Creative Writing: How To Make Your Point Without Being Pointed
21st December 2009: This article has been revised so that it may be reproduced. See below
Years ago, when I was a member of a Writers’ Circle, we used to read aloud to one another, and subject each reading to a critique. One woman – a successful writer – used to stop those of us who were novelists mid-stream, shouting, “Authorial! Authorial!” whenever she felt that we had injected too much of ourselves into our writing. Let me explain.
CREATING EMOTIONAL INFLUENCES ON YOUR READER
I wrote earlier this week about a BBC Drama on euthanasia, A Short Stay In Switzerland, and said that well-rounded stories, true or fictional, demand a three dimensional approach which I’d found lacking in this production. The story set out to make a point: to sway viewer-response towards a sympathetic acceptance of assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
All writing does this to some extent. There is a deliberate influence brought to bear; almost, one might say at times, an emotional manipulation. Even journalism follows this approach: certain newspapers will support leftist policies or liberalism; others may be more conservative; jingoistic; or screaming xenophobes.
When you start writing your novel, you will have preconceived ideas about the subject you’ve chosen. Let’s say your book is the story of a single woman who finds herself pregnant. You, the author, may have a pro-life stance, and your aim, in writing your novel, may be to convince your readers of the merits of this point of view over that of abortion. You may, mentally, define the Theme of your book as: Finding a viable alternative to abortion.
Now if your book is to be a page-turner, your main character will have to convey, through her thoughts, words and deeds, the Conflict of emotions she will experience, as well as the circumstantial obstacles she encounters. In order to be credible, either her stream of consciousness (internal dialogue) or the difficulties she has to overcome around her, must run counter to your Theme. If they don’t, then your story will have no structure and may be told in a moment: girl gets pregnant; is anti-abortion; girl has baby. End of story.
Let’s consider, first, her secret anxieties. She may, for instance, have lost her own mother in childbirth – perhaps when she, herself was born. It might be that her mother had become a Jehovah’s Witness and refused a blood transfusion. If her father had not shared his wife’s conviction, then his daughter may have felt that she was the victim of her father’s unspoken accusation throughout her childhood.
Would she want to risk a similar outcome in her own life? Would she permit herself to inflict this on her unborn child? No, she would not! She would be full of concern, wanting an abortion so as to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy; superstitious because of her dead mother’s belief system.
OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES IN HER PATH
External problems may be introduced in the form of geographic or medical difficulties. Your protagonist may, for example, be living in a part of the world where hygiene is primitive and medical help virtually non-existent. Add to that some personal medical condition – say haemophilia – and there is plenty of conflict both for and against her either having the baby or a termination.
The way that you, as an author, convey this battle of the mind, is crucial to the integrity of your story. Much of it will be written as the internal angst of your main character. But you will need to provide her with a Confidant to whom she can reveal her inner turmoil. Dialogue will then become the vehicle for the arguments for and against.
If the Confidant is simply a friend lacking both the personal experience and professional expertise to advise, the arguments will be purely emotional – as they were in the BBC drama. But if your Confidant had, even a rudimentary, knowledge of the surgical procedure, or had a sister who had been through an abortion and was unable to dismiss the images from her mind, your dialogue might be better informed.
THE FEATURES OF A BALANCED ARGUMENT
My gripe with the BBC Drama was that there was no mention of the wonderful work undertaken by the modern hospice movement. And when a friend, who was also a doctor, called to see the main character, he was told, in no uncertain terms, not to dare to suggest the merits of palliative care today! Hardly a balanced viewpoint!
I began this piece by telling you about my writer friend pulling us up short at Writers’ Circle. The point she was trying to make was that when we, as authors, construct the dialogue of our characters, we must never forget that it is their mouths that form the words. Dialogue should, for the most part, be short and pithy.
People only make speeches from a platform to an audience. Conversation tends to be jerky, incomplete, sometimes hesitant. Simple words are used; informal language; ungrammatical phrases. When did you last say to a friend: “Those to whom abortion is a reality . . .” or, “victims may fall prey to depression . . .”? You’d say: “someone I know had an abortion . . .” or, “she was on anti-depressants, afterwards, for years.”
STAYING IN CHARACTER
I’ve already suggested that when conveying conflict or information through dialogue, it must be in character. It should, also, be within the constraints of Point of View (POV). Thus a farmer, describing spontaneous abortion in sheep, would probably illustrate the event in more colourful and down to earth language than a surgeon, or a nurse. POV demands that each would be restricted to their specific knowledge and experience, as well as the idiosyncrasies of character. You wouldn’t expect a six-year old to be able to inform you on the subject of abortion; why should you expect your sixteen-year-old student character, or sixty-year-old mother-figure to be able to couch their limited knowledge in medical terms? Unless, of course, they’ve made a study of the subject.
BE YOUR OWN FIERCEST CRITIC
But even then, no matter how much research you have undertaken in the preparation of your novel, only a fraction of it will ever appear on page. Narrative and dialogue become authorial when we allow ourselves to climb on a band-wagon and put forth our arguments for or against any given topic. Always read what you’ve written out loud – preferably to a long-suffering spouse or friend. But if there’s no one available, there is still value in listening to yourself reading your work aloud. What you need, is to develop ears, like my friend’s, and to shout “Authorial! Authorial!” whenever you hear yourself stray.
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© Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. www.melmenzies.co.uk
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