Monday Motivation: Nobody knows anything

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

That’s William Goldman, screen writer (and novelist) supreme, responsible for such scripts as Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride.

He wrote a couple of books about Hollywood, including Adventures in the Screen Trade, from which that quotation is lifted.

And its relevance to us today? Well, the truth is that what he says about making films applies also to writing novels. Nobody knows what’s going to capture the imagination of the great unwashed. Even expert publishers who, presumably, have their fingers on the pulse of what the public wants, can make the most colossal and costly errors.

Why else would twelve publishers have initially rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?

The New York Times bestseller list features novels that have already done well. One of the most successful in the last few years is a book published in 2011 called Ready Player One. Written by Ernest Cline, the story is set in a dystopian future, after fossil fuels have run out, the world economy has slowed, and most people have fled the rigours of the real world for the excitement and glamour of a virtual world.

I read the book for the very simple reason that I wanted to experience a NYT’s best seller, not because it’s necessarily a work of great literary merit, but because it is, in a word, a commercial success.

And Ready Player One begins with twenty pages of exposition – a turgid explanation of how the digital world was fashioned, and by whom; of why it took hold of the imagination of the world; and of the treasure hunt that lay buried in it.

The rest of the book is also unhealthily larded with exposition. Hardly a page goes by without Cline writing something like this:

“You could give your… avatar any name you like, as long as it was unique. Meaning you had to pick a name that hadn’t already been taken by someone else. Your avatar’s name was also your e-mail address and chat ID, so you wanted it to be cool and easy to remember. Celebrities had been known to pay huge sums of money to buy an avatar name they wanted from a cyber-squatter who had already reserved it…”

I’ve just read this out to someone I’m working with. She yawned prodigiously and said, “I’m already bored.”

I pointed out that this first book has sold so well, he was paid an advance “in the low-to-mid seven figures” for his second. (That’s between about two and five million dollars.)

Now, exposition or explanation is death to drama. It interrupts the flow of the action; it adds nothing to the tension you do everything as a writer to develop; and it explodes your sense of being seamlessly immersed in the fictional world of the story.

So what lessons can we draw from the extraordinary success of Ready Player One?

Well, I think there are at least two lessons here. The first is that a powerful story trumps almost everything else. Readers will forgive clunky characterisation and reams of exposition if they buy into the story.

The second lesson entails making a humble confession: no one in the business of writing compelling fiction really knows what’s going to work.


Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: Don’t spell things out – a lesson

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