Sunday, 25 August 2013

Flatlining Narratives

The 'Book'

"Your blog is canny flower.  You CAN write.  But there's no narrative arc."

That was Rochester's analysis of my writing talent.  The obtuse oaf misses the point; I can not deny that my blog lacks a narrative arc.  Truthfully, I don't care two hoots about that.  It is the lack of narrative arc in my life that is distressing.  I am going through a period of narrative flatlining.  As Aunty Margaret would put it, my life is 'as flat as a duck's instep'.

However, this holiday I have started a book.  A novel.  This is an ambitious project for a woman who thinks she has made a success of her day if she managed to get out of pyjamas for at least two hours.   I have a chapter written. A whole chapter!  I cannot deny, my tome will be largely autobiographical.  The reader (singular) can expect a bittersweet tale of a dreamy, motherless child growing up amongst the bleak colliery terraces, juxtaposed with scenes of the present day.  There will be aunties hewn of coal and Max Factor Creme Puff, a musky platoon of philandering fanny rats and the odd noble lurcher or two.  Essentially, It's To Kill a Mockingbird, with added corned beef and Arthur Scargill.

What troubles me about the book is its lack of narrative arc.  I expect (given that I do lack imagination) that little will happen in it.  Now, sometimes I think that is OK.  Some of my favourite authors: Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth Taylor etc write very quiet, episodic domestic stories but do so with huge amounts of charm and wit and whimsy.  They weave in a wisp of melancholy and darkness and write utterly satisfying and beautiful tales. They do lack 'plot' though. Let's face it, the climax of a Pym story could a torrid scene set at a church fete, as Pym's gauche and spinsterish heroine (probably named Dulcie or Mildred) drops a buttered scone into the lap of her beloved  (a bespectacled, bumbling curate named Digby), leaving a perpetual stain on both his corduroys and her character.

 I think about my favourite book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, with its 600 pages of intricate plotting and a vast, Dicksensian cast of wonderfully rich characters.  It is a perfectly plotted novel.  It ends brilliantly.  All strands of this epic story are woven together beautifully. I love a book that has a satisfying ending.  So many don't.  Without a narrative arc, a good ending is tricky.  The story just can't build up enough momentum.

So, I am wrestling with issues of plot.  As an avid reader of thrillers and crime novels (and watcher of Hetty Wainthrop, Cagney and Lacey and Columbo), I could build in a murder or two. Imagine: 

Scene One
An errant double-glazing salesman is packing sample UPVC frames into the back of a BMW.  It a sultry summer night.  His last job of the day is over. He loosens his Quality Street wrapper tie, slumps in the driver's seat and winds down the car window. He reaches into the glove compartment.  He pulls out a bottle of Hai Karate aftershave.  His phone rings.

"Aye flower.  I'm on my way. I've told the missus I'll be home by 10 though." 

He hangs up.  He smirks lasciviously at himself in the rear view mirror, smugly smooths down his eyebrows and begins to spray Hai Karate.   JUST AT THAT VERY MOMENT there is the gentle tread of ballet pumps on concrete and the flash of emerald green cashmere passes the car window.  The rogue turns to look.  A flash of confused recognition darkens his face .  Suddenly BOOM!  The BMW and the fanny rat are obliterated in a savage explosion.  SOMEHOW, a stray lit match had found its way into the BMW, igniting the Hai Karate, which in turn set alight the polyester tie and turned the car into a toxic funeral pyre of molten metal, UPVC and overbearing aftershave.

The book will be called Rat Trap.  A Boomtown Rats soundtrack (for the inevitable ITV, Monday night adaptation) and Kristen Scott Thomas as the avenging angel/  serial killer. . .

Maybe not.   I think I'll stick with my more benign and prosaic narrative.   There will be violence and intrigue though.  After all, there was that time when class warrior Uncle George was dreadfully wounded (and scarred for life) during the 1984 miners strike.  It was truly horrific.  Aunty Mary found out he'd been carrying on with the woman from the pie shop (when he was supposed to be on the picket line).  In front of a cheering audience at the colliery soup kitchen, she poured five gallons of boiling hot broth over his head.  She was unrepentant.

"Aye, I felt bad about the broth, mind. I did that!  What a waste of good food when the bairns were starving."


  1. That is exciting news. Ooh, I am looking forward to reading your book. I would pay good money for your beautifully observed prose and episodes of grim north east life, strong narrative arc or not.

  2. What Margot said. I have missed reading your posts....

  3. Glad to hear the book's coming on - please don't listen to any advice regarding the writing of it, just do what you do.

  4. Hurrah, another blog entry from Ms Underscore! I'd buy your book, plotless or not.

    I could go on at boring length about plots and so on, but shan't in public. Tweet me if you want a longer, non-cheery academic 'advice' about plotlessness.

    But, I'd buy your book. And don't listen to Mr Rochester. What would a double glazing salesman know about art?

  5. Thanks for the encouraging comments. Now I just need to keep focused and get writing. . . .

  6. Hurrah! Do stay with it - in the end, it will be your book, not Rochester's (God forbid) or John Irving's. Rachel

  7. You write beautifully.
    One of the reasons I don't comment on your blog that often is that I need time to sit and savour your script, and time is a very short commodity for me at the moment, and I refuse to be rushed.

    Go for the book.

    I've even got a title.

    "He Was As Cold As A Dying Penguin's Last Fart"