Arts

Bands, brands, and musical preferences

How STOMP research can help get it right without guessing

If you’re at all interested in studies on musical styles, you’ve probably come across the STOMP test. It’s less exciting than it sounds, being the Short Test of Musical Preferences, where you pick the styles you like, and then it tells you what your musical taste is. It’s been updated now to STOMP-R, and is available here. The brainchild of S.D. Gosling, it is not the kind of test that you find on Facebook ‘test your personality’ quizzicles. A lot of people actually find it disappointing (judging by comments posted on the web). After all, you tell it your preferences, and then it more or less tells you what you just told it.

This is because the purpose of STOMP is not to give you some amazing (and typically flattering) insight into your personality (you are bright, attractive, have an IQ of 217 and will die at the age of 431), but to gather data for proper psychological research. And the results are fascinating.

In Samuel Gosling’s and Peter Rentfrow’s original work, they came up with the result that musical tastes tend to break into four underlying styles: Reflective & Complex (Classical, Jazz, Blues, Folk), Intense & Rebellious (Alternative, Rock, Heavy Metal), Upbeat & Conventional (Country, Pop, Religious) and Energetic & Rhythmic (Rap/hip-hop, Soul/funk, Electronica/dance). They were then able to examine some of the characteristics of people who tend to like a particular kind of music, and the characteristics of the music itself. For example, if you are clever but socially awkward, you may be more inclined to like intense music. They also mapped the results onto the ‘big five’ personality attributes of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness.

So far so good, except that the correlations are not perhaps as strong as you might like. If you notice someone liking Intense music and thereby assumed they were liberal, disagreeable and not especially wealthy, you might well find that your expectation was completely wrong.

In 2011, Rentfrow published a further paper in which they researched further, which suggested five factors that match the data rather better. Their original version was ‘Mellow, Urban, Sophisticated, Intense and Campestral’, which is easily memorable as the acronym ‘MUSIC’, except that no-one ever uses the word ‘campestral’. This was later revised to Mellow, Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense and Contemporary’. However, they noticed that their original musical styles of ‘soundtrack’ and ‘Oldies’ didn’t track with this data.

As set out on Gosling’s web page, this means:

Mellow: electronica/dance, new age, world
Unpretentious: pop, country, religious
Sophisticated: blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk, classical, gospel, opera
Intense: rock, punk, alternative, heavy metal
Contemporary: rap, soul/r&b, funk, reggae

Intuitively, this represents a better formulation than either the one with ‘campestral’ or the original four factor result.

However, let me suggest—and I am speculating and intuiting here, not doing the kind of scientific work that Gosling and Rentfrow did—that we could overcome the problem with soundtrack and oldies by adding in the dimension ‘Nostalgic’. This, unfortunately, ruins the acronym (though I have a solution for that which we’ll come to), but it does give us three pairs, which are implicit in the MUSIC formulation but concealed by the order.

Quite evidently, the same piece of music cannot at the same time by intense and mellow, nor can it be both sophisticated and unpretentious, nor contemporary and nostalgic.

So, our axes become:

Intense—Mellow
Sophisticated—Unpretentious
Nostalgic—Contemporary

I’m not completely persuaded that the dominant factor Contemporary quite describes the grouping, but as a mental concept it is a useful one. Particularly, if you listen to the sounds of the Contemporary grouping, it is those sounds which are so very different from the Nostalgic grouping: square-waves, sweep-filters, monster bass, exaggerated highs, and transistor distortion alongside maximum use of limiting and compression contrast sharply with the gentle valve overdrive, tape saturation and rolled-off highs and lows we associate with nostalgic music, largely because of the limitations of technology back in the day, alongside the most transparent possible use of compressors and limiters because they were seen as an artefact of transmission to tape and vinyl which needed to be minimised, as opposed to a creative tool to produce the pumping, energetic, ‘in your face’ sound of contemporary artists.

If you’re a mathematician or statistician reading this, you will immediately have worked out that these axes can, in binary form, be turned into eight combinations of all three, twelve combinations of two, and the six individual types.

For non-mathematicians and statisticians, it means you could have music which was Intense, Sophisticated and Nostalgic—for example, Joni Mitchell’s Amelia recorded with Pat Metheny on Shadows and Light—or perhaps Contemporary, Intense and Sophisticated, such as Florence and the Machine, or perhaps Nostalgic, Mellow and Sophisticated, such as Norah Jones Don’t Know Why. Carly Rae Jepsen might be more Contemporary, Intense and Unpretentious.

Now, what about our acronym? I’ve ruined MUSIC by adding N (for nostalgic) to it. Could we fix that, and get a worthwhile additional pair of categories out of it?

I think we can. For years I have been apologising for my dancing skills by saying ‘everyone knows that musicians can’t dance’. Actually, I have no particular evidence to support the assertion, but it usually ends the discussion, which is what I’m particularly looking for.

What I have noticed, though, is that there is a big difference between the experience of music as an interactive form from as a listening form. I went to a concert recently where everyone sat stock-still and listened with complete intensity. You would expect that of a classical concert in a concert hall, but this was folk at a pub. A couple of years ago I went to see Maddy Prior and the Carnival Players, who clearly want to get your feet tapping, and are probably not averse to you singing along. At a work’s disco, people who want to dance will dance to classics or the latest hits. When I used to organise work’s parties, I learned fairly early on that you needed to book a band and a DJ to attract the widest audience: some people want to dance, some people want to listen. The disparaging term for ‘contemporary worship’ in churches is ‘happy-clappy’, and the people who tend to use that term prefer a choir which will sing the service, with interaction by the congregation only during the hymns.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: if you add ‘Interactive’ and ‘Audience’, you can end up with the acronym ‘MUSICIAN’.

Now, all this may seem interesting (or not) but largely irrelevant. What is the application—to bands, brands, and not annoying your friends or customers?

You probably recall the culture-clash scene in the Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood ask the barmaid at Bob’s Country Bunker what kind of music they usually play. ‘We’ve got both kinds,’ she replies, ‘Country and Western’.

People have extraordinarily strong opinions about music, but, unlike their opinions about politics, football and religion, they generally can’t articulate them. As a musician, if you’ve experienced the ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’ moment when you realise that the music you have prepared is the opposite of what people at the venue want, you will know what I’m talking about. I’ve known musicians who have been interrupted by venue owners in mid-song—and not because they weren’t ‘good enough’—because the owner felt they were wrecking the ambience. This is not some meta-cultural battle between Mods and Rockers. Play the wrong kind of music, and you can literally have people hissing at you.

Leaving aside my unscientific addition of Nostalgia and perhaps Interactive or Audience, Rentfrow’s Mellow—Unpretentious—Sophisticated—Intense—Contemporary classification goes a long way to explain how (if not why) people come to associate the ‘wrong’ kind of music with ‘wrong’ in other ways. Play the wrong kind of music in a church (sophisticated in a ‘happy-clappy’ church, unpretentious in a traditional church), and people will question your attitude (‘just showing off’/’doesn’t care, shouldn’t be playing’). Play in a bar or café, and they are quite likely to simply pull out the plug on your PA system (as per the Blues Brothers). Even at an open mic night, where you would expect people to be open to anything, you will see hostility. I went to the final of an open mic competition (as audience), and someone in the row behind me decided to explain why some of the acts were terrible and shouldn’t be playing—which was quite a trick, since the music was peaking at the end at 120 db.

Very occasionally, a song or a band is able to take you from one extreme to another. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the perennial popularity of Stairway to Heaven is that it starts as Mellow and Unpretentious (nothing is less pretentious than a descant recorder or a 12-string guitar), and finishes up Intense and Sophisticated (there are few people in the entire world who can play the guitar solo at the end). It also travels, or travelled, from a nostalgic beginning to a (then) contemporary end. That is quite a trick, though even Stairway to Heaven never manages to be intense and mellow at the same time.

If you are looking for the audio for a brand, or anchoring the sound of a band, then you can pick one of the factors as your key factor, and then move the sliders (as it were) on the others. Listen to a pop album (ok, no-one does any more, because the idea of listening to an entire album straight through is itself a rather nostalgic idea), and you’ll hear that while the basic Unpretentiousness remains, it will have more intense songs and less intense, more danceable songs and more listenable, and, as likely as not, at least one song with a nostalgic sound, or which is an old song freshened up.

In branding terms, it is not so much a question of finding the most popular kind of music as finding the most appropriate and sticking with its feel. Reflecting on contemporary advertising, this is something that advertisers get wrong a lot. Folk music, for example, tends to be used to conjure up country products, or in mocking something unsophisticated. I always felt this jarred, but didn’t know why. Rentfrow’s formulation gives us the answer: folk as a genre is in the category of Sophistication. Country and Western would be a better choice if the ‘simple goodness of the soil’ is what the advertiser is after. In extending a brand (always a risk), you would then want to consider sticking with the core attribute, but varying another. If, for example, your car advert used the introduction from Layla, then you would need to decide whether this ‘just seemed to fit’ at the time because it was Intense, or because it was Nostalgic, or because it was Sophisticated. All three are playing a role here: it’s rock, so its natural zone is intense. But it’s a nostalgic track for many people. And, for those in the know, the introduction is fiendishly difficult (so much so that Eric Clapton later claimed he’d forgotten how to play it—highly modest, and probably not actually true. If you do want to play it, the secret is to pre-bend the top notes before you strike them and then relax them back). If your brand is about an intense driving experience, but you want to be perceived as more up to date, then going with Green Day or Florence and the Machine might be your next step. On the other hand, if you wanted to attract the older (and wealthier) driver to stay with your brand, or return to it, then Nostalgia would be the factor to stay with. Freebird could be the song you were after, or, for a highly dateable sound, All Along the Watchtower. If you decided that it was Sophistication, and you wanted something more recent and more mellow, Norah Jones might be your next step.

The same goes for brand distinctiveness. Al Ries suggested that the way to pick your corporate colour was to look at the colour of your main competitor and pick the opposite. This may explain why about half the leading brands in the world are red, and the other half are blue.  The colour space is over-exploited from a brand perspective. For one major rebrand, we were shifting the dial by degrees to find a blue that would inspire, but not resemble the green or the red of the two main competitors. In a crowded market place, you may end up either forced into mauve or mustard (colours which begin with ‘M’ such as maroon or mulberry are rarely popular), or else reluctantly going with a different shade of an already well-known brand colour.

In music, you have a much better field—except that, until now, nobody could really tell you what the ‘opposite’ was. Rentfrow’s formulation helps us a lot here. Your main competitor is using an intense, nostalgic, sophisticated track? Pick something which is mellow, contemporary and unpretentious—perhaps a trance-influenced hip-hop pop sound, perhaps an update on the 90s trip-hop sound.

What about branding a band?

I spent some time this year working on a brand for a singer/guitarist — cellist duo. To some extent, what you are reading now came from research I did for that project. When you start to try to put the sound of a music act into words, which you have to do if you are ever going to get anyone to listen to the tracks, things start to get difficult. Everyone would like to describe themselves as ‘one of a kind — a life changing performance which you will never forget — touches a nerve and sends shivers down your spine’. However, these are really just superlatives strung together. You might equally write “we’ve got an act we want you to listen to, and they are very, very, very, very, very, very good”. Someone booking an act for a side-show at a local fete is genuinely not interested in whether or not your band is ‘life-changing’ or ‘life-affirming’ or ’empowering’, though if you have too many of these kinds of words they may think that you are going to be troublesome to work with. If you can describe it in Rentfrow’s terms, or versions thereof, you may stand a better chance. “Glock is a mellow, contemporary band with a sophisticated mix that gets people onto the dance-floor”, “WyldSwan is a folk-metal four piece which combines emotional intensity and musicianship with a sound that has burst straight out of the 1970s”, “RootKit is straight up, out-and-out urban dance music”. You can make up your own variations.

The brand synergy comes when you underline the musical style with the lyrical style (according to Gosling’s research these are tightly linked) and find a name and a visual style which matches that. Perhaps you are thinking ‘but all bands do that’. Well, all the bands you’ve heard of do. The bands you haven’t heard of are often the ones which are giving a visual impression of contemporary cool (because their designer listens a lot to P!nk) but are actually playing nostalgic, intense music. Most people’s first bands are nowhere near as sophisticated as they think they are. As their musical skills develop, their playing tends to get more elaborate. They may think they’re still appealing to the unpretentious audience that first loved them, but they have actually moved to the opposite end of the sophisticated—unpretentious spectrum.

The point here is that, just like home-made logos and ‘all the fonts we could find’ brochures put together by the salesteam, most musical brands are actually incoherent. Exactly what your logo, typography, audio signature and self-description are can vary almost infinitely, but all four of them must be appropriate to each other, otherwise the result is diffuse and lacks credibility, clarity or relevance.

In the Mix

This section is a bit audio-technical. If you’re a business owner, band manager or merely curious, you can probably stop reading now. If you’re a producer, sound engineer, or just the guy who calls the shots on the sound, this may help you.

The table below gives eighteen elements often found in a song mix, along with characteristics which tend to go with Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense, Mellow, Contemporary and Nostalgic. These are very much starters to think about. Not all Unpretentious music has simple, repetitive melodies, and a song may be sophisticated and still work in an established song structure. On the other hand, if you are working on a track and it keeps on getting away from the core sound of your band, then some of the things here may help you. Equally, if you are using a signal chain or preset that ‘always works’, but it isn’t working, you may be doing something which is germane to a particular musical characteristic, but doesn’t fit what you are doing.

U: Unpretentious, S: Sophisticated, I: Intense, M: Mellow, C: Contemporary, N: Nostalgic.

  U S I M C N
Melodies Simple, repetitive Complex High, large jumps Low, flowing Rhythmic Naïve
Song structure VCVC8CC Amorphous Climactic Constant Distinctive elements, eg rap section VCVCVC, 12 bar or 8 bar
Bass line Simple Melodic Driving Sub-bass Synth Fender bass or acoustic
Drums Patterned, high Improvised Pounding, follow song Smooth, solid platform Beats Acoustic kit, muffled
Pads Swells, strings No Low in mix High in mix New sounds Elec piano, organ etc
Guitars Strum Melodic Electric Acoustic No Classic sounds
Harmonies Simple Modulation Rich Sweet or none Counterpoint Ring & Lock
Accents Strong none     Strong  
Track Compression Solid Minimal Intrinsic (eg, overdrive) High Pumping Analogue
Echo & Reverb Bright Natural Expansive Floating Low Plate or spring
Main vocal Light Rich Towards screaming Breathed Talk Sing
Sound effects Literal Authentic Deep Ambient Industrial Radio drama
Buss compression Heavy Minimal Low Total Pumping Tape saturation
Transients Naive Articulated High Low Max Reduced
Harmonic enrichment Fizz None Burn Air High Low
Buss reverb Wet Ambient Drum ambience High Low Ringing
Final EQ Bright Natural Full or scooped Smile curve Bass and Top Muffled
Limiting Heavy Minimal Maximised Smooth Clipping Soft

Cooking the Books

A culinary inspired approach to writing fiction

Quite possibly the mark of a truly literate society is not how much we read, but how much we write. Of course, a high proportion of what we write is rubbish (the M6 Toll has a substratum of discarded Edwardian novels, most forgotten within a year of their publication), but nothing good was a ever written without the writer taking the risk of writing rubbish.

If you are a writer —  and almost everyone seems to be these days — then good for you. Publishers — a publisher’s bookseller told me recently — are becoming more and more risk averse, and so less and less likely to publish anything new and interesting, but that matters less and less. If you have something to say, set up your own blog, or post it on Wattpad, or Figment, or wherever you read. I met for the first time a few months ago an avid reader who only reads things on Wattpad.

We may read (as we learned in the film ‘Shadowlands’) to know that we are not alone, but we write in order to be read. In return for someone giving us their time, we promise them a feast of imagination, at least for fiction. Your writing may never pay off the mortgage (though, if you’re also prepared to write long business documents, it may well do), but if one person’s life is turned around because of it — even if they were the only person who ever read it — then it may be the most important thing you ever do.

The promise of a feast takes us to this article. There are many ways of constructing your novel, screenplay, short-story, epic poem or triple-album length narrative song. There is the plot method, as championed by Aristotle (and by me, but I suspect Aristotle’s name carries more weight), the character method, as championed by the whole of modernism, the snowflake method, as championed by much of the internet, and the ‘pants’ method (or, in proper English, ‘trousers’), much favoured by NaNoWriMo writers, also known as ‘making it up as you go along’. I was a firm ‘make it up as you go along’ person for years (I cannot bear to use the term ‘pantser’). However, this only resulted in me actually finishing two novels over twenty years. If trousering works for you, please, go ahead and keep using it. If you are looking for a new method though, less Greek than Aristotle, less Cold War than modernism, then allow me to offer you:

Cooking the Books: the Culinary Method for Writing Fiction

I owe the inspiration for this, as with so many other things, to JRR Tolkien, whose seminal essay ‘On Fairy Tales’ should be read by everyone who likes story, even if they hate fairytales. The other best book to read, in my opinion, is ‘The Way To Write For Children’, by Joan Aiken, even if you hate children (or, more probably, books written for them).

In On Fairy Tales, which is published in the book ‘Tree and Leaf’, Tolkien talks about the ingredients of story. He does not go so far as to propose a method—he was not that kind of scholar—but I think we can take his idea and usefully extend it.

I love cooking. My favourite dishes are Steak Provençale, Chicken Xim Xim, Balti Chicken Danzak, Flemish Stoofvlees, Bolognese sauce with pasta, Chilli Con Carne with bulgur wheat, chargrilled hamburgers with fresh pineapple, Cassoulet, and Chicken and Apricot Tagine, with cous cous. It seems to me that there are four aspects of cooking which can readily be applied to writing. They are these:

  1. The ingredients
  2. The method of preparing the ingredients
  3. The method and length of applying heat
  4. The presentation.

The Ingredients

There is nothing wrong, it seems to me, before writing, in saying ‘what ingredients do I like to have in a story?’ A lot of writing takes the ingredients, briefly fries them, and presents them in the simplest possible way on a plain plate, in the way you might receive them in a cafeteria. Nourishing, I am sure, but not creative. For example, if you always like to have a murder (in fiction, of course), then a police, crime or detective story would be the equivalent of briefly frying and then plainly presenting. Genre fiction, in as much as the disparaging term is useful, is often a question of taking the genre ingredients, cooking them as little as possible, and presenting them as much like other dishes in the genre. Of course there is merit in that. If you go for a pub meal and order steak and chips, you don’t expect the chips to be sweet potato chips marinated in Welsh yoghurt, and the steak to be an ostrich steak in a Polynesian sauce. If you want to read a good whodunnit, then nothing will satisfy the craving like a good whodunnit.

Nonetheless, for the more adventurous — or perhaps if you have been serving up steak whodunnit for a while, and want a change — that ingredient can be combined with other ingredients which will give it quite a different tang than the plain taste of frying.

I introduced my brother-in-law to steak Provençale the other week. He said he enjoyed it, and wanted to know what gave it the ‘kick’. The answer, of course, is half a rasher of bacon, soften the onions in olive oil, add a glass of red wine, add Provençale herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, or whatever you prefer), pepper, fresh chopped garlic (not crushed, please), cubed tomatoes, and allow to simmer for an hour. After that, add in chopped carrots, and a quarter of hour later, chopped mushrooms and half a glass of port. Get a griddle really hot. Season the steak with fresh ground pepper and Maldon sea salt, and then griddle for exactly 90 seconds each side. Serve in the Provençale sauce, either with frites or cous-cous.

A different choice of ingredients — for example, the addition of paprika and fresh peppers, to make Steak Piperade — would have given quite a different dish.

If you want to have a murder in your story, what other ingredients do you enjoy tasting? Very few Shakespeare plays (I can only think of Henry V) fail to involve a trick of some kind, whether it be the poison blade in Hamlet, or the Dover cliff trick in King Lear, or the trick played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, or the disastrously unsuccessful ruse at the end of Romeo and Juliet. No one would try to characterise Shakespeare as a ‘trick’ writer, and you could not possibly say that the principal enjoyment of his plays is in the tricks (though the trick which ends the rebellion in Henry IV part II is staggering). However, for the connoisseur, ‘trick’ is a Shakespeare signature ingredient, in a way that it is not in Dickens or Austen.

So, the first part of the culinary method is to make your list of ingredients. A murder? A trick? Templars (someone once told me to always include Templars. I confess that I have yet to include them even once)? For myself, I always like to have a fight, preferably with swords. Perhaps you enjoy some element of the supernatural, or, in classic Scooby-Doo fashion, something which looks supernatural but isn’t. Many readers like a puzzle of some kind. If you enjoy reading it, by all means put it in (but let nothing tempt you to put in an ingredient which you dislike in order to pander to the readers).

Use many different kinds of ingredients in preference to many variations of the same ingredients. In my kitchen I have some sixty bottles and tins of herbs and spices. However, a dish into which I poured a little of all of them would have no distinctiveness at all. In cooking Cassoulet, it is better to include carrots, leeks and parsnips rather than just more carrots, and including two different kinds of carrots would do no good at all. In Lord of the Flies, having begun with the ingredients of a choir school, an air crash and an island, William Golding goes on to add the ingredients of democracy, a crashed pilot, and the Biblical image of the Beast. He could have proceeded to simply explore the island, but the result would have been no more than a rehashed Robinson Crusoe, or, worse, Swiss Family Robinson. By including different kinds of ingredients, he produced a book so powerful that everyone should read it once, but (in my opinion) no one should be forced to read twice.

Use fresh ingredients wherever possible, rather than quickly microwaving something from Iceland (the supermarket, rather than the country). By this I mean do your own research, draw on your own experiences, imagine your own things, rather than recooking them from other novels. Joseph Conrad used ingredients from three newspaper stories to trigger The Secret Agent. Any number of different stories could have been told with those ingredients, but the story he did create was uniquely compelling.

Television may be our greatest enemy in this respect. Literary TV Dinners offer us every kind of proxy experience, and the arrival of Netflix (without ‘chill’) and Amazon Video make it even worse. You can now rewatch all the episodes of Jonathan Creek before writing your locked-room mystery. I love Jonathan Creek (even the most recent series, which everyone else seemed to hate), but too much Creek and your story will be little better than fan-fiction, once removed. I’ve seen a fair few hospitals on television, but actually working in one (Birmingham Children’s, as it happens) was nothing like anything I’d seen on TV. In a bizarre twist of Providence, I once investigated a confidence trickster, finally presenting my findings to the police, who arrested and prosecuted him. It did not in any way resemble any police or crime drama I have ever seen.

Whether you make up your ingredients entirely out of your head (in which case, you do not need to seek ‘authenticity’), carefully research or vividly remember them, these fresh ingredients will be much more tangy than anything you could get out of a box, reheat from a TV dinner, or rehash from a novel you enjoyed reading.

Finally, on ingredients, do you have a signature ingredient? For me, if cooking from the East, it is freshly crushed Cardamom, and if from Europe, red wine. Graham Greene always included an element of Roman Catholicism, Dickens always included at least one outrageously larger-than-life character (Captain Cuttle, Uriah Heep, Magwitch in the graveyard, and so on). To read Jane Austen is always to taste the inherent injustice in regard to women of the inheritance laws of her day. The signature ingredient cannot be the main ingredient, at least, not after the diners are used to it, but keeping it in helps to identify the cook.

Method of Preparation

How do you prepare an onion? You can blanche it, soften it in oil, soften it in butter, present it raw, fry it, batter it or bake it. You can also just put it in with the stew and allow it to look after itself, but onions generally taste more distinctive if prepared in one of these distinctive ways. Some dishes are always the poorer for being prepared in one way rather than another. My wife, who is Dutch, despairs of the British habit of boiling vegetables until they are completely soft (is it that we are afraid the vegetables, if not entirely cooked, will attempt to mount some kind of rebellion?) Cous cous, when merely prepared in hot water, is to me utterly bland by comparison with the method I learned in Paris, which was to soak in warm water for fifteen minutes, steam for fifteen minutes, toss in oil or butter, and serve while still crackling in the pan.

The same is true for fictional ingredients. Consider a simple story about insurance fraud—but with the ingredient of murder added. Imagine, if you will, an insurance company which is losing millions through bogus ‘crash for cash’ scams. The Board takes the (unethical) view of ethics that if you are going to act unethically, you may as well act utterly unethically, so they hire a hitman to drive around in areas where scammers are active, and, once a crash has been forced on them, he shoots the scammers in the head and makes his getaway. The insurance company then orchestrates a ‘viral’ (or astroturfed) social media campaign to spread the conspiracy theory that the scammers were killed by insurance company for that very reason. A couple of months later, once the fuss has died down, they do it again.

To the best of my knowledge, this is an original plot. The ingredients, scam, unethical Board, business buying a hit to send a message to criminals, are not new, but the combination should have a bit of tang to it.

However, they way those ingredients are prepared will either make this an entirely original story, or will simply boil it down to being a hitman thriller, of which there are very many.

So, what can we do with those ingredients?

First, we should take the freshest ‘crash for cash’ scams, of which there are many news reports. A bit of research into how they operate will not go amiss, right down to the business of false invoices, dodgy doctors signing off people with whiplash, and so on. That, in itself, will not ensure originality. Indeed, fifteen years ago an episode of Due South pursued exactly that same line. So, what can we do about it?

Well, we could either look at preparing that ingredient differently, or perhaps one of the others.

What about the hitman? Crash for cash scammers tend to target elderly drivers or young women with children — people they think are going to be most shaken up by the crash, and therefore the least likely to protest or ask too many questions. A young woman hitman (or hitwoman) with children at least gets us away from the stereotype, but we are in danger of rehashing TV’s Sherlock or the film The Long Kiss Goodnight. What about an elderly hitman? A Miss Marple or George Smiley gone rogue? Or a hitman in a wheelchair — not just someone pretending to be in a wheelchair (which has been totally done to death) but someone who genuinely has to be in a wheelchair. Or what about a young woman who is a genuinely terrible driver, who the insurance company trains as a hitperson? We may be getting close to Nikita territory here, but we can make sure we prepare the ingredient so we don’t get there.

There is a level of diminishing returns in over-preparing the ingredients. Miss Marple’s evil twin, who happens to be a terrible driver, who is also in a wheelchair and has to take care of two troublesome grandchildren is not really going to have much more impact than developing the ingredient with just one of those things, and perhaps characterising in other ways.

We ought to consider how we prepare the other elements as well. For example, it may not be the Board at all who are behind this, but a rival company that wants to take over their business. It is going to use the scenario first to scare off all the crash-for-cash scammers, and then to utterly discredit the first company. And so on. There is no ingredient that might not benefit from a little consideration, a little care in its preparation, rather than just being chucked into the stew with everything else.

Cooking time

To bake, boil, stew, grill, griddle, or put in a pie? Just such a question, of course, kept Tolkien’s trolls talking until dawn came and turned them to stone. Steak can be eaten almost raw (indeed, in the Ardennes, they eat ‘Americaine’, which is raw steak, to the consternation of any actual Americans who try it), whereas pork must be thoroughly cooked.

There are fictional ingredients which — to my palate — need more cooking than others. I felt the issues of child-abduction and torture in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights were presented too raw, especially when used to attack the Roman Catholic church (I am not a Catholic, and have no axe to grind here, still, I found it tasteless). At the other end of the scale, the whole rigmarole of Tess of the D’Urbervilles which was plotted to allow an innocent woman to hang for a crime she did commit (paradoxically) seems to me overcooked. Indeed, the story would have been all the better for not ending as it did, which would have allowed many of the other flavours to come out, rather than be dominated by the conclusion. As it stands, Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be (and has been) summarised as ‘Tess is going to die, and she does’, whereas, up to the point that we know she is going to, there is a great deal going on of remarkable subtlety.

JRR Tolkien always denied that the Lord of the Rings was about the wars in Europe, but his descriptions of the battle scenes certainly owed a great deal to his own experience in the First World War. However, he left that on ‘slow cook’ for a very long time before allowing it out into fiction. Some ingredients need this. If you have just been badly hurt by an abusive relationship, writing a story ‘raw’ about it will give an entirely different result from keeping that ingredient back until you can write with more perspective. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write it. Having cut my cooking teeth (as it were) in Belgium, I despair of the British habit of ageing steak for thirty days before cooking it. I want to take the freshest possible steak, and sear it for exactly 90 seconds on each side on the hottest possible griddle. Most of Britain, it seems, would disagree with me. The result is quite different, which is why I generally don’t order steak in British restaurants, and, when I do, as often as not wish I hadn’t afterwards.

Generally speaking, as with cooking, the richer the idea, the longer the cooking time. Jerome K Jerome one day started writing Three Men in a Boat, and it more or less came to him as he wrote, which may explain the appallingly weak ending, preceded (and, for once, not spoiling) the utter delight of the chapters up to then. Three Men in a Boat is a light work, of delicate touch. If he had let it stew for a couple of years, I doubt it would have been so good. Nostromo, on the other hand, is richer fare, and before he wrote it, Joseph Conrad imagined every street in his fictional Sulaco, and then told the story second hand through his raconteur Marlow.

Returning to our putative crash-for-cash story, we can go in two directions with cooking time. On the one hand, as a short story or as a thriller, this deserves to be written right now while the whole crash-for-cash thing is topical. Hopefully, insurance companies will have found a way of dealing with it in a couple of years (and, hopefully, not by the method in the story). On the other hand, if divorced from its topicality, it might deliver a better result. What about setting it in the 19th century, or in the Byzantine Mediterranean? What about in the far future (though not aboard a spaceship called ‘Nostromo’), where the ‘crash for cash’ notion has been transmuted into something else?

Baking a dish gives it a hard crust, while stewing it lets the flavours of all the ingredients infuse each other. In ‘hard boiled’ detective stories, now conflated with roman noir, we feel every blow of every fist. Raymond Chandler took the hard boiled style epitomised by Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon fame, and gave it a longer cooking time over a softer flame. The film The Maltese Falcon is better than any of the Sam Spade stories, including the one it was based on, but no filming of The Big Sleep or the other Marlowe stories has ever come close to Chandler’s ‘hero in the wrong story’ protagonist, partly because of the way he allows other interests to work their way in, most particularly in The Long Goodbye.

Presentation

About half the days of the week, I put the pans on the table and we serve from them. They are nice pans, and it has a slightly rustic feel, not out of place given that we live in the countryside five minutes walk from Shakespeare’s Avon. One day a week, typically, we eat Balti, for which I have heavy iron Balti dishes, purchased from a commercial catering supplier in Birmingham twenty years ago. The other days I present the food with varying degrees of elaboration, sometimes including a five-fold candelabra. We always have music and soft lighting, and follow the meal with coffee. We rarely eat dessert, but sometimes we do. Occasionally, I do a seven course meal with aperitif, two courses of starters, main course, dessert, cheese, and coffee to follow.

How you choose to present the meal depends a lot on what you are cooking, or alternatively, if you have decided on a particular presentation, you have to decide what to cook differently.

I like hamburgers with fresh pineapple, but wouldn’t do them as part of a seven-course meal. On Tuesday evenings, we fence (we are a couple that makes sure we fight once a week). That generally means a pasta dish, and eating early. Thursday evenings I fence, so Cassoulet.

Once you have your story, presenting it can take it in different directions, but over or under-presenting it can damage it. The ‘Encyclopdia Galactica’ entries in the original Foundation trilogy were inspired, as were the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entries in the series of the same name. The equivalent sections in Dune (with deep apologies to people who love every word of that book) are tepid by comparison. Three years ago, I wrote a novel called ‘the Saxon Thief’. Last year, my mother indicated she would quite like to read it. It was in an unfinished state, so I finished it off and sent it to her. She commented that all the characters seemed to have the same ‘voice’, so I went back and rewrote every single line of dialogue (notwithstanding that, the two agents I pitched it to, curse them, showed no interest. I suppose I had better circulate it more widely). At least my mother preferred the new version. No one else has read it.

John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is, apart from the ending, one of the most perfectly presented books in English, with all the poet laureate’s art going into every page (he also wrote Sea Fever, voted as Britain’s favourite poem). He earlier novel, Dauber, by contrast, is almost unreadable — the slow writing combines with the Rizla-thin plot to make a book which should really never have been published. A sharper, less self-indulgent presentation would not have made Dauber into a good book, but it would at least have made it less painful reading.

I was, I’m afraid, schooled in Modernism, when Modernism was still a thing. My natural writing style is savagely minimalistic, giving the reader as few clues as possible and letting them figure out what’s going on for themselves. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to unlearn that, especially because most of the things I want to write about don’t naturally lend themselves to minimalism, or Modernism.  Sometimes it takes someone else to look at your work (teenagers are the best, because they say what they think) to tell you that they really can’t follow what you’re writing, and please include more explanation.

The point I’m making is that the first three aspects—ingredients, method of preparation, cooking time—get you to what the story is, but thought must also be given to how you tell it. This goes far beyond deciding whether to write in the present-historic (personally I hate this, but will put up with it in the Hunger Games et al because of the quality of the story) or the past, first or third person, limited or omni, or other such mechanical choices. Presentation also goes beyond writing style. Except for the shortest of short stories, which are the literary equivalent of a snack, you are setting out not only the meal, but also the theme and decor of the restaurant, the demeanour of the other diners, the other items on the menu, and even the weather and time of day outside. The clearest possible indication that The Big Sleep is not going to be in the mode of Sam Spade is in the first three lines:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit…

This is to be a story in which time, date, weather, geography and personal grooming are all going to play parts. There is going to be time for reflection, for description, and for a languid self-observation. Chandler wasn’t merely trying to write a better Sam Spade (though he did think that he could write hard-boiled better than it was being written), he was also writing a riposte to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes always knows what’s going on, and chides others that they see without observing. Philip Marlowe never knows what’s going on, despite genuinely detailed observation. Indeed, we, the reader, observe far more through the eyes of Marlowe than we ever do through John Watson, and yet are left as bewildered and bludgeoned (frequently) as our narrator.

Making a meal of it

So, there you have it. Ingredients, Preparation, Cooking and Presentation. If this inspires you to write differently, or helps you get past a dry (or hungry) patch, then my best wishes go with you. If, on the other hand, it has done nothing for you, console yourself that it has taken you less time to read it than it did for me to write it—which, sadly, is all too often the fate of a meal. However, once, just once in a while, like the couscous I ate in Paris in April 1986, it will live forever in the memory.

For NaNoWriMo writers: how to make it through the middle

Aristotle famously wrote that every story had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

He was right, but how he explained what that meant has been widely misunderstood, or, at the most charitable, widely ignored.

In the One Basic Plot I set out to show how, with a very small tweak to his argument, Aristotle gives us the fundamental unit of story-ness (or plot), which is the double-reversal. However, if you are embarking on your first (or fifteenth) 50,000+ word opus this November as part of NaNoWriMo, the middle bit of the story may be giving you quite a lot of trouble.

Over the last six years, I’ve been sent dozens and dozens of newly published books to review by Amazon (I get to keep the books). Judging by what I’ve read, a lot of authors struggle with the middle, and the agent-publisher-marketer system which used to rely on the first fifty pages and now seems to rely on just the first ten pages makes far too much of a strong premise and a strong voice, and far too little of a story which is enjoyable to read all the way through. I frequently wonder if any of them ever read deep enough into some of the books to ask themselves: ‘will anyone think of the poor reader?’.

A really great beginning will serve you well, and a really strong double-reversal at the climax will make the book memorable. But it’s the middle that makes the book enjoyable. If by page 120 you, as the reader, are flagging, and by page 150 losing the will to live, there is actually no virtue in continuing. If the story is worth telling, then it’s worth experiencing all the way through. If that experience actually isn’t worth it, then the story was never worth telling in the first place.

Someone (I will try to find out who) said that British fiction is largely a beginning and an end, separated by a muddle. All too often true. At least, true today. Go back to the 19th century, the golden age of the novel, before film, radio and TV took on the mantle of stories worth enjoying for their own sake, and quite the reverse is true. Middlemarch is almost all middle, and all the better for it. Dickens’s novels rarely have dramatic climaxes (the exception being A Tale of Two Cities, which is allegedly the biggest selling work of fiction ever, and widely regarded as one of his least successful novels). If you read through Wuthering Heights to find out what happens at the end, then you have missed the point of the story.

Even some of our 20th century modernist classics are stronger in the middle than at the beginning and end. Lord of the Flies stops, rather than finishes. The main interest of the Catcher in the Rye (actually, not much interest to me, I’m afraid) is not finding out what happens to Holden Caulfield at the end. The end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four is dismal, but the middle has redefined many of our political concepts.

Reach back further to Shakespeare, and the strange power of most of his plays is in the middle acts. In story terms, we could jump pretty much straight from the witches to the demise of Macbeth, as Hollinshed’s chronicle more or less does. It Acts ii-iv that take us through the darkness of the human heart.  We do not watch Hamlet to find out if Hamlet survives (the clue is in the title, ‘The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’), exciting as the ending is.

Stories need great premises, especially in today’s competitive market. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had decided to set the Hobbit in 1920’s Warwickshire, or if CS Lewis had decided to save on the production budget and kept the Pevensie children in England. A Game of Thrones could be entirely played out in the school playground, as A Game of Conkers, but nobody would bother to read it, and the TV series would be less interesting than the Grange Hill box-set.

Equally, they need great climaxes. The modernist (and post-modernist) literary conceit of focusing on the ‘important’ things rather than plot just makes for dull works that most people only read if they have to.

However, it is the middle which makes the story one that the reader wants to dwell in and come back to again and again. We, too, want to journey through Middle Earth, fight dragons in Earthsea, find our way into the heart of the Congo, watch the doomed romance of Winston and Julia blossom for a while, marvel at how Lizzie does not see that Mr Darcy is perfect for her, and hope (even though we know it is a vain one) that Cathy and Heathcliff will get together.

How it’s done

So, what constructs of middle always work, and, more importantly, what ones never work? Let me first reiterate what I say in the One Basic Plot. Although the device of the double-reversal is fundamental to story-ness (it is the one basic plot), there are not seven, or seventy-seven or seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven approved plot structures which work, while the others don’t. Story can take an infinite number of directions. Particular genres may have a standard plot, but even in these genres, avant garde figures are at work to subvert them, developing the plots that everyone is going to copy in the next cohort.

However, that’s not what you got this far to want to hear. So, while I am adamant that you can’t just take a formula and apply it, there are some aspects of middleness which could help you out.

Just before we go on, let me say that when Aristotle says a beginning, a middle and an end, he does not mean that stories should be in three parts, and he is not recommending a three part structure. All that he means is that the beginning is the parts of the plot which do not follow from anything else in the story, and the end is the parts of the plot which have nothing following them in the story. The middle is what necessarily and logically proceeds from the beginning, and necessarily and logically causes the end. You can have any outlandish premise you want as the beginning, and you can finish the story in the most unsatisfactory state at the end, or both, provided that what happens at the end is the necessary result of the conditions of the beginning, and the route there is through the middle.

Option 1: A simple journey plot (not necessarily heroic)

It’s occasionally argued that all stories are either ‘going on a journey’ or ‘a stranger comes to stay’. It shouldn’t take you too long to come up with some counter-examples (The Midnight Folk, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, to name but a few), but it is true that these two particular premises have proved remarkably fruitful and have given rise to very many different kinds of stories.

If you’ve studied (heaven help you) plot theory, then you have probably learned about the Heroic Journey. My advice on that is: forget everything you learned about it. Put it out of your mind, and just think of a regular journey. Think of a journey that you have been on, which was worth retelling afterwards, and which people actually wanted to hear about.

I can guarantee it had one particular element that the dull stories of journeys which you never want to hear (and certainly don’t want to see the video of) don’t have.

Ok, so, your journey began by setting off. This is intrinsic to journeys.

Your journey finished (unless you are still travelling) by arriving somewhere. It may not be the place you intended, and it may be back home after abandoning all your plans, but if you’ve finished the journey, then there was a place where you were when you finished it.

So far, so dull.

The journeys that are worth hearing about are the ones where something went wrong in the middle.

Typically, for a journey, this involves a selection of the following:

  • There was a mishap, accident, or even an attack
  • You lost your bearings and got lost
  • You saw or experienced some things which were remarkable, and, even if you’d have preferred not to see them, were things worth relating which you wouldn’t have seen if you’d stuck to the ‘right’ route
  • At a particular point, travel fatigue made you almost lose hope of arrival, and you just wanted it to be over, even if it meant abandoning your destination
  • At another point, the fascination of what you did find made you (or one of your companions) lose sight of the ‘real’ purpose of the journey, even if, afterwards, you concluded that the detour was what made the journey special

Whether your journey is in the company of a real tiger, an imaginary tiger or a Tigger, entirely solitary, with two friends up a river, or alone across the desert, the combination of mishap, losing direction and finding something that was otherwise unfindable (for better or worse) will resonate with readers, will allow them to explore the wonderful world you have created, in the company of the wonderful characters you have given them, and gives the necessary space between things starting at the beginning, and immediately finishing with the climax.

Imagine how the Hobbit would have gone if Gandalf had a Portkey. He would have arrived at Bag End, bundled the dwarves and Bilbo to the Lonely Mountain, and all but the first and final chapters would be averted. It would have been George and the Dragon, but with a diminutive gang rather than a bloke on a horse: fine if we were looking for some more patron saints, but not much of a story. Without the journey up the Congo, Heart of Darkness would be no more than the tale of an unsatisfactory inspection. As it is, Bilbo finds a ring, and Marlow discovers that cannibals are more human than Kurtz.

For you, the hard-pressed aspiring NaNo-novelist, the most important thing about a journey is that it has distinct stages. You can literally plot it out, on a map, with times and dates. You can work out all the logistics of how the journey is supposed to go, and then work through all of the mishaps of how it actually goes.

Journeys give you a lot of scenery to describe, if describing scenery is part of the delight of your story, but they also strip the characters back to their fundamental resources. They cannot call round on their friends for assistance, dig things out of the lumber room, hide in the drawing room from unwanted guests, or even, often, seek the assistance of sympathetic police.

Definitive, by its title if by nothing else, in the journey-as-middle stories is Around the World In Eighty Days. The premise, a simple wager, is dealt with quickly enough. The climax, where Fogg accidentally wins the bet he thought he had lost through the intervention of the International Date Line, is highly memorable, but it is also only a few pages long. The bulk of the book is middle, and it gives Jules Verne ample opportunity to write about everything he likes to write about, and for the reader to marvel in it. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are by no means as successful. Under the sea there is just more sea, and the journey to the centre of the earth is largely caves, with some imaginative embellishments.

So, if stuck for a middle which is more than just a muddle, option 1 is to separate the location of the beginning and the end by a journey. You can, of course, have the beginning and the end at the same place (this is what happens in The Alchemist), but there is a certain sense of futility in the journey if you do.

Option 2, though, may be more in your line if  you are focused primarily on character.

Option 2, a simple disruption plot

Pixar, or Disney, or one of them, I am told, tell stories that begin ‘for years everything went as it should, and then something happened which changed everything’.

This is a more general version of ‘a stranger comes to stay’. Essentially, it is a basic disruption plot. Everything was fine, but something changed.

Actually, you can have all kinds of disruption plots, some with no middle at all. Many short stories are disruptions with a blissful (or intolerable) situation which we can all picture sketched briefly in at the start, the disruption taking place immediately, and the story progressing swiftly to its climax.

However, a simple disruption plot lends itself very easily to a middle which is more than a muddle — though, be careful, because many of the British muddle-middles begin as disruption stories.

Think, for a moment, about a time your life was disrupted.

Some examples could be:

  • A new sibling, a new parent, or both
  • New school or new job
  • Coming into sudden wealth, or sudden poverty
  • Moving to a new neighbourhood or a different country
  • Starting a new project (dance classes, playing the bagpipes, restoring an old car)

As with the journey, many of these experiences don’t make for memorable stories. The ones that do tend to  be either unwelcome disruptions or disruptions where the implications seem at first benign, but become steadily more difficult as time goes on.

Probably the best known disruption story of Cinderella. It goes something like this: Cinderella, a Barbie-lookalike with an attractive disposition and a strong bond with her father, acquires a new step-mother and two non-Barbiesque step-sisters. Depending on which version you prefer, her father goes on a journey, dies, or just turns a blind eye, while the step-mother and step-sisters demote her to essentially serving girl in her own house. Unbeknownst to any of them, Cinderella has a fairy-godmother, who arranges for her to go Prince Charming’s ball. She amazes everyone, but flees to be home before midnight, leaving behind a glass slipper. The prince goes throughout the land trying to find someone who fits the slipper, until he finally finds Cinderella (her non-human Barbie proportions are the reason that no one else’s feet will fit it). They get married, and live happily ever after. Things do not turn out well for the step-mother and ugly sisters.

The simple disruption of the-girl-who-has-it-all suddenly not having it all works easily here. We can play out the implications of the step-females’ meanness more quickly or more slowly, or, as in Ella Enchanted, send our protagonist on a long and entirely unnecessary journey, or really do anything else we like. We need to be slightly careful about where we introduce the fairy godmother. She can be as powerful as we like if we introduce her early in the story, but she becomes progressively more like a deus ex machina if introduced too late, unless her powers are sharply curtailed.

The key to making the unwelcome implications of the disruption work is that Cinderella keeps hoping for the best, and doing her best. The storyteller can pile on the agony, as Cinderella persists in saying that things aren’t that bad, being nice to stray cats, and so on. Indeed, the greater the level of sympathy we can create for Cinderella, the more the readers, listeners or viewers are willing to accept her amazing good fortune at having i) a fairy godmother and ii) being the most beautiful maiden in the land.

For the hard-pressed writer, a simple disruption story can follow this plot:

  1. Everything went as it always had, until one day something changed
  2. At first the protagonist thought they could manage around this, and therefore not change their life
  3. The more they did this, the more the implications of the change disrupted things
  4. The protagonist reached the point of despair
  5. Something changes in the protagonist: either they embrace the new situation, or they resolve to fix matters
  6. Unexpected help from outside makes this possible
  7. After some wild ups and downs, the final result is not that what was is restored, but the new situation is even better

The audience resonates with point 2, because we have all done this. Change is part of life, but we frequently try to act as if it can be contained or ignored. The more we do this, the more inescapable it becomes, until we finally have to face it.

I suspect that Aristotle would have preferred the simple disruption plot to the simple journey plot. The journey is a physical device for separating the beginning and the end. Although the Shire probably can’t really be right next to the Lonely Mountain or to Mordor, because otherwise it wouldn’t be the carefree place that it is, there is nothing intrinsic in the plot that requires quite so many obstacles to be in the way. The disruption is more organic. It is only after a number of half-hearted or half-baked attempts to ignore it or skirt round it that the protagonist reaches the point of despair, and decides that something must be done. What that something is depends entirely on the nature of the disruption. What’s more, any amount of shenanigans, comic or otherwise, can take place both as the protagonist initially tries to ignore the disruption, and later as they do what they should have done right at the beginning.

Bonus: option 3 — the hero arrives

If neither the journey nor the disruption plot appeals, you might want something a bit more genre-related, in which case, ‘the hero arrives’ is a story line that has served many struggling writers.

The basis of ‘the hero arrives’ is that things have been going wrong for a while, and they have suddenly taken a turn for the worse. However, unlike the simple disruption, the story does not follow the self-help attempts of the people whose lives are being disrupted. Instead, an outsider arrives and sets about fixing things. However, in keeping with all post-classical heroic tradition, the hero is uniquely ill-equipped for the particular task at hand, either physically, mentally or emotionally. In retrospect, the monks/villagers/neighbours would have been much better off either living with the disruption, or paying off their oppressors—at least, this is how it seems mid-way through the story. By the end, things may have taken a different sheen.

To the struggling NaNoWriter, this can be a good way of getting away from the middle as muddle because, once again, the implications of the arrival of the hero can be worked through. Whether it is the Name of the  Rose, the Seven Samurai or Batteries Not Included, or, indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, the arrival of the hero who either has a reputation or an enigma (but not usually both) is enough to provoke a response both from the people whose lives are being disrupted, and from their disruptors.

The plot can go something like this:

  1. Bad situation just got worse because of ultimatum from oppressors
  2. A hero arrives; he (or she) intimates they are just passing through
  3. The oppressed make pleas, or an offer, to the hero, which she (or he) turns down
  4. The oppressed decide to look for an alternative source of help
  5. The oppressors make threats and an offer, which the hero also ignores
  6. The oppressors attack the hero, as he now seems a threat to them, and are repulsed
  7. The oppressed recognise that this really is the hero they need
  8. The hero reluctantly agrees to help
  9. The hero’s inner weakness/fundamental flaw becomes apparent
  10. The oppressed see this, and decide they can no longer help the hero
  11. The hero stands alone (possibly aided by a plucky side-kick), having given his word to fight the oppressors
  12. At the last moment, enough of the oppressed rally round, and the oppressors are defeated
  13. Celebrations
  14. The hero leaves

Items 11 and 12 can do with some variations, as genre-savvy readers will see them coming at a distance. However, the basic shape of the middle rings true because that is exactly what we have all experienced when a stranger arrives, and everyone decides to make her (or him) their hero. First there is courting by one side, then by the other, then, generally inadvertently, one side pushes the hero into helping the other side. It is only then that we discover the hero is flawed, possibly in a way we are not willing to accept. Their popularity fades, but their heroic quality of keeping their promise shines. Eventually, enough of us are willing to rally round him (or her) to get the job done.

In plot terms, this cannot help but work: the points of tension, hopes, fears and double-reversals are built into it. However, it is much harder to write convincing characters this way (or, possibly, it is just as easy, but the plot itself is so easy that often we don’t bother). Often, this story will be told with the hero, the oppressors and the oppressed all as figures rather than characters. Their shadows loom much larger than their souls, to borrow a phrase. For this reason, although we are fairly certain that the character played by Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars is the same as the one in For a Few Dollars More, largely because the title of the second film implies it, it is altogether less clear that the more complex character of Il Bueno, Goldie, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the same person. He has the same laconic style, but we really don’t know enough about his personality from the first two films to be able to marry it up with the rather more developed personality of the third. Stories, be they written, stage, TV or film, about heroes do tend to deal with the figure of the hero, rather than the actual person.

Over to you

I am not recommending these three middles, merely illustrating them. Still, if you’re stuck to know what to do, any one of them will work. However, if you have a little more time, and are more intellectually adventurous, you can use the same technique which created them to do something more organic with your own premise and climax. All three of these work—time and again—because the middle as described genuinely is a logical consequence of the beginning, and the end of the middle. The technique of simply asking ‘what would naturally happen’ can be applied to any premise. At some point, there has to be an injection of character. Given situation A, what kind of character is going to give us the most interesting ride to the end. What would they naturally do? Why wouldn’t that work? What would they finally do? What would happen then?

It is this questioning of cause and effect which Aristotle believed was intrinsic to the best stories. Two and half millennia later, I have yet to find a theory which betters his.

For Writers: How to Make a Monster

For Writers: How to Make a Monster

Heracles and the Leonean Hydra

Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra

Do monsters belong in your forthcoming novel? Should they?

English’s oldest epic, Beowulf, is the story of one hero and three monsters. 1. Greek’s oldest epic, the Iliad, contains no monsters, but its immediate sequel, the Odyssey, more than makes up for it with the Cyclops, Scylla, Charybdis, and the Sirens. Neither Greek theatre nor Shakespeare deal much with monsters, but not because of any disdain for them: unlike ghosts, gods and transformations, monsters are peculiarly difficult to stage. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of course, is a tale of a monster par excellence, and Gulliver’s travels is (in part) a reverse tale: when the man becomes the monster.

So much for the front of literature. What about the back end, the end which we inhabit. Notwithstanding the hinted at monsterism in the graveyard scene of Great Expectations, and the imaginary two beasts in Lord of the Flies, since the 19th century monsters have not been considered a fit subject for serious literature. Perhaps it is (in Wilfred Owen’s words) ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’, along with the devastation wreaked by poison gas, aerial bombardment, the atomic bomb, and that most monstrous of all things, genocide, which has led ‘serious’ writers to seek to manifest evil in other forms. Mythical monsters seem mild and inoffensive in comparison with man’s own inhumanity to man.

However.

The point of literature (i.e., books) is not to be ‘serious’, but to be read. We read what we enjoy, at least, by and large, even if we do read a proportion of books because they are ‘good for us’, whether we like them or not. At school I was obliged to read Nineteen Eighty Four, and Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye, and Joby, and Animal Farm. So good were they for me that I have never read them again since. By contrast, I read the Hobbit every couple of years, the Hound of the Baskervilles every four or five years, and I devoured each of the Harry Potter books immediately I purchased them.

Monsters loom large in books I like, even if they are the mark of unseriousness. It may be reassuring to note that they do for others too. Among the top ten most purchased novels of all time, three are tales of literal monsters. Most of the next twenty are as well.

Even if you are not writing a novel (surely there are some people who aren’t), or are not writing a novel that contains monsters, some knowledge of monsterology should surely serve you well.

Before continuing, I should first define ‘monster’. Etymology will not serve us well here, and the Oxford English Dictionary is too blunt an instrument. I shall use the word to refer to any creature which is a powerful and frightening non-human threat, which does not occur in our natural universe. I will therefore exclude witches and wizards, other species such as elves and dwarves, and inimical but relatively unpowerful creatures such as imps, gnomes, pixies and the like.

The Four Kinds of Monsters

As with almost everything, if you take the trouble to organise things in that fashion, there are four kinds of monsters, and they make a neat table (possibly the only neat thing that monsters do).

MonstersThere are humanoid monsters and non-humanoid monsters, and there are monsters which are stupider than people, and monsters which are cleverer than people.

Fairy tale monsters of the humanoid sort — trolls who live under bridges, giants who live above beanstalks, and ogres of every kind — are typically stupid creatures, easily outwitted, though most famously outwitted not in fairy-tale but in epic, when Odysseus tells the cyclops that his name is ‘nobody’. The literary goblins or CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien are closer to humans. Indeed, they may have cunning, but they lack all wisdom.

The Greeks, of course, have giants who are old gods, the Titans. They are less cultured than the Olympians, perhaps, but far above the reach of any mortal. The Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is cleverer, or at least more subtle, than Gawain. The Ring Wraiths, we imagine, are intolerably intelligent. Norse Giants, the Jötuns of Jötunheim, are easily able to outwit Thor, Oðin and even the trickster Loki. The White Witch is so clever that she even (she thinks) outwits Aslan. The White Walkers appear to possess a cunning above that of mortals.

Non-humanoid monsters, in numbers at least, are heavily on the stupid side. Often, they are almost elemental in their nature: the sea serpent, the kraken and the roc being epitomes of their environments. There are numerous classical and medieval bestiaries setting out a variety of fantastical creatures. The ones we call monsters tend to be physically enormous. Giantism, whether it be in spiders such as those of Tolkien or Rowling, or the Norse World Serpent, is, it seems, a necessary quality of the non-humanoid, unthinking monster.

Monsters which are not human in shape, but cleverer than humans, are comparatively rare. They are the top carnivores in any food-chain, and they are generally named. The Sphinx, of course, is known primarily for its riddles. The Norse dragon Fafnir is a shape-shifting human who appears to have settled permanently into dragon form. Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea dragons are wiser than humans, and they play an increasing role in the later stories. The greatest monster of them all, perhaps, is Smaug: a dragon of a very different kind from the one Tolkien discusses in The Monsters and the Critics.

Modern television monsters tend to be the exception to the uncommonness of clever, non-humanoid monsters. The Daleks, of course, are known for their cruelty and intelligence, but so are many of the monsters of the Buffy-verse and the rest of the Who-verse.

How monsters are made

Let me return to my definition. A monster is any creature which is a powerful and frightening non-human threat, which does not occur in our natural universe. We can easily create giant beasts by giantising any ordinary thing. However, the result is not necessary monstrous. In one of the most famous stories in medieval England, now almost entirely forgotten, Sir Guy of Warwick rescues his people from a giant cow. I suspect it is his adversary who has served Sir Guy so poorly in longevity: a giant cow is simply not frightening enough.

Likewise, we can multiply characteristics without necessarily creating compelling monsters. The Hydra, of course, with its many heads is a truly monstrous monster, and even the real-life hydra, when seen under a microscope, is quite frightening. However, two headed dogs, much as the Greeks loved them, do not possess the menace today that they once did.

Equally, assigning new characteristics to things will not necessarily do the trick. The Sirens are such great monsters that they feature in not one but two Greek epic tales: the Odyssey, and the voyage of the Argo. Nonetheless, giving some other kind of being an alluring voice doesn’t necessarily make it a monster.

The key is in beginning with the word ‘threat’. What is Smaug? Functionally, he is the illicit guardian of the treasure the dwarves have gone to retrieve. What is Grendel? He is a predator of the warriors in Heorot. What is the Green Knight? He is the one who is going to chop of Sir Gawain’s head.

The Green Knight is perhaps the most interesting of these, because when he enters the hall in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, no one knows what his intention is. His warlike garb gives the impression that he might want to fight, but, seriously, any monster capable of fighting all of Arthur’s knights in one go would not really need to introduce himself. It is the cunning of the tit-for-tat return blow which turns him into a threat, and it is only at the point where he picks up his head and adjures Gawain to fulfil his side of the bargain that he truly becomes a monster.

Whatever a monster does, he must frighten. Dragons that nuzzle us, or allow us to train them, may be monstrous, but they are no longer monsters.

The very best monsters are extensions of their threats, rather than threatening because they are monsters. Smaug guards the treasure, because it is necessary that the adventure of retrieving the treasure be bigger than the adventures involved in getting to it. Grendel is a fenland giant, because only a giant is able to pluck warriors at will and tear them apart. The one-eyedness of the cyclops is crucial, because it is on the searching for Odysseus once he is blinded that the story will turn. In a remarkable precursor to Alien, Fafnir’s blood itself is deadly, and so Sigurð must dig a trench to avoid being burned by it.

It is that special characteristic of threat that makes monsters frightening. We do not need to see the monster do its thing to fear it. Grendel’s actions are told second-hand, at least initially. We have the accounts of what Smaug has done, but we do not ‘see’ them first-hand, not until it is too late. Fafnir’s blood actually never plays a role in the Volsungasaga. The trolls that threaten Bilbo never actually eat anyone (not in the story), but they are built up in such a way that they are far more terrifying, for exactly the same reason, than anything Pip experiences in the graveyard in Great Expectations.

Eating people

Leaving aside Doctor Who monsters, the one great threat that almost all monsters seem to pose is that they will eat us. Indeed, it is this very threat that Dickens exploits in Great Expectations to give the convict Magwitch a monstrous demeanour, without actually introducing monsters. This is more than a simple inversion. Humans do a variety of things to animals which we would not want done to us. We set traps for mice, cull badgers, breed mules, ride horses and swat flies. There would be something strange and nasty about a creature that traps humans, culls them, breeds them, rides them or swats them, but none of these have the same impact on us as the threat of eating. Indeed, in a non-monsterous way, it is the threat of eating which gives the power of horror to Hansel and Grettel, and also to the parallel scene in TH White’s The Sword in the Stone.

We might say that the fear of being eaten goes back to some ancestral memory of the horror of cannibalism, but this is itself a circular explanation: how do we know that the practice of cannibalism did not grow up out of the fear of monsters?

There are two exceptions to the eating rule of monsters which are worth considering. They are possession and petrification.

In the Lord of the Rings, the Ring Wraiths threaten to bend Frodo to their will, while in A Wizard of Earthsea, both the Shadow and the Stone attempt to possess Ged. In monsterological terms, I would argue that these kinds of possession are in some sense a kind of eating: they are the consumption of the spiritual part of a being rather than a physical part.

Petrification is more difficult. Both the basilisk and Medusa the Gorgon turn people to stone. That instant transformation has become a word for the worst kind of fear: “I was petrified”. Indeed, the White Witch never threatens to eat anyone (very civilised behaviour for a witch of a certain type) but she does use her wand to petrify. Not very far from where I live, the Rollright Stones are supposedly the results of a dark ages petrification spell to halt an invading army.

Not in Harry Potter, and also not in Medusa’s case, but in Narnia and in much folk- and fairy-tale, petrification is a reversible process. However, it is not a transformation, like being turned into a frog: while petrified, the victim is effectively ‘dead’, at least as far as the story is concerned.

There can be no explanation of petrification in the same way as the purported cannibalism explanation of monsters that eat people. Nonetheless, to my mind, the functional result in a story is almost the same. For writers squeamish about their incidental characters being eaten, petrification may well be the right route.

Even if you are not particularly squeamish, monsters that eat people may seem a little too close to the real world to be comfortably fantasy. The peculiar horror of The Silence of the Lambs came from Hannibal Lecter, rather than Buffalo Bill, but what made it credible was that there are a distressingly large number of modern cases of Western cannibalism.

Better Monsters Make Better Heroes

I have argued elsewhere and will do again that the modernist and post-modernist penchant for ‘literary’ fiction which has neither plot nor hero leads to literature which may be ‘good for you’, but is not especially enjoyable. I would far rather read John Stuart Mill if I want to read something which is good for me and which I don’t entirely agree with, or Stephen Hawking if I want to expand my intellectual world. The fictional books I want to read are books which have plots, and which have heroes. Do they need to have monsters?

 

In the best monster stories — Perseus, the Hobbit, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, the Volsungasaga, Beowulf, the labours of Heracles — we have an almost indelible sense that our attachment to the hero grows from their response to the monster. Beowulf is quite unashamed in this: he goes to Heorot, because he needs ‘lof’ in order to be a hero. Gawain is otherwise a slightly ambiguous figure. Malory depicts him as little better than Kay, while in Chrétien de Troyes, he is secondary to the character of Yvain. The adventure of the Green Knight is his finest moment. Sigurð meets his death not at the hands of the dragon, but at those of his friends. Nonetheless, it is the dragon fight which establishes him as the pre-eminent human hero of the Norse mythological world. Without the fight with Fafnir, he would just be another hapless warrior who got mixed up with the wrong family and paid the price for it. Without a similarly qualified opponent, we never have the same degree of sympathy for Völund.

Bilbo, though, is by far the most fascinating, because it seems that the entire race of hobbits is constructed to be the least likely opponents of a dragon. I have argued elsewhere that ‘hobbit’ is just ‘rabbit’ with the first two letters changed. Bilbo is frequently compared to a rabbit right the way through, and the opening line ‘In a whole, in the ground, there lived a…’ sounds like it is going to be ‘rabbit’, but is then ‘hobbit’. Hobbits are rabbit like in many of their habits, event down to their hairy feet.

As a piece of writing for children, the switch from the expected ‘rabbit’ to ‘hobbit’ is masterful, and reveals the fullest extent of Tolkien’s linguistic genius. However, what is at least as interesting is why he creates hobbits in that mode.

Reflecting on what we know of Tolkien—the man who put Beowulf on the literary map, who loved the Volsungasaga, and created the two most memorable dragons in literature (the other is Chrysophylax Dives, since you ask)—and on the essentially plot-perfect structure of The Hobbit, it seems clear that he intended the goal of the story to be dragon-treasure before he started writing it. Most would-be writers (myself included) will have started out to write stories with an interesting premise and a plausible character, in the hope that it will go somewhere (Americans call this approach ‘pantsing’, a term which I hate for all kinds of reasons), but the experience is usually a disappointing one: unless you know where the story could end, the meandering journey usually goes nowhere, although it’s often possible to substantially improve on the ending while you follow the journey. It would be lovely to think that Tolkien began with the idea of hobbits, and then worked his way up to the adventure which follows, but it seems to me more likely (and I know that many serious literary critics will say that this is an entirely inadmissible line of reasoning) but it seems more likely that he began with the idea of a dragon, and then worked out what would make the absolutely most perfect hero: not a Sigurð or a Beowulf, nor even a Gawain, but the most timid kind of creature capable of making the journey.

But no monsters…?

The modern world is inimical to monsters. With every square metre mapped out and available to view on Google satellite images, there are no places for monsters to hide—at least, not the grand monsters our forebears feared. You can construct elaborate reasons why monsters are not found, but still exist—even X-files notions of monsters in sewers—but if you are writing any kind of realistic fiction, you may have already decided that, much as this excursus into the mundum monstrorum has entertained, it has little relevance to your story.

May I urge you to think again. We have already mentioned Pip in the graveyard in Great Expectations with the (at that point unnamed) convict threatening to eat him. We could also think of Soylent Green, where we ourselves become the monsters, a notion picked up in Cloud Atlas among others. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most memorable monsters of our age. We do not need to look far in history to find Idi Amin eating the flesh of his victims. A few years ago, I was involved in a rather hideous court case where a schizophrenic episode had been triggered by a man threatening to eat a woman. The details are best left undescribed.

As children, our entire world was populated by giants, which is to say, every adult and every older child. Most of those giants were friendly, or at least harmless, but the occasional encounter with giants who threatened us, or hurt us without cause, has left indelible traces on our memories. These are powerful forces which writers can explore, or even exploit.

The Hound of the Baskervilles turned out to be a fake (and became the blueprint for every classic Scooby-Doo episode), but the monstrosity was no less real.

Monsters roll our worst fears into a single entity. Beveridge understood the power of monsters, when he identified the ‘five giants’ to slay: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Even in the most serious, literary fiction, it is possible to epitomise threat without necessity of physical monsters. Threat, of the monstrous kind, is far more germane to literature than epitomising evil. Threat belongs with plot, whereas evil belongs to the world of metaphysics, anathema to ‘serious’ literature.

Struggling with your forthcoming story? See if it isn’t, after all, possible, to slip a monster in.

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