Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Final part of Alex Keegan's piece on theme in fiction...

OK, we’ve talked about when life pops up and smacks us. We see a car smash, a dog in the rain, experience pleasure or pain, but what do we do when we feel we are in a desert, nothing is coming our way?

Read. I have hundreds of books with scribbles in them. Reading a book or a story or a poem often sparks an idea, a connection. The richer the book, the more barbs.

Listen to the news. Not just the main news, but the BBC World Service, or CNN if you’re a Brit or news in other languages if you can understand them. Read newspapers, but read the smaller stories, the odd, the quirky. Read like a writer. Imagine combinations of stories. You read about a bloody murder, you read about genetic modification, but what if these were combined?

Browse junk shops for old books, scrapbooks, photographs. You can do this and look for curiosities that amuse you, but also search for those things that hit you and connect more deeply. Look at junk as a writer. Why do people throw away family photographs? What does that say about their attitude to their heritage? Who ARE these people in funny clothes? How would you like your photographs thrown away?

Read books of photographs and live in them.

And when you are really struggling (remember to be a writer you should write every day) start to employ tactics to beat the blues, unlock the doors, dodge the mental guards.

Smell things, look at food, stand still and people-watch. Be a spy and follow someone, get on the wrong bus and go the wrong place. Turn round in a line of people and face the wrong way. Stop skimming, start seeing.

Try the Internet. Pull up Google and type in a number and press search. I typed in 456 and discovered Aeschylus the Greek father of the tragedy. It gave me both a wonderful story and the most bizarre death ever!

Type combinations of words, random, silly: ‘chocolate wire’ resulted in 510,000 hits including a management company and “our keepsake gold crazy wire heart has a hinged lid that can be used to store those precious items and comes with an assortment of five of our chocolate dipped strawberries.” A story? No, but I bet I could get a great one if I followed a few links. Learn to open your heart, mind, soul, every site is a connection, two sites may be a unique combination and a stunning new idea.

Ideas are one thing. Stories are another. What connects an idea to a story and what makes the story ultimately satisfying? My answer is usually “theme” or “premise” the story’s “why”, its point, its message. But hopefully from all that’s gone before you should have TWO why’s, why is the author writing this, and what is he trying to say? Not always the same thing.

Sometimes we have an instinct, an intuition, the nagging feeling. I can now encourage mine to form openings. What if you can’t?

Recently while I was teaching, we took a break, sat outside in an English Country Garden drinking cold white wine and talking about writing. One of my students “had an idea”. His idea was that a woman beekeeper was giving men a very hard time. My student was fascinated by some of the sexual facts about Queen Bees, and drones etc.
DIM (Does it Matter?).

I actually said SFW, So F——g What?

This is a cruel but ultimately useful test of an idea. Ideas, when articulated, are rarely THE idea, they are either stage seven of a story or merely part of an idea, a symptom rather than cause.

In this case the poor student was asked, time and again DIM or SFW.

Why was the woman a bee-keeper, why not a seamstress? Why in a village? By challenging every thought, pushing, pushing, pushing, we first got, “Well she hates men, so she abuses them”. But why did she hate men? “Because she was abused in her teens?” Why? By whom? And what has this to do with bees? “Because she was fascinated by bees and was seduced by an old bee-keeper.”

Now an idea was taking shape. A young girl fascinated by bees is abused, grows up to be beautiful, a beekeeper herself and she abuses men as a kind of revenge. Suddenly all the beekeeping facts buzzed (sorry!!) as metaphors, great scenes arising like the idea that she can allow hundreds of male bees to swarm on her because she knows how to stop them hurting her. She exploits them for honey etc.

Now in this specific exercise we clinically examined the ideas, pushed until we reached a fundamental point then allowed the story and its attendant metaphors to blossom. Here we appear to be mechanical, whereas earlier we appeared to be doing something far more uncontrolled, even spiritual.

This is true, but becoming a writer is about being mechanical and factual between stories and assimilating craft, techniques, strategies then, but when we actually come to writing the stories we need to be as loose and fluid as we can, to be “drunk” and write drunk.

Mechanically we can often analyse half-ideas and seek their origin. Once the core is found we develop the reason. You and I may have the same start-points but produce different stories with very different messages.

“Spiritually” inspired by the little brown dog, we can coax ideas to the surface, bring out a voice. If the voice and tone comes perfectly-formed the story’s theme will be embedded in the opening. If not, perhaps we need a little of the beekeeper process.

The art comes when we can make connections and “fly them” without ever imposing, without becoming left-brained, critical, or analytical. So, for example, in the beekeeper story I would have advised only: “Imagine you are the young lady, the aspiring beekeeper. You were abused. Now you are a woman, great looking. You keep bees. Be yourself, act yourself. What do you do? The point is that the main drive has been established, namely that she is paying “men” back for her abuse. Much of the story will write itself.

When moving from beginner to better writer, many things which will eventually be right-brained, seemingly casual, “drunk” or serendipitous, will in fact be “worked at”. Slowly but surely the writer learns to be more unfettered, to access the less logical. It takes trust, the ability to let go off the poolside and swim in deeper waters.

Now, when I write I rarely articulate my story’s theme. I simply “know” the whole story, opening, plot, point, even the sense of the language, the tone, the point of view, a general feel-sense of the ending. It’s all there, and I could lie to you and introduce my muse.

But really I write because in there, all the secret stuff, it’s very messy. It erupts often. There are pressures to be relieved. Sometimes it’s because a woman in a shop shouts, “Has anyone seen my seventy-two Wild Swans?” or maybe it’s a little brown dog, a little brown dog in the rain.

Thanks again to Alex for giving permission to use this interesting and thought provoking essay. Alex's collection of prize-winning short stories, Ballistics, is published by Salt.


Lisa said...

Really enjoyed reading this. Interesting stuff.

Fia said...

I thinking asking yourself SFW is such a good way of finding a real story.

Thank you.

Travis Newcomb said...

I constantly push to see that hidden beauty of a character more and more. My question is, how much is too much? Is it when you've answered every question imaginable about the character and you feel like you have to pluck your eyelashes off that you have finally achieved "character enlightenment?"