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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.

For writers: do your characters have a philosophy?

As Nanowrimo approaches, lots of budding writers are hastily scanning their notebooks for something to write about. Something literary? Or something more ‘genre’? Or what about something which is actually fun to read (so ‘genre’) but also worth reading (so ‘literary’, in as much as the term means anything).

I love Dickens and I love George Eliot, but for different reasons. Dickens is an exciting chase of plot twists, enormous personalities, intricate descriptions of humungous proportion, and reality stretched to its breaking point without actually becoming fantasy. You could never actually visit a Dickensian world. Many of our notions of the Victorians (squalor, hypocrisy, cruelty) are Dickensian rather than real. Eliot, on the other hand, comes to literature from philosophy 1. Her characters are realistically painted, even in Adam Bede which has more of an adventure ending than Dickens ever contrived.

If your characters are in danger of becoming caricature (and this troubles you), it might be worth taking a leaf out of Eliot’s books, rather than Dickens. Although we know more about even the most minor characters in Dickens than we know about any character in, say, Camus, they are often drawn without any particular psychological insight. Why is Uriah Heep so obsequious? We don’t know. Dickens is thrilled by (and thrills us with) the surface of Heep, and his impact on the other characters, but he doesn’t particularly want to delve into him. Eliot, on the other hand, is fascinated by the inner mind of everyone she draws to our attention. Her characters represent genuinely different outlooks on life. Dickens’s characters live in the ear and the visual imagination, but Eliot’s live in our minds.

So, do your characters have a philosophy, and should they?

It’s a truism that a villain is merely a hero in the wrong story. Every character makes sense to themselves, even if they are doing things which are nonsensical, self-destructive, or, simply, evil.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes for a depressing analysis of the human condition. Until our basic hungers and thirsts are met, we care little for future safety and security. While these are threatened, love and belonging seem unimportant. Only when love and belonging are satisfied do we seek esteem, and only after that self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy is accepted as a psychological base point, though, in fact, experimental evidence is really rather lacking. It is popular because it is popular, rather than because it is proven.

Nonetheless, for a character in a story, it is entirely plausible that they are acting purely selfishly (Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy of selfishness, ultimately). Even so, their actions still make sense to themselves, which is to say, they can still explain them in ways which are socially acceptable. Although all of us are blessed with a conscience, in many cases what we mistake for conscience is merely doing what society finds acceptable — as Lawrence Kohlberg maintains in this stages which are almost as popular as Maslow’s.

The way characters make sense of their actions in terms of their socialisation (or, in English, how they keep thinking well of themselves even when doing bad things) is their philosophy. All characters in adult novels have them. One of the peculiar delights of children’s fiction is that characters don’t have to have philosophies, and can be genuinely mortified when they have done something they shouldn’t.

By philosophy I don’t mean that they should be reading Quine or Plato. They don’t need to justify themselves in terms that Ayer would understand, or even to Aquinas. Their philosophy, often expressed in just one or two maxims, is the rationalisation of what they do. If they are particularly pompous, they may call it their ‘principles’, but even the most (apparently) unprincipled characters have their maxims.

At the moment the most overused one for villains is ‘I did it for the greater good’. This we know from JK Rowling, but she didn’t invent it. Now it seems to be a ubiquitous villain philosophy. That alone should make it suspect. In real life, I have yet to meet anyone pompous enough to claim that their actions are really ‘for the greater good’, which is merely a way of saying ‘the end justifies the means’.

There are plenty of others to choose from. Even the much maligned ‘because it was there’ is probably a better choice than ‘for the greater good’.

If you want to uncover the philosophy of your characters (or create it), simply pose them this question (or have an angry person who they like and want to be respected by in the story pose it): “What gives you the right to do that?” or, from a slightly colder, more mafia-like stance “What business of yours was it to do that?”

This is not just for villains, and it is not just for bad things. One of the classic dilemmas facing a hero is when duty conflicts with what is right. A soldier is sworn to obey the king, the king orders him to kill his prisoners. A Fluellen replies in Henry V: “Kill the poys and the luggage! ’tis expressly against the law of arms…” Fluellen’s philosophy is one part duty to the king, one part duty to the law. Shakespeare contrives a situation where the two are tested against each other.

Very few books will test all of their characters (Middlemarch is amazing because it really does do this), but even the most one dimensional bit-part character can benefit from a personal philosophy. A thief steals your protagonist’s watch. Why? Because they are a thief? That is probably a satisfactory explanation for a piece of scenery or a prop (why did the gun go off? because that’s what guns do when you pull the trigger), but no real thief is so one-dimensional. Because they were hungry? They might be more inclined to steal a sandwich than a watch. What gives them the right to do it, in their eyes? Possibly they think that nothing gives them the right, and they are the lowest of the low in their own eyes. This can lead to a rich denouement later on, when the thief finally turns on himself (or looks like he will, but does not).

A man once came to my door who had stolen some money. In the two hour conversation that followed, he repeated again and again ‘I am not a thief’. Being a thief was not part of who he saw himself. In that conversation I gleaned enough rationalisations and justifications for a hundred minor characters. A man may steal your watch simply because he wanted it, but when he justifies it to himself later, his justifications might be ‘He should have taken more care of it’ (i.e., I’m doing everyone a favour); ‘that watch was too expensive’ (i.e., all property is theft); ‘he thinks too highly of himself’, and so on. It is the in-brackets bits which are the philosophy. Very few people are fast enough on their intellectual feet to come up with an endless string of rationalisations, and they quickly turn to repeating the same ones—especially if their fellows seem to accept them.

Stealing a watch is an easy and obvious one. What about other unconscionable things that otherwise nice enough people do? A woman stamps on another woman’s hand in a frenzied rush at the start of the January sales. Later, how does she explain this to herself? A man regularly orders ten pens at work and takes nine home, even though his house is already full of pens. How does he justify this?

Simply knowing a minor character’s justification for what they are doing is enough to lift them from a Dickensian surface-character to a George Eliot deep-character. We hugely enjoy Dickens’s minor characters but, ultimately, they are circus performers with their catch phrases and odd appearances. We no longer go to literature for such people: we have television for that. If you are NanoWrimoing this year, it’s something worth thinking about.

Show 1 footnote

  1. I read that somewhere thirty years ago and can’t place the reference

Mind-spam: do you really need to be at the top of the list?

This morning I received yet another email from a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company, offering to get my website to the ‘top of the list’. I’m not generally entirely sure what they mean by ‘top of the list’. MartinTurner.org.uk is on the first page of Google for Martin Turner, but the bass player of Wishbone Ash is likely to be at the top of that list, except when I’m fighting elections, during which, for about six months, this site rises to the top. If you Google ‘how to write a sword fight scene’, then you will find me at the top of the list. On the other hand, if you Google ‘branding’, my company, Brand Motor Limited, will not be anywhere near the top of the list.

Should it be?

If you are an SEO company, absolutely. I am losing customers right now by the fact that my site isn’t at the top. But am I? And what would I do if I were? Actually, only one commercial company is on  Google’s first page for branding, and, given that it isn’t Wolff Olins or Interbrand, I suspect that some SEO jiggery-pokery has been taking place. Certainly, looking at that particular website (and it may all have changed by the time you Google it, so draw no conclusions), it isn’t exactly what you would call ‘top tier’, though they seem like nice enough people.

I spoke recently with a prospective client who told me that when they started up, they always tried to appear bigger than they were. Now, they are looking to appear only as big as they really are. I like that client: they have mastered the fundamental principle of branding—a brand is not a logo, but a promise, and the strength of your brand is based on your ability to fulfil that promise every single time you do business. Appear bigger than you are, and you will one day disappoint someone.

My first really big client came as a result of word of mouth—by far the best networking tool—and resulted, before we pulled the trigger on the deal, in me sitting with the CEO. His crunch question was: “Is it just you, or are there a string of recent graduates who’ll be doing the work?” As a new start-up business, it would have been terribly tempting to bluster and claim to be bigger than I was. “It’s just me,” I said. He told me how relieved he was. Every business that has hired consultants knows the danger of talking to someone who seems just right at the pitch, and then discovering that they are talking to a string of new-hires for the actual work. We did the deal, and three years later, won brand of the year for that particular industry.

This isn’t to say that a one-person start-up shouldn’t appear completely professional. If you have twenty-five years experience in your field, there is no reason to act otherwise. But, like enormous companies trying to appear much more home-made than they are, trying to be something you’re not only works for a while.

Which brings us back to mind-spam.

I had a call this morning from another client who was worried because their email to me had bounced back. For some reason it had been rejected by SpamCop. I don’t use SpamCop, and neither (she thought) did they. Somewhere along the internet email trail, though, someone did, and SpamCop didn’t like the look of their IP address, or mine, or one of the intermediate servers, or my email address, or theirs, or someone else it was cc-ed to, or the content of the email.

This is something that happens increasingly. I have nothing against SpamCop, and it is just one of the many similar systems that causes bounce backs. For a couple of years, the emails of one of the most trustworthy people I have ever met bounced back because he didn’t have his own name in addition to his email address in his settings, and the spam filters didn’t like the look of his email address. Why, I don’t know. In the end, I had to turn the spam filters off.

However, the work of these spam-filterers is entirely altruistic. They are desperately trying to hold back the tide of phishing, promotional, scam, virus, trojan and inappropriately bulk emails which flood the net every day.

I was at the Liberal Democrat conference this week, and happened to eat my lunch next to Mark Pack. Afterwards, we spent half an hour discussing some survey data. I sent him the link, and he may well use it. Or not. If he does, that data will have far more currency than it ever would on my site. Mark Pack is a top commentator on all things Liberal Democrat. He deserves to be. He writes regular, well-judged pieces that provide information which is otherwise very hard to get.

The SEO people would no doubt like to promise that they can get me above Mark Pack on the Google rankings. Perhaps they could. I don’t intend to invest however many hundred dollars it takes to find out. The thing is, though, if I did appear above Mark Pack, it would just be mind spam. I only occasionally write on political issues. I don’t have access to the data that he does, and I don’t put the work in to analyse it. Perhaps I should, a personal brand advisor might say. But should I? Even if I did do all the things Mark does (assuming I were capable of it), we would then simply have two Mark Packs, competing. If we were selling chocolate bars, this might be good for the market. But we aren’t.

In the mean time, if I paid my $500 to the SEO company, all I would be doing would be making Google rankings less useful. On martin turner.org.uk you will find much more about literature, broader notions of art, and the internet’s leading article on writing sword-fight scenes. However, if you were looking for the things Mark writes about, these would not interest you. You would feel cheated, and you would have been. Mark Pack is the best Mark Pack there is.

It’s not just on the internet that we mind-spam.

I’ve been to very many networking meetings where well-meaning graphic designers have stood up and explained that they do branding. I’ve then, when it was my turn, had to do intellectual somersaults to explain what I do without actually saying ‘a brand is not the same as a visual identity’. Graphic design is a crucial element in most brands, and there are some very talented designers who specialise in brand design. However, saying that branding is a kind of graphic design is simply misleading people who are probably already confused.

We all do it, though. When challenged, we talk ourselves up. A logo designer becomes a ‘brand designer’. Amateur musicians described themselves as ‘semi-pro’. People put the word ‘a leading’ in front of everything. The word ‘strategic’ gets used as an adjective meaning ‘particularly good’.

This week I met someone who told me she was a concert pianist. She gave me her card, and I quickly Googled her. She was (and is) indeed a concert pianist, leading exponent of four composers, and performer on Radio 3’s CD of the Week about a year ago. I was absolutely thrilled later to discover that she is married to one of my old college friends. We plan to meet up.

The thing is, if it wasn’t for all the mind-spam that we infest ourselves with these days, I would never have needed to check. People who really are in the top echelon of their profession lose the credibility they deserve because of all the people who aspire to be that, and talk themselves up. As it happens, you don’t see much of that in classical music, for the very simple reason that classical musicians are forced to put in such enormous amounts of practice and face so much rejection that people learn not to speak more highly of themselves than they ought. Plus the fact that, no matter how much someone talks themselves up, other musicians can immediately tell if they really aren’t that good.

If you are an SEO company reading this article, you can save yourself the bother of emailing me. I won’t be buying.

On the other hand, if you, like me, are one of tens of thousands of professionals who live by their reputations, let us agree together to fight against mind-spam not merely on the internet, but also in the way we describe ourselves.

It’s time to call our shovels ‘shovels’.

Three puzzle plots: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Alchemist

Puzzle plots and what they can mean for new writers

We tend to associate puzzle plots with the mystery stories. Indeed, the main difference between a mystery and a crime thriller is that we expect the clues to be presented to us in a mystery, but in such a way that we do not guess the end before the detective does. In a crime thriller, we expect the course of events to reveal the culprit at the climax: we do not feel cheated if, in retrospect, there was not enough information to work out the answer beforehand.

However, I would argue that an element of the puzzle plot can be a powerful element in other kinds of writing. There are a number of examples we could take, but I want to focus here on the medieval verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anon, approx 1390, Ursula K Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea, and Paolo Coelho’s the Alchemist.

Puzzle plots are extended riddles, where the answer is implicit or deducible from the question. By this I do not mean to compare them with the 1980s ‘blank’ riddles, where a scenario is proposed, and the respondent has to ask questions of the questioner to come to the right answer.

What weighs many tonnes, but falls to the ground without making a sound?

Answer: snow.

The snow riddle is a true riddle because everything in the question is literally true, and it points to a unique answer: trees, falling rocks and other large objects make a bang. Rain drums as it falls. Planes do not ‘fall’, except when they crash. Falling leaves rustle. Only snow falls.

However, it is not merely a question, because the way it is presented is elliptical. By emphasising the sound it doesn’t make, the hearer is sent on the path of thinking about all the things that do make a sound. If the question had been: “What is white and falls to the ground?” then the answer would be easy.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is challenged to a ‘return blow’ game by an enormous green knight. The supernatural uncanniness of the knight makes his uncle King Arthur advise him to strike well so that there will be no return blow. Gawain duly beheads the knight, but, after the head has rolled among the trestle tables, the knight’s body walks over, picks it up, and tells him to be at the Green Chapel a year hence. Having done his best to kill the eery knight, Gawain can expect no mercy.

When the time comes, he sets off on a long journey, despairing that he will ever find the place. As Christmas arrives, he finds a castle where the lord, Sir Bercilak, puts him for the knight, and tells him that the Green Chapel is quite nearby, and he can take him there on the appointed day, three days hence. In the meantime, he proposes a game: an exchange of winnings.

On day one, Bercilak goes out hunting. In the mean time, his wife comes into Gawain’s bedroom and flirts with him. In the end, he allows her to kiss him but no more. Bercilak, on his return, presents him with the game he has hunted, and Gawain kisses him in return.

On day two, the same thing happens. The wife presses him harder, but, in the end, all he has to do is kiss Bercilak to receive in return the huntsman’s trophy.

On day three, the wife goes all out to seduce Gawain, but he resists, accepting only more kisses. In the end, she persuades him to accept her girdle, in green and gold, which she says prevents a man from being killed, no matter what an enemy does to him. However, he must not pass this gift on. At the end of the day, Gawain receives a fox skin, gives Sir Bercilak the kisses, but conceals the girdle.

The following day, being the day appointed, he goes to the Green Chapel, where the giant green knight appears with his axe. Gawain puts his head on the block, but when the knight swings the axe, he flinches. The knight chides him, and Gawain complains that ‘when my head comes off my shoulders, I cannot put it back again’. The knight makes two false blows, but on the third, he strikes, nicking Gawain’s neck. Gawain springs up, ready to defend himself, now that the return blow has been given, but the knight laughs.

The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the same Sir Bercilak, and the first two blows did not land because on the first two days Sir Gawain faithfully delivered his gifts in accordance with his promise. The third blow was a nick, because although Gawain broke his promise, it was in accepting the girdle, not in allowing the wife to seduce him.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains one of my favourite stories. It appears to be an epic tale of marvels. It is only at the end that we discover this was a puzzle plot, where the answer to the first test depends on the answer to the second test.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the story is premised on the Rule of Names—knowing a ‘true’ name gives a wizard the power to cast spells over another wizard, so wizards keep their names carefully concealed. However, the titular wizard Ged, casting a spell beyond his abilities, summons up a spirit, and with it comes a nameless creature from the underworld, which then, for the rest of the book, seeks to take Ged over. Because the creature knows Ged’s own name, it defeats him at each encounter. The puzzle is: how can a creature without a name be defeated, since names are needed to cast magic. After many adventures, Ged finally turns to face the creature, and names it with his own name, thus completing the puzzle.

 

In the Alchemist, the protagonist dreams of treasure, and goes out following his dream. This takes him through many remarkable adventures, but when he finally finds the place he is looking for, he learns that the real treasure is buried in the place he first had the dream. He returns, and obtains it. Although the treasure was close at hand, he could not have obtained it without going on the remarkable adventures, and these adventures give meaning to the quest.

All three of these adventures are magical. I am not suggesting that puzzle plots must either be mysteries or magic. Rather, I’ve selected them because, in each case, the reader cannot bring extrinsic knowledge to the question. A Wizard of Earthsea presents us with a logical system, the Rule of Names, where the solution is an extrapolation of the problem. Sir Gawain relies on the intellectual code of chivalry, but it gives its own definition to it. Its original readers would have been familiar with the code, but not with specifically what one is supposed to do in a magical adventure: magic takes us out of the rules of the ordinary, except, of course, that the tale reveals that the rules should be followed in exactly the same way as in ordinary life. The Alchemist has its own simple rule: the universe conspires to help if you pursue your dream. It is only after the protagonist, Santiago, has pursued it extensively that the universe gives up its secret.

These puzzle plots differ from mysteries in the sense that the reader could not actually solve the puzzle. Nonetheless, the reader, along with the protagonist, is challenged to solve the puzzle, or, at the least, the intellectual appeal is that we are facing an intractable situation for which we require a solution.

They differ from mere tales of wonder in that the solutions are genuine solutions within the world of the book. They are not in any sense dei ex machinis: extraneous elements from the cosmology introduced to solve the problem.

The response the author is looking for in a puzzle plot is “Oh, that is clever”, rather than “I saw that coming”. However, it is a cleverness of appropriateness. In a world full of wonders and adventures, things worked out in exactly the way they logically would have worked out, which happens to be the way that, in plot terms, they should have worked out.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of plot. Whenever I make a list of favourite books, they are always books with strong plots. I like the Odyssey, but no so much the Iliad, Great Expectations but not so much Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451 but not Nineteen-eighty-four. 20th century (and 21st century) anti-plot literary fiction leaves me entirely cold.

To return to Great Expectations for a moment, this is an excellent example of a literary, character-driven puzzle plot. Pip faces a mystery for most of the story: who is his unknown benefactor. He assumes it is Miss Havisham, but everything that we, the reader, know about Miss Havisham and her protegée suggests that this is highly unlikely. In the event, it is the convict Magwitch who is Pip’s secret benefactor—something which completely overturns his view of himself, but which we, the reader, could probably have worked out if only we had not been so engrossed in the storytelling.

There is a particular satisfaction in the ‘answer in the question’ nature of the Great Expectations plot. Much as I enjoyed Dombey and Son, it does not have the same sense of completion. By the end of Dombey, we are essentially concluding with the happiness of everyone who is left.

We are now in an era of new writing. Up to seven hundred years ago, books survived because people copied them by hand. Sir Gawain survives only in one manuscript. It is quite possible that, until its re-discover and popularisation in the 20th century, only a handful of people had ever read it. Six hundred years ago, books survived because a printer printed them. In the voracious climate of the Reformation, many books were printed simply because a printer could get hold of them. A hundred years ago, books survived because a publisher took them on. Twenty years ago, books only survived if an agent took them on. The now-famous story of JK Rowling’s multiple rejections show just how fragile that process is.

Today, anyone can write a book and get it onto the web as Kindle or eBook, and onto the shelves as a physical book at no cost to themselves via Amazon’s CreateSpace. Print-on-demand has finally come of age: it is possible to make a profit, even when you only sell one copy.

More fiction is written today than even before. The success of social programmes such as NaNoWriMo and writers’ sites such as Figment and Wattpad mean that authors who would never have had access to publication and the encouragement that comes from it are writing, receiving constructive criticism from their peers, improving, refining, and publishing.

Unlike the self-publishing (where you paid for printing a lot of books which then filled your garage) or vanity publishing (where you paid someone to publish it and they then did nothing with it) of the 20th century, the potential distribution of self-penned books is the whole wired-world, carries no capital costs, and carries no risk. Find an online tribe of people who like what you write about, and start to like your particular writing, and you could find that your readership is greater than any book—except the Qu’ran and the Bible—in the world up to the year 1200. You may never get paid for it, but neither did most of the people writing up to the invention of printing.

The explosion in numbers of writers also explains why it has been getting ever harder to get published, in the traditional sense. At one point, a printer would have taken a chance on anything that looked plausible and manageable. Later, a publisher would read the manuscripts sent to them. Later, most publishers would only accept manuscripts sent by a recognised literary agent. Twenty years ago, agents were reading full manuscripts, unsolicited. Ten years ago, they wanted fifty pages and a synopsis. Now, many ask for thirty pages, and a growing proportion is asking for ten pages. It’s not that agents have lost interest in fiction, or that their readers have short attention spans, it’s that an ever growing number of authors, many supported by professional, paid editors, are submitting stuff.

What this means is that if your book doesn’t completely grab someone in the first ten pages, it is not going to survive the traditional process. Many of the great books of the past do not do this. Some would argue that this pressure pushes writers to ever better writing. Actually, it pushes writers to a format where the first ten pages is essentially a short story of its own.

Clearly, the puzzle plot is not going to fare well with this kind of reading regime. A book can be enormously satisfying, and yet come across as the very genre it is about to subvert.

As a new writer, writing for the new media, these rules don’t apply to you. You don’t have to satisfy an agent, or a publisher, or the reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want to write entirely in upper case, and your online tribe likes that, then you can succeed. 1

I’m not advocating tearing up all the rules. Rather, I’m suggesting that breaking out of the agent-publisher-distributer model means you no longer have to write things which satisfy the format that bookshops work to. Want to write a ten page novel? Currently, anything under 50,000 words doesn’t qualify, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write something of the scope and depth of a novel, quite different from a short story, and confine it to ten pages. Or would you prefer to write about 300,000 words a time? Research suggests that people who buy eBooks prefer longer books. Actually, many people buying print books want longer books, it’s just that first-time authors are always told to keep it between 70,000 and 80,000 words because that’s what publishers are comfortable taking a chance on. A publisher who decided to print your 800,000 word tome and distribute it to every book shop in the world in sufficient quantities to make it economically viable would, quite literary, be betting the publishing house on it. As an eBook, or a print on demand, there is no risk.

Lest anyone think that this is something that only authors ‘not good enough’ for agent-publisher-distributor publication should be interested, Paolo Coelho, he of the Alchemist (above) is a big fan of distributing his work online, for free. And then there was that author who wrote a book (as far as I’ve been able to tell without reading it or watching the film) about different kinds of monochrome. That did very  well too.

If all that is the case, may I make a plea for plot, and especially for the resurgence of the puzzle-plot. If you’re a mystery writer, naturally you know all about puzzle-plots. However, for romance, fantasy, general fiction, Westerns, or any genre you care to consider, adding intellectual satisfaction to your story can (I believe) genuinely make it better.

As we approach NaNoWriMo 2015, unshackle your pen.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Before anyone shouts that ‘THAT’S SHOUTING’, let us remind ourselves that all writing was upper case until about the 3rd century CE.

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