Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.



A. S. Byatt demonstrates the art of short story writing

The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale.  Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.

Yet writers have not forgotten.  Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them.  Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.

Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly.  Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft.  Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.

DSCF4470 bSo, in this story A.S. Byatt  tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.

In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.

After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame.  The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen.  They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest.  Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for.  The second princess volunteers, but:

The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.

So she set out.  They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.

 She began to think.  She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess.  This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests.  What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.

She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.

She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern.  This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.

Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?

On takingthe first step…


Because it seems to me that the debate on how much story-planning you need to do is contradictory, and therefore on-going, I thought I’d offer these thoughts from a prolific author who died early this year.

When I think of the bone structure of the book…the dramatic presentation as it were – they know they have to get to Lands End and I will not let them go anywhere else.  How they get there is up to them.  They might not get there at once.

You have to know that you are going from A to wherever, but it would be very boring if you knew exactly how you were going to do it.  It is quite interesting to have things happening that you had not envisaged at the start.

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 – 2014)

And, because, one of the simple ways to ‘force’ a story is to set a character – or two – on a journey, and see what happens along the way.

If you are someone who craves plans, then using a journey will, at least, allow you to plot a route, and the means to get there.  After that, the questions proliferate:  what transport to use?  How much money they have?  Why they’re going…  The list of questions seems as endless as the possibilities of the journey.

map bookSomething interesting is bound to happen, isn’t it…

even on the shortest trip?

Beyond Words.

My reading group and I have just been discussing  ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield.  It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.

WWI postcardLike so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915.  But why should we need to know that?  A story, surely, stands alone.  That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?

This one passed.  We agreed unanimously.  We don’t always agree, of course.  I wouldn’t expect us too.  In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste.  Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.

Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course.  Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.

In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months.  When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it.  The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs.  What could it mean?  I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on.  There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.

It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came.  Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.

When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’

For me, it was a eureka moment.  I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:

‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’

The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war.  How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read.  In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces.  The narrator’s journey provides structure.  The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning.  This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?

I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into.  But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment.  Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.

WWI postcardSo if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one.  If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto.  If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it.  As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature.  Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.

Them bones,them bones, them…More Thoughts on Plots

To plan or not? That’s the story question that is asked most, and not just by writing groups.  Readers want to know how it’s done, too.

I’m thinking about it more lately, as I’m half-way through my crime-reading course.  If there’s one genre where the intricately worked details need to hang together, this is it.  The stories so far have been a mixed bag.  We haven’t all liked all of them, but there have been one or two, that to use the terms of their day, were ‘stinkers’.  Sorry editors, this reading group did not think your selection faultless.

Arthur mee encyclopedia, vol 3Which is not to say that all agreed in liking the other stories.  This is a group with varied literary tastes, and we’re still discussing the merits of classic-crime and hard-boiled in general.  I might get back to you on that later, meanwhile….

Some might assume that the older stories are the culprits.  They’d be wrong to generalise.  Dorothy Sayers 1932 story, The Man Who Knew How, is a cracker.  I’ve read it several times now, and love it.  As a reader, I don’t care how she put it together.  It’s an intricate and intriguing dark-read that I’ll be happy to go back to for pleasure or work.

As a writer, I’m in awe of her skill.  Sayers employed a host of literary tricks to provide a psychological crime story underpinned with observations about how crime fiction works, or doesn’t work, and managed to have fun playing around with ideas of coincidence.  (And no, I’ve no evidence for that statement, but I feel certain she had fun writing this one.)

I don’t know if DLS (as the members of The Dorothy L. Sayers society refer to her) wrote a plan.  No doubt I could find out.  But where does that get me?  I’m not DLS. You’re not either.  I could plot out the events of her story point by point, as she perhaps did, but in what way does that help?

Now don’t panic, I’m not advocating plagiarism here, but actually, that’s not such a bad idea, if you want to understand how something works.  I don’t suppose your GP has to look at bare bones very often, but I would hope he or she has a thorough understanding of the skeleton. I’m guessing they did quite a lot of dissection along the way – I know they used to.  Take it apart, see how it works; know how it fits back together.

Who knows what you might see in the process?

Getting Engaged.

I’ve just finished The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes, one of two books I’ve been reading over the last week. It’s the lighter of the two, and I admit I skimmed some sections. In my defence, this was a novel that was passed on to me, rather than one I chose.  I started it in order to clear some space on the shelf, thinking that if, after a few pages it wasn’t working out, I would give it away.

Something kept me reading.  It had a plot.  There was a little too much coincidence for my taste; some events were too clearly engineered to misdirect us, and the characters seemed predictable, and glossy.  Yet I was hooked.  Why? Well, perhaps because it offered a different view on how society and the media works on the individual.  I did not just want to find out how it ended, I wanted to follow the twists and turns of the story.

I’ve been thinking about this question of reader engagement for the last few days, because I’m struggling with my other read.  It’s a novel I’ve been looking forward to for months.  Other people have loved it, the reviews were good and the blurb on the back seemed to promise the kind of story I love.

It is has strong, flawed characters and lots of interesting and unexpected action, but, and you may have seen this coming, I find myself hoping for sections I can skim.  I want to know what happens, so something is working, but I find it easy to put the novel down.

So far, so obvious.  Yet, it set me thinking about who I write for.  At this point I offer a quote from Stephen King,

Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person.  As it happens, I believe this.  I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader…

‘On Writing’, p256

It’s a quote that is so well worn it’s practically crumbling at the corners, but it is worth a writer thinking about, whether you are publishing or not.  What kind of a read are we offering? Regardless of the message we are sending, how are we hoping to keep it being read?

Famously, Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, embodies his ideal reader.  This means he has a tangible and fully formed audience he can keep in mind as he writes. Notice I did not say consult.  One of his key rules is that he never discusses a work in progress.

Of course, this ideal reader business may not suit everyone.  I’m sure there are plenty of successful writers who can give us a whole directory of alternative systems.  What I like about it is the way writing for a specific person focuses the mind.

So, here’s me, composing my thoughts into some kind of coherence and posting them onto the net one day, working away at a short story another.  Am I clear about my ideal reader?

Are you?