Fractals, scenes and the bones of the fallen

I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

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Comments (2)
  • I can report that same subconscious inclusion of theme. (At least it feels like it as I'm writing.)

    Though I'll go a step further. There are several elements I bring to a scene. One is the overall theme of the work in progress. But others are keywords pertaining to the PoV character's psychological profile. And their individual angle on the master theme.

    It's quite amazing how, just throwing words down on a page having glanced at the signposts of "extensions on believed identity resulting from relationships", "Pollyanna-moving-to-paranoid", and "entitelment (to love and money/power)" can produce something that captures the soul of a character and her experience…

    • That's a nice idea - holding some keywords in mind at the start, and then kinda ignoring them. You get the rigour and the freshness. Sweet.

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