The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson
The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 2: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

Do what you like, and teach your reader to like it too

Of all the narrative forms, theatre is one of the most demanding, both structurally and in terms of how little leeway you have to make mistakes. And musicals add in another layer of complexity, so I pounced on  How Musicals Work by writer and director Julian Woolford, not least because I'm fascinated by where and how you'd put the songs in. The book discusses that at length, and all sorts of other ideas about structure and character (there's an overlap with John Yorke's Into the Woods, which I also love) which map across onto fiction and creative non-fiction. But one I didn't expect has also been the most useful. Woolford explains that almost anything is possible, in terms of the how of the storytelling, but

you must teach the audience the theatrical language you are going to use, and once you have taught them, you must be consistent. A theatrical language is a common language you create with the audience. As the writer, you teach them the language in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the performance. Once they have learned it, that is all they want to understand for the duration of the performace ... They make sense of it for themselves and they want to be led by you ... So you can break the fourth wall, you can keep the fourth wall, you can tell them jokes, you can impress them with amazing dancing, you can have a soloist belt out a fantastic showstopper, you can even have all the cast perform naked. That's all fine. You may, or may not, give them certain permissions: the permission to laugh, the permission to applaud, the permission to empathise with your hero. But once you get to about twenty minutes in, the audience starts to believe that they understand your language and from then on you have to have a very good reason to start changing the language you are communicating in. You can change the language, but if you are not very careful you will shock, surprise and alienate your audience. It will be like waking a dreamer; they will be disorentated and disturbed. Audiences don't express it that way: they simply decide they don't like your show.

Books are a bit different, because the reader is more in control of how they read it, and it's much easier to just put the book down and not pick it up again, than it is to leave at the interval, let alone walk out mid scene. But books are also not different at all. If (I'm guessing) a musical is usually two to two and a half hours, then the first fifteen or twenty minutes translates into the first sixth or seventh of a book. Very roughly, in a novel of 100,000 words, the first sixth is 16,000 words, the first seventh of 80k is near enough 11k words.

So, what are our equivalents, in book-length fiction and creative non-fiction, of breaking (or not breaking) the fourth wall, giving permission to laugh, playing naked? What sort of things make up the storytelling language ("rules" if you must) which you and the reader create between you? Here are some ideas:

  • Who the reader is supposed to imprint on, and what it is that is going to be driving the action.
  • The tone of the telling, and the spirit of it. How should we take, say, a false-accusation-of-adultery story: tragedy (Othello), pastoral tragicomedy (The Winter's Tale), high comedy (The Marriage of Figaro) or Feydeau farce?
  • Whether this story is made of one voice or several, and what kind of voices they are.
  • How this narrative works: understanding what's actually happening in plot within the stream of consciousness of Ulysses, for example, or Mantel's fluid use of free indirect style in Wolf Hall (love it or hate it, it does pass Woolford's test of consistentency)
  • How much maths the reader needs to do: how much inference, reading between the lines, not having things explained, understanding what's being Shown rather than Told.
  • Whether it contains other, standalone written stuff - diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings - that we must assemble into a story for ourselves (e.g. A S Byatt's Possession)
  • Where the narrative/narrator is standing, relative to the events they're narrating.
  • How you handle narrators and point of view: limited, switching, privileged?
  • Whether, for example, a character-narrator narrates events that they weren't present at.
  • How reliable the narrator is: do we believe them implicitly, or recognise that they are subjective and others might have a different take on the events of the story - or do we actually realise the narrator is lying on purpose?
  • How the narrative uses past and present tense and if you use both, what a change evokes.

As Woolford says, it's not that once these are established it's completely impossible to do something different, but you don't, if you want your listener to laugh, tell a long joke in one language, only to switch into another for the punchline. Yes, anyone who's enjoyed Cloud Atlas will know that it's not a given that the first person we meet on the first page of a novel is the only character we'll care about. But Cloud Atlas looks like that sort of book from the beginning: in any book, even the blurb, title, epigraphs, chapter headings and so on are part of that crucial first-sixth-of-the-book which the reader learns the language from.

So, although a novel told in a chatty first person by Andy might suddenly, in the last act, include a long, suicidal diary entry by Beth, it would be a bit like a tight, dark chamber-opera of a musical suddenly being invaded by the full, sequinned chorus of Forty-Second Street tapping on from the wings. With us prose writers, it's all just made by words on the page, and so readers may not be so conscious of being disoriented, but that doesn't mean you haven't broken their commitment to the dream that you've created together, and sustained up to now.

If you really want to that diary entry, or any other dramatic new element or device when we're well into the novel, then I'd suggest that you're going to have box clever in some way. For example:

  • either build the emergence of the diary into the story - how the narrator found it out, and why they transmitted it to us
  • or build in self-contained diary entries right from the beginning, so we learn early on that this story is built from two things - chatty character-narrator Andy, and miserable Beth - and give Beth's sections their own proper narrative structure.
  • or find another way to deal with Beth's interior life.

One more thought: pick up a book you know well and enjoy. (This isn't nearly so easy and intuitive with e-books). Look at the first sixth: how does it educate the reader? Does it do so well? Look for some more structurally and creatively complicated novels or creative non-fiction. How do they work? Look for the kind of book that you're trying to write yourself. What can you learn from it?