Tag Archives: shakespeare

How To Guarantee Success

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Death, apparently. Specifically, death of a main character. It’s a time-honoured tradition and brings with it a sort of kudos (George R R Martin, anyone?). But someone has now mapped the impact of killing characters on success and come up with this glorious image:

The books listed are those that won the Booker Prize in 2011. They have pretty wide-ranging themes, from homicidal cowboy brothers to jazz, but all of them kill off a main character. More importantly, it’s the only theme they all share.

Tolkien killed Boromir, Victor Hugo killed Javert (amongst others), Shakespeare killed everybody – there are thousands of examples. So sharpen your literary hatchets, writers, because apparently that’s what it takes to make it big.

Honestly, I’m not sure how massive a pinch of salt to take this with.

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Spoiler Alert

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I am one of those terrible people who reads the end of a book before deciding whether to buy it. It’s ridiculous behaviour – I’m doing myself out of the anticipation that builds up during the course of the story – but I can’t help myself. I have to know that there’s a good strong closing point. Cliffhangers send me into paroxysms of rage and impatience, literally bouncing up and down on the sofa. Most of the time I write the end of my stories first as well. They’re heavily edited later to make sure everything ties in smoothly, but the basic anchor is there.

What is this obsession with knowing the end ahead of time? Is it simply impatience and a generational inability to cope with delayed gratification? Is it a need for reassurance that there is an ending, happy or otherwise? Is it simply an insatiable curiosity? Despite people ever so carefully (most of the time) working around spoilers on places like Facebook, I actually quite like them. If they’re dangled in front of me with the option of spoiling, I will go for the tidbit every time.

Apparently I’m not alone. Some students in San Diego did a bit of research into this and concluded that spoiling actually enhances the enjoyment people get out of a book:

They make some good points, too. The one that really struck me is that this care over spoilers is a modern trend – ‘back in the day’ people generally knew what the end was, but read the book or went to the play or listened to the bard anyway. The Greeks all knew that Troy lost; in 1997, despite being fully aware of the likely outcome, enough people went to see Titanic that it became the first film to gross over $1bn.

There is a theory that says people don’t like surprises, unless they see them coming:

The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. The M Night Shyamalan twists, for example, I absolutely loved despite not working them out in advance. But they are tricky to pull off, and there can be a risk of alienating your audience especially if, as the quote indicates, they feel conned or stupid.

There is, of course, another trick to all this and that’s the power of wilful forgetfulness. I can watch the same films and read the same books over and over because I am willing to forget the details in order to enjoy them again. It’s the same with reading the end first – the sting of suspense is drawn, and I can then read without worrying about the finale.

The Immoral Line

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I’ve just finished rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Near the end Shakespeare says:

I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt; but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss.

It’s a thought I’ve read in other books, and sort of comes back to the whole ‘write what you know’ theory. You can write far more convincingly about things you’ve experienced. But where is the line? At what point does it stop being applied experience and start being exploitative? If, for example, I were to write about the death of a character’s sibling or friend, I could do that from personal experience and make it a bit more real. But what would it be fair to those who had also suffered that same loss? Am I exploiting his death for my own ends, and making them grieve again? Or is it far enough removed?

The same goes with characters. Many of my characters are based on real people, to give them an added depth and humanity. It’s the tiny little quirks that make someone believable, and those are most easily found in real life. Leaving the question of permission aside (which, for the main characters, I have), how true to life do you make that portrait? A character must be flawed to be believable – do you keep the flaws of the real person? There’s some agonising over whether, even if the flaws are different, the person will be hurt by your portrayal of a character based on them. It’s a tricky line to walk sometimes.

Hopefully it will always just be an internal problem. Hopefully my characters and my events will be different enough from reality that no one gets hurt. But I’ll know what I’m basing things on, and I’ll always worry that it might hurt someone. That’s probably a good thing. It means I’ll work harder to make sure it doesn’t.

The Trouble With Love

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Yesterday’s post was a little emotionally squishy, so I’m making it up to you by talking today about the trouble romance in storytelling can cause.

Let’s start with the obvious: Mills & Boon, et al. Yes, I read them as a teenager. It’s practically a requirement of being a girl (especially one at a single-sex boarding school). Leaving the plot and writing quality aside, the stories engender entirely unrealistic expectations of love and romance. The hero is always handsome, flawed in some way that won’t actually cause problems later, and fantastically good in bed. There’s usually an element of mystery, or some great trial / misunderstanding that the couple have to go through, but it all works out fine in the end. Oh, and there’s only ever one Mr. Right.

Yeah, right.

Even Shakespeare’s at fault with his whole ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ thing (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1.1.132-140). And, of course, there’s Romeo, Romeo. At least his protagonists have the mitigating factor of being complete idiots occasionally – I’m thinking primarily of the entire cast of Much Ado About Nothing here – but the expectations of love are still set at 1) fall in love, 2) some trauma, challenge or other excitement, 3) happy ever after / tragically glorious death together (more on this later). It’s such a pervasive technique of storytelling that it bleeds into our expectations of life. That’s very dangerous.

I have come across one piece of literature that I think covers this. (I’m sure there are others out there, I just haven’t found them yet). I’d like to share it with you. It’s by one of my favourite poets and it can be read as dismissive or depressing, but I see in it a simple sweetness. Make of it what you will.

Song by Rupert Brooke

“Oh! Love,” they said, “is King of Kings,
And Triumph is his crown.
Earth fades in flame before his wings,
And Sun and Moon bow down.” —
But that, I knew, would never do;
And Heaven is all too high.
So whenever I meet a Queen, I said,
I will not catch her eye.

“Oh! Love,” they said, and “Love,” they said,
“The gift of Love is this;
A crown of thorns about thy head,
And vinegar to thy kiss!” —
But Tragedy is not for me;
And I’m content to be gay.
So whenever I spied a Tragic Lady,
I went another way.

And so I never feared to see
You wander down the street,
Or come across the fields to me
On ordinary feet.
For what they’d never told me of,
And what I never knew;
It was that all the time, my love,
Love would be merely you.