Tag Archives: The Old Man and the Sea

Writing Fiction: What If?

I’m going to tell the story of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, so if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.

An old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, sets sail and goes beyond his normal fishing grounds. He hooks a marlin, really big; the biggest of his lifetime. The two of them set-to in a relentless battle: day and night, his boat dragged farther and farther into the Gulf, his hands cut-up by the fishing line and still he persists. In the end, he defeats the fish. On the way back, sharks begin to nip at the carcass until, by the time he reaches the village, the big fish is nothing but a skeleton. The bones are pushed around by the waves, mistaken by locals as just another shark. The man collapses to his bed, exhausted, and sleeps.

You set out to achieve something big, you get it, but in the end, what do you have? On the other hand, there may be some gain. The story ends with the old man’s dream of lions on a beach.

Let me tell you another story. This time a true one, told to me by a friend. Before the last Olympics, a British champion – who has dreamt all her life of winning an international gold medal – waits to take the only automatic place on offer for gymnastics. But the British Olympic Committee organises further events as a decider. She loses to a teammate and is put on the reserve list, then watches as her rival fails in one of the events she could have shone in. No matter, the Commonwealth Games are coming up and she is guaranteed automatic entry. A month before the Games she has a serious injury and cannot go. She will retire before she can compete again.

Science tells us that human beings have an inbuilt optimism: ask a newly-married couple if they are likely to divorce and they will say no – statistics show a 50/50 chance*. Like players of the lottery, we ignore the statistics and buy our tickets every day.

Writers are no different. After eleven years, I am still quietly confident, but I increasingly focus on ‘learning how to write’ as an achievement I can point to. Truth is, my original ambition may never be realised.

There are some who publish and are happy with their success. Others, like the fisherman, find the prize quickly disappears in front of them. Others still, never achieve what they wanted – through unexpected events, bad luck, perhaps even lack of will or talent. They are constantly denied and, in the end, have to accept the loss. What do those people do? How do they make sense of what has happened?

I have no answers for this, just a question that hovers around and occasionally causes me to look into the future: I hope I will get what I want. But, what if?

* http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-looking-bright-side/

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