A Pilgrim's Guide

The Craft of Creative Writing

 Part Three

The Craft of Creative Writing

Select a Style

Successful gardeners do not toss seeds randomly into the ground. They are conscious of the type of soil they are dealing with, and they know which season to plant in. In much the same way that ‘black’ fingers become ‘green’ ones through studying and experimentation, so we, as we become more experienced as writers, learn to sense instinctively which style will best express our material. As Ovid poignantly put it, ‘The art is to conceal the artistry’.

Since most non-fiction writers set out with the subconscious desire to write the definitive book on their chosen subject, we are usually better advised to seek to cover less ground, but to bring out some specific emphasis and angle.

Half a millennium after he wrote it, Erasmus’ maxim still holds true, no matter what our subject matter: ‘Almost everyone knows this already, but it has not occurred to everyone’s minds’. In other words, we are fulfilling a really useful purpose if we are able first to present and then to interpret things that people may be instinctively aware of but have never taken the trouble to describe or define.

One exception to this principle is when we are dealing with scientific or specialist themes. Unless we are writing a text book for advanced students, the best policy here is to assume that readers know next to nothing and steer them firmly towards a sound grasp of the most important facts. Without these they will remain forever incapable of making any sense of the subject. Just because the theme is technical, however, there is no advantage in preferring obscure or over-elaborate vocabulary. Anything is better than sounding pompous and jargon-laden.

Many people still instinctively associate writing with storytelling. We shall have more to say about this shortly, but the vast majority of material that is published today is better classified as non-fiction. (Curiously, this percentage has increased substantially since the Second World War). All sorts of specialist subjects are being opened up to intelligent laymen by writers skilled in choosing an appropriate style to make accessible to non-specialists.

Much depends on whether we are seeking to sound involved or detached, casual or intense, ironic, censorious or downright humorous. This will profoundly alter the way we phrase our dialogues, and develop both the plot and the characterisation. If in doubt, experiment. Try writing a page in different styles. Then sit back and invite a few close friends to assess the merits and drawbacks of each approach. It will usually become clear at this point. Ponder this issue. ‘Which style best conveys my theme?’

Writers Read in order to Write Readably

‘Books give . . . New views to life, and teach us how to live;
They soothe the grieved ,the stubborn, they chastise;
Fools they admonish, and confirm the wise.
Their advice they yield to all: they never shun
The man of sorrow, nor the wretch undone;
Unlike the hard, the selfish and the proud,
They fly not sullen from the supplant crowd;
Nor tell to various people various things,
But show to subjects, what they show to kings’. (The Library)

Behind apparently effortless pieces of writing lie much thought and craftsmanship. The best way we can grasp the range of options and approaches open to us is to read widely. As Rachel Simon described it, ‘Reading is the best way beginner writers have to teach themselves, and advanced writers have to continue their education’. No wonder that another writer called reading the ‘Siamese Twin of Writing!’

We can learn a great deal by studying the technique of successful authors and seeing how they deal with scenes and concepts we know that we would have difficulty expressing. It is by no means uncommon for writers to transcribe whole passages from a well-crafted book in order to study the author’s technique at close quarters. The idea of dissecting a book in this way might appear cold-blooded. We fear we will never be able to enjoy a book again if we learn to read with so critical an eye. In reality, we will actually enjoy books more for being able to see how and why certain techniques and styles work – and why some do not.

Paradoxically, reading an unsatisfactory author can sometimes be almost as enlightening as studying how experienced writers achieve their effects. For few sound reasons (other than the adrenaline kick I must derive from the experience) I regularly read the novels of one particular best-seller whose story line is vigorous, but whose powers of description are decidedly thin. He writes to a successful formula, relying on the speed and intensity of the action to ensure consistently high sales.

It is fascinating, if frustrating, to reflect how much more satisfying his books would be if more time and effort were directed towards word-smithing rather than to creating a whirlpool of violent episodes. Characters we have had insufficient time to become acquainted with are summarily disposed of – and the reader feels barely a trace of sorrow for their demise. A death ought to matter, even in a work of fiction. But all is subsumed to the feverish pace of the action and a vital level of empathy and identification is missing as a result.

Reading, like travelling, helps us expand our experience of life. What richer source of inspiration can there be than our bookshelves or local magazine shops? It makes sound sense to familiarise ourselves with books that have already been published in our chosen area of interest – although this can prove painful as well as instructive. The fact that others have succeeded in writing about our chosen topic can induce feelings of envy or even of forlornness that others have succeeded where we have merely dreamt of doing so.

The best way to handle these emotions is to ignore them altogether. Remember the fourth maxim and get on with pursuing the Craft of Writing. And even if reading the works of others in our chosen field is not wise whilst we are in our most intensive phase of composing, it is a good habit to return to once things are quieter again. As our title reminds us, ‘Writers Read in order to Write Readably’.

Pause and Put into Practice

It is often easier the second time we read something to gauge how well written it really is. Try picking up a favourite book and studying it from a technician’s perspective. Since we already know the points the author is seeking to communicate, and how the conclusion develops, we are free to study the means by which the writer achieves this end. Further on, we shall be exploring in more detail many of the points touched on in this section. For the moment it is useful for us to become aware that these are issues we will need to focus on.

Linger long over well-constructed passages. How does the author evoke the feelings that arise in us as we read them? Did the author intend us to feel that way, or has the material hooked into something that has ‘resonated’ in our own lives? Was that perhaps the author’s intention? Give the writer the credit for having presented something in just such a way as to have brought us to this place of self-awareness (or sympathy or revulsion). Pay attention to the range of words used: for instance, the length of syllables – the weight and responsibility that each adjective bears (or, more impressively, the inspired choice of nouns and verbs that eliminate the need for spurious adverbs and adjectives). Notice, too, the comparative rarity of those adverbs ending in ‘ly’ which so clutter the text of inexperienced writers.

Consider the vocabulary. Words used in real-life situations are generally more effective than ones we have dredged-up from the bowels of a thesaurus in a mistaken bid to be original. But study authors who get away with using a plethora of unusual or exotic words.

Study the flow and the rhythm of the sentences. How do they compare with our own efforts? Are there redundant passages which do little to advance the action, or to convince the reader that a character has a ‘life’ outside the immediate sphere of action? Is the dialogue full of vital cut and thrust (preferably leading to a particular outcome) or does it feel as though it is merely there in order to fit in with the author’s personal preferences?

How about the denouement? Does it come as a let-down or as a surprise? Ideally it should be unexpected, but not out of keeping with the tenor of the book. Have clues been skilfully woven in along the way? If so, were they too subtle or too obvious? Does the finale do justice to the rest of the book, or does it take away from all that has gone before?

Does the viewpoint keep our interest? Or does it flit around too much from one character to another? If the action is not ‘visible’ has the author slipped into a mere recounting of events that happened in the past, or far offstage? If so, has this lowered our perception of participating in the action?

How has the author conveyed the difficult matter of time passing by, or any changes of mood or circumstances which have taken place? It is easy to underestimate the importance of signposting these transitions. All too commonly, novice authors plunge readers into the thick of the action but leave the timescale and context unclear.

The simplest way to solve the problem of a gap between events may be to leave an additional blank line or two in the text. It is usually best to insert some reference point, too, preferably at the start of a chapter. Words such as ‘yesterday,’ ‘today,’ ‘tomorrow,’ ‘later,’ ‘during the last few weeks,’ — even ‘meanwhile’ can help to orientate readers. Remember, we are doing this for their benefit, not for ours.

Consider next a piece of writing that left you unimpressed. Taste is not entirely a subjective matter. Our impressions and observations may well be those with which others would concur wholeheartedly. Try and analyse the reasons why a particular passage, or indeed a whole book has failed to grab our attention, and left us feeling dissatisfied. Was it too skimpy a plot, too superficial (or too prejudiced) a treatment of a serious subject, too much background detail (or too little), too remote a viewpoint?

Turn next to newspaper and magazine articles. What style of writing and range of subject matter do specific publications favour? Read them with a view to understanding the technique by which writers succeed in making their point – and brush up on possible publishing opportunities at the same time!

Tell me a story!

Here is the heart-cry of children in every generation! For drawing readers and hearers into realms of creative imagination, what can beat a story? When the Lord Jesus came to earth, He did not set out to share the scientific formulae of how His Father had created the night sky, but to demonstrate the reality of the heavenly Kingdom. The beauty of the parables He told is that they work in their own right as stories drawn from everyday life, but they also point to a truth beyond themselves.

The ‘Art of Creative Writing’ is all about finding fresh forms for expressing well known truths, and simple ways to explain even the most complex issues. Often, the most effective vehicle for describing real dilemmas and for expressing real emotions is to tell a story.

When King David forsook all bounds of decency and slept with the wife of one of the most loyal officers in his army, he seems never to have contemplated that she might become pregnant. When she did, he devised a seemingly fool proof strategy for reuniting the beautiful Bathsheba with her husband, by having him recalled from active service and offered an extended period of home-leave. The plan should have worked – but he had reckoned without Uriah’s exemplary scruples. The man simply refused to make love to his wife while his fellow officers were fighting for their lives on the field of battle!

Now David was really at his wit’s end. In a moment of reckless desperation, he shamefully arranged to have the unfortunate man betrayed by his unit and sent to his death. This left the upright men at his court facing an excruciating dilemma. What David had done was profoundly wrong, but how could they challenge a king who held the power of life and death in his hands?

Fortunately, there was at the court a man of such profound wisdom that he was widely held to be a prophet. His name was Nathan, and as he pondered the problem he found a way to break the Gordian knot. His brilliant stratagem involved telling the king a parable, a story with an application, confident that this would work its way beneath the king’s first level of defences and prepare the way for a more direct challenge.

“There were two men in a certain town,” Nathan began, “one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb whom he loved dearly. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. One day a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

For all his faults, David was a wise and sensitive man. When he heard of this flagrant injustice, he burned with anger.

“As surely as the Lord lives,” he declared, “that rich man deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such an outrageous thing and showed no pity on the poor man.”

Nathan had set the stage brilliantly. First he had kindled the king’s empathy and now, turning to face the king, he declared the real implications and consequences of his tale.

“You are the man! You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife, his precious lamb. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. From this day forth, the sword will never depart from your own house!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7f)

Nathan’s challenge had worked to perfection. To his credit, David acknowledged his guilt and bewailed it deeply. Who knows? Had he tackled the king more directly, he might have met with a wall of denial, and in the process have aroused the monarch’s extreme displeasure. As it was, he helped the king to see his fault for himself and to accept the consequences his actions entailed. At the same time he went on to communicate some ray of hope and comfort to the crestfallen king. Is this not a perfect example of how powerful storytelling can be?

Too many of us have ‘trained’ stories out of us. We have allowed hard-headed pragmatists to impose their prosaic reality on us. Surely now is the time to recapture story telling as a means of presenting truth and wider realities to a generation that has grown all too accustomed to seeing life through narrow-band core curriculums. Hugh Luckton speaks of his longing to use poetry, anecdotes, stories and song to ‘re-story’ the land, as well as drawing on the research of historians and scholars to maintain a continuity between the present and the past. For stories can deepen relationships within and between communities.

Many of the local stories where I live in Shetland, have been collected and codified, rather as Vaughan Williams and Percy Granger collected the folk songs of rural England a hundred years ago. This has done much to foster pride in another generation to keep the Shetland dialect alive. (Shetlandic is a fascinating language, a mixture of English and Scots, based on a sub-stratum of Norn, the predecessor language of modern Norwegian. An entire dictionary has been consecrated to words that no southerner could hope to understand).

Some years ago my wife, Rosalind, wrote a thesis entitled ‘The Influence of Birth Stories on Primigravida Women from Friends and Family Members’. She set out to discover what effect was made on first-time pregnant women by the stories that mothers, sisters and friends told them, particularly concerning the decisions they make concerning their place and manner of birth. She found that such stories give people a sense of personal history and shared memories, and in this way help to provide a focus not only for their private world but also for the local community.

There is no limit to the pool of potential stories. Part of a writer’s gifting is to encourage people of all ages to tell their stories. Nobody can gainsay a personal testimony, and our anecdotes and reminiscences add interest and colour to the pool of those already in existence.

Storytelling itself is less about drama and performance than about letting a story live: in other words, being a channel for a story. The basis for our stories must be honest or it will not be convincing. We have to feel it, and to mean it. But the same story may communicate diametrically opposing things to different people. For every person who identified with Harold Abrahams in ‘Chariots of Fire,’ another may have agonized passionately for Eric Liddell.

In other words, it is too much to expect that our style or central protagonists will appeal to everyone. In ‘Celtic Quest,’ a novel I set in seventh century Northumbria, I took the high-risk decision to make a young woman the story teller in the full awareness that certain men would find this viewpoint hard to swallow. Outwardly they wondered aloud whether a woman, even a royal ward, would have had the freedom to do the things Elfleda did. Since various women most certainly did rise to positions of considerable seniority in the early Anglo-Saxon Church, I suspected there were other influences at work besides a concern for historical perspective. Was some hidden prejudice perhaps against a woman occupying the central place I had elevated my protagonist to?

Other personal factors were probably at work too. People who have long known me in one particular capacity may well have had difficulty adjusting to ‘hearing’ me through such a different persona. I was aware beforehand that all this would probably happen, but I remain profoundly convinced that it was the route I really wanted to take.

I was also aware that I might be in danger of ‘using’ Elfleda to convey the essence of the contemplative life. Fiction that sets out too explicitly to illustrate certain points runs the risk of turning into a tract – but where we have created convincing characters and an active storyline we can normally succeed in drawing people right in. It is at this point, whether by osmosis or sound technique, that we can properly convey valuable insights and information.

The key is to include nothing that does not legitimately fit the story line. In the early draft of another novel I was writing for young people, the “omniscient narrator” appeared at the start of one chapter to give specific background to a particular problem. It was the easiest thing in the world to amend this later on by having the viewpoint character go to the library and find out the same things for himself. He could equally as well have seen it on television or heard it from a friend.

Storytelling is precisely what its name suggests, and we must not cheat by cutting corners and supplying all the questions and answers. If my leading character could not have come across this information by some plausible route, then perhaps it did not need to be included at all. Don’t be influenced by the fact that we put a lot of effort into procuring the information in the first place – that is our problem, not something to impose on the reader. This point is sufficiently important to serve as our banner: ‘Does our material ‘fit’ – or does it slow the story down?’

Purposeful Plots

People today speak of someone ‘losing the plot’. It is a common cliché – but no author can afford to lose track of their plot. Sub-plots, facts and descriptions may all have their place, but for our writing to be purposeful, never lose the threads of our central thesis. Otherwise, to return to an earlier image, we are in danger of merely knitting metres of wool without thought to pattern or design.

This is not the place for an in-depth examination of the range of plots we can develop, it is only common sense to realize that our storyline can ‘emerge’ either from convincing characters acting true to their nature or from the setting we have chosen. Whilst many plots are formed purely out of the writer’s imagination, others will have their basis in facts.

For example, the great historical sea-novelists scour the archives of Royal Navy journals for specific events from the wars against France, Spain and America. These engagements may be less decisive than the Battle of Trafalgar, but can still make for an exciting story.

Whatever plot we opt for, we are sure to face technical challenges. For example, it takes most of us a long time to master the balance between action that advances the story and background details that make it convincing. Ideally, the background should not be too prominent, nor the foreground too bare. Otherwise, like Winnie the Pooh sitting astride the honey pot in the flood, neither we nor the reader will ever be quite sure whether we are controlling the material, or the material controlling us.

Our aim is to keep the tension taut and the reader waiting with baited breath. Even if we are not composing a genuine thriller, we can still achieve a certain degree of suspense by starting scenes somewhere other than where the reader is expecting. Why be in a hurry to resolve all the questions we have been at such pains to raise?

Pause and Put into Practice

You are probably awash with ideas for books, articles and reports, but sometimes it is worth constructing a plot just for practice. If you are short of an idea, however, here’s a starting point to toy with. A certain Shaun Cotts disappeared from Maitland, New South Wales at the height of the gold rush. People assumed that he had gone to join in, until a newcomer to a farm had a vivid dream. As the direct result of this dream, the police were persuaded to dig up part of a farmyard. Cott’s body was found, and the farmer was charged with his murder. Fancy writing a brief synopsis (or telling a story) about this episode?

Bible stories are another excellent starting point for developing stories. They have all the twists and turns of a modern day ‘soap’, but with the added advantage of describing real people and events. The following represents was my attempt to pen a few of Moses’ thoughts. He has just received the call to lead more than a million Israelites in an attempt to escape from Egypt and head back to the Promised Land, and he is left pondering the implications. It is more an account than a plot, but it represents one way to view these remarkable events. After all, it is not every day that the Almighty calls an eighty year old shepherd to such an impossible task. We get out of touch with developments if we are away from the office for a few short weeks – but it was forty years since Moses had fled from Pharaoh’s palace. Here was a man who had long since given up any expectation of ever being recalled to the limelight. No wonder the Lord gave him such a dramatic encounter with the burning bush; He knew it would take a lot of convincing to induce him to forsake his comfortable desert-existence.

Which way would you develop the story? Here’s my attempt.

Forty years ago it would have been a very different matter. I would have leapt at the chance of fulfilling the role of saviour-leader. But I had proved unfit for such high office by taking matters into my own hands. Who wants to follow a murderer? When news got round that I had killed the Egyptian who was mistreating the Hebrew, I knew I was in real trouble. I panicked and fled into the desert.

This has been no short sojourn. Forty years later, I have become almost indistinguishable from my surroundings. And I have to confess, I have grown comfortable, in the way that people do in later life. Life may be exceedingly monotonous in the desert, but at least it is conflict-free. I’ve got my wife and sisters-in-law to attend to my needs; I’ve enough sheep to make a living with and the last thing I want to do is to go back and face the challenges I thought I’d left behind for ever.

Did God really mean what I think I’ve just heard Him say? Doesn’t he know what that stubborn old Pharaoh is really like? I know perfectly well what sort of answer He will give. I might as well ask for the hand of his wife in marriage as to demand the release of a million of his best slave labourers.

And then there’s Princess Dinah. Will she still be at court? I’ve missed her so much, but how proud and scornful she will be when she sees me as an old man in a shepherd’s costume.” It’s been alright wearing it in the desert – but it would look so out of place in the palace. She’ll mock me until the tears are falling from her eyes. And then she’ll get me chucked out like a vagrant. And how about . . .”

On and on the Moses’ thoughts would have churned – and his worries were by no means without some validity. So far as the Egyptian upper classes were concerned, shepherds were the dregs at the bottom of the social pile. But all of that gives special relevance to those well-known words in Psalm 23 that ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. It is almost like saying ‘The Lord is my dustbin man; He takes all my garbage away’. It says something too about the Almighty’s unorthodox choice of workmen for His most important tasks. He seems to look for people who know they cannot do it, and then proceeds to enable them to do far more than they or anyone else would have believed possible.

The rest, as they say is history. Perhaps we might dare to say ‘His Story’. Moses’ courage and perseverance dovetailed perfectly with the Almighty’s determination to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, despite the overwhelming odds against them. The image of Moses and the Israelites with their back to the Red Sea, mountains hemming them in on either side, and Pharaoh’s elite troops in close pursuit. The camera lingers as it were on Moses, armed with nothing other than the word of the Lord, but who can do nothing no until God tells him what to do next. There he stands, still while others are panicking, waiting for the Lord to reveal His strategy top them. Then the dramatic moment when he raises his staff and stretches it out over the Red Sea. For a moment, nothing happens. The waters pile up in a heap, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry and, before returning with a roar to sweep away the pursuing troops.

Another powerful alternative would be to construct a plot around the powerful but paranoid king Saul, who became so pathologically jealous of his unbearably successful young captain. The trouble was, young David was not only winning all his battles for him, he was also the only musician in his court who could play the music that soothed his temper. Surely David cannot for ever dodge spears and leave stuffed bales of straw under his bedding as a decoy dummy while he makes a quick getaway? Desperate Dave – the desperate Dan of three thousand years ago. His story would have been on everyone’s lips as he dashed from cave to cave, often only hours ahead of the king’s elite troops. It is an ongoing soap of the highest calibre – and it is right there in the Bible for everyone to interpret and explore for themselves.

You might like to start this short ‘patchwork’ story by retelling the story as Moses experienced it, using the first words of the ‘Song of Moses’ in Exodus 15.

“I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea’.

Or take the opening verses of 2 Samuel 22 as a starting point for retelling some of the ways by which the Almighty enabled David to triumph over his foes. How did David feel during his years on the run? Where is the fulcrum between his trust in God and his ‘normal’ fear of his opponents? Try continuing the poem as a reflection on his life, as best you understand it, either as a short ‘psalm’ summary or in more graphic detail. (The book of 1 Samuel will fill in your historical gaps).

David sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:

‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.’

Convincing Characters

‘Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten’. (Sol Stein)

In creating our characters, ‘personal’ touches make all the difference to the reader’s appreciation. Our plot may be skimpy, and our descriptive abilities minimal, but our writing can still sparkle provided that our characters are convincing. Bearing in mind what we shared earlier about fiction being more everything than ordinary life, most readers do not buy paperbacks to go in search of the people sitting opposite them on the train. They want characters they can identify with, whose reactions as well as their actions stir their emotions and ‘resonate’ with their own experience. They want to be entertained and to be informed; to have the boundaries of their mind expanded.

In almost every story, one person will be at the centre of the action. For better or worse, this person thereby establishes themselves at the centre of the reader’s heart and mind. This is the person who has the most to gain (or lose) by the events that transpire. Effectively, this becomes the viewpoint character, through whose eyes the action is narrated. If we choose this character carefully, we are well placed to write an excellent story. Choose a poor model, and nothing will succeed in holding the reader’s interest.

For example, what would be the point in making a weakling our central character? Although Daphne du Maurier gets away with basing most of her books around dejected individuals, Jack Bickham takes a more robust line when he pleads for authors to steer well clear of creating ‘wimps and windbags’.

Wimps are unattractive because they lack the courage and the initiative to do the things that make for an exciting story. Never mind real terror, even the simplest setbacks cause them to lose what little courage they had. Would you want to call your hero ‘Walter’ or ‘Wally?’ That is why it is strong and stirring characters who stand out in our mind’s eye. They are initiators rather than victims, overcomers rather than the overcome.

As our characters struggle to resolve the thorny dilemmas we have placed before them, we provide them with the opportunity to display great initiative as well as courage. All our reader sympathy goes out to those who do not give up but who persist through their trials and sufferings. As our characters wrestle with their trials, we must ensure that it is their own skill and courage more than a series of coincidences which enable them to escape from their dilemma.

Coincidences are best used sparingly. If a person works hard to achieve the desired outcome, then it isn’t a coincidence, even if unexpected events intervene to make the outcome easier. Desmond Bagley could have rescued his stranded victims in ‘High Citadel’ by the arrival of some providential rescue party. Instead, the crisis causes all sorts of tensions and strong characteristics to emerge amongst this ill-assorted group, and we are into a cracking story, made the more enjoyable by the ingenuity displayed by a medieval historian who first designs and then uses in action an intriguing assortment of old-fashioned but entirely serviceable weapons.

Just because our characters are that much more ‘larger than life’ – indeed more everything ’ than the rest of us – does not mean that need to be paragons of virtues. Most readers find characters more interesting if they are given complex and even contradictory characteristics. Even the antiheroes we create (and who cause our other protagonists so much trouble) must be endowed with some good points if we are to avoid descending into the world of melodrama, where Sir Jasper’s every appearance is greeted with a boo. Who knows, some aspects of their behaviour may even cause readers to reassess the way they treat other people themselves!

The secret of good character sketching is to leave room for the reader’s imagination. But not too much, in case they fail to spot the key characteristics we are seeking to convey. If it is important for us to show that Mr Bloggs is rude, or that he stammers, then we need to demonstrate him doing this repeatedly. The beauty of fiction is that we can show people’s motives for doing things much more precisely than can ever be the case in real life.

In all this, we should bear in mind the emphasis we placed in the first part of this book on taking time to reflect. All successful writers develop some method of meditation to progress beyond the superficial and to get into the heart of whatever it is that they are trying to share.

If we are working on a work of fiction, how else can we become ‘acquainted’ with our characters? We will want to feel ‘at home’ with their whole way of life: not just their physical appearance and their principal exploits, but where their interests lie and how they would react in different circumstances. Many of these details may never see the light of day in any published story, but it is important for us to ‘know’ these people inside out, so that we, ahead of our readers, can anticipate how they will react in any given context.

It is the sign of a well-written book if its characters continue to ‘live on’ long after we have reached the end of the book, even if we have not been given much physical description to aid our imagination. Lovers of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ for example, are given the barest handful of clues concerning the physical appearance of the children in many hundreds of pages of narrative, yet because each responds in such a well-defined manner, we feel as though we know these children through and through.

We should make it our aim to ‘gift’ each character we create with at least one special ‘feature’ or distinguishing trait. It may be something physical, like a limp, or something that the person wears, carries, hides in their pockets, admires, reads or watches. The way they keep their house, for example, may reveal a great deal about their personality.

In order to keep track of all these details, we need either an outstanding memory – or, more realistically, some sort of card index for our characters, describing any particular characteristics that might prove relevant: their social class, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, dialect, intelligence, body language, health and wealth, taste in food, friends or dress, relation to parents, attitude to self and so on.

Our banner will help us create convincing characters. It is an adaption of a quote from Ernest Hemingway: ‘A writer should create living people’. Why did Hemingway emphasize people? Because he believed that characters are caricatures and that we, as gifted writers, should aim for our characters to be remembered as ‘real’ people in their own right.


In a play, the size of the cast determines how many characters we bring to life. In a novel there are no such considerations, but we still need to avoiding overloading and confusing the reader. If we have created a plethora of minor parts, might we not do better to reduce the number, and see if it is not possible to redistribute their roles amongst the surviving cast?

Distinguished Description

Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life’. (Samuel Johnson)

Most of us have often found ourselves skipping long descriptive passages in order to rush on to where we think the action starts again. So why not cut our losses, spare ourselves a great deal of hard work and just dispense with writing them altogether? After all, there is no way we can possibly hope to match the stunning landscapes (and effects) of the cinematic media.

Nice try, but no go. There is nothing that makes a text more convincing than striking and accurate details. And certain effects can actually be more successful on paper than on film.

Just as painters develop their craft by practising portrait or still life painting, so we must take time out to practise the art of describing things: objects, events, landscapes . . . Take, for example, Britain’s highest mountain. How shall we approach the subject? We could choose a strictly factual approach of course – but it would be desperately dull to do so. ‘Ben Nevis is just over 4,000 feet high. It has claimed the lives of numerous climbers in bad weather’.

There again, we could try following in the footsteps of those who have made travel writing an art in its own right. Consider H.V. Morton’s description of the mountain:

I hear the most horrible sound on earth – the sough of wind coming up over the crest of Ben Nevis . . . It is a dreadful sound; an evil, damnable sound . . . The precipice is 1,500 feet deep. I take a stone and fling it. Seven sickening seconds and then, far off, an echo of the fall and another and another. I stand chilled to the very marrow, watching the weird snowfall veer and shift in the wind, blowing aside to reveal dim, craggy shapes, rocks like spectres or crouching men or queer misshapen beasts. And the dreadful ghost of a wind moaning over the precipice with an evil invitation at the back of it, moaning up out of space, through distant spike gullies . . . moaning with a suggestion of inhuman mirth, causes me to face the ravine as if something might come out of which would have to be fought . . .

And on my way down a great hole is suddenly blown in the cloud, and I see, it seems at my feet, an amazing, brilliant panorama of mountains with the sun on them, of blue locks, a steamer no bigger than a fly moving up Loch Ness beneath the arch of a rainbow. All around me are the Highlands, magnificent among the clouds, the evening blueness spreading over them; peak calling to peak, the Atlantic like a thin streak of silver, the bare rock beneath my feet fading to brown bog land and heather. (‘In Search of Scotland’)

What does it take to create such powerful descriptions? Careful observation and hard work! Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist, used to practice for up to eight hours every day. He claimed that if he went more than a couple of days without practising he could sense the difference, and that if he went any longer than that, then others could tell too.

How should we practise? By making routine writing observations, just like an artist with his sketchbook. Those people we have just met – or that event we have recently attended – how can we express it on paper in ways that will be of interest to others? Such considerations must become a lifelong habit – and a far more interesting one than most.

We must resist the temptation to look for shortcuts. Merely piling up adjectives that describe every shade of colour, temperament and texture is rarely as effective a means of evoking an atmosphere or a character as highlighting some telling detail and then leaving the reader’s imagination to do the rest. Our banner bids us bear in mind that we should show whatever can be shown rather than tell it all.

Though this is far easier said than done, we can start with some symptomatic detail: a look on a person’s face, or their body language, or something that reveals a person’s inner or outer behaviour. One striking characteristic may be all that is needed to stigmatise the person and create the effect we were seeking.

The aim of our description is not simply to convey an accurate picture but to draw out implications and conclusions. Consider these two contrasting passages. The first is the conclusion of a short essay by Rebecca West, written in 1913. Today it reads prophetically; at the time it must merely have appeared provocative.

‘Good God enlighten us! Which of these two belongs to the sterner sex – the man who sits in Whitehall all his life on a comfortable salary, or the woman who has to keep her teeth bared lest she has her meatless bone of seventeen shillings a week snatched away from her and who has to produce the next generation on her off-days? . . . I had a vision of the world fifty years hence, when we have simply had to take over the dangerous adventures on the earth. I saw some bronzed and travel-scarred pioneer returning from the Wild West with hard-earned treasure, buying a fresh and unspoiled bridegroom who had never stirred from the office of, let us say, the Director of Public Prosecutions. I saw a world of women struggling, as the American capitalist men of today struggle, to maintain a parasitic sex that is at once its tyrant and its delight . . . We must keep men up to the mark’. (Rebecca West: ‘The Sterner Sex’)

The second is from an article by A. W. Tozer entitled ‘Wanted: Courage with Moderation’. Warren Wiersbe described Tozer as having the gift of being able to take a spiritual truth and hold it up to the light in such a way that, like a diamond, every faced can be seen and admired. Tozer makes you reflect on themes and issues people thought they already knew as much as they needed to know. This is a typical sample of his writing.

The Bible gives no record of a coward ever being cured of his malady . . . How desperately the Church at this moment needs men of courage is too well known to need repetition. Fears broods over the Church like some ancient curse. Fear for our living, fear of our jobs, fear of losing popularity, fear of each other: these are the ghosts that haunt the men who stand today in places of church leadership. Many of them, however, win a reputation for courage by repeating safe and expected things with comical daring.

Yet self-conscious courage is not the cure. To cultivate the habit of ‘calling a spade a spade’ may merely result in our making a nuisance of ourselves and doing a lot of damage in the process. The ideal seems to be a quiet courage that is not aware of its own presence. It draws its strength each moment from the indwelling Spirit and is hardly aware of self at all. Such a courage will be patient and well-balanced and safe from extremes. May God send a baptism of such courage upon us.

By remaining alert and observant, and taking the trouble to record our insights on paper, we will gradually build up a library of insights and ‘sketches’ in our notebooks from which we can later craft meaningful writings. Even the stray remarks we read or hear can one day find an interesting and appropriate home.

I heard the other day that a lobster’s nervous system is ten times more sensitive than a human being’s. When it is boiled in water in a restaurant for the delight of the pampered rich, its sufferings are so acute that dogs, with their heightened spectrum of hearing, are said to be intensely aware of their distress for up to a mile in the vicinity. The effect this stray morsel of information had on me was to make me identify profoundly with a sensitive person who is going through a time of extreme emotional turmoil, and whose sufferings could, with some justification, be compared to that of the unfortunate lobster.

To conclude this section, we shall turn to Ewan Clarkson’s ‘The Running of the Deer’. (Arrow) Although the writer includes a number of character-revealing, tension-inducing episodes and dialogue duels, the long descriptions provide the main source of action. The opening provides both the setting and tonality for the book:

‘His name was Rhus, and he came with the dawn, to lie sprawled and shivering on the short, dew-drenched turf of the combe’.

The growth of the young deer is set against the actions of the local people. Poachers and deer stalkers are represented, but above all, there is tension between the Hunt, symbolised by its aptly named leader, Colonel Baskerville, and those who are opposed to all that he and the hunt stand for. Human cruelty and selfishness are much in evidence as the story leads inexorably to the tension of the final chase, in which Colonel Baskerville plunges to his death in the late twilight as he seeks to head off the stag. The build-up is long and measured; his fate commensurate to the way he has oppressed the people in his charge.

Many years ago, on a stormy night in November, as the moon hid behind racing clouds, a vole had scampered over the cliff face, an ash seed in its tiny jaws. For a long second, the treacherous moon revealed the presence of the vole to a hunting owl, and the vole died, the seed falling from its grasping jaws. The seed lodged behinds a rock, a massive sandstone slab, and from the seed sprouted a shoot. For a while the tree flourished, until a gale tore it up by the roots, and tumbled it down into the tide, leaving a gaping hole in the cliff. Then the slow and inexorable forces of erosion got to work, and as the years ticked by, second by second, the wind and the rain, the hot sun and the stinging frost on the cliff face. Then came the wettest summer in living memory.

Thus from small events, the death of a vole, the loss of a seed, the destinies of men are shaped . . . Baskerville did not, could not, know that only the previous evening the cliff face had crumbled and fallen away.

The nearest thing we find in the book to a wise elder statesmen is the imposing figure of the solitary Isaac, a man with a hidden act of violence in his past, but who has long since vowed to subdue that side of his nature and to put it to better uses. He it is who talks the persecuted Duncan Turner out of taking his own life and who points the way to his starting over in a fresh environment. It is fitting that it is through his eyes that the last scene in the book is played out: Colonel Baskerville being laid to rest in the ground. Isaac’s ultimately idealistic hopes and dreams are highlighted, and Rhus himself makes a brief symbolic appearance, the colour of his hide contrasting with the darkness the rest of the passage exudes.

As his gaze swept the crest of the hill he thought for a moment he saw a lone stag, his antlers arched like the spreading branches of a great oak, his hide red in the sun. When he looked again the stag had gone, and only the sombre oaks stood dark against the sky.

Yet Isaac was certain his eyes had not deceived him, and the appearance of the stag had seemed to him at once a reassurance and a warning. After the funeral he walked alone, up through the leafy trees and out onto the bare shoulder of the hill, where the grasses trembled in the breeze from the sea, and the ghosts of the bronze men whispered to the sky. Sitting there, it came to him that greed and avarice, power and self-interest, were no more than names men gave to a built-in urge for self-destruction. It seemed to him that if man could not destroy himself in any other way, he would succeed by destroying his own world.

Yet even if the holocaust came, and whole civilisations crumbled and decayed, it might still be possible that some would remain, those who remained in harmony with their surroundings and in sympathy with the rest of the living world. Maybe the meek would inherit the earth. He would not see it, but it was a good thought to carry with him, wherever he might go.

Pause and Put into Practice

Creating powerful moods and impressions requires time and effort. The aim of these starter exercises is to produce pen pictures that highlight whether something (or someone) is grim, joyful, negative, positive, hopeless or hopeful. Let who the people were (or are) shine through the description. If we can regularly achieve such effects, then most readers will have no difficulty discerning the authority that is present in our writing.

i) As a first exercise, close your eyes and cast your mind back to the first teacher(s) you can remember. In all probability you will not be able to recall more than a handful of the thousands of words they must have spoken in your hearing every day. You probably remember what they were like rather than what they said. Words have power, but character ultimately speaks louder than words. Describe these people and the effect they had on you, for good or bad. Try switching the viewpoint between ‘I felt . . . ’ subjective) and ‘She was . . . ’ (objective). The details and descriptions you include effectively control how close readers can come to your material – and how close you want them to come.

ii) Describe the first date you can recall. What angle will you choose to present this from: the worldly-wise person who is writing now, or the clumsy and naïve person you were then? In other words, are you writing this as a vivid first-hand account, or as a mature recollection? Why not try writing it from both points of view? What do the differences point to?

iii) Describe a meeting in which something far-reaching (for good or bad) was decided concerning your fate. Don’t alter any of the facts, but take time to explore the emotions that you felt and the consequences involved. It is entirely possible that in the course of this strong emotions may surface as you revisit this scene. With the advantage of hindsight, however, you may find whole new dimensions and perspectives emerging, which help you to see the matter in a new light.

Dynamic Dialogue

‘What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant’. (Sol Stein)

On the face of it, writing dialogue involves nothing more complex than capturing conversation and turning it into tightly written prose. In practice, to reproduce lifelike and yet purposeful dialogue calls for considerable skill. For dialogue to work smoothly, we first need to make sure that we get the ‘right’ people on-stage together, and remove everyone else from the scene.

The next thing is to provide the dialogue with a focal point, a reason for it to take place. Someone is bursting with news, or trying to pry out a piece of information, or is beginning to show signs of falling in love, or going mad. The more we hold the purpose of this dialogue in the forefront of our mind, the more likely we are to succeed in keeping it from drifting off course. 

Dialogue is at its most effective when it raises questions, heightens suspense and introduces a confrontational note into the proceedings. It is less effective when authors use it as an excuse for downloading all the fruit of their hours of research. If this really does merit inclusion, most of it can be unobtrusively woven into the characterisation or descriptions.

Dialogue imparts a sense of immediacy to the text. It helps readers to feel involved and to draw conclusions for themselves. What a character says shows us at least as much about them as if the author told us more directly.

Good dialogue is never merely there to punctuate the gaps between events: in many ways it is the action. That is why the most important thing is to write the first draft of our dialogues down at top speed. Almost certainly we will write too much, but that is neither here nor there. We can edit and portion what we have written out between the appropriate characters later on.

This is the stage when we must ensure that everything in our dialogue justifies its inclusion, even those occasions when the characters are plainly speaking out of character or are twisting reality. There is no time or space for padding. All the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ of ordinary life must be left out, too, unless we are deliberately setting out to reveal a hesitant character. The golden rule is to keep exchanges short. Three or four sentences at a time are quite enough for any one character to speak before someone else should respond, or an external event break in.

Pause and Put into Practice

Study how different authors achieve these effects. Does their dialogue draw the reader into the heart of the action and lend variety to the story? Or is it merely being used in order to disguise the author’s lack of descriptive ability?

Now consider your own writing. Are there ways you could make it more succinct or more confrontational? Have you taken the trouble to give each of your characters their own distinctive voice? Is the language and tonality in keeping with their rank and disposition? All of these things are embraced in our banner: Let the characters reveal themselves by saying too much or too little.

Try putting together various ‘what if’ scenarios. For example, what would happen if the two people you least wanted to meet each other suddenly arrived at your house at the same time? Can you find ways to bring out how you feel in the ensuing dialogue, especially how afraid you are that they may find out certain things you desperately want to keep hidden from them?

If this starting point does not appeal to you, think of some real-life equivalent. Will you put your emphasis on the humour of the situation or on the deeper emotions involved?

Humorous Happenings

Many consider the account of the cricket match in ‘England their England’ by Archibald Macdonell between a literary team led by Mr Hodges and the villagers of Fordenden to be one of the most sustained piece of humorous writing in the English language. No single passage stands out from the others and that is why I am referring to it here. It is neither slapstick nor vulgar. The reader is unlikely to split his sides in the opening descriptions, but the humour builds up and grows out of the context. I will quote from part of the lead up to the match and leave you to track down a copy of the story in its entirety.

All round the cricket pitch small parties of villagers were patiently waiting for the great match to begin. A match against gentleman from London is an event in village, and some of them looked as if they had been waiting a good long time. But they were not impatient. Village folk are very seldom impatient. Those whose lives are occupied in combatting the eccentricities of God regard as very small beer the eccentricities of Man.

Blue-and-green dragonflies played at hide-and-seek among the thistle-down and a pair of swans flew overhead. An ancient man leaned upon a scythe, his sharpening-stone sticking out of a picket in his velveteen waistcoat. The parson shook hands with the squire. Doves cooed. The haze flickered. The world stood still.

Treating immensely serious historical matters as the stuff of humour has long had its following, none more so than the pioneering humour Sellar and Yeatman developed in ‘1066 and All That’. The more familiar we are with the actual events they are taking off, the more we will appreciate their material. Typical of their style is this account of the ill-fated Mary.

The Queen of Hearts

A great nuisance in this reign was the memorable Scottish queen, known as Mary Queen of Hearts on account of the large number of husbands which she obtained, eg Cardinale Ritzio, Boswell and the King of France: most of these she easily blew up in Holywood.

Unfortunately for Mary, Scotland was now suddenly overrun by a wave of Synods led by Sir John Nox, the memorable Scottish Saturday Knight. Unable to believe, on account of the number of her husbands, that Mary was a single person, the Knight accused her of being ‘a monstrous regiment of women,’ and after making this brave remark had here imprisoned in Loch Lomond. Mary, however, escaped and fled to England, where Elizabeth immediately put her in quarantine on the top of an enormous Height called Wutheringay.

As Mary had already been Queen of France and Queen of Scotland many people thought it would be unfair if she was not made Queen of England as well. Various plots such as the Paddington Plot, the Thredneedle Conspiracy and the Adelfi Plot were therefore hatched to bring this about. Elizabeth, however, learning that in addition to all this Mary was good-looking and could play on the virginals, recognised that Mary was too romantic not to be executed, and accordingly had that done.

Peter Spence’s delightful ‘To the Manor Born’ details Audrey fforbes-Hamilton’s plight following the death of her husband and her move from her ancestral manor at Grantleigh to the small lodge on her former estate. She is traumatised by the realisation that she is no longer receiving all the social invitations she craves for.

‘The mantelpiece at the manor positively bristled with stiffies,’ she recalled indignantly to Marjory, who was always round at the old lodge helping her to settle in. Dinner parties, balls, coming-outs, society weddings, Henley, Ascot, Goodwood, Glyndebourne,’ she listed nostalgically, to think that I won’t be going to Glyndebourne this year, and I used to so enjoy it – apart from having to sit through all those interminable operas. Fair weather friends all of them – suddenly I’m a social pariah. No invitations – not so much as a Tupperware party in the village . . . We really were in demand till Marton died – now look what I’ve got to look forward to,’ She consulted the diary. ‘The Muslim New Year and High Tide in Aberystwyth. And nothing to wear for either’.

The drama focuses around Audrey’s pride and her bitter-sweet relationship with Richard de Vere, the new owner of the house. Her veneer of politeness is stretched to the limit before finally mellowing into something much more romantic.

Along rather different lines, we might sample Heath Robinson’s decidedly chauvinistic article on ‘Early Married Life’.

As every lion-tamer knows, the King of Beast cannot be expected to jump through paper hoops without a little preliminary tuition; and what applies to lions applies equally to wives. It is during the early days of his married life – when the honeymoon is but a fragrant memory and every pawnable wedding present has gone to its new home –that the wise husband will train his wife in the way that she should go – not with blows and curses as by the power of suggestion and example. Once a woman gets set in her ways, it is practically impossible to pry her loose without the help of gun-cotton; and it is therefore up to her husband to see that she steps off, so to speak, on the right foot . . .

More than one marriage has gone up in smoke owing to the wife’s inability to understand that an occasional night out with the boys is what every husband needs to preserve his reason and keep him from brooding on his care-free past. In the life of every man above the rank of moron there are times when the urge to go mildly gay [NB: not used in the modern sense of that word] becomes too strong to be withstood; and it is by her behaviour at such moments that the young wife proves herself.

If, when her husband timidly applies for the necessary leave, she at once assumes that his love is dead and scampers weeping to her mother, she may be held to have failed at her job. If, on the to other hand, she acquiesces smilingly and allows him an extra shilling from his wages for buns, lemonade etc., she can be accounted not only a good wife, but a highly unusual one.

All considerations of political correctness and sheer decorum apart, I am grateful to be married to an exceedingly understanding wife! By the way, these four last examples can be found in ‘Humorous Stories with Ronnie Barker’ (Octopus Books Ltd).

We may not instinctively associate CS Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ with humour, but I particularly enjoy this episode in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. The animals have just been given the gift of speech. and the jackdaw has just said something that makes him hide his head under its wings with embarrassment. All the other animals began making various queer noises, which was their way of laughing. They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan intervenes:

‘Laugh and fear not creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech’. So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said, ‘Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke?’

‘No little friends,’ said the Lion. ‘You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke’. Then everyone laughed more than ever.