Thursday, 30 November 2017

It ain't what you tell, it's the way that you tell it: in which Debbie Young tries not to lose the plot

English author Debbie Young
Most authors at some point in their writing lives will come across the advice that there are ONLY SEVEN BASIC PLOTS - or maybe nine, or thirty-six, or various other numbers, depending on whom you consult. 

If you're the glass-half-empty type, it's easy to think:

"Oh no, how can I ever hope to be original? Someone will have got there before me!"

Whereas glass-half-full types like me may think:

"Well, Shakespeare just took existing stories and upcycled them into his plays - if it's good enough for Shakespeare, who am I to complain?"

Those who can't even see the glass are probably best advised to throw down their pen and take up golf instead.
The BEST thing to do is, of course, to take your choice of basic plot and wrap around it your choice your characters, themes, setting, etc etc to produce a final story that only you could write

How Shall I Write It? Let Me Count the Ways 


(Photo by MJS on Unsplash)
I took as my starting point for my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, one of the oldest stories in modern culture, the nativity. Sophie Sayers, the central character in this series, writes her own version of the classic Bible nativity story for the village primary school and local amateur dramatic association in the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, to which she's recently moved.

The performance of her script is a story-within-a-story, or rather a play-within-a-play (yes, Shakespeare got there before me on that too, with the "rude mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream). It's a plot device which complements the themes of transformation and restoration that are wrapped around it in the novel's main plot and various subplots.

Sophie's Choice of Story


Sophie's telling of the nativity includes a lot of humour, including in-jokes for the villagers, (the Innkeeper is the school admissions officer, for example), without ever being disrespectful of the Bible story or offensive to believers. At the end, the vicar even compliments her on making the story more accessible to the audience than a more erudite approach such as the medieval mystery plays, which also get a mention in the story.

I don't know how many other novels have retold the nativity, as I have in this book - but I think even such a well-known and simple plot can be endlessly reworked and still be compelling. As Sophie's friend Ella reassures her, when she's worrying about whether her play will work:

You’re on to a winner, no matter what. No-one can complain that the plot is flawed, or that they can’t work out which character is which, or what their motivation is. Your audience will be determined to enjoy it, come what may. They’ll mostly be related to someone in the cast, so they’ll be willing the production to succeed. You don’t have to worry about technical hitches, because you’re not using any technology – no lights, no microphones, no recordings. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, this being Wendlebury Barrow, things do go wrong - and by the end of the first chapter, the whole congregation gathered to watch the play is accused of murder by a mysterious stranger.

But my point remains:

a basic plot can be retold in numerous different ways without losing its power 
Rather than run through a list of other written interpretations of the Christmas story, I thought I'd go visual to reinforce my point...

Stained glass windows were one of the earliest means of telling the nativity story
- postcard images of the Burne Jones windows in Winchester Cathedral by Dr John Crook

And into three dimensions...

Not far from where I live, St John's Church in Chipping Sodbury has just started its annual Crib Festival, which each Advent displays over a hundred different models of the stable scene, contributed by all kinds of people from toddlers to professional craftsmen, with materials as diverse as Lego and coconut shells. I'm looking forward to my annual visit there to remind myself of the many different ways to tell a story.

Click here to view the church's gallery showing the nativity story told in countless ways - each of them engaging in its own right


The Story Around the Story

And if you'd like to find out what happens next in Murder in the Manger, you can order it from all good bookstores, on the High Street and online, in paperback or as an ebook.

Here's the Amazon link for the UK:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Manger-Village-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B074SZLZ6P/

Here's the Amazon link for the US:
https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Manger-Village-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B074SZLZ6P

For more information about my books and my writing life, please visit my website: www.authordebbieyoung.com







2 comments:

griseldaheppel said...

This sounds such a good idea. I love Ella's brilliantly argued reasons for why updating the village nativity play can't go wrong - so true! Then of course even as we read that we know that something will, spectacularly. Delicious. And how ironic that the mediaeval mystery plays are considered by the vicar to be erudite, when that is exactly what they were NOT. A similar rewriting of bible stories for the common man/woman, with lots of slapstick humor thrown in. Great post!

Wendy Jones said...

Great advice and I love the sound of the book. I’ve just bought it