My new novel A Wish for Connie Harris, which is a Southern
Gothic fairytale for adults set in 1920s Louisiana,
and is a sort of a hybrid of The Road meets Big Fish, is shaping up nicely. Here’s a little taste of the opening:
met Connie Harris only briefly, a week ago today. We shared an afternoon together, drinking
lemonade beneath an old oak tree. I was
just a boy then, seventeen years old. A
week on and I am much older. That
particular afternoon was breathlessly hot, and though it is raining hard at
this moment, as I sit here on Connie’s porch with her axe at my feet and blood
on my hands, staring at where we once sat and drank our lemonade, I am sweating
still and breathless. Death always makes
me breathless, but it is such a part of life that the two cannot be
separated. Not by man. Not by God. To deny death is to deny
life. Connie knew this, and I guess now
I do too. Three lives have been lost
this week, and if there were such things as wishes, and I believe there are, I
would not wish them back. A week ago I
may have felt differently, but like I said, I was just a boy then.
There's a teleportation machine, and a boy that can fly, a murderer called Mackey, and a dog that won't die... What's not to like? I'll keep you posted on the progress.
I watched the film Chaplin last night – the biography of the silent-movie legend Charlie Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr.It was all very interesting, but there was one scene that struck a chord with me in particular.
Chaplin (the director, not the tramp character), is struggling with a scene he’s directing. The female lead has to mistake Chaplin (the tramp, not the director) for a well-to-do gentleman, only the woman is blind and the movie is obviously shot in silence.A problem.Now, because the whole plot is hinged on the incorrect assumption made by the female lead, Chaplin (the director) feels he cannot cheat the audience with a flimsy incorrect assumption, or ask them to turn a blind eye (no pun intended) to the implausibility of the mechanics.Chaplin doesn’t want the audience to say, I don’t believe that.
He not only solves the problem, but solves it with elegance:The blind girl is sitting on a busy street corner selling flowers, and Chaplin, trying to get to the obstructed pavement, steps through the back of a parked car to emerge on the street in front of the girl.The girl thusly assumes he has exited the car, and therefore must be a gentleman of some standing, etc…
It needn’t have gone like this.The dialogue card has the girl address Chaplin as Sir, anyway, so he could have just been walking by for the incorrect assumption to be made, but it’s lazy, and even if it’s only on a subliminal level, the audience will know it’s lazy, and the story will be weaker for the, I don’t believe that, moment.
It’s the same in written fiction.Plot-heavy genre fiction more specifically.A carefully contrived plot can be softened with elegance.Characters needn’t be shunted around with a cattle prod but subtly directed by a conductor’s baton.Chaplin’s way is elegant because the path he takes through the back of the car is in keeping with his cheeky-chappy characterisation, so it feels like the plot is following Chaplin and not the other way around.It’s all device of course, but it should be artful.The actor’s goal is to hide the performance within the performance.To give the illusion of spontaneity.To not be seen to be acting.
The real question should be: why wouldn’t you?You’ve spent the last year or two of your life carving a story out of thin air – when you weren’t writing it, you were thinking about it, dreaming about it.When you’d finished it you redrafted it, edited it, polished it, scrutinised it line by line and reworked every paragraph to make the rhythms sing.After all that effort and hard work, why wouldn’t you give your precious manuscript one final look-over?You may have missed an opportunity for improvement.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good idea of the subtext of your work before you finish the first draft, but more likely you’ll have been so preoccupied with getting the story down that deeper meanings will not even have been a concern.But once the story is down, why not take a look at the thing as a whole?You may find that your apocalyptic zombie novel is more than just about survival, or that your vampire hunter story has more going on than merely staking bloodsuckers.Whatever underlying theme you notice – even if it’s only a fragment of one – you owe it to yourself to bring it to the fore and let the reader see it too.
One of the best ways of highlighting theme is with the use of metaphors and symbolism.Here's a couple of examples, albeit from the movies:
Metaphor: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Benjamin Button had an unfortunate condition: he was born old and grew younger every day – eventually dying as an infant.At first glance the story appears tragic, but is in fact a tale of optimism.Throughout the film a seemingly insignificant old gentleman tells us of his poor luck regarding lightning.He tells us of the seven times he has been struck, and by the end of the film we realise the old gent views these lightning strikes as a good thing: “God keeps reminding me I’m lucky to be alive.”
Now take Benjamin: If you count the meeting of his adoptive parents as one lightning strike, then there are a total of seven encounters that Benjamin has during his life – seven people who have a profound effect on him, whether the encounters are good or bad. These are Benjamin’s lightning strikes, and regardless of the way in which he entered and left this world, Benjamin had a full life in between.This metaphor becomes the beacon for the story’s theme: Life is a gift – Embrace life – whatever, it all carries the same message.
Walt Kowalski is a racist Korean War veteran who forms an unlikely friendship with a Hmong teenager (Thao) who tries to steal his prized Gran Torino.The friendship causes Walt to face his racism but also a dark memory from his war days.Throughout the film a local priest tries to get Walt to take confession, but Walt has no intention of airing his sins to a wet-behind-the-ears priest fresh out of catholic school. But when Walt decides to lay down his life to save Thao and his family, he takes the priest up on his offer, but only confesses to the most trivial of sins.
In their final scene together, Walt locks Thao in the basement to protect him, and it’s here, through the wire mesh of the basement door, that Walt confesses his darkest sins to the boy.
The symbolism of the screened door not only landmarks Walt’s confession by visually redefining the immediate surroundings as a confessional, but also gives weight to the confession itself, and by doing so clearly echoing the theme of the movie: Redemption.
Metaphors and symbolism are no substitute for good storytelling, and omitting them does not a schmuck of you make, but not taking a step back to see what you’ve written does.
Hey there, fiction writers.
If you’re looking for a masterclass in plot construction, then look no
further than Monster’s Ball. This film
is a beautiful example of character-driven plot and subtle foreshadowing, but
don’t blink or you’ll miss it. It
unfolds so organically that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the story just
happened before your eyes.
Watch this one if you want to learn how not to do it. Jesus...
Shenandoah’s fall issue (Noir) is now live, so if you’d like
to take a gander at my short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden, as well as the
other great stories, you can.Also take
a look at the editor’s note (Rod Smith), a thoughtful piece about the nature of
noir, and its parameters.When I submitted the story I pegged it more as a Southern Gothic tale,
but on reading Rod’s piece I realised I’ve also ticked more than a few “Noir”
boxes by pure coincidence.
I never set out to write a noir piece, nor did I set out to
write a Sothern Gothic, I set out to write the story I was compelled to write,
a story about two very different men who share a common burden.If I had set out to write a piece of noir or Southern
Gothic fiction, I dare say it would have been filled with clichés common to its respective
genres and become a pale imitation of both.And so from this accidental formula I’ve come up with a hard and fast
rule for myself and my future work:
Write about the characters first, about their lives, and let the
genre take care of itself.