Saturday, 17 May 2014

Drowning in detail

So I’m off to do an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa in September.  This means that novel number three has gone on hold, as the general consensus seems to be that it’s not a good idea to start the course with a full draft, due to the steep learning curve tending to lead to people entirely dismantling the manuscript and starting again.

This means that I’m currently focusing on short stories, and the re-write of novel number one.

It is getting a little out of control.  Until last week, it was precisely double its original size at any given point in the story.  This week, it’s managed to put another 10,000 words into the original manuscript.  If this was a race, version two would just have lapped version one.  

Possibly for the second time.

The main problem I’m having with the re-write is that the story is, itself, about stories, and myths and the things we remember.  This means that there is a huge amount of backstory and an awful lot of layers.  The plot is relatively straightforward, in a lot of ways.  It’s managing the great, amorphous mass of other stuff that’s giving me a headache.

So, the main character needs to get from point A to point B.  When leaving point A, he needs to not know everything there is to know about his world.  This has involved the removal of an info-dump to which I was rather attached (not least because an editor described that scene as a “show-stopper” and things like that give me a happy, warm glow) but that’s probably a whole other blog post. 

Anyway.  Main character.  Point A – doesn’t know everything he needs to know.  Point B – needs to know a bit more than when leaving point A, in order to avoid another epic info-dump upon arrival at aforementioned point B.  I should probably admit that there was originally an epic-info dump at point B, but nobody liked that one.  No happy, warm feeling for me.

So the main character mooches around a bit, and meets some more people who give him some hints about why going to point B might be a good idea.  The problem is that there needs to be some sort of explanation as to why these characters are:

a     a)  there
       b)  willing to help
       c) in possession of the required knowledge

Now, I know the answer to all three of those questions.  But, if I stick it all in, the original manuscript is going to be lapped so many times that it’s probably going to give up, stagger out of the stadium and take up something nice and quiet, like knitting, instead.

So, I’ve been trying to work out how much of that vast body of backstory can simply be hinted at, or even left unexplained, to give a sense of stories untold, and narrative strands unfollowed.  Can you leave the reader wondering what that was all about?  Or does there always have to be some sort of resolution, or at least a suggestion of a resolution?

There is, of course, one famous example of a novel which deliberately leaves unresolved sub-plots, scattered in the wake of the main character.  The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende concludes many (possibly all – I haven’t read it for a while) of its chapters with ‘but that is another story and shall be told another time.’

In The Neverending Story, that was a deliberate plot device.  But it was hugely effective, and it makes me wonder if readers want a glimpse of something beyond the story upon which the writer is having them focus.  Something beyond it, or before it, or below it, or somewhere off to the side, only just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

I had a bit of a ‘moment’ with the re-write, the other day.  All of that backstory, all of those layers of information about characters, and a fairly narrow plot into which to squeeze it.  It was starting to feel a bit like trying to wrestle a king-size duvet into a single duvet cover.  So I was quite glad to have something that wasn’t writing-related to look forward to.

I went to see The Drowned Man last night.  For those who haven’t heard of it, The Drowned Man is a National Theatre production, set in an abandoned warehouse right beside Paddington station.  Now I’m not a massive theatre fan.  I tend to get fidgety towards the end of the first act, and I’m quite capable of falling asleep in the middle of the second.  But The Drowned Man isn’t a standard theatre production.  The actors go through their individual story arcs in a vast set, arranged across four floors, with multiple strands of the story going on at once, in different parts of the building.  While this is happening, the audience wander around, choosing which actors to follow, or simply exploring the set.

I should probably put a spoiler warning, for anyone who is considering going to see the show, although I’m not sure my interpretation of what was going on, bears any actual resemblance to the story.  But, just in case…

----------------------------------------SPOILER WARNING-------------------------------------

So, I arrived in Paddington stupidly early, due to a combination of buses, trains and inability to work out how long the queue was likely to be.  This meant that, in order to avoid being the over-enthusiastic person at the front of the queue, I had to keep wandering, with probably unconvincing nonchalance, up and down the road, trying to work out which of the many sets of bright red garage doors was the actual entrance.

HWSNBN and a friend of ours eventually joined me, and we settled for a respectable queue position in the low twenties.  But, as it turned out, most people in front of us needed to pick up tickets, so we actually finished up in the first handful of people to go in.  I had read a few reviews, so I knew broadly how we would get to the set.  I wasn’t expecting the pitch black passageway on the way in, however, so I did engage in a bit of staggering about and treading on the heels of the unfortunate theatre-goer in front of me.  But I knew about the white masks, and the request for silence, and I knew that we’d be dropped off by lift, on one of the four floors.

I also knew, or thought I knew, whereabouts on the set a couple of the story arcs began so, as soon as we disembarked from the lift, I found a flight of stairs and took myself to the top floor. 

That’s pretty much where my smugness about my research evaporated.

I spent the next fifteen minutes wandering around in the semi-darkness in an entirely deserted desert, complete with sand-dunes, peering into dark corners and wondering if I’d found a part of the set where absolutely nothing happens.  I poked around in a little chapel, peered into a tent, visited a funeral where all the mourners were scarecrows, and then decided that I was definitely in the wrong place.

Just as I was about to give up and go back downstairs, two actors finally appeared, followed by a handful of other audience members.  The two men wrestled, danced, and fought over a woman, who swore at them and disappeared, pursued by some of the audience.  I started ambling after one of the male characters, but I had entirely failed to appreciate the speed with which the cast move between floors, and it took me about 5 seconds to lose him.  He crossed my path a few more times over the course of the evening – line-dancing, having a *cough* encounter with a woman outside a saloon, and completely naked in a bath.  That one was slightly disconcerting.

It took me about half an hour to realise that there was absolutely no prospect of me managing to follow the plot, so I gave up, and wandered around, opening doors and generally poking about.  The level of detail in the set is unbelievable – books, ledgers, diaries, marked bibles, letters, half-finished sewing projects, scripts – and, from the few things I actually looked at closely, they are all relevant to the story.  There are love-letters to characters, messages arranging meetings, the exercise books of what was clearly the lost child of one of the characters.  What wasn’t clear to me, was whether all of the rooms were relevant, or whether some of them were simply intended to add to the very strange, Twin Peaks-like, atmosphere.  The basement level was particularly incomprehensible.  I did not see any acting there, but I found a sort of prop shrine, a completely dark room, illuminated only by a pair of glowing eyes from a backlit picture of a woman, and a rather sinister prosthetics studio.

Eventually, I found the bar, which is the only part of the set where you can take your mask off, and talk.  Coincidentally, HWSNBN and our friend had also found themselves there at the same time, so we had a drink and tried to piece the plot together.  This was the point at which it became clear that my interpretation of what was going on bore absolutely resemblance to what was actually going on.  As far as I was concerned, there was a man who fancied a woman who liked someone else.  He was jealous, and demonstrated this with a bit of vigorous line-dancing, which so inflamed the passions of another woman, that they had to have sex on a window-sill.  She regretted this, possibly during a religious revelation.  Meanwhile, the man was having a naked moment with a witch who then witnessed a murder.  Meanwhile, in the town, there was a psychotic seamstress, and a shopkeeper with a thing about tinned peas.  A sleazy casting director was having an affair with an actress.  Possibly two actresses.  He was also slightly psychotic, with an obsession with baseball bats.

There were apparently two murders, but I swear I saw three.  There were at least two characters that I managed to merge into one.  There was a strange ritual, and some rather odd little shrines scattered about the place.  There was a secret passage behind the door in a phone-booth.  That bit was particularly fun.  There’s something quite satisfying about climbing into a booth, and closing the door behind you, watched by several confused audience members who will no doubt soon start wondering whether you’re planning on staying there all night, while you’re actually crawling through a hidden entrance to a labyrinth of coats.  I apparently missed an orgy - HWSNBN didn't.  Our friend was kissed by a drag-queen - I missed that too.

I only saw fragments of the story.  There’s no way I could explain the plot (beyond the obvious A killed B, and C killed D) but, oddly, I don’t think it matters.  The level of detail, and the suggestion of layers upon layers of motivation and back-story, were enormously compelling.  I came away with a sense that the show’s creators knew much, much more than they would ever be able to impart to the audience.  There were diaries I didn’t have time to read, and clues I couldn’t quite interpret.  The overwhelming feel of the show is of something vast and sinister, only glimpsed below the surface, and only manifesting in the sometimes inexplicable actions of the characters.

The show seems to have a huge fan-base, with people returning again and again, to try to figure out things they don’t understand, or to follow characters they’ve missed on previous visits.  The popularity of the show makes me wonder if readers are likely to be more accepting of the unexplained, or the half-glimpsed, than I’ve previously believed.

Can the plot ‘float’ on a great bulk of sub-plot and back-story?  Are people willing to accept that there are things that they can’t quite pin down, or which doesn’t quite tie into the final resolution of the main strands of the story?

I’m inclined to think that the answer is yes.  And it might well be that this is a fairly modern phenomenon.  As modern readers, we have a huge amount of information at our fingertips.  We can pick up a passing reference, and have its meaning available at the touch of a button.  We can easily learn more about an author, or about a particular topic.  We don’t have to have it all laid out for us.

Maybe that’s why The Drowned Man has had such a successful run.  It lets its audience immerse themselves, and explore, and choose their own experience.  And, if so, perhaps there’s a lesson for writers there.  Give the reader a glimpse of other stories, other character arcs, and let them explore their own idea of what lies beneath the main character’s journey.

I hope so.  Because, otherwise, my main character’s going to have an awful lot of explaining to do, when the character in the street market starts asking questions about the mysterious figure in the courtyard garden.

A few final points.  If you're planning on seeing The Drowned Man before it closes in July, I can save you a fair bit of research time by answering some of your likely FAQs:

Q  What time should I start queueing?
A  Exactly 48 minutes before kick-off.  This is a precise answer, based on the fact that there was no queue when I went to find HWSNBN at 4pm, and a queue when we came back at 4.24pm. Somewhere between those two times, the queue happened.

Q  Where should I start?
A  In the phone-booth.  For no other reason than the fact that you can probably throughly flummox some poor first-time audience member who is wandering around trying to work out what's supposed to be going on, only to be faced with the mysterious disappearance of a fellow audience member.

Q  What should I take with me?
A  As little as possible.  Cash for the bar and some method of telling the time.  And a tissue.  The masks give you a sweaty nose.

Q  Should I have a drink at any point?
A  Under no circumstances.  One glass of cava will probably be enough to turn an already surreal situation into something you'd expect to experience after a sortie into the world of hard drugs.

Q  So what is the plot?
A  No idea.  You choose.

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