This tweet by Susan Hill ( a writer I much admire ) gave me to thinking. If beautiful writing isn’t enough – what is?
The loveliness of prose lies in its ability to create atmosphere: the use of music in film would be a suitable analogy. But we have all suffered tedious documentaries where the producers have sought to ‘sex it up’ with inappropriate music and it just doesn’t work. A particular hate of mine is the misuse of orchestral music -in particular Górecki’s haunting and poignant Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – for banal purposes. It is like writing writing the story of Humpty Dumpty to the tune of the Death of Boromir: you are creating the literary equivalent of a round in ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue’.
At their best, both music and prose directly convey emotion with integrity.
Writers generally hope the reader will make an emotional connection with their characters. Is the portrayal of character the essential element? Perhaps not. The hero in The Day of the Jackal has no name and Frederick Forsyth famously asserts that in his books the plot is 80%, leaving the remaining 20% for character, description and dialogue combined. He cheerfully claims, ‘It is all I can do,’ but it seems to be popular.
Not that popularity is all – Captain Jack Sparrow is a wonderful character full of contradictions and surprising subtlety of portrayal – but he’s not enough to carry the whole Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. A story, written or filmed, is more than the protagonist – things must happen.
This leads me back to plot – but if this is not to be a biography, a list of things that they did, then it must have structure. Books worth reading reveal events little-by-little. They often have sub-plots which culminate satisfactorily at the end, and suggest all manner of things running under the surface of the central drama.Yet this too is not enough.
An essential element, perhaps the quintessence as the alchemists had it, is the voice. Ella Fitzgerald sang, ”T’aint what you do it’s the way that you do it,’ and demonstrated that wonderfully throughout her career. For me the voice is the spirit of the piece, some aspect of the author that permeates the whole creation. And I am still struggling to find mine.
Which leads me to ask you, dear reader, what must I grasp so that my writing is good enough?