren’t really getting what you’re going for. Not everyone’s going to like it — horses for courses. You stick to your guns. Still, there isn't  an overwhelming tide of publishers knocking down your door, and to be honest, there’s something about your story, now that you look at it after six months, that doesn’t seem quite right...

Then, someone rips it apart. 

Sunday 6 March 2011

Setting the pace

A man is told on the phone that his girlfriend is in danger from the criminal types he used to hang out with. He rushes out of the house and notices how beautiful the flowers in the garden are.

This is going to slow the pace, but NOT because it is slowing down his journey to the car, which will get him to his girl etc.

Consider: The same man rushes out of his house to rescue his girlfriend, but he is intercepted by his parole officer who is there to check he isn’t consorting with nefarious types, otherwise it’s back to the slammer ...  What does he do now? (Can parole officers do that? I don’t know, I’m making this up).

Even though I am slowing down the character’s progress, I am not slowing the narrative. Because pace isn’t about how long it takes to get to the next thing, it’s how long it takes to get to the next interesting thing.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Go with the flow

Apart from what a story is about, there is also the matter of how it is written. Once the reader is caught up in the story they can find themselves being drawn irresistibly through the exciting parts but just as irresistibly through slower sections. To some degree this is to do with being engaged with the story overall and the characters, but it is also to do with the way it is written. The way the words are put together, the construction of the narrative, the syntax used to create a rhythm.

Some people are obviously just gifted in this regard. They naturally put words together in an attractive way. But that doesn't mean it can't be learnt. On the most basic level there is spelling and grammar and typos. Just being able to read the text will make the flow better. But assuming those things are at a competent level, there is  another level of sophistication beyond that, which will make the narrative flow.
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