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.


Summer 2019 Masterclasses: Density and Speed, Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I have lined up two further day-long masterclasses on craft for the summer term.

* Saturday 11 May 2019: Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time in Writing, plus Q&A with book PR Alison Menzies. 

* Saturday 15 June 2019: The Craft of Revising: A Masterclass on Self-editing for Writers, plus Q&A with editor Faiza Khan of Bloomsbury Publishing. 

I am right now putting together materials for new class Density and Speed. This is inspired by hearing Donna Tartt, in a tv interview at the time of the publication of The Goldfinch, say that she loves Charles Dickens for the ‘density and speed’ she finds in his work.

What did she mean by that?! I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but this idea of density and speed caught my imagination and refused to go away. In my thinking, density has come to refer to the texture of a world that’s created in either fiction or nonfiction: characters, settings, the way in which a grounded reality is conjured up. It is related to perspective, tone, and description. We’re often told to avoid description in writing, and yes, we might need to be sure it doesn’t slow the storytelling down too much. But as a reader I love good description when it’s well rendered. Sometimes it’s great paragraphs with life and colour, and sometimes it’s just a single word in the right place, but description can really halt me (in the good way) in how it evokes a scene, a whole landscape.

And speed for me describes our movement through a piece of writing: the techniques with which a story creates pace and tension and urgency, and that keep the pages turning from the start – a commercial imperative, too. At the sentence level, as well, parts of speech play roles: at a basic level, nouns anchor us and verbs move us through.

The more I thought about it, so many other things come into play with these ideas of density and speed: dramatic structure, narrative distance, what’s unspoken in a story. Word counts, genre, sex, death – immortality! And I also realised that the ways in which we carve up and present space and time in our writing also give us an opportunity to question the shapes of our stories: there’s much more to storytelling than the conventional narrative arc, and I plan on discussing some of these matters in our class in May.

In June our class on revising and self-editing is a repeat of one we ran successfully last summer, and it should be of use to writers who have finished drafts, as well as people with works-in-progress.

Masterclass series on craft
These classes round out a year of classes designed to use practical, intuitive approaches to craft topics in writing. They cover the ground that might be addressed in seminars for an MA or MFA in creative writing: Plotting; Voice; Character and Setting; Prose and Literary Style; Space and Time; Revising and Self-Editing. I think they have been successful so far as we have a great community of regulars coming along for intelligent and good-humoured discussions; many of us go along to Words Away salons with Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin too. The spirit is collaborative, and our focus is practical, and everyone brings along valuable contributions from their own writing, reading, and professional backgrounds.

And you don’t have to come to all of the classes to gain something from them. They are designed to stand alone, and dropping in to just one class might simply offer fresh insight or a jolt of energy to any writer wanting a bit of a boost in their creative process.

I’ve also been pleased to invite along industry speakers for Q&A sessions at the end of the day. So far we have appearances from not only an agent and editors, but also people from other areas of publishing talking about other aspects of the book trade: audiobooks, production, PR, rights, literary estates. I don’t really like the idea of publishers and agents as gatekeepers, and prefer to find ways in which writers can empower themselves in what is, at best, a collaborative creative process. It’s important that publishing is demystified, and it helps to know what goes on behind the scenes. Understanding that this is not only a business but a working life can have a subtle effect on how writers think about their own books and careers.

Classes usually come with preparatory reading suggestions and sometimes an advance writing exercise too. I try to use a variety of selections to illustrate craft points – some books that I’m currently rereading are shown in the pic above (note: you won’t have to read them all!). I also send follow-up notes after each class, including recommended resources, further reading, and writing prompts and exercises.

The May and June 2019 classes will again be held at London Bridge Hive, 1 Melior Place, London SE1 3SZ. (And places for these classes are going; Density and Speed is already booking up quickly.)

And I shouldn’t forget: on Monday 29 March I am co-hosting the Words Away salon with award-winning historical novelist Antonia Hodgson, who’s going to be talking about Plotting, Process and Page-turners. Hope to see some of you there.


‘Heart’ Words vs ‘Head’ Words: Guest Writing Experiment No. 73 From Zoe Gilbert

I’m really happy to introduce a guest writing experiment from Zoe Gilbert. She’s chosen a topic that I myself encountered in one of her excellent workshops – Zoe’s teaching is *highly* recommended (see link below), and so is her book Folk, a truly original work of fiction that was one of my favourite books of 2018.

Over to Zoe:


The English language is a richer resource than we might realise. Thanks to the influence of many languages arriving on our islands over the centuries, we have enough synonyms to warrant a thesaurus (not all languages have one of these). Especially useful to the creative writer is learning to distinguish between words with Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, roots, and those that derive from Latin, or related romance languages. I like to call these two sets of vocabulary in English ‘heart’ language and ‘head’ language.

Germanic words are our heart language: they are direct, simple, concrete, and go straight to the heart with their emotional impact. Think of words like home, hearth, love, hate. They are sometimes onomatopoeic, blunt, informal or downright rude (think of the best swear words).

Latinate words are our head language: they are formal, academic, abstract, and appeal to the rational mind. Think of words like intellectual, superior, consideration, providence. They are sometimes emotionally distancing, elitist, technical or jargonistic.

Learning to spot which kinds of words you are using gives you the power to choose for effect. Think of the difference between writing ‘gut’ vs ‘intestine’, ‘sluggish’ vs ‘languorous’, ‘irk’ vs ‘displease.’ You can do this by feel, or enjoy an intense relationship with online etymological dictionaries until you get the hang of it.

If you want to create ‘oomph’, aim for Germanic language. If you want to prioritise the rational over the emotional, or create distance, use Latinate.


Exercise: take a scenario and write it twice, once using as many formal, Latinate language words as you can, and once using Germanic language words. Use a thesaurus or etymological dictionary if you get really stuck. You might find that the different words require different sentence structures, too.

Here are some scenarios to try out:

  • An animal attacks its owner
  • A lover ends an affair abruptly
  • A person discovers something unexpected in their house

Alternatively, make up your own, or take one from a story you are working on.

Here’s an example of the first scenario, written two ways.

A          When Phoebe saw the wound, anger flooded through her. Could she share her home with this fiend? In battle, which of them would win? She backed away, into the kitchen, to think through her next move.

B          When Phoebe perceived the perforations to her epidermis, a sensation of acute hostility cascaded through her. Would it be possible to inhabit the same space as this demon? In combat, which of them would be victorious? She retreated to the kitchen to consider her strategy.


Zoe Gilbert is the author of Folk, currently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and she won the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She is currently completing a PhD on folk tales in short fiction, and teaches creative writing at London Lit Lab. You can find out about her courses on using folk tales in fiction here.



Back to Andrew: Thanks, Zoe! This really is one of the best exercises – really getting down into the mire of language. I remember being in a Zoe workshop where we forensically went through an Angela Carter story looking for Germanic and Latinate words – it’s a great exercise in reading too, and I am in fact very shortly going to be tasking students to look for Germanic and Latinate words in one of Zoe’s own stories.

If you’ve not read Folk, you can find out more here – I’m clearly not the only fan!

And before we go: on this day of days, let this exercise honour the many languages and cultures that have always made up these islands – and always will. Vive la différence!



Sitting (And Walking) With Your Characters: Writing Experiment No. 72

Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.

I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.

Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’

This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.

But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.

So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?

We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.

It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.

I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)

But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:

It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …

It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …

And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:

I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …

And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.

For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?

Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.

A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):

* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).

* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.

* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.

* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.

* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.

* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.

* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?

* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.

Click here for some more of Anna’s bon mots (someone was taking notes – thanks, Laura!) and here are some more of my observations and pics from the evening on Instagram.

Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.

And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.

Follow the energy!

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71


Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in many instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!