Friday, 16 December 2011

O is for Ordinary

When writing it's important to establish what the ordinary world is for your characters before changing their lives and so developing the story. Without ordinary world, we don't know what's at stake. It could be a good situation - a happy family, for example - or it could be a bad situation - people living under an oppressive state system - or simply a rather, erm, ordinary one - ordinary life as most of us know it.

It doesn't matter what your setting is, past, present or future, write what your characters consider to be every day life. Set up a happy family, and we'll care when something happens that threatens is. Set up an oppressive state system, and we'll care when the main character challenges it. Set up an ordinary life, and we'll care when it becomes extraordinary.

A bit like Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi intoning about there being a disturbance in the force, stories shift from the status quo, have some disturbance before settling back into a new status quo (which may be only subtly different from the old status quo, but it will be different).

The instruction to start in the middle of the action is misleading. Yes, stuff needs to happen, but it only has meaning if we know a bit about the people it is happening to.

In retrospect, I should have started A Single to Rome with Natalie coming home with the takeaway, a happy young woman with a successful career and a settled relationship, thinking about moving in with Michael without any hint that he might not welcome her. That way I'd have a) established Natalie as an essentially happy person and b) what she was about to lose. Instead, by starting with Michael dropping his bombshell that he needs space, Natalie was seen from the beginning as a miserable person who, for all we knew, deserved to be dumped.

Hey ho, we live and learn. I won't be making that mistake again - and nor should you after reading this!


Philip C James said...

Excellent points and I'm chuffed I've already done as you've outlined in starting my December novel.

Variety is the spice of life (I've always wondered if spice is the plural of spouse?) and change is of the essence whether you're a business person, a city broker, or as you indeed have delineated, an author.

As GBS said "I would have written something shorter if I'd had more time" but must dash - we're hoping to catch the Shakespeare lecture tonight.

Philip C James said...

Did have one afterthought; what about revising SINGLE TO ROME to change the beginning and re-publishing?

Is that a BIG NO-NO?

Works for non-fiction but for novels...?

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad to hear that, and hope the Shakespeare was good. ASTR is still in print, so I don't have the rights, but even if I did, I don't think I'd tamper with the text to such an extent unless I was going to go over the whole thing and do a complete re-edit, and that might risk losing the original spirit. Dunno - it was quite successful even with starting at the wrong place!

Diane Fordham said...

I enjoy your posts, and love the way you make me think. Thank you!