26 February, 2006

Rules for Historical Fiction

Sarah Cuthbertson has been generously posting the Official Rules for Writing Historical Fiction set in various eras, of which the latest is The Official Rules for Writing Prehistoric Fiction

Now Susan Higginbotham has joined in the fun and contributed Ten More Rules for Writing Historical Fiction.

This is getting like an unusually interesting meme, except no-one gets tagged.

Appealing historical fiction, part two - Updated

Alianore contributed her replies to my earlier post, and as I miscounted the original responses that brings the total to 11. Hooray, double figures! I also realise that I didn't distinguish between Sarah Johnson and Sarah Cuthbertson in my summary. So here is an updated and amended post.
Thanks again to all who replied.

Sarah J provided the background to the article, "I gather it's based on her experiences in trying to interest US publishers in historical novels. Ms. Goodman was a speaker at the HNS conference last year in Salt Lake City and gave her thoughts in greater detail." This answers my original question about the basis of the article; it presumably represents the views of a group (number unknown) of US editors. Rick and Sarah J also both thought it reflected the tastes of a majority of US readers. By the way, does anyone know if publishers do much reader research? I'd never thought of it before, but I don't recall ever seeing a customer questionnaire about books, though I get surveys from ferry operators, companies I once hired a car from, printer manufacturers, the Guardian website, supermarkets and regional French tourist boards.

Here's a summary of the replies. If I've missed something or got the wrong end of the stick, do correct me.

Strong story and/or characters (Alex, Ali, Alianore, Gabriele, Sarah C, Wil)
Historical figures rather than purely fictional characters (Susan)
Particular time and place (Susan)
Conflict between characters that is true to the period (Alianore, Sarah C)
Exciting and bloody battles (Gabriele)
Convincing and well written (Alexandra)
Background detail that deepens knowledge of the characters and their lives (Alianore)

Too much detail/info dump (Ali, Alianore, Bernita, Sarah C, Wil)
Gross historical inaccuracy or anachronistic ideas (Ali, Alianore, Bernita, Sarah C)
Boring or cliched story and/or characters (Alex, Ali, Sarah C)
Laboured modern analogy and/or modern propaganda (Alianore, Gabriele, Sarah C)
Mysticism (Susan)
Sexual awakening with an obliging artist, peasant or ratcatcher (Susan) (Ratcatcher? I'm dying of curiosity!)
Major fictional character introduced among real historical figures (Alianore)

Nine women and two men replied, and both men said they didn't read much historical fiction, so that's consistent with the view that most readers are women.

'Too much detail' was mentioned as a dislike by five people. This is fascinating, so I want to understand it better - how much is too much? Bernita mentioned Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries (see the comment thread for an illustrative quote!) and Alianore mentioned Elizabeth Chadwick. It seems that gratuitous detail that doesn't advance either story or character is annoying (though tastes vary, and one person's gratuitous detail is probably another person's rich background). I'm just reading my first Elizabeth Chadwick so can't comment on her, but I concur with the comments on the Sister Fidelma mysteries. I've read two of them, Absolution by Murder and The Haunted Abbot. I find Sister Fidelma too know-it-all to be a sympathetic character. I'm not an expert on 7th-century Ireland, but I do know something about 7th-century England, and I'm not convinced that the contrast was anything like as great as depicted. (Which reminds me. Horrible pun from a computing newsgroup, courtesy of my partner. 'Who were the first recorded artists in Britain? The garrison of Hadrian's Wall, because they were de-Picting the landscape.' Groans are permitted.)

Sorry. Back to Sister Fidelma. Anyway, Peter Tremayne has the nickname in our household of 'Mr Everything-Good-Comes-From-Ireland'. I've read some of his non-fiction on the same subject, and it seems to me that he selectively quotes evidence that supports his thesis of 'Celtic' cultural superiority and downplays evidence that doesn't support it. I've no difficulty with his description of the sophisticated Irish legal system and the Brehon judges; where I part company is on the assumption that early English law and society was invariably primitive, crude and unjust.

I find some of his details unconvincing too. In Absolution by Murder, a cave below Whitby abbey leads to an opening in the cliffs high above the sea, a convenient place to dispose of a dead body and a crucial plot point. I've walked those cliffs many times and the caves in them are all at beach level, formed by wave action. I suppose there could have been a high-level cave in the 7th century that has eroded away, but the geology is mostly boulder clay overlaying thin layers of shale, and that doesn't tend to form extensive cave systems. In The Haunted Abbot the plot relies on a stone-built abbey in Suffolk with an extensive network of secret underground passages. There are records of early English abbeys and monasteries founded in ex-Roman structures, like the Saxon Shore Forts, but I haven't seen a report of a Roman fort or villa with a vast underground cellar system, especially not with a convenient passage through the defences. You get sewers in big towns, but the passages described are clearly not a sewer system. And in The Haunted Abbot a Frankish trader complains that the primitive English have no use for coins except as bullion, but in the same book Fidelma and her companion use coins to pay an English farmer for a night's lodging, which the farmer accepts as normal and ordinary. Either it was a coin-using economy or it wasn't, surely? Maybe there is evidence to support all these, but this sort of thing makes me suspicious.

On the generalisation that women like to read about other women, of the nine women who replied, five didn't mention the issue, two specifically said they had no preference (three if you include me), one said she preferred to read about men and one said she either had no preference or preferred to read about men. Gabriele articulated the issue for me when she said, "I don't want an agenda tagged to them, and female characters are more prone to attract one. Nor do I want female characters that in order to be interesting violate the restrictions of their time in a historically impossible way." Thank you, Gabriele, that sums up exactly what I've been groping towards all through the discussions on women in historical fiction. I think this is why warrior princess characters raise my hackles; it's my equivalent of the dormouse test. I'm fine with it if there's evidence in support, either already known to me or in the Author's Note. In the absence of evidence, though, it's an immediate alarm bell for a bolted-on modern agenda, whether it be stridently feminist (Women can do everything and men are a waste of space), faintly misogynistic (Women are weak and boring unless they're hitting someone with a sword), blatantly commercial (Female action heroes sell) or dubiously pornographic (Leather bikinis and armour-plated bras. Oooo!).

Just for completeness, here's my own list of things that attract me to or repel me from historical fiction:

- A rich and complex world that feels convincingly real
- Humour, preferably subtle
- A story and motivations that belong to that time and place (it might resonate with the present, in fact one of the reasons I find history fascinating is that it so often does, but I don't like to feel that the story could be happening now just by changing the names and costumes)
- Variation in style of speech so I can tell which character is talking without looking at the dialogue tag
- Author's note (if the author feels it necessary to diverge from historical events for their story, I like them to come clean about it)

I should say first that I almost never give up on a book before the end. I don't seem to have any automatic 'off' buttons. All these are portable, with other graces weighed.
- Made-up mysticism. (If it's a book about magic and supernatural powers, please call it a fantasy).
- Ludicrous historical inaccuracy. (Marie Antoinette looking up at the Eiffel Tower on her way to the guillotine, 12th-century Welshmen wearing kilts and woad, rifles in the English Civil War, "Wow, cool!" said Michaelangelo, "Honey, don't worry," said Lady Jane Grey, "By Mithras!" roared Eric Bloodaxe).
- Self-important, pretentious, pompous or patronising style, especially if combined with a plodding or meandering plot. I can think of three books I've failed to finish in the last couple of years, and all three were for this reason.
- A modern social or political agenda imposed on an earlier time.

Sarah C also made an observation that I fear may be very perceptive, "it seems to me that literary agents, when they're not looking for more of the Current Big Thing, are always trying to find the Next Big Thing. And because of the Big Thing mentality, they sometimes ignore mundane qualities such as storytelling, 3D characters, historical accuracy and polished prose, dialogue and plotting. Hearteningly, these qualities are sometimes there anyway, but I get the impression they're not top priorities these days." Very possibly true, because a big publisher makes far more money from one book that sells 100,000 copies than from 10 books that each sell 10,000 copies (and 100 books that each sell 1,000 copies is probably a recipe for bankruptcy), so they naturally want high-volume sellers for the mass market. So where does that leave readers who don't necessarily want the Next/Current Big Thing? In the library or the second-hand bookshop looking for out-of-print titles with these mundane qualities? Or will niche publishers emerge to fill the gap? And if they do, how will we find them?

23 February, 2006

Appealing historical fiction

The latest edition of Solander, published by the Historical Novel Society, has an article by US literary agent Irene Goodman on how to write commercially appealing historical fiction. You don't have to be a member to read the article. Here's a quotation from it:

What is “high concept?” It means something that is instantly recognizable and appealing in a short phrase or sentence. “A village in 17th-century England that got the plague and decided to quarantine itself” accurately describes the novel A Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks), and it’s all we need to know. “A banker survives the San Francisco earthquake and builds a new life” is not as powerful or as interesting. Why? England works better than San Francisco. Bankers are boring. Villagers are homey and appealing. The plague captures our imaginations more than the earthquake. There is also a great level of suspense with the plague book, because we know that plague killed off two thirds of a population before mysteriously stopping. So we know we will be presented with a cast of characters and that two thirds of them are going to die – but which ones?

Another factor in success with historical fiction is that the majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women. Much of history is dominated by men, which means you have to look for subjects that include women. The most common device is to take a woman who really lived and to let her tell her own story, free from the alleged “misrepresentation” of history

- Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.2 (Nov. 2005): 15.

I've been puzzling over this article for a while as its purpose isn't entirely clear to me. So far I've thought of three possibilities:
1) Is it tongue-in-cheek, like the Solander Official Rules for Writing Historical Fiction, and I haven't got the joke?
2) Is it the author's personal preferences? She likes books about plague in English villages more than she likes books about bankers surviving earthquakes in San Francisco?
3) Is it intended as a serious analysis of the factors that determine the saleability of historical fiction?

The tone of the article seems most consistent with (3) as the intention. In which case, I'd be interested to know what evidence it is based on. Is it derived from market research results? If so, in which country or countries, and what was the sample, and how was the research conducted? I hope it's based on solid research evidence, because the assertions don't reflect any of the factors that make me buy and read historical fiction. Yes, I know I'm only a sample of one, but I do read a lot of historical fiction and that makes me part of the target market. I'm curious as to how (un)representative a part.

Let's take the statements in turn.

"England works better than San Francisco". Why? Is this a US perspective that sees England as foreign and exotic? Is there something I don't know about San Francisco that makes it an inherently dull place?

"Bankers are boring." Why? (Except in cliche).

"Villagers are homey and appealing." Why? (Except in cliche).

"The plague captures our imaginations more than the earthquake." Why? Both are natural disasters, not human actions, so the interesting thing for me is how people reacted to them and coped with the disruption to their lives. Why is an infectious epidemic automatically more interesting than an earthquake?

"There is also a great level of suspense with the plague book, because we know that plague killed off two thirds of a population before mysteriously stopping. So we know we will be presented with a cast of characters and that two thirds of them are going to die – but which ones?" The book she's discussing is about the plague of 1665/1666 and the village is Eyam in Derbyshire. I wonder whether the 'suspense' is as obvious as stated. The story is well known and has developed considerably in the telling, as discussed in a scholarly paper by Patrick Wallis of the London School of Economics. Incidentally, the received version of the Eyam story is 75-80% mortality, not two-thirds, and the overall mortality rate across the country was very much less - about 19% in London, for example. Assuming the characters in the book are the real people from the records, a well-informed reader may know from the first page who lives and who dies in the end. The parish record from Eyam is extant, and the village has been the subject of several non-fiction books. My knowledge of Eyam is limited to having passed through it on a walk once and wondered idly why there were so many tourists there, and to having watched a TV documentary on genetic immunity that used Eyam as an example. But even I know that the rector survived and his wife Catherine died. Suspense? And even if the characters in the book are all fictional, why exactly is a book automatically attractive because two-thirds of the people in it are going to die a horrible death before the end? If I were looking for that as the main element of a story, I could get it from horror.

"....the majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women." This astonishingly sweeping statement makes me hope the article is a spoof. Why lump all women readers together? Don't we have individual tastes? I personally want to read about people and their interactions with each other and with their society. Unless the story is set in a closed community of nuns or a company of celibate warrior-monks, it's likely to include both men and women. I expect the author to make them all individuals, with different points of view, different expectations, different pressures on them and different courses of action open to them. I read historical fiction to explore why decisions were taken as they were, why events fell out as they did, and to get a feeling for how the world worked in a different time and place. Why should I want that filtered through a single-sex perspective or, worse, twisted to fit modern ideas of gender politics? (For a superb example of the stereotypes that can result, see How to Write Feministly-Reimagined Historical Novels). All I ask of an author is that they do some research, try to understand the mindset of an earlier age, and tell an interesting story about it. Surely that's not too much to ask?

So, let's do some highly unscientific market research on a random sample of however many people choose to leave a comment (if there's anyone out there who reads but doesn't comment, please de-lurk).

Do you read historical fiction?
What attracts you to a novel?
What repels you?
And why?

19 February, 2006

Greenmantle revisited

A disappointing radio drama adaptation of John Buchan’s Greenmantle prompted me to re-read the book. I’m relieved to report that the book was the same entertaining read I’d remembered from 20+ years ago, and it had clearly suffered in the adaptation process. I recall hearing a radio writer discussing adaptation and abridgement, and saying how difficult it was to strike the right balance between cutting down the detail to produce a tight drama and losing too much of the ‘colour’. I should imagine everyone has a different idea of the ‘right’ balance, and in this case mine was quite a way from the dramatist’s.

The writing has style, warmth and humour, as if Richard Hannay is spinning you a yarn over a rather good port in his London club. The casual racism/chauvinism grated at first, but after a while I simply tuned it out as Major Hannay’s opinion and it stopped bothering me. There’s a strong sense of place and vivid landscape descriptions, from depressed wartime London to snowy German forests to exotic Constantinople to the winter-gripped mountains of the Caucasus. There was one scene that I’d remembered for 20-odd years, where Blenkiron and Hannay wander the streets of Constantinople collecting intelligence messages from such unlikely sources as an orange seller and a beggar who gives change. This adds life and colour, and I suppose there wasn’t room for it in the drama. Yet despite all this cutting, the pace feels much faster on the page. Which is very odd; the drama lasted 2 hours and felt slow, while the book must have taken at least 6 hours to read and felt fast. How could that be? Any suggestions?

The implausible coincidences that annoyed me in the drama were all there in the original, but they worked in the book. I think this is partly because our heroes experience bad luck as well as good, which evens it out, and partly because Richard Hannay acknowledges it as luck. He comes over as an adventurer grasping at whatever opportunity happens to turn up, which gives me the feeling that if that particular coincidence hadn’t happened, something else would have done and he would have turned that to his advantage instead. “Chance favours the prepared mind.” I’m quite happy with that.

Characterisation also works much better in the book, in part because John Buchan makes effective use of some judicious telling when he introduces characters. Here for example is what he has to say about Peter Pienaar:

But first a word must be said about Peter. He was the man that taught me all I ever knew of veld-craft, and a good deal about human nature besides. He was out of the Old Colony - Burgersdorp, I think - but he had come to the Transvaal when the Lydenburg goldfields started. He was prospector, transport-rider and hunter in turns, but principally a hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. [Actually, I don’t, but I get the idea from the context] Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. After that he was in the Kalahari, where he and Scotty Smith were familiar names. An era of comparative respectability dawned for him with the Matabele War, when he did uncommon good scouting and transport work. Cecil Rhodes wanted to establish him on a stock farm down Salisbury way, but Peter was an independent devil and would call no man master. He took to big-game hunting, which was what God intended him for, and was far the finest shot I have seen in my life.

-Greenmantle, by John Buchan

Thank you, John Buchan - now I have Peter in my mind and can read a story about him. This reminds me of the way Norse sagas always describe important new characters when they first appear, for example:

Now it is time to mention Njal’s sons. The eldest was called Skarp-Hedin. He was a tall, powerful man, skilful with arms, excellent at swimming and running. He was quick to make up his mind and confident in his decisions, quick to speak and scathing in his words; but for the most part he kept himself well under control.

-Njal’s Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson

After the initial introduction the sagas ‘show’ (and how), but they give you something to start from. This works very well for me as a reader, and I think it’s a pity if rigid application of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule deprives me of it. How could Buchan ‘show’ all this about Peter? With a flashback of Peter’s career that would go on for pages, confuse me and slow the pace of the main story? Gradually, in bits and pieces of ‘backstory’ scattered over half a dozen chapters, so it loses impact and/or I forget half of it? But without it - as in the drama - I don’t get a clear image of Peter and both character and story lose vitality. Of course ‘show’ the main events (why would you want to do anything else?), but half a page of ‘tell’ can add a lot of extra richness to the background and the secondary characters without losing pace.

A similar occasional use of ‘tell’ also helped to keep the complicated ramifications of the plot straight. For example, in the drama I lost track of why the Russians suddenly became important about halfway through the second episode; in the book it worked fine because someone explained it to me. I think the drama may also have had a problem with pacing, because the first episode finished exactly halfway through the book (page 156 of 314), but an awful lot more things happen in the second half than in the first. This made the first episode slow and the second episode confusing.

So for me, the radio adaptation had managed to retain the Ripping Yarn-style plot at the expense of much of the life and colour. In the terms of a recent discussion here, the adaptation had ‘plot’ but the book had ‘story’.

Incidentally, I’ve seen a discussion somewhere about how the word ‘romance’ used to mean a larger-than-life story of any kind, whereas it’s now narrowed to mean a male-female love story with a guaranteed happy ending. I was reading the 1967 Hodder & Stoughton edition of Greenmantle, and the cover blurb described it as a ‘romance’; clearly the word retained its original meaning at that time. The blurb was also titled ‘John Buchan: Books for enjoyment’, which is a refreshingly honest and direct way for a publisher to describe a book. I don't remember seeing such a straightforward strapline on recently-published books, which seem to have a tendency to the Epic And Portentous. How about the rest of you?

11 February, 2006

The Little Emperors, by Alfred Duggan. Book review

The Little Emperors is set in Britain in AD 405–411 and tells the story of the decline of Roman government in the diocese of Britannia.*

This book paints a convincing picture of the end of Roman administration in Britain. No cataclysmic barbarian invasion. No official withdrawal of the legions. Instead, the political class destroys itself in internecine squabbles and ill-judged military adventures, while the rest of the population ignores them and gets on with life.

The central character is Felix, the Praeses (treasurer) of Britannia Prima, based in London. He is trying to balance the government books, despite a moribund economy and constant demands for extra military spending. Preoccupied with bureaucratic minutiae, Felix finds himself embroiled in a succession of ever more disastrous military coups. First his wily British father-in-law, Gratianus, conspires to declare Britannia independent of the rest of the Roman Empire and elevates a soldier called Marcus to Emperor of Britannia. Marcus proves to be an unsatisfactory puppet, so Gratianus and his daughter, Felix’s wife, assassinate Marcus and replace him with Gratianus. Felix, who is not nearly as good at high politics as he thinks he is, now finds himself surplus to their requirements and in danger of assassination himself.

Meanwhile, the machinery of Roman administration in Britain is grinding to a halt under its own weight. Progressively less of the island is under the control of the Emperor of Britannia, and progressively more is handed over to ‘barbarian’ client kings, who very soon stop being clients. Poor Felix slowly comes to realise not only that his orderly bureaucratic world has ended, but that it was irrelevant to most of the population in the first place.

The character of Felix, the pompous, well-meaning civil servant getting increasingly out of his depth, is very well drawn. All the events are told from Felix’s perspective, and as he is a stoical individual who doesn’t like hurry or excitement, some readers may find the pace a little slow, although I thought it suited the book. I would have liked to see some other perspectives on the collapse of the Roman governmental system. Apart from a peasant family, who seem blissfully unaware of all the political turmoil, we only see the effect on Felix and his political colleagues. How did it affect the craftsmen and traders? Did the client kings consciously manoeuvre for power or did it fall to them by default? How did the less-Romanised or non-Romanised populations in other parts of the island react? But these questions are outside the scope of the book.

One very welcome feature is a helpful Historical Note, in which the author sets out what is documented history (not very much) and what he made up to fill in the gaps. Much appreciated by this reader.

An excellent read for anyone interested in the end of Roman administration in Britain.

*Note: at this time, Roman Britain was a diocese divided into five provinces, of which the most important was centred on London. Alfred Duggan calls this province Britannia Prima. Other historians have argued that Britannia Prima was elsewhere and the London province was called Maxima Caesariensis, but this doesn’t matter for this book.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? And have I covered the sorts of things you find helpful to see in a book review?

09 February, 2006

The Blookreader Awards

If you haven't already heard about it, you may like to know that Bill Liversidge has generously started a new literary award on his blog View From The Pundy House: The Blookreader Awards. It has two highly unusual features.

First, it rewards the reader rather than the writer. If you read an online book, write a review of no more than 200 words and post it as a comment on Bill's blog, you are eligible to win book tokens worth £100, £50 or £25. I'm not sure if book tokens are international or UK-specific, but don't let that put you off; I'm sure he'd think of something if the winner happens to live somewhere where book tokens don't work.

Second, the book you review has to be published online. It can be on a website, or a downloadable e-book, or a book published on a blog (apparently this is called a blook, hence the award title). But it has to be online. Printed books don't count.

The full rules and the entries so far can be found on Bill's blog.

Can't think of an online book to review? Bill has a helpful list in one of his posts, and he's been adding others so it's worth scrolling through the recent posts. He also has a blook of his own, A Half Life of One. I mentioned some earlier. You can find a long list of free online novels at Free Online Novels.com.

Here's a suggestion that might appeal specifically to readers of historical fiction: Octavia Randolph's Ceridwen trilogy set in England at the time of Alfred the Great's war with the Danes. All three books are available on her website www.Octavia.net, together with a novella about Lady Godiva.

I've submitted an entry on The Circle of Ceridwen, Book 1 of Octavia Randolph's trilogy, as follows:

Lady Ceridwen had a strange fate
As maid to Viking chieftain's mate
She was wooed by a Dane
Bravely rescued a thane
Married him and met Alfred the Great

Come on, I'm sure you can do better than that. Why not pick an online book that appeals to you and give the competition a go? Publicise it on your own blogs. Spread the word. It's not often that you get offered a chance to win £100 to spend on books, just for the pleasure of reading something and writing a review of it. The closing date for the Blookreader Awards is 31st March 2006. Don't forget to take a look at Bill's blook A Half Life of One while you're there.

05 February, 2006

Narrative causality and the seven basic plots

Not as catchy a title as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but never mind. I'm indebted to Sarah for the reminder of Christopher Booker's book The Seven Basic Plots. I confess I haven't read it, nor at 700+ pages of heavyweight philosophy am I likely to, but I remembered reading a review when it came out, so I went and found it (Three cheers for Google and the Guardian archive). The review helpfully listed the seven plots. They are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.

Now, I don't know about you, but these seven 'plots' seem to me to be very generalised. They remind me of the statements in horoscopes (Something significant will happen to you this week. You should look for and seize an opportunity. You will experience conflicts and setbacks but you must persevere).

Apparently Booker then further distils these seven basic plots down to "master-narratives, one inspirational and one cautionary - comedy and tragedy. In comedy, proportion is restored and the ego overcome; in tragedy, distortion becomes so severe that the ego that suffers it must be destroyed for the renewal of the wider order. Proper stories end in marriage or death." The review is worth reading in its entirety because there are some interesting ideas in it, at least at the heady level of coffee-at-midnight student discussions when the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything feels almost within your grasp. I suspect that trying to apply it in practice would have the same sobering effect as a nine-o'clock lecture.

Perhaps Terry Pratchett's narrative causality and Booker's Seven Basic Plots are drawing on the same things in human psychology. The human brain is very good at finding patterns, and arguably a story is a kind of pattern. However, they don't seem quite the same to me. The concept of Seven Basic Plots (or three, or thirty, or whatever number) is about classifying and analysing. What plot(s) is this? Where does it fit? Does it follow the rules for that plot(s)? Whereas what I took from 'narrative causality' was the sense that a story can take on a 'life' of its own and find its own satisfactory shape. I couldn't begin to define that concept in any detail, but I recognised it.

It may be significant that Booker's title is 'Plots', whereas Pratchett talks about story. I interpret the two to mean slightly different things. Many books seem to me to have plot in abundance but not much story. Mechanical thrillers (and action films), for example, or plodding sub-Tolkien epic fantasies that have 600 pages of plot but no story. I'd guess that the mystery series The Toff (apparently an inferior imitation of The Saint) that Bernita was discussing recently had plenty of plot, whereas The Saint had story. Plot can be planned, organised and analysed. Story is some ill-defined but distinctive spark of narrative life, or some satisfying sense of rightness or completeness.

Needless to say, everyone has their own view of what counts as satisfying, so one person's plot is another's story, just as one person's cliche is another's classic and one person's life-changing book is another's empty read.

Does this make sense? Have you read books with 'plot' but no 'story'? Or the other way round?

03 February, 2006

Narrative causality

In the discussion about implausible coincidences in plots, Rick said:

"Though maybe it is much the same thing as the current convention by which the hero defuses the bomb just as the bright red timer readout reaches 00:00:01."

I said I thought this was an example of Terry Pratchett's concept of narrative causality and promised to post an extract. Here you go:

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.

Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling...stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Stories don't care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.


Normally the future is branching off at every turn and it's only possible to have the haziest idea of what is likely to happen. But here there were stories coiled around the tree of events, bending it into a new shape.

-Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

This concept seems to me to be much more complex than deus ex machina, where events are altered by the interference of some external power, whether that be Fate, Providence, the gods or the author. The story itself has a desired and desirable shape.

Does this concept explain why some plot twists and some endings 'feel right' while others don't, as Ian Hocking and Bernita have both been discussing recently? The hero has to save the world in the nick of time, because it wouldn't feel right if he failed, or if he succeeded with several days to spare. Success in the nick of time is a pleasing story shape, in the same way that some geometric shapes are inherently pleasing to the eye, such as the 'golden ratio'.

Does it also explain why the beginning is always the hardest part to write, since the story hasn't yet got a shape?

What do you think?