Food in Writing

On Sunday I taught for the first time at the Victoria and Albert Museum: a workshop on food in writing called Food: Bigger Than The Page.

We started off talking about food as a genre or genres (plural) of writing. Some books of food writing have an investigative or campaigning approach, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then there are works of food history such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.

Someone also brought up the name of one of the great food writers: MFK Fisher. And I forgot, oops, to mention Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, which was inspired by the blog she wrote cooking her way through Julia Child’s classic cookbook – if you are interested in the publishing process, you might enjoy this piece from the publisher Knopf on The Making of … Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Moving on to the use of food in fiction and memoir, we discussed the role of food (and hunger) as symbol and driver of plot in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then explored the part that food plays in activating memory, using Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Paying attention to the ways in which all five senses create images that bring writing to life, we listened to some poems by William Carlos WilliamsPablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and Meryl Pugh. (Meryl teaches popular courses at Morley College and the Poetry School, should you be interested.) Some of these poems celebrate food or everyday life in very straightforward ways, while others have more layered meanings.

And then, after a brief palate-cleansing meditation, we became hunter-gatherers: we created Word Hoards of our sense perceptions by getting intimate with mint and star anise and kiwi fruits, and carrots and lime-blossom tea, and a fancy tiny pear called Piqa Reo (Waitrose, we salute you – and you’ve even given us a further way to use the Q tile without a U in Scrabble) (though the lime-blossom came from Gaia in St Margarets – support your local indie!).

We then paid a visit to supermarkets in California with Allen Ginsberg and Armistead Maupin, and created some characters of our own by thinking about the ways in which food acts as a social marker.

We fitted in a snack-sized look at recipes in food with Heartburn by Nora Ephron (and Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel also got a mention here). And then we finished off by discussing recipes as a form for poems with ecopoet Jack Collom – something to try at home?

I had a lot of fun putting this workshop together – see the links and titles above and also below in the list of resources. Thanks to the V&A and everyone who came along – and especially to Stacy for thinking a writing workshop would be a good idea (I first met her when I attended a V&A book club for The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – I’m going to tell myself that Frida Kahlo led me here). Thanks also to Michelle for the photos (and the kind words) below.


Further resources

Sandra M. Gilbert and Roger J. Porter, eds., Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing

Mark Kurlansky, ed., Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing

Jill Foulston, ed., The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food

Dianne Jacob, Will Write For Food (practical advice on writing about food)

Diana Henry, What Goes On Behind The Scenes Of A Cookbook (for more about the creative and production processes, and Diana Henry is an inspired writer and cook too: I have enjoyed many of her recipes)

Lynda Barry, Syllabus and Making Comics (great on creativity – you might also enjoy this interview with the genius herself: at the least, watch the first five or ten minutes)

Plus, just because, a gorgeous piece of food/cookery writing on candied oranges I read earlier today.  (Will edit for candied oranges: a trade, anyone?!)


And before I go: as I type, I believe there might be one space left on the day-long Four Elements workshop Water Ways on 8 February, which explores how we evoke feeling in writing, and I’ll also be looking at food among other experiences of the earthly realm in Earth Works on 21 March. More info via the links at the Words Away website.


One of our frondy inspirations.


Such a grand setting!

Syllabus for an Indie MA in Creative Writing 2019

In an earlier post I discussed how writers can assemble their own self-directed programme of studies: a DIY MA in creative writing.

Following further posts about that on Twitter last week, and inspired by my inner teacher as well as Lynda Barry’s wonderful book Syllabus, I’ve put together a syllabus for anyone who might want more specific guidance on what a good writing programme might need to include.

Follow this link for a PDF of the DIY MA in Creative Writing for 2019-2020 (version 1.3).

(This is very much a work-in-progress. As I tweak and add updates or corrections, I’m amend the date and version on the final page, just in case you too are a little obsessive about such things.)

A brief overview: it has four modules:

  • Craft Seminar
  • Writing Workshop
  • Manuscript Project
  • Professional Development Masterclass

I’ve chosen four textbooks that are in my experience the most helpful (and affordable – at current prices their total cost is less than £50):

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction (tenth edition)
  • Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

The content is based on my own teaching in MA and MFA programmes as well as craft masterclasses and workshops I’ve taught such as the ones that I run with Words Away; it’s also informed by my intuition and experience from over thirty years of working as an editor and mentor.

This syllabus is never going to be a substitute for a classroom, physical or online, where you can speak and listen to a teacher and interact with other writers. But it does suggest readings and activities for anyone who wants to develop knowledge and skills not only of the craft of writing but also of the business of publishing.

One unit of five classes of the Craft Seminar, Styling Your Prose, is devoted to style, syntax, and grammar, which is something that doesn’t get much focused attention in most MA programmes I’ve investigated in the UK; these are the aspects of craft that really help a writer develop a stronger voice, and for me (and many readers and publishing professionals) voice is what defines a piece of writing. This unit is where I recommend reading (and rereading) Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax.

An important part of an MA is being part of a writing community and getting and giving feedback on writing, so it will be important to seek out writers who can help with this. On another occasion, and in collaboration with others, I hope to share more tangible suggestions for how writers can, e.g., find writing partners or create a writing group, and locate more specialised resources on genre. But for now, if you have any ideas on this or anything else that would be suitable for someone embarking on studies in writing, perhaps you could post them in a comment below?


A few tips for getting started

* Practise some (or even all) of your writing away from your masterpiece-in-waiting. Sometimes we put a great deal of investment in ideas for books, and this can get in the way of the actual process of learning. There can be greater freedom in using exercises and writing flash fiction or short stories; fresh and powerful things often emerge too. Spend some time developing the craft and your intuition as a writer – then tackle your novel. Your passion for a project will still be there.

* Develop writing as a regular practice. Julia Cameron recommends morning pages: three pages of freewriting. Natalie Goldberg gives lots of prompts for you to tackle in a notebook. Robert Olen Butler insists that you write every day to maintain the creative energy in your zone or dreamspace. Explore for yourself; find what works for you, but – as with any craft – regular practice will make writing come more easily.

* Write in short spurts. Timed writings of ten minutes using prompts can generate a lot of material. You might want to edit it later, and you might not even want to use any of these words – but good stuff often surfaces in these short bursts of writing, particularly, e.g., in the last minute of a ten-minute write. And then you can take this good stuff and make even greater stuff with it later.


PS and while I’m here: if you are interested in an in-person workshop, we still have spaces in the Everyday Magic workshop I am running with Words Away on Saturday 28 September. Using the idea of the Four Elements, it looks at craft and creativity through the lens of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. It’s a day full of reading and writing and listening and talking that, I hope, brings fresh perspectives on writing and new inspirations for writers.


Workshops for Autumn 2019: Four Elements, Food, Fire

Here towards the end of the summer break comes a post with info on writing and creativity workshops I’m leading in the autumn:

* Saturday 28 September, 9.45am-5pm
Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, at London Bridge Hive, in conjunction with Words Away

* Sunday 13 October 2019, 2pm-5pm
Food: Bigger Than The Page, at the Victoria & Albert Museum

* Saturday 9 November, 9.45am-5pm
Finding Your Fire: A Four Elements Workshop on Theme and Voice, at London Bridge Hive, in conjunction with Words Away

You can follow the links above for further information plus booking details (and early bird rates for Words Away workshops), but here is a little more background on each of them.

First, I’m very excited to be teaching at the V&A for the first time. The 13 October workshop is inspired by a truly innovative and highly recommended V&A exhibition called Food: Bigger Than The Plate.

I’m not sure the writing experiments we’ll be doing will be as wild as some of exhibits you’ll find there (communicate with a tomato! coffee cups made from … coffee grinds! plant pots made of … cow shit!) – but we can try. We’ll consider some of its themes of composting and trading and cooking, and we’ll pay particular attention to food for its symbolism, and its ability to evoke the senses, and its power to conjure up memories. Food can play a central role in many types of writing – not just cookbooks and food writing, but fiction and poetry and memoir and film and stage. Fancy a madeleine?!

Oh: and the V&A classroom is AMAZING. Not that that is the only lure, of course.

I’m also excited to be working with Kellie Jackson of Words Away once more. We’ve worked together before, and I think we are a good team. On 28 September, we are revisiting Everyday Magic, the workshop based on the Four Elements I’ve run several times before. And later in the autumn and then into the winter, spring, and summer I am expanding this into four entirely new workshops devoted to each of the elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Air.

I developed Four Elements workshops as, in my work as a book doctor and editor, I find that one of the greatest hurdles for writers is overthinking. This shows up in any number of ways that can lead us away from the act of creation: cluttered prose, procrastination, self-consciousness, neurosis, comparison, destructive self-criticism. Writers often need to get out of their heads, and their own way.

With that in mind, Four Elements workshops invite writers to gain fresh (and less overthought?) perspectives on writing: its energy (Fire), its emotional qualities (Water), and its ability to conjure up the material world (Earth). And then we return to thinking about writing with greater clarity and focus (Air). Working holistically and symbolically, we can expand our sense of what our writing can be.

My inspirations and touchstones for these workshops are varied: tarot, Jungian archetypes, meditation, contemplative approaches to learning I encountered at Naropa, inspiring teachers such as Lynda Barry and Natalie Goldberg and Bobbie Louise Hawkins and Jack Collom and Austin Kleon. Also: reading. I do plenty of reading, and I’m always thinking about the Four Elements as I read. I usually assign short reading and writing assignments to be completed before class so we have a common foundation for our discussions and activities. Our readings nearly always include, among others, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx; it’s only 10,000 words, so everyone has chance to have read it, but it gives us so much to talk about. And it’s such an awesomely good story.

So we shall be looking at craft, using examples from the readings, but we mostly shall try to avoid getting too schoolroom about such matters; lots of writing courses focus on technical aspects of writing, including our own series of masterclasses, and one of the aims of Four Elements is to find different routes into writing that are intuitive and avoid over-intellectualising. So, for example, we shall seek out the fire in a piece of writing, and use that lens to consider and feel how that energy is achieved – particularly through doing writing ourselves. There will be plenty of prompts and writing experiments to try in class and to take home.

The four new Four Elements workshops will also feature sessions led by guest gurus whose work in various fields in the arts invites further perspectives on creativity. We hope to have a firestarter from the world of theatre coming along on 9 November, and then poets and other artists coming to other workshops later.

The workshops are interactive; it’s always valuable to hear what other writers have to bring to our discussions, and I never fail to leave a class brimming with fresh ideas people have raised, as well as, e.g., lots of reading recommendations. There’s always something new to learn. And we get a great variety of people coming along: published writers and absolute beginners (no such thing!), and everyone in between; fiction writers, journalists, poets, writers of nonfiction, screenwriters, people trying new forms, other types of artist.

Each workshop stands alone – Everyday Magic (28 September) serves as an overview or an introduction, but it’s not essential to taking one of the other Four Elements workshops, and you can sign up for any as you wish, as they are designed to be self-contained. We continue with Finding Your Fire (9 November), when we will explore ways to bring energy into our writing and our practice, and pay particular attention to theme and voice as well as the symbolism of Fire. We’ll follow with (titles tbc):

Feeling Your Way: Water – emotion, tone and perspective (January tbc)

Grounded in Action: Earth – character, action and description (March tbc)

Clear Thinking: Air – symbol, structure and form (May tbc)

And in June we hope to repeat the successful masterclass The Craft of Revising, which is a daylong intensive on self-editing and revision.

Kellie interviewed me about some of my inspirations for an earlier version of Everyday Magic, and in addition here are reports on that from both Kellie’s blog and my own blog.

And meanwhile I hope you have had productive summers. I feel very smug, as without planning to do so I read War and Peace. And yes, it can be read in ten days (I was on holiday, mind). I very much enjoyed the Anthony Briggs translation – have to mention that, as I dipped into others, and though I gather it’s not for purists I found this translation the most fleet in the reading.

I so often make new year resolutions to read X or Y (this year it was more sf and fantasy, um), but I always end up feeling I’ve let myself down. But this summer I read War and Peace! And it is GREAT. Now, 1,400 big hardback pages later, I understand the raves. And, too, I FINALLY read Portrait of a Lady and David Copperfield too – both as audiobooks, in fact.

I hope to see some of you later in the autumn – at workshops, or at other events such as Words Away salons.

Meanwhile, back to the garden, where I’ve also been busy this week. Chrysanthemums always welcome the autumn, don’t they?


Only Connect: Writing Experiment No. 74


I saw Bhanu Kapil reading at the LRB Bookshop on Friday. An intense but joyful event – tales of migrants, tales of violence, tales of family, rites of mud and glitter. Also: birthday cake on the summer solstice: that magical.

Bhanu posed a question – two questions – directly, simply in her writing:

What did you inherit?

What did you reproduce?

Inheritance and reproduction: energies to seek out in our writing.


I am reading Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. And O! It really is gorgeous. I also recently read the profile Ocean Vuong’s Life Sentences in the New Yorker, and noted the following description of his style:

The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel, too, and they work on overlapping scales: passages are organized by recurring phrases, as are the chapters, which build momentum as a poetry collection does, line by line. Most of the novel centers on Little Dog’s childhood and adolescence, but Vuong roams in non-chronological circles through a wide field of intensified memory. The narrative occasionally extends backward, to visions of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother in Vietnam, before he was born, and it briefly reaches forward, in a few passages that signal that Little Dog has become a writer.

(Update 25 June 2019) I’ve since completed the novel. It really is gorgeous, and brilliant, and in so many ways. I’ve also since read a couple of reviews – one of which comments on how in the book ‘a lot of information … comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact’.

Now: this response suggests that this book might not be for every reader, particularly those who want their stories laid out clearly in the manner of representative realism.

But: for me these very dislocations and refusals are part of the book’s design – they are its essence. I think some things in this book – scenes, images, statements, fragments – operate outside of the usual conventions of rendering time and space, lacking obvious consequence.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, that’s more than fine. This is a novel that among other things is about the Vietnam war, immigrant experience, gay lives, and the limits of the body. It’s inevitable that such things leak out, resist definition.

Some writers might consider this in their own work with caution, perhaps. This is after all a novel written by a poet and some of its forms and gestures will feel more familiar to readers who’re comfortable with some of the conventions of experimental poetry. But I strongly feel there are matters here that any writer can consider: character, voice, story, and what happens when things refuse to be pinned down. This should have an appeal to any reader or writer who lets themselves be: open.

Ocean Vuong talks more about some of these matters in a podcast with Barnes and Noble. I quote one selection:

Desire plus powerlessness is momentous feeling. I wanted the characters to move a little and feel a lot … The [fiction textbook] is all about plot: what’s the plot, and secondly: what’s the conflict? That’s also the formula: you need a plot to move through, and you need conflict.

And I was very suspicious of that. Perhaps because I’m a poet, in many senses we are plotless. And I thought: I don’t know if that’s how I feel as an American, as a person. I wonder if I live in a linear plot? To me it feels much more like proximity. The way we sit beside our loved ones. The way we move through the world, meaning tension and drama happen simply by proximity. The way chemistry works, you have oxygen and hydrogen: fine on their own. Put them side by side and all of a sudden: water. That was how I thought of the structure of the novel. It was blind faith. It was not the go-to form.

But I wanted something more faithful to what it meant to live as an American, in which we move from space to space, and meaning, drama and the substance of our lives happens because we are side by side each other, not because we are in a linear plot device.


I relate these ideas to my recent blog post on alternatives to conflict in plotting.

Whether you are writing something that’s non-chronological or something that’s more linear, have a go at this writing experiment:

* Take some index cards and some Post-it notes. (You could use Scrivener or some mind-mapping software, if you prefer, but I really do think there is a great value in physical interaction.)

* Use the index cards to write down the chapters and/or scenes of your book, identifying the key CHANGE that happens within that chapter or scene. What takes the story forward?

* Then lay the cards out on a table or desk. (Or if you have lots of cards or not enough desk space, do a few at a time, perhaps moving through a stack of cards you keep at your right then gradually stack to the left as you work through them.)

* Next, using the Post-its, identify the CONNECTING ENERGY that fills the space between each of the index cards, and how that energy is achieved. It might be an overt matter of cause and effect: what happens in one chapter might lead to the events of the next. Or it could be more subtle, or the jolt that comes from a twist, or an abrupt shift of setting or point of view that delivers some reward through juxtaposition, or the question that’s raised at such a point (it might be as simple as: why are we now here?). Consider, for example, the energy arising from:

  • twists
  • information gaps
  • surprises
  • unexpected changes
  • reversals of fortune
  • turns
  • recurrences
  • variations
  • juxtapositions
  • elisions
  • chronology
  • jump cuts
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • overlaps
  • frames
  • contrasts
  • dislocations
  • mosaics
  • fragments sitting beside each other
  • alignments
  • questions
  • inheritances
  • reproductions
  • expanding horizons
  • contractions in focus
  • refusals
  • leakages
  • reactions by characters
  • cause and effect

That last one – cause and effect – strikes me as an important one overall.

For these points, think about: spikes of energy; connections; questions that prick our curiosity. How are these scenes/chapters and connections SEQUENCED? How might a CONTRAST create a forward propulsion? I am also thinking how both Ocean Vuong and Bhanu Kapil are writing narratives of migration that are made up of smaller pieces, even fragments: how do your own stories possess a quality of MOVEMENT that arises from the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?

Do this for both scenes as well as chapters eventually. It’s useful to consider both the connections between bigger units of narrative, and also those closer up, scene by scene.

Once you have finished this exercise, you might want to spread out all the Post-its in order, and see what you have: what patterns emerge? You might want to tabulate the connections and energies you find into a list. Are there gaps that could be made into something more interesting, or could the very fact of their gappy nature be heightened and made into a feature of the work? Are there points where the writing feels a bit too chronological (ploddy): might it increase the energy to introduce a gap or a disruption between two chapters or sections? How can the larger work gather MOMENTUM? Consider the types of connections listed above, and others of your own reckoning. See what you can find.

What’s the mud and glitter that holds together your work?

If you want to take this exercise further: use your index cards and Post-its to compose an outline in narrative form of a next draft.

Plotting: Conflict, Complication, Curiosity, and Connection

What’s the conflict, where’s the conflict? These questions often arise in creative writing, and sometimes I find them tiresome. Perhaps it’s because they can sound a bit nagging or whiny, and I am an irritable and impatient type who runs to resentment easily.

But really it’s because conflict is not always the obvious or the primary driver of stories for me. Certain types of story do not rely on conflict, even if it’s somewhere in the story. 

Many films and plays are all about conflict. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the experience, something to do with the way audiences engage with a performance or a spectacle on screen or stage; their expressive nature so often draws us with some sort of verbal or physical sparring, some visible tension or conflict, particularly in their most popular forms: battling wits between the leads in a Shakespearean comedy or a rom com; a murder mystery or a courtroom drama; the inner turmoil of a guts-spilling Tennessee Williams monologue or a ballad in a musical; a car chase or the combat between fighter aircraft in outer space; even an ecological threat, whether it’s the ancient tale of Noah’s ark or a cli-fi disaster movie.

Such vividly portrayed antagonisms – interpersonal, internal, societal, or environmental – connect with audience powerfully and immediately. It’s not surprising that many of the theories of narrative structure that have grown out of writing for cinema and theatre put conflict at the heart of stories too.

By contrast, it occurs to me that novels are usually consumed in private and as individual reading (or listening) experiences, and as such can invite a more reflective approach in their subject matter. Reading by its nature tends to be a more meditative and less public act.

I am not saying that novels lack conflict, of course. Many novels are entirely based in conflict, and even if you are writing a less conflict-oriented story it really does help to grasp the fundamentals of narrative structure that are based in tracing the turning points, and complications, and climaxes that are often focused around a central conflict. They’re particularly useful when planning and shaping a story, though I always stress that this is stuff you know deeply and practise lightly. It can help to analyse the structure of novels that inspire you.

Any theory can, though, start to feel formulaic, or even constraining. And it’s particularly this emphasis on conflict that I often find myself resisting. Stories predicated on conflict favour, it could be argued, quite a … violent? and phallocratic? way of looking at/presenting the world. Even some of the guidebooks about this way of telling a story can get awfully mansplainy  🙀🙀🙀

Instead, I often think about the idea of CHANGE, prompted by something Ursula Le Guin says in her wonderful book Steering the Craft. Regulars at my classes might be able to recite this by heart now, as I read it out every time:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

So: what’s changing? What’s being found, lost, borne, discovered in our stories?

I’m currently reading the recently published Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. A lot of great stuff here, and I’m only a few chapters in. Something that’s registered so far is its reference to the ‘psychology of curiosity’:

Information gaps create gnawing levels of curiosity in the readers of Agatha Christie and the viewers of Prime Suspect, stories in which they’re (1) posed a puzzle; (2) exposed to a sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution; (3) surprised by red herrings; and (4) tantalised by the fact that someone knows whodunnit, and how, but we don’t.

So: I’m also thinking about ways in which curiosity might be used to guide the telling of stories.

And then imagine my surprise the other day when I was prepping for Saturday’s masterclass on revising and self-editing that I discover there is a whole other narrative structure I had never heard of: the Japanese four-act structure called kishōtenketsu. Where have I been, hiding under a neocolonialist mansplained rock of three-act structure?!

Kishōtenketsu a way of looking at form that is found in examples from classical Chinese poetry as well as manga comics. Its four acts (or frames in comics) use:

  • Set-up
  • Development, or expansion
  • Twist, or complication
  • Resolution, or conclusion

It’s discussed in more detailed in links below, but the idea of the twist really catches my attention here.

I do think the form of kishōtenketsu needs adapting, mind. Just as we don’t need to rely on three or five acts, we don’t have to be limited to four. But thinking about the ingredients of four-act structure, particularly how we look for twists, frees up how we consider the potential of the fluid forms of prose fiction: from flash fiction by Lydia Davis to the 10,000 words of Brokeback Mountain to the 300,000 words of The Goldfinch, which is a novel that uses many shifts and twists to keep the pages turning.

So: instead of the turning points of the conflict-focused three-act structure (triggering moment, rising action, climax, resolution), these other ideas lead me to thinking of different shaping principles: twists, information gaps, surprises, unexpected changes, the spark that’s created by a reversal of fortune (or a turn in a sonnet), juxtapositions, the jump cut, frames, contrasts, dislocation, alignments, questions that prick my curiosity, expanding horizons, cause and effect. There are many subtle energies and forms that are not so emphatically about conflict but are about other ways of relating and integrating experience. Cause and effect (consequence) is particularly important: something happens (a twist), how do characters react?

Here are a few examples from my own (emerging) thinking.

There are certainly conflicts within Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but much of the page-turning energy arises for me from the twists of its reversals in fortune and sudden shifts in setting. No spoilers, but people who’ve read the book will remember one very explosive moment as well as one very marked move to a (brilliantly realised) fresh location, and then later on there is also a really great twist I really should have seen coming, but didn’t. How characters react to those changes is perhaps more important than defining any particular antagonism; though conflicts are certainly there in The Goldfinch, this is ultimately a book about loss and love and finding your way in the world, and they are what’s most important, particularly in the rising swell of emotion that define the ‘shock and aura’ of its final pages. The resolution of that book isn’t about conflict, or about one person defeating another. It’s about a surprise, and it’s about a character finding something – literally, and also more deeply within, and along the way the reader is rewarded with many moments that are not so much about conflict but about connection and empathy.

Other examples.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. That Olive is quite a combative character! So there are plenty of conflicts here. But consider the juxtapositions, the contrasts, the different frameworks of narrative that overlap and interlock yet too at times go out on their own, with their own surprises.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It starts with a conflict, and it’s one whose resolution drives the story – but too there is much more going on. Some of the sections of this book that I enjoyed the most involved characters going off into their own storylines, and involved things none of the other characters knew about.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen likewise has plenty of conflicts between its characters, but for me much of its powerful charge arises from changes in POV, shifts in register, and what we gain from surprises and contrasts and misunderstandings and realignments we encounter in the storytelling and characterisation (and we meet some really distinctive characters here). This is more nuanced than what might simply be understood as conflict.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. A great leap that happens at a certain point in the story is all about the twist that’s delivered, and it’s certainly a twist that draws on the energy of conflicts between characters caught up in the ‘wretched scheme’ of a dastardly conspiracy that’s the fodder of classic Victorian melodramas. But it’s a radical retelling here, and a significant shift in POV and a serious re-examination of characters delivers much of the reward in the reading too. Fingersmith is all about the twists.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It certainly has conflicts, but it’s hard to apply the conventional dramatic arc to this novel, and we derive much of our pleasure from the way in which its Russian Doll form jumps us from one frame of narrative to another.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. A novel I very much enjoyed recently, and again one with plenty of conflicts at its core. But something I particularly admired is the way in which it is constructed, like Cloud Atlas, of self-contained frames of narrative that are not immediately obvious in their connections. Our curiosity is guided as to how these stories are joined together.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Another book in sections (three of them), and though each has its own conflicts the greater part of the narrative drive here lies in figuring out how these stories are joined together. Connection is a more important shaping principle than conflict, I’d dare to say.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. That Truman Capote certainly was a bundle of antagonisms! Social, interpersonal, and especially internal. But much of the pleasure of this magnificent novel is that it’s not laboriously constructed around the central conflict of Truman spilling the tea on his Swans in his final book, but it frees itself in terms of both form and content to explore a whole life and times, digressing into whole separate strands of storyline for secondary characters. It’s a bold, ambitious novel – and its boldness comes from daring to be unconventional.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Swan Song brought this to mind for me – again, the conflict of real lives reimagined (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky), but again much of the payoff comes from formally playing with the way that stories are told, and leaving gaps in the account – lacunae.

David Copperfield is a coming-of-age story with plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fortune. And coincidences! Imagine having tea at the house of your nemesis and lo and behold your own landlord walks by and a friendship is resumed. We are told to avoid coincidences in our stories, but Dickens gets away with it! Have a go for yourself, even if you really do have to be crafty. But too I have myself experienced remarkable coincidences. I once sat down on a ferry between North and South Island in New Zealand, and was enjoying the view, when I looked across the deck and saw Celia who used to sit in the next office to me when I first started working in publishing in London! Another time, when I lived in the US, I ran into Bernie from the art department (from that same office in London) while hiking the trail to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is a strange and meditative book about a writer who loses a friend and gains a dog. It does have conflicts, and a plot, and I am sure we can find the conflicts and tensions of three-act structure here if we seek them out. But the emphasis is definitely on the internal musings of how the central character processes change; it’s a nuanced self-exploration, and to my mind lacks an obvious conflict as its central drama.

But how do we shape all of these twists and curiosities and nuances into a coherent form? (Which begs the question, in fact, of how coherent do we need to be?).

In fact, after questioning theories from film, I feel that one of the most flexible ways of thinking about story structure comes from the Pixar Story Spine:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day ___.

Perhaps we can say that twists are what happens at One day ___. And a long novel such as The Goldfinch or David Copperfield has lots of One days? Conventional three-act structure reduces this to a single inciting incident or trigger, but such works amount to a long sequence of causes and effects.

I am not saying that we should write stories without conflict. We do need – and want – tension in our writing and our reading. Conflicts are fun, whether played out in the bitchy undermining that goes on in the juicy narration of a novel such as Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, or in the more obvious thrills and spills of a battle in a fantasy novel that results in the victorious outcome we desire. The clash of sword and shield provides the basic matter of many tales.

Hold up a minute, though: mentioning battles in fantasy novels makes me think about Game of Thrones, and I am wondering if many of the negative reactions to its tv resolution arose because we have grown used to storytelling that favours outright victors and clear-cut conquests. In Plot Without Conflict, Randy Finch in fact uses kishōtenketsu as a specific way of looking at the story of Game of Thrones. Many characters were most certainly defeated at the end, and many others lost their heads along the way, but the twist at the end saw unlikely characters achieving outcomes that had been speculated upon only in the distant fan-flamed corners of the interwebs. Game of Thrones, it turns out, is not a story with the arc of a conventional hero’s journey.

It’s not really a matter of thinking about plots without conflict. It’s more that conflict doesn’t have to be the primary emphasis, or the HEART of the story. The gender-bias of male-oriented hero narratives – all swords and cock, and not much internal action – is perhaps not the ideal way of thinking about those stories of finding or losing that Ursula Le Guin mentions above.

And perhaps in general we need a less adversarial mode of not only writing, but also looking at the world?

Consider, for example, those essays written in high school or freshman composition classes, where we are tasked on ‘arguing’ for or against a proposition: prove yourself right, which often means proving someone else wrong. (Sound familiar? I wouldn’t know, I’m not reading the news right now.)

Does the conditioning of years after years of writing argumentative essays and creating conflict-driven stories and taking part in debating society result in the squabbling chamber of the Houses of Parliament, and the rise of alt-right and -left trolls, and antagonistic figures such as Donald Trump? Does everything always have to be defined so much by confrontation and conquest? We don’t have to be creationists to think that the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest is not necessarily the way we have to structure our societies, sorry, our stories.

Hello, my name is Andrew, and if I win Miss World my wish is for an end to all wars. [Cue: Imagine all the people, Living life in peace …]

Perhaps this is taking things a bit far, though perhaps it is not. The way in which we rely on conflict in our storytelling is worth serious thought. There are alternatives that emphasise and embody other ways of integrating change and complication in the world: inviting curiosity, emphasising connection.

As the man said: Only connect.


Further reading and writing
I’ve added a writing experiment that plays with these ideas as an exercise in drafting and revision: Only Connect.

And further discussion and amplification of ideas can be found in the links below, along with another one on the fragmented novel, a form we discussed in my recent class Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time in Writing.

Still Eating Oranges, The Significance of Plot Without Conflict

* Kate Krake, The Four-Act Narrative, or the Plot Without Conflict

* Mythic Scribes – also includes further links to pieces on differences between Japanese and Western styles of arguing/conflict and structure in Japanese horror stories

* Eamonn Griffin, Kishōtenketsu for Beginners

* Nicole W. Lee, On Kishōtenketsu – includes analysis of Chinese poetry

* Taiyo Nakashima, Japan’s Most Popular Manga

* Ted Gioia, The Rise of the Fragmented Novel

* Also, let’s not forget a book is not a film. I recently read a very well-reviewed book on novel writing that has a lot of good content, but a large proportion of its examples are taken from film. I mean: its chapter on dialogue quotes at length from four different texts, AND THEY ARE ALL FILMS. Which would be fine if the book was called Writing A Screenplay, but it isn’t. Novels have options beyond direct speech: indirect or reported speech, summary, dialogue tags, and ways of rendering action and gestures too that can only be achieved in prose. Anyone writing a novel needs to understand those ways in which characters’ speech is rendered too. (If you want a really and truly excellent guide to writing dialogue in prose, check out the chapter on characterisation in the new/tenth edition of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, finally available in an affordable edition on these shores.)

And again: a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. A film is something intended for consumption within a block of two hours while you sit in a dark room with strangers, or in front of your telly with your loved ones, or on your iPad by yourself. A play is something that is watched in a hushed room or (further back in time) an outdoor amphitheatre, again over the course of a couple of hours (or a bit more maybe). A book however can be picked up and put down over the course of many days, and in any context (in bed, on the train, on the beach); the duration of that reading experience will be several hours even for a fast reader. Theories developed for one medium need serious adaptation for a differently consumed form.

Also, showing-not-telling is something of a Western bias, a colonial relic even. Which is fine, if you want to be a colonial relic, I guess.

Also, however many time people try to explain beats to me I. Just. Don’t. Get. Them. (My beats are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and Bobbie Louise Hawkins.)

I think the problem I have with beats and some of these other structures is probably that they can feel to me like externally conceived structures imposed upon narrative matter. They are not arising in that intuitive way that I recently heard Anna Burns describe how she wrote Milkman.

And, once again: I do observe that a book is not a film, or a play for that matter. Beats are used in writing for screen and stage, and films and plays are creations that manifest primarily as external expressions of action: performances that rely on spectacle and a choreographed management of time and space.

So: narrative theories based on screen- and scriptwriting have other limits beyond their emphasis on conflict. There are many theories on structure in film, in fact, and I find myself drawn more to the idea of the sequence . But I do note that three- or five-act structures are the ones I come across most in discussions in fiction writing.