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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Be a Curious Clown

It was the immortal Cole Porter who advised us all to 'be a clown'. Alas, I can't stand on my head and my jokes are rubbish. But it did get me thinking about what it takes to succeed in writing.

You can take on the most serious and challenging subjects in the world but if all you focus on are the bleak aspects you might leave your reader feeling exceptionally depressed. That's why Coronation Street is beloved by fans: it usually contains the right mixture of humour and heartache. I can't watch Eastenders any more due to the sinking feeling I get that the world may be grinding to a slow and painful halt. I've previously blogged about indulging the whimsy in my soul in my short stories but I think I could apply it easily enough to novels as well.

I want to tackle difficult topics but mostly I just want to ask questions, whether they're difficult or madcap. I often find that looking at something in a slightly different way produces some interesting words. I remember vividly travelling on a train from Lincoln to Doncaster when I doing my undergraduate degree and suddenly asking myself, quite seriously, why grated cheese tasted so much better than sliced. I didn't have a notebook with me at the time so I jotted the beginning of a short short to that effect on the back of a form I was supposed to hand in somewhere. The form was never handed in and I didn't finish the short story. I might return to that pressing question later in life though.

In the film The Pirate Gene Kelly and Judy Garland sing 'Be a Clown' as the final number of the movie. Judy's clown thinks she's very smart because she keeps dodging out of the way of a pin bopping her on the head and Gene's clown keeps getting bopped instead. Of course, her luck runs out. Sometimes the build-up of anticipation can lead to a more rewarding pay-off. If your character is jumping over metaphorical manholes throughout your story make sure he falls into at least one metaphorical pit before you're finished.

Ask yourself the basic questions every step of the way: why is my character doing this, what can this lead to, where is he going, what is the absolute worst that could happen next.

But do remember what Cole Porter cautioned - 'be a major poet and you'll owe it for years'. The things we do for our craft.


DG Farnsworth said...

"How strange the change from major to minor.” Yet, it remains this change that startles one's ears with an arousing, effective disclosure: the cagey end of a cunning musical manipulation. The mere modification from major to minor reflects one of the oldest, most utilitarian musical in a musical composition when our ears anticipate a particular sound; then the minor chord appears--disclosing despondency and obscurity. At times--in another progression--one might contemplate the predictable minor chord--only to find it replaced with the major (and one may perceive "the sunshine" and "fall in love head-over-heels”).
When one applies this fundamental principle to writing, the reader stays engaged. Or as you wisely note: “If your character is jumping over metaphorical manholes throughout your story make sure he falls into at least one metaphorical pit.” Good composition juxtaposes the major and minor sounds. Once the writer/musician realizes the feeling of the change from major to minor, he aggrandizes his power or capacity to communicate this characteristic manifestation. And he retains the reader in his grip.

Anonymous said...

You certainly put that more eloquently than I could hope to. Music is an excellent way of realising that anything goes, but that it works best when it doesn't follow a prescribed path.