Tag Archives: Pride and Prejudice

Writing Fiction: Influences

I’ve been fishing around in various books and films for clues about how to write or structure my novel: Catch-22, Three Kings. Sometimes modern novels will announce their influence (Bridget Jones/Pride and Prejudice, On Beauty/Howard’s End). But what about those original classics? What were their influences?

Pride and Prejudice: There’s an excellent article about the books that influenced Jane Austen at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/21122727 Novelists included Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. The final paragraph of Burney’s novel Cecilia mentions the phrase Pride and Prejudice three times:

‘”The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. … Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination…“‘

Don Quixote: the novel that influenced Pickwick Papers, Madam Bovary and many more, spends a lot of the time discussing its own influences. In particular, Amadis de Gaula, and Orlando Furioso, and Tirant lo Blanch, which is described in the novel as ‘the best book in the world.’

Pamela. When I studied Joseph Andrews for A level, there was frequent mention of the influence of Samuel Richardson’s novel of letters Pamela, as if it were the sole point of origin. But there was a long history of such novels before Richardson. The first truly epistolary novel, the Spanish Prison of Love (Cárcel de amor) by Diego de San Pedro was written around 1485. And subsequent successes included: Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Lettres portugaises) (1669) generally attributed to Gabriel-Joseph de La Vergne, comte de Guilleragues and Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which appeared in three volumes in 1684, 1685, and 1687.

Lord of the Rings and Narnia Novels. Fathers of the modern fantasy novel had their own influences. The use of Nordic, Celtic and Christian myths are pretty obvious, but less well known is the influence of nineteenth century fantasy writer, George MacDonald. CS Lewis said, ‘”Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later,” said Lewis, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” And if you want a flavour of it, this is the first paragraph:

I awoke one morning with the usual complexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness. As I lay and looked through the eastern window of my room, a faint streak of peach colour, dividing a cloud that just rose above the low swell of the horizon, announced the approach of the sun. As my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to assume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing night presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness.

The quote at the start of Phantastes is from the poet Jean M Snyder, and it’s hard not to see the influence of it on CS Lewis:

‘In sooth my good masters, this is no door. Yet it is a little window that looketh upon a great world.’

Casino Royale. Bond. James Bond. He who created Bourne and the rest. But Ian Fleming had his own mentors.

James Bond is the culmination of an important but much-maligned tradition in English literature. As a boy, Fleming devoured the Bulldog Drummond tales of Lieutenant Colonel Herman Cyril McNeile (aka “Sapper”) and the Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan. His genius was to repackage these antiquated adventures to fit the fashion of postwar Britain … In Bond, he created a Bulldog Drummond for the jet age.
William Cook in New Statesman

. Wikipedia lists several influences for George Orwell in writing his book, including The Managerial Revolution (1940) by James Burnham predicting perpetual war between three superstates, and Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London, predicting a fascist future.



A Satisfying Plot 5: Questions and Puzzles

My favourite Coen brothers’ film is Intolerable Cruelty. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as battling divorce lawyer and divorcee, Miles Massey and Marilyn Rexroth. Following their first courtroom encounter, they meet for dinner:

(MR) What was your performance about this afternoon?
(MM) What did your lawyer say?
Freddie thinks you’re a buffoon. He says you’ve been too successful. You’re bored, complacent and you’re on your way down.
But you don’t think so.
How do you know?
Why would you be here?
Why did you ask me?
Can’t I be curious?
About what?
Do you ever answer questions?
Do you?

Now firstly, what makes this funny is the charm of two comic actors going at a great script. But also, it constantly denies us any sense of resolution. And we do like a resolution. It is said that Mozart’s wife would get him out of bed in the morning by playing the first seven notes of an octave. As if we are in a constant state of willing things to complete. Uncertainty followed by certainty.

In games design, it is called a Ludic Loop. Anyone who has played Tetris will know the great satisfaction when, after sliding and turning a series of shapes, a four-block slides into place and four rows flash on-and-off and then disappear. But more than this, as soon as that puzzle has resolved itself, new ones are immediately created. More loops of anticipation and resolution (or frustration), each accompanied by a thrilling release of dopamine in the brain.

It will be familiar to anyone currently hooked on Candy Crush. There is a story in New Scientist about a woman who was playing it on the toilet, so addicted that when she finally got up after four hours, her legs collapsed beneath her.

Stories constantly set up puzzles or ask questions, and then, often when you least expect it, answer them. Not just once, but constantly throughout the telling. ‘Who is this?’ ‘What is going to happen?’ ‘How will he/she get out of this situation?’ ‘What is x hiding?’ ‘Why did he/she say it in that way?’ A detective story is not just one question of ‘who killed y?’ but a constant flow of questions and puzzles; answers and solutions.
And literary fiction? Spot the uncertainty or anticipation being set up in these first lines:

• It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
• It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
• If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
• They say, when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
• As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from an uneasy dream, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
• All children, except one, grow up.
• It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
• The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
• It was the day my grandmother exploded.
• He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

And then, take your favourite story and follow through the way the author keeps your sense of uncertainty or anticipation alive; occasionally rewarding you with a resolution or a point of certainty, but not before setting up another question or puzzle.

The New Scientist article points out that Candy Crush was created without consciously using the principle of the Ludic Loop and goes on to suggest that once it is properly adopted we’ll all be hooked longer and longer on to more and more video games. I’m not so sure. The distance between adopting a new principle and creating Candy Crush, is about the same as reading a series of posts called, ‘A Satisfying Plot’ and writing Intolerable Cruelty. What is needed are ill-defined qualities like ‘creative ability’ or ‘individual spark’. Science is yet to make much progress there. Though perhaps, when it does, we really will be queuing round the block to get the autograph of Autobot 5.

The quotes are from:
Pride and Prejudice
The Bell Jar
A Catcher in the Rye
Wide Sargasso Sea
Peter Pan
Love in a Time of Cholera
Red Badge of Courage
Crow Road
The Old Man and the Sea

A Satisfying Plot 4: Emotion

A woman is praying as hard as she can. Two minutes later, elsewhere in the crowd, a man is crying. Let me tell you about Atletico Madrid.

I’m not a football fan, but last weekend I happened to be staying in Spain with a friend who is. We watched the end-of-season league decider between AM and Barcelona, and she told me the story. Two seasons ago AM are adrift. A team of talented local boys who cannot hold it together. Their key striker, in particular, will often go off the ball to settle an argument with fists. When their manager leaves, an ex-player puts himself forward to take over for a season – he stays for two. During that time, he pulls them together. As a fellow street-fighter, he teaches the striker to channel his energy. And slowly the team rises. Challenging the eternal dominance of the main two clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid – who have co-opted all of the broadcasting rights and built up teams with such depth that Barcelona can boast three strikers, each of whom has been the top goal scorer for their separate countries. And this is the team that Atletico Madrid faces.

Twenty minutes into the game and AM have lost two of their best players to injury, including the striker. And this is a team of only eleven good players. No depth. All they have to do is draw, but at half-time they are a goal down – with the one glimmer of hope that a Barcelona player has been sent off, reducing them to ten.
When Atletico Madrid return, two of the players are wearing different-coloured boots: one from each of their fellow injured players. And the team plays like a team: energy and commitment. They level the score, then settle in to defend their advantage.

With two minutes to go, a woman in the stands is praying as hard as she can; and, when the whistle goes, a man is crying with relief.

Any good story telling requires an ability to tap into strong emotion. The genres practically announce the emotion to be evoked: romance, thriller, horror. Even literary fiction will have at its core an emotion that is being drawn out, explored.

A quick scan across my books-to-keep shelf shows:

Pride and Prejudice – love
Catch 22 – anger and humour
Code of the Woosters – humour
Sophie’s Choice – loss
Middlemarch – love, loss, thwarted hope

And it’s not just football and novels. When I learnt stand-up comedy, the teacher Jill Edwards told us we could use two techniques. The first, just thinking of set-ups and punchlines. The second, to dig deeper and deeper into a subject using a strong emotion: anger, worry, love; without ever trying to be funny. Just ranting on the same subject. Whatever you may think of him, when Michael McIntyre talks about ‘The Man Drawer’, he doesn’t just think it’s interesting – he LOVES it! Watch him build the obsession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgUpDGAIdds
So, why is all of this bothering me? Partly because I’m writing a novel that could very easily lose touch with emotion: becoming an exercise in humour and imagination. Emotion is a lodestar that tells any creative person whether or not they are on the right track. The rote of techniques, structures, questionnaires and exercises often lose the fact that emotion is what drives the good writer and draws in the reader.

On Saturday 24 May, Atletico Madrid will attempt the double: finalists in the European Champions League. And who are they up against? Real Madrid. That other titan of Spanish football. This post is being written before the game, but posted after. I could add the result. But I won’t. Partly because if you’re interested you’ll find out. But also there is an argument to be made that the best football teams are not those who win or lose, but those who tell the best stories.

With thanks to Isabella Lawrence. Anyone interested in learning stand-up comedy from Jill Edwards, the person who taught Seann Walsh, Jimmy Carr, Francesca Martinez and others, go to http://jill-edwards.co.uk/

Writing Fiction: Attraction

Early in my novel writing course I was told that the relationship between to my two leads was unconvincing.  Why did I think that she would be attracted to him?  My answer, honestly, was, ‘Because it’s me.’  But apparently this was not sufficient.  So, how, as a reader, do you know when one character is attracted to another?  And how might this help a writer to make a relationship more plausible?

Let’s start with physical attraction.  It’s a tricky one this.  Any attempt is likely to be based on personal preferences and is in danger of revealing sexual peccadilloes.  She had a great rack/He had a tight bum, tend to end up as nominees at the Bad Sex Awards.  But the following passages are not a million miles away.  This, from Dr No:

It was a naked girl with her back to him.  She was not quite naked.  She wore a broad leather belt with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip.  The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic.

As Cher from Clueless says, ‘Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.

And what about the physical attraction of a woman to a man?  This is the first meeting with Christian Gray in Fifty Shades:

So young – and attractive, very attractive.  He’s tall, dressed in a fine grey suit, white shirt, and black tie, with unruly dark copper coloured hair, and intense, bright grey eyes that regard me shrewdly.  It takes a moment for me to find my voice.

Clearly, neither of these are at the top end of the literary market.  But do I believe that James Bond fancies Honey Ryder; or Anastasia Steele has the hots for Christian Gray?  Yes.  It might seem a bit pat to suggest that such simple signifiers such as tallness in men and bare skin in women are effective in convincing a reader that one character is attracted to another, but try these: He was a small man, under three-foot tall if my guess was correct.  Hel-lo, I thought to myself.’  Or ‘Despite the tropical heat, she was dressed to keep out the cold: at least three jumpers under her thick duffel coat, and a scarf over her chin’.

There is also a danger that you can get too literary.  This is the hero’s description of his lover from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them; and in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic.  In fact, she was half Irish, half Cherokee, from a town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border.

This is, as you’d expect, free of cliché, but it feels a little too detached – almost anthropological – to convince as a description of attraction.

If the physical were sufficient to convey attraction, then Bond girls wouldn’t have such a short shelf life – or life come to that.  As it is, he’s pretty soon out the door and killing again.  What tends to take over is emotional attraction.  Traditionally, male leads on the Heathcliffe/Mr Rochester model, are described as brooding.  (Brooding, not glum.  As if your family’s inheritance means you have to take responsibility of an unfair burden; not as if your Oyster card has just run out.)  The one woman James Bond actually marries has a troubled past and behaves in an unpredictable way.  It all points to some depth in the character, something that might draw him past appearance.  Unfortunately, just being moody or troubled is not a guarantee of attractiveness.  So what else?

Actually, I could probably list any number of physical, emotional, or verbal traits, but what really convinces is the degree to which they lead to entanglement.  Two protagonists who just can’t help getting involved.  Even if they try to get away.  In romantic fiction this is often expressed through argument.  As if they are annoyed at finding themselves so caught up.  A friend of mine told me she’d once got into an argument with a man at a party about the ‘patriarchal society’.  She then paused and said, ‘And I know it was because I fancied him.’  This is from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy as she tackles her handsome cousin over his choice of fiancé:

This brought him in mind of a complaint he could with justice make.  He said stiffly: ‘Since you have brought up Miss Wraxton’s name, I shall be very much obliged to you cousin, if you will refrain from telling my sisters that she has a face like a horse!’

‘But Charles, no blame attaches to Miss Wraxton!  She cannot help it, and that, I assure you, I have always pointed out to your sisters!’

‘I consider Miss Wraxton’s countenance particularly well-bred!’

‘Yes indeed, but you have quite misunderstood the matter!  I meant a particularly well-bred horse!’

‘You meant, as I am perfectly aware, to belittle Miss Wraxton!’

‘No, no!  I am very fond of horses!’  Sophy said earnestly.

A quick wit is both a sign of attraction and an attractive quality in itself.  It is also important that the two protagonists are equally matched – what Charles lacks in wit he makes up for in belligerence.  There is a game of tennis here, the ball will continue to go back and forth between them.

Lack of entanglement makes a relationship implausible.  Two characters are paired at the end of Adam Bede, but they have barely been in contact throughout the novel and show no real attraction for another.

The example of Sophy and Charles also brings up the way in which attraction is often a game in which one or other character will break or hold rules.  Sophy constantly defies convention: arriving in a carriage with several dogs and a monkey, and later driving a carriage down St James’s St in front of her cousin’s club.  All Charles has to do is express angry disapproval and you know they’re headed up the aisle.

One of the reasons it is perfectly plausible that someone of a higher social status would find Elizabeth Bennett attractive is that she breaks rules.  Whether it is walking when she should wait or defying her social superior.  It is an attractive quality.  Darcy, on the other hand, upholds rules: holding a confidence even at the risk of his own happiness; ensuring, at the end, that the right thing is done.

Christian Gray’s sadistic games could even be seen as an extreme example of this: combining rule breaking and enforcing in one.

Jane Austen, however, has more to say.  In Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund, two of the dullest lovers in literature, both uphold rules in a rather priggish way.  They share values, but do they genuinely find each other attractive?  Yes, but the attractions are quieter: he is consistently kind to her, in defiance of others; whereas she quietly supports his ambitions.  The Crawfords however are great rule breakers.  You can’t help thinking that if Edmund had given in to Mary, and Fanny had succumbed to Henry, they might have had short relationships but they’d have gone up in delightful flames.  Jane Austen seems to be saying that those things you think lead to attraction will end in chaos; conventional attractions are dull but they produce quieter and more sustained outcomes.

Ho-hum.  And it brings us to the great rule breakers: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.  Both of them have clearly been defying convention since they were in nappies.  Despite her mistake in pursuing the boringly conventional Ashley, there are, in her and Rhett, no two other people living in Texas who can match their flagrant disregard for what you are supposed to do.  The game of attraction they play is about bringing each other to heel.  That they ultimately fail is probably as much to do with the fact that they temporarily accept a compromise which involves living a more conventional life.  No wonder he’s out the door.  Do I believe they find each other attractive?  Absolutely.  Plus, on the film poster, he’s taller than she is, and she’s showing a bit of boob.

If the lovers are not fighting against each other, the proof of their attraction is often the contrast between them and the world they find themselves in.  A friend used to always write about supermarkets: songs, stories, you could always rely on an Asda or a Co-Op.  For him, they represented an emotionally vacant world in which the two protagonists, and their love for one another, provided the only sign of humanity.  In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the relationship between Jess and Melanie is set against an intolerant Pentecostal church.  Think, Julia and Winston in 1984, Romeo and Juliet in that play I can never remember the name of.

A final proof of attraction is the degree to which one or other or both are willing to sacrifice or endure in order to turn that attraction into love.  Prospero, clearly the father of the romantic novel, says of his daughter and her suitor, ‘They are both in either’s power, but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.’  Ferdinand is caged to prove his love for Miranda, and endures.  Both Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy have to give up their fixed views – of acceptable behaviour and social status.  The hero in Love in a Time of Cholera must wait many years before he wins his love.

So where does this leave the writer trying to create convincing couple?  Well, for a start, would you fancy them?  If you don’t, who else is going to?  Also, is this a short term attraction or something more: do they want to go to bed with one another, or wake up together in the morning?  If so, what entangles them?  What makes it impossible for them ultimately to be apart?  Finally, be Prospero: what obstacles could you set up to test that entanglement: distance, other suitors, misunderstandings, arguments.

As usual, I don’t think I’ve got anywhere near answering the question.  For example, the experience of attraction is often overwhelming.  Romeo says, ‘It is the East and Juliet is the sun.’  And where is that in this list of ways that you know that one character is attracted to another?  Also, I just kept thinking of more and more examples eg Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.  But you’ve got to stop somewhere.  If you have your own opinions please add them below.