WHAT PRICE THE PREQUEL?

The prequel serves an important purpose if a novel, or more often a trilogy, has strongly drawn characters wrestling with a dramatic situation. After the resolution, some readers may wonder how the story really began. What was it in the characters’ pasts or early personalities that might predict this drama could occur?

A prequel can provide the historic context

Alternatively, what was the historic context prior to the main story’s events? This may pique the reader’s interest. Were key events such as a financial crisis, a war, a change of regime or of borders the influence over the story to come? Either way, it’s a search for origins.

Consider TV’s TRAITORS

For those millions who, like me, were thoroughly captivated by Traitors on TV -whether the British, American or Australian episodes, many wanted to know what happened to certain participants after the show ended. Equally, there was an appetite for knowing more about each participant. Their back stories greatly enriched viewers’ involvement in whether they were faithful, traitorous, winners or losers. The traitor who won the lot seemed so straight and trustworthy. How did he develop that ruthless streak? Wouldn’t we like to go back in his life to gain insight into how that happened?

A writer’s prequel to an existing novel

A good example of a compelling literary prequel is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. A hundred years after Jane Eyre was published, Rhys imagined the reasons for the madness of Bertha, the attic-hidden wife. Keeping to the timeline of Bronte’s novel, Rhys set Bertha in Jamaica, just after Britain abolished slavery in 1834. Writing a story of Bertha’s childhood to her arranged marriage to Rochester, an English gentleman, Mr. Rochester, suggests underlying reasons for her “madness”. By this means, Rhys gives readers a social analysis of this historic period and setting. Rhys therefore enriched Brontë’s original novel both by introducing Bertha’s backstory and by providing an historical and cultural context.

A writer’s prequel to his own trilogy.

Whereas Rhys’ prequel was imagined from another author’s novel, predominantly prequels are written by the same author as for the main plot. La Belle Sauvage – although titled “Book One”, is really a prequel to main story in The Book of Dust. It is the back story of Philip Pullman’s characters in his latest trilogy. It is an in-depth extension backwards of an already developed plot and characters who figure in the world of His Dark Materials.

Similarly C. S. Lewis’s children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew, explained the creation of Narnia, the subject of his seven book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

When should an author decide to write a prequel?

One pointer is when readers ask questions about the characters. Another is when the story offers many avenues to explore for which there is no room in the main work.

This is the purpose of a prequel, to provide context and psychological understanding of the novel or trilogy’s character(s). When not to write one? When the characters have not become real enough to garner sufficient reader interest, such as when the plot dominates and the characters are less important. Another reason is when the material is already known.

To be successful, a prequel has to offer new information.

“A fascinating peek into the story to come.”

In my own case, readers asked me what happened before the two main characters in A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in Britain’s WW2 home front) became arch rivals, or rather, what made the boy ‘invader’ set out to acquire everything his cousin owned, an invasion over more than the course of a wartime, one that culminated in a disaster for everyone.

The Prequel has the adults narrate their issues back in 1925 before they married. My intent was to expand upon their personalities and conflicts. The prequel hints at the tensions that affect the way the two boy cousins are brought up. The war itself, the additional post-war hardships, evacuation, loss all inevitably play a large part in the boys’ experiences, but it is the adults’ personalities that are the greater determinant of the dramas and disasters in the final part of the trilogy.

On writing a trilogy.

A Relative Invasion – The Trilogy

Advice for writers typically suggests that a series works best for indies. Does it make sense for the first three in the series to form a trilogy? Not always…

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas in a stand-alone the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, at home in a South London family. This is a story about a life-long rivalry that has lasting effects, just as a war anywhere has a long-term fall-out.

INTRUSION Billy was only five years old at the start of the story. His cousin, Kenneth, was six, but smaller and weaker. Just like a country feeling inferior by size and circumstances, Kenneth resented Billy’s health, strength and size, his more comfortable house, his better toys. Billy’s parents were charmed by Kenneth’s sweet (perhaps cloying) manners and his delicate features. The mother, particularly, had not wanted a sturdy, vigorous boy. How nice to meet one who simply wanted to sit and draw!

By around the third chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote a draft of that. I then returned to where I had left the narrative, concentrating on getting the characters from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, Billy was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking a little, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.    

      

INFILTRATION. When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the eventual climax and then fall-out from their life-long rivalry. That was more than enough for an 80,000 word novel.

IMPACT. Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I had rewritten the climax and realized the fall-out deserved a full treatment. The “ending” was written just as I’d planned, except that it now came three-quarters way through the novel.

Billy’s story was now told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy when I’d intended to write a stand-alone novel. What would I advise if I, or any other writer, was intending to write a trilogy?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc, each book also needs its own arc

The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – the tensions leading up to the threat of war until its full onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity until the war effects in Britain lessened – (“You’ve never had it so good”). Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. 

It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three properly comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, Billy, and working out his story helped me to stay the course.

Characters save plot

Period crime drama serial Dandelion Dead with Michael Kitchen and Sarah Miles was presented some while ago as a TV mini-series. I binge-watched one wet night. It held my attention until the end. And what an end! Its impact entirely depended on the strength of a minor character’s acting ability for one single shot of a few seconds. Chloe Turner did not disappoint and her silent reaction made the play sing.

odd faces on wall

Until then, the plot (based on a true crime from the 1920s) was simple and straightforward: fearsome, bossy wife; weak, lazy husband who kow-towed to her. He longed for a warmer, affectionate relationship; she provoked him with consistently bullying behaviour. He decided to poison her. The play followed the process of his temptation, the opportunity, the deed and its aftermath. The murder was fully predictable and so watchability did not depend on suspense. It might even have been a ‘so-what?’ ending if it had not been for that final brief key moment. It was enough in itself for the audience to know immediately what would inevitably follow…for all the characters. The beauty of this was The Look the character threw at her victim. If a writer can achieve the equivalent at the end of a chapter, or the novel or the short story, that leaves the reader feeling totally satisfied.

This plot of Dandelion Dead might seem too light to please today’s television audiences when graphic and complex crimes – real and fictional – come at the touch of a button, but the drawing of the characters and superb acting made this play memorable.

In novels, too, a light plot does not stop the read being compelling. Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Sturt don’t major on wild plots, but on meaningful relationships that move over time in a riveting manner. It’s often that key moment that remains in the memory.

Characters show themselves.

Do you often find yourself well into your plot before realising you haven’t written any character description for your own record? Planners may well have copious notes about each character’s life history, their personal habits, colouring, hair style and fashion sense. They may have a separate section detailing where each character lives. They may write dialogue including character reactions. They will have detailed his/her personality, the driving force, the key goal and fatal flaw.

Pantsters, like me, will find their characters evolve through having to respond to the action. I don’t know whether I am typical, but I don’t know how a character will react until I am writing that scene. It is like a lived experience. I am with the character facing whatever challenge, embarrassment or dilemma he or she is suffering. They have the experience, they react, I learn what sort of person they are…just as in real life. It is through the scene just written that I learn their flaws. There’s no way I could write the other way around.

Blank until I put them into the situation.

Yes, I have tried to plan. The planning guides look so organized, so professional, but for me it’s like being told what to do before I know what tools I will have, or how to talk to someone before I have met them…or perhaps, just being told what to do (by myself, pre-planning) rather than being left free to find out.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Furious-Angry-Woman-Screaming-Vector-Cartoon-Illustration-1024x663.jpg
You want me to react!

And when I’ve written a chapter where the character responds to the situation, I know what kind of personality s/he has, what background experience may have caused the reaction, and I recognize what I need to learn about how the other characters will respond to him or her. It is like an inner source of information that comes (apparently) spontaneously – but in fact will be based on older knowledge of people. This is a different part of the brain from the management, planning one.

This is why I write non-fiction in a totally planned, organized way. Headings, sections, content, sequence. I may add detail later, but it will be clear, that is, pre-ordained, where it will fit.

By contrast, my fiction is character-based. The character dictates the action. Therefore, I know what is going to happen in a later chapter only when I have completed the chapter I’m writing and the character has shown his or her colours.

I do usually have the ending in mind at a very early stage, so in writing the scenes I am a lot of my writing s deliberate creating towards that end. That doesn’t mean I know how the characters are going to get there, or even, sometimes, which characters will do so. One thing I’m determined upon…no weak endings!

Writing: in his shoes

Waiting to act

Could you put yourself in his shoes?

I wrote about this short story in a previous post Unlikeable character – makes you read on. I’ve just updated the e-book and reminded myself (slight shock) that I’d written horror rather than just crime.

Which writer was it who said we only know what our novel is about once it’s finished? A long time, and many thousands of words later, I remembered this because I’d had that flash of recognition: potential…how it can work both ways.

I’ve written non-fiction, historical fiction and short stories, often humorous, but I never expected to write horror. Sometimes your story runs away with you and you find it lands in a different place from the one you expected. To do this justice means writing in his shoes, that boy you come to fear.

Writing Process

It was seeing each news flash of school shootings and the consequent analysis of the boy responsible that started me on this path. I’d been painfully aware of the several times in my work as a psychologist I’d been asked to assess strangely difficult kids and/or school refusers and witnessed the same anomie and alienation that these perpetrators showed.

I created a character of a different age, imagining a potential perpetrator younger, more accessible, adding something positive – a potential event for saving the boy from causing disaster. But it worked the other way.

In attempting to walk in Jake’s shoes, I’d almost unwittingly written a story of horror. Although I’ve had very positive reviews, including a long-listing from Fish and a winner’s accolade from Bloomsbury, I had every sympathy with a 1-star reviewer on Amazon who said it was the nastiest thing he’d ever read.

It seems likely that many writers find they’ve ended up with a story they hadn’t predicted.

Here’s the beginning of mine: ‘I think I once killed a man and I don’t know why. The bloke lay at my feet, dead. I don’t think I knew him but I couldn’t look at his dead face and they didn’t make me. I’d never seen a dead person and I didn’t want to.’ The word ‘dead’ obsesses Jake when he’s ten.

If you’d like to read more about Jake and walk in his shoes, there are some free copies for the next readers who join my Readers List.

In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath

Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?

FIRST FLASH FICTION FESTIVAL

This weekend, Jude Higgins pulled off a wonderful feat in initiating the first Flash Fiction Festival in Bath.

Gaining support from the Arts Council Fund, she was able to attract some of the best flash practitioners to give readings and workshops to enthusiastic participants from five countries.

Vanessa Gebbie, Kit de Waal, Tania Hershman, Paul McVeigh, David Gaffney, Ashley Chantler, Peter Blair, David Swann, Meg Pokrass, Jude Higgins, K M Elkes, Christopher Fielden, Michael Loveday and Calum Kerr all gave generously of their time and expertise.

The weekend course opened with an overview of the genre from Peter Blair (Senior Lecturer, University of Chester) who led through saucy double-entendres and allusions to describe the range of names and kinds of very short fiction. From dribbles, drabbles, palm-held, micro-fiction and many others, he showed how a world could open up from a hard-worked choice of words, and from the power of omissions. Using examples of thought-provoking word-minimalists he discussed the significance of white space, and came near viewing the tiny story on the big page as an art form.

The writing tutor, Pamela Painter, Emerson College, Boston, opened the workshops with a charm that held the audience in her grip. Within minutes she had writers composing the most unlikely but captivating story titles.

Subsequently her workshop plummeted writers into developing stories they had not known were in their heads.

In a thought-provoking and directly helpful workshop Kit de Waal brought participants into her world of powerful stories. She demonstrated how to make the title work for the writer, and used images to stimulate imagination within the ‘container’ that is flash fiction.

Jude, herself, led a dream workshop that produced amazing results. Using three different techniques the original dream fragment developed into a meaningful whole, using myth, underlying thoughts and a current experience.

Charismatic Paul McVeigh talked of the power of every word to summon up a setting, a character, an era through saying little but saying it exactly. He described “opening a box in readers’ brains” calling on their past knowledge to furnish what was not written. He advocates laying personal pain on the line and imbuing every sentence with passion.

Tania Herschmann enlivens her writing with her scientific background. She fascinated her workshop participants with examples and exercises using scientific concepts to form innovative prose.

There were other workshops from Vanessa Gebbie and Christopher Fielden: it was impossible to attend them all but informal discussion between events revealed a very high level of satisfaction. There was enthusiasm for the possibility of a second Flash Fiction Festival next year. Will it need a larger venue to meet the demand?