The first session I attended at Space, Time, Machine and Monster was given by author Jasper Fforde. His name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t name any of his books. From what I saw of the titles on sale at the Waterstones desk however, he’s quite an established author (cue much embarrassment by me for turning up not knowing the first thing about him!)
He started off his talk with a potted history of himself and the beginnings of his career. There was some familiar material here along the lines of how you know you have to be a writer if you can’t stop yourself from doing it, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. Not that I’m saying this isn’t very good, valid advice – it is. But it’s also a fairly well known bit of advice.
The next part was more of a surprise. I was expecting sage advice along the lines of making
sure you have properly plotted story arcs, solid characterisation and to pay attention to
realistic dialogue. Instead, Jasper advocated narrative dares.
What’s a narrative dare? Well, put simply, it seems to be to set yourself a particularly tricky, silly or otherwise novel situation and challenge yourself to write your way out of it. The example Jasper gave us was of a man opening his living room curtains, to find a gorilla
outside up a tree! He went on to tell us how he wrote his way out of the situation by turning it into a crime mystery. I won’t spoil the surprise of how it ends by going into exact details, just in case you bump into him in future (apparently he gives quite a few talks) but I will tell you a few of the sneaky sidepoints he managed to include, whilst telling us his tale.
Make the ordinary extraordinary
One way of getting the reader interested in what might not be the most uniquely thrilling
event is to change the genre or setting.
Man walks his dog – not much of a story. Dog walks his man because the dog is his dancing coach and they’re preparing for a stint on Strictly Come Dancing, or Dancing with the Stars? Much more intriguing, even though from the outside, the picture may be identical. It’s not just what happens, it’s how you frame it.
Make the extraordinary ordinary
More or less the reverse of the first tip. Sometimes you want to include something a bit
unusual in your story, but you don’t want it to turn all luvvie on you and start stealing too
much of the limelight, hogging the attention you want your readers to pay to other parts of
the plot or different characters. The way you do this, is to put the fantastic character, detail or element into the tale in a very matter of fact way. A bit like hiding in plain sight. Rather than having a big build up and everyone else in the story remarking on it, make them behave as if it’s completely normal and barely even worth a mention.
For example, a captain and his first mate are sailing a galleon across the ocean, under a blazing sun with not a patch of land in sight. They’re worriedly discussing whether they are hopelessly lost, since the 2nd mate dropped the compass overboard last week, and whether they have enough fresh water to last them until they find land.
As they work out how low they can cut the water ration without the rest of the crew mutinying, a giant sea serpent passes the ship, its tail flicking water onto the deck. The captain and the first mate, don’t even notice as they’re too busy in discussion, and just shout back at the deckhand they assume has been swabbing the deck a tad too
Something unusual that the reader will definitely notice, without it hijacking the story.
The devil in the detail
If you’ve been tempted by some of the cheap or free self published stories available these
days for e-readers then you’ve probably come across at least one story that should have
worked but just didn’t. Interesting subject matter, clever overarching plot, characters that
from the jacket copy should have practically got up off the page and walked into real life, but something’s just missing. They feel flat, constructed, over-consciously written. It’s possible that with some of these, the problem is too much of a focus on the big picture and not enough attention paid to the little things.
Small details, even things that seem too irrelevant to mention in terms of progressing a
story, can help to make it seem real because they’re precisely the parts that are left out of
the kinds of stories we know are untrue, are “just” fairy stories. Think of Red Riding Hood – do we know her name? Do we know why her grandma is ill? Or why she lives in the woods instead of with her family in the village? Do we even know what the weather was like when Red Riding Hood travelled to Grandma’s house through the woods? Of course not, because it’s a neverwhen story.
But if you compare it to Harry Potter, we know that occasionally spiders dangled from the ceiling when he lived in the cupboard under the stairs. We know how many different chocolate frog cards are available to collect and we know that Harry’s favourite dessert is treacle tart. All the small details bring it to life, make it real, make it relatable to for the reader.
Narrative dares again
And back to narrative dares. They’re more common that you think. Many of the writing
competitions on sites like Readwave are different versions of the same thing. A Tale of Dice
and Fire – the weeklong writing challenge that MabisMab and I took this summer was a
series of narrative dares where the dares themselves were decided by fairytale dice. The
concept is even used outside the sphere of writing – Chris from What’s the Pont recently wrote a great blog post about a set of inspiration cards used particularly by musicians such as David Bowie.
Overall I think I quite like them, especially for getting a story started. I’m not sure how helpful they’d be in the tricky middle of the story stage though. I’m still looking for the answer of how to get from the beginning part to the end part without the middle falling to pieces.
Have you tried narrative dares? If you have, did you find them helpful?
**If you want to see Jasper in person yourself, his next appearance is at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend Event on 30th November 2013**