Monday Motivation: The glue that holds story together
I want to talk today about the remarkable properties of glue when it comes to assembling story.
You remember what E.M. Foster said about the difference between story and life? The king died and then the queen died, is life. One thing happens and then another thing happens. It’s what’s been going on in our general region since a diffuse cloud of gas and dust started coalescing four or five billion years ago into the disc from which later the earth and the other planets emerged.
But add a little glue to Foster’s noble proposition and it could become: The king died and then the queen died of grief.
Her grief is the glue that indissolubly links the two deaths. And a story is born.
I’ve spent, as I might have said before, many an hour (indeed, many a week) engaged in brainstorms to develop story for long-form television series.
In these brainstorms, half a dozen writers clutch their brows in an effort to wring from them ideas that will entertain millions of viewers. These ideas come in all colours and shapes. One that any devotee of soaps might recognize is: A young man knocks at the door of your main character door and announces that he is her long-lost son, who was snatched from her soon after birth, and grew up not knowing his mother’s identity…
So far, so familiar.
The idea might be less obvious. What frequently occur to me are visual ideas: a man walks out of an alley in a dark and dangerous quarter of town with the bleeding figure of a young woman in his arms. A boy takes his pellet gun and shoots all the birds in an aviary. One man, blithely scuba-diving, survives the murder of all his companions in the yacht he returns to after the assassins have fled.
Peter Dickinson, an adroit and inventive writer of excellent children’s books (and detective stories) dreamt an entire chapter of a saga that eventually became a trilogy that was nominated for several of the top prizes in its field. The dream? A boy finds himself on an outcrop of rock in a bay in impenetrable mist…
The challenge of these images is that they are unattached to anything. They’re simply versions of: the king died.
To make them work dramatically, you have to apply glue to at least one end of the idea and stick it on to another. Your caboose finds itself hitched to a train, and starts moving with speed and energy and direction. If you can apply glue to both ends and stick it to two other scenes, so much the better: your carriage is now firmly engaged in mid-story.
So take the young man who emerges from the alley with a young woman in his arms. Let her be his sister. Let his sister be a heroin addict. So the scenes that come before he emerges from the dark with her in his arms must have been: she injects herself in a shooting gallery… he frantically looks for her… their parents despair of ever having their daughter returned to them… And the scenes that come after: she slowly returns to health… or she relapses into addiction and ultimately dies.
Whichever way you play it, it’s dramatic. And what holds all those scenes together is powerful glue compounded of sympathy and pathos; of cause and effect; perhaps of tragic inevitability.
A strong incident from your own life might not be a story in itself, but given glue and imagination it could become the locomotive of an entire sequence of scenes.
From my own past, in just a minute of reflection, I can come up with many such scenes: the motor accident in my childhood which left a woman lying bleeding on a dirt road, and my mother wrapping her in my favourite blanket… An afternoon in France in icy mid-winter when I was hitch-hiking with two friends during which I truly believed we were going to die of exposure… A night on our narrowboat when the riverbank to which we were tethered collapsed under the weight of torrential rain, and our boat starting drifting towards a weir…
Each the kernel of drama. All each of them needs to turn into story is… a queen who died of grief.
Read Jo-Annes latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: It might feel magical – but it’s not a mystical process‘