The story so far
Should you be in the middle of writing a novel it’s good idea to stop every now and then and devote a hundred words or so to writing down ‘the story so far.’ It focuses the mind on what you’re doing and where you need to go next. It’s all too easy to get lost in one’s own verbiage, and the drive forward is lost.
I don’t just mean plot points, ‘he’s done this’ and ‘she’s done that’, but where we are in the story as a whole. By ‘plot’ I mean the events which move the story along: rather like what you’re shown at the beginning of an episode in a TV serial, which brings you up to date with what’s gone before, mood, characters, events and all. TV is heavy on plots, but in a good novel they’re just the thread running through the whole: important, because it’s what keeps the reader turning the page and wanting to find out what happens next. But other things are important too – characters have to change and develop as time goes along. It’s not just ‘and then, and then, and then’. You will be paying proper attention to your initial idea (the ‘story’ as opposed to just the ‘plot’) and remembering to keep to its point – and what your reader knows and doesn’t know. You will be conscious too of form and structure; you will be using the resonance of language and grace of expression to heighten the impact of the story you are telling. See your plot as what enables you to best say, by using event and character, what you are trying to say, the point you’re trying to make. Which you can probably boil down into a single sentence. Such as ‘All men are wicked’, or ‘thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’ or ‘Because someone’s a victim doesn’t make them nice’ or ‘Stepmothers are more to be pitied than stepchildren,’ or ‘having children is a real pain’ or some other example of what I’d call a cosmic statement. You need to make sure before you begin that your plot and your ‘cosmic statement’ are not pulling in different directions. It’s when they do that the task of writing gets laborious. All good novels have good plots, but a good plot alone does not necessarily ensure a good novel, for other factors intervene.
Be glad to be writing when you are. There are fashions in what makes a good novel. In ‘literary’ novels of the past plots were kept obscured: what happened to characters wasn’t as important as what they thought and felt. ‘Genre’ novels – romance, sci-fi, thrillers – have only lately begun to get critical attention, more so perhaps due to the rise of the e-book, but all that’s another story.
Of the novels in the canon that have come down to us from past centuries, many were written as serials. Perforce the reader had to remember them from month to month, even quarter to quarter. Plots had to be really evident. Characters had to be memorable Each episode had to finish with a cliff hanger. Put the episodes together as a novel and you get Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, Flaubert, Dumas, greatly respected now but at the time rather dismissed as commercial fiction, written with sales in mind.
Once upon a time, back in 1988, I was asked to write a serial for Woman, a leading women’s weekly at the time, not a glossy, the opposite, with rather down market recipes, knitting patterns, how to line the curtains, and catch your man. – and every week two or three romantic short stories of a Mills and Boon nature. Readers would check the end sentences to make sure it ended happily. Now the editor had the bright idea of a serial to be delivered, to fit the space in between the ads, either 1,000 words or 2,000, depending, to be delivered by me on the Thursday, to be published in the next weekly issue. He envisaged perhaps twelve episodes. Starting as soon as possible. I said yes. And as it happened it ran for 50 weeks or so before the Editor said that’s enough; my other writers are complaining you’re taking up too much space. It was, I may say, a great training. On a Thursday I’d get the early train up to London where my typist would be waiting (it was the days before the computer, let alone the internet), a two-hour journey – and write the episode by hand. The motor cycle messenger would call to collect at lunchtime. I allowed myself no time for editing or rewriting, let alone second thoughts. A deadline is a deadline and has to be met. That was a year of no holidays, no illnesses, just the discipline and the fun, I must say, of The Hearts and Lives of Men – the title I gave it (it was a ‘woman’s magazine’ after all.)
I think the Editor must have thought the novel was already written and that I was doling it out meanly week by week, not that I was making up as I went along. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all. But he never asked and I never told. And necessity, indeed, is the mother of invention.
It was only when I started to write that I realised the full structural implications of what I had committed myself to. I would have to start in the past or else I would end up writing in the future. It made sense to start with a child’s adventures and grow the child up through the episodes. Dickens came to mind, of course. And the first sentence became ‘Reader, let me tell you the story of Clifford, Helen and Little Nell.’ It what s what I would call a Dear Reader novel; they’re easier and simpler to write. The Victorians did it a lot. The Dear Writer becomes an another character in the book – you can give her a personality which has nothing to do with you the real writer; you can digress at will and make comments on the way your characters behave. You can comment on the day’s news or tell your heroine how to behave to win her man or how to improve her cucumber salad , all on the way to your cliffhanger ending. Which in an emergency, and I can tell you this piece of writing was full of emergencies,can be useful. You could use a whole 1,000 words in Nell’s recollection of what had gone before, and then do a new cliffhanger ending in one line.
And every week there’d be a ‘story so far’ in the magazine to remind readers, and myself, what had gone before – just as in a TV serial you get the same developing intro every week using some old shots, some new ones every week. Do, when you’re writing, think of making things easy for yourself. Don’t give yourself too many characters to deal with, too many subplots: solve the world’s problems one at a time, not all at once. Remember you have a whole lifetime’s writing ahead of you, leave some material in reserve for later on. And do bear in mind that it’s no use writing a series of 1,000 word pieces, no matter how brilliant, if they have no relationship with what went before. Writing ‘the story so far’ compels you to bear it in mind.
A ‘McGuffin’ was what Hitchcock called the mysterious object in a film that sets the whole chain of events into motion and can be used to bring it to an end. I had stipulated four week’s notice before I got told to bring The Hearts and Lives of Men to an end, and had had the forethought to bring my McGuffin at the beginning. I used a locket, worn by Little Nell, kidnapped at the age of three, whose fortunes I was to follow until she was reunited with her parents some twenty years on, and could prove her identity by producing the locket. These days you could simply use DNA, but not then. I had my cosmic statement buried in the second sentence: ‘Clifford and Helen wanted everything for little Nell, and wanted it so much she was in danger of losing everything, even her life.’ So I had to keep putting Nell’s life in danger as a result of her parents’ inability to get on together, and ‘the story so far’ kept me on the straight and narrow. When it was finished I simply left out ‘the story so far’s and it was published by Heineman like another novel,and is still in print.
All novels are written in different ways and all writers use different means to bring them about. The beginning and the end support a novel as do the abutments, the supports, support a bridge. Make sure they’re firm and solid enough to support the structure. The bridge can come in all shapes; it just needs to get you across the water. See it as a structure, and don’t let it get too thin in the middle. The Hearts and Lives of Men went on for so unexpectedly long I had to get Clifford and Helen to divorce and remarry in order to keep my McGuffin intact. An extra stanchion was required. But ingenuity will usually provide the answer.