A downside of all my manuscript appraisal and creative writing tutoring is that I’ve developed X-ray eyes. Hard as I try, I simply cannot ignore the inner workings of a piece of fiction.
It can be a curse – like a kind of visual Tourette’s, irresistibly impacting on my suspension of disbelief. Instead of being drawn into a world of fictional fantasy, I’m compulsively fixated on the nuts and bolts and pulleys and paste that make it up. It’s a bit like going to the theatre and seeing only grimy stage-hands. Or looking at a painting and the ultimate artwork being obscured by the trial-and-error sketches that preceded it. Or hearing the discordant clatter of early drafts when trying to enjoy a symphony.
On the bright side, though, when writers approach me for feedback, I’m able to see the inner workings of their fiction, the wobbly foundations beneath their verbal pyrotechnics or elegant style. And I thought I’d offer you seven of the most common weaknesses I tend to detect – those that will cause even the most flamboyant story-tower to crumble and fall:
NUMBERS ONE, TWO & THREE: Character, character, character. I’d even make that four, five and six – for ill-conceived, flimsy, lazy character invention is one of the most widespread causes of fictional rot. People on pages (as with stages and screens) should be larger than life and far more intimately known to their creators than any living soul. ‘What does she want?’ I ask authors of their protagonist. ‘Not just for dinner, but in its deepest sense – what does she long for?’ You’d be astonished by how often they simply don’t know.
NUMBER FOUR: Failure to appreciate the importance of cause and effect, things happening because other things happened. For instance (to paraphrase E.M. Forster) the king dying and the queen, as a consequence, dying of grief. That, says Forster – and I concur – is the kind of causality that makes for a plot.
NUMBER FIVE: Disregard for the dimension of time. In the same way as we live in time, our lives shaped by our span, a story that successfully creates an illusion of veracity takes place within a specific slice of time. This is so often ignored or ill-considered.
NUMBER SIX: Poor understanding of whose story is being told and what it is about. Even with a cast of thousands, there’s a central character (usually the protagonist) who carries the cause-and-effect baton and makes a dash for the finishing line despite an obstacle-ridden course. All the sub-plots ultimately feed into this narrative focus.
NUMBER SEVEN: Too many confusing subplots that vie with the baton-holding protagonist, above. They sometimes drown said baton holder with their clamour for attention – and end up giving the reader a massive headache.