Monday, 24 June 2013

How do we write a good row? Five pointers to better conflicts

As I was revising (endlessly revising), my novel in progress Unspeakable Things, I became aware of the importance or writing rows. Rows are dramatic and unpredictable events, but they need to ring true in our writing, otherwise we will lose that all-important connection with the characters in conflict. I am currently going through the novel one character at a time, assessing their development, and I was struck by the centrality of two rows between characters: Sarah and Jim (our heroine and her husband) and Deb and David (Sarah’s best friend and her brother, who are also married.) I also noticed that, despite the fact that I don’t enjoy rows (I promise!), I had very much enjoyed writing them, in the same way that writers enjoy creating characters we would avoid like the plague in life. Perhaps both exercises allow us to delve into the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves that we normally keep well hidden.

So what makes a good fictional row?

1 The row needs to be consistent with what we already know about the characters. Our conflicts reveal deep things about what makes us tick. The roots of conflict are not always easy to discover in real life; it may take many sessions with a counsellor to reveal them. However, in our writing, we need to be absolutely clear what those roots are, since they should add depth to a character. People rowing over one being untidy and the other fastidious is not going to be that fascinating – but what if the behaviour of one makes the other feel threatened for reasons they are not aware of, but that make sense in the character’s development? Reasons perhaps buried deep in the past? Now you have an interesting row.

2 The row needs to reveal where the characters are on their developing character arc, in which they change throughout the events of the story.

3 Fictional rows need to have the dangerous, unpredictable feel of real ones. In rows, we do and say things that are ‘out of character’ for our usual everyday selves. This is partly because rage, and swearing, have their roots in a primitive part of the brain that doesn’t practise restraint or rational discourse. The rows we write need to have this wild edge, and should to convey the strange, sometimes childish or self-destructive impulses that drive us when we have ‘lost it’.

4 A row should reveal how the characters and their relationship are under strain; and you must be very clear about why this is so, even though the characters are probably not. We don’t want to hear ‘As she threw the pot, she noted that the whole dynamic of their relationship had shifted since she started finding out about her family’s past.’ Nevertheless, the changing dynamic needs to be believably and consistently portrayed. If, like me, you are writing a thriller, there are all kinds of delicious reasons for the characters being under intense stress, since it is your job to torture them. Be ruthless and precise in your methods.

5 To write a good character and a good row, you have to be fascinated by people. I would never advise consulting psychology textbooks before writing your characters, because they need to spring from a much more creative place than that. You are not writing a case study, but creating a fictional world. However, you had better be riveted by the way people behave and interact if you want to write fiction. This is why I find some reality TV so compelling; the first few series of Big Brother had me riveted all summer long, and my excuse was that I am fascinated by people and the dynamics of groups. Who could forget the confrontation shown below?

Once your characters are fully formed and their rows written, and you are perhaps honing and revising (endlessly revising) them, a quick look at some psychological writings will do no harm, as I found when, researching for this post, I found this article on why couples fight: which shed some light into my (already written) rows.

In chapter 11, Sarah comes home late from work, and Jim nags her because her blood pressure, revealed on a wrist monitor, is high, and she is supposed to be taking it easy because of her pregnancy. She is grumpy, and then reasons with herself that the distance between them isn’t really Jim’s fault.

She felt a rueful warmth for him as his weight rocked the sofa beside her, and opened her mouth to apologise.
   ‘Maybe you should give up work early.’
   Her eyes flew open and she stared at him, outrage and the pressing concerns of her job flooding her head.
   ‘Have you got any idea how much I’ve got to do before I go on leave? It’s been so busy, I haven’t had time to brief anyone on anything, I’ve got –‘
   ‘But you’ll end up in hospital if your blood pressure gets any higher!’ Jim leaned towards her, gesturing towards the wrist monitor with a rigid, open hand. It shocked her to see him like this, as fervent as she was and in direct, furious opposition; his accent slipped into the sharp angles of his council estate past. She thought suddenly of Pat bustling around in her little domestic realm, of Jim’s cosy family life, and the dim view he must take of her upbringing – the dark unknown; the unholy mess of it – and all at once she could hear the blood rushing furiously in her ears.
   ‘It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? A little wife at home, like your mother.’ She was shocked at the venom in her voice.
   ‘No! Don’t be stupid! I’m just thinking of you and the baby.’
   ‘Well I’m not going to be your mother!’ Even as she said it she was thinking, What am I talking about? It was as if she had lost the thread of the argument and was raging at something inside her own head. The look Jim turned on her, straight into her face, had a nasty edge of contempt, and then he pushed up from the sofa and paced away. She thought for a moment that he was going to walk out, and sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him, but then he turned around and looked at her, also apparently searching for words.
   ‘This – just isn’t you, Sarah.’
   ‘What do you mean? I’ve always loved my job. We always planned I’d carry on working as long as I could.’ But the righteous feeling of her fury was ebbing away, and with it the last vestiges of the idea that it was him who was being unreasonable.”

This row is a pivotal moment in Sarah and Jim’s relationship. Sarah’s obsessive delving into her family’s past leaves Jim feeling protective but helpless (partly due to events in his own childhood), but the issue of why her mother apparently went mad and tried to kill her is central to Sarah’s attitude to her own pregnancy; she is unable to ‘let it go’. Here, this central issue is at the root of the row about Sarah giving up work. I hoped to convey the slightly skewed emergence of the real conflict in Sarah’s confusion, as if she had ‘lost the thread of the argument.’ I also relished the slightly childish ding-dong nature of rows in which we lose our usual adult restraint, when Sarah ‘sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him.’

As the row proceeds, things move on into a new phase of desperation for Sarah, as Jim’s rebuke, ‘This just isn’t you,’ leads her to realise how anguish has disrupted her previously robust sense of who she is, and from now on she begins to dread that she, like her mother, is losing her mind.

Interestingly, long after writing and revising this, I read the article mentioned earlier on why couples row, and found something that well described Sarah and Jim’s torment: ‘Lovers fight when they believe their partners don’t care about how they feel. They fight about the pain of disconnection.’ Later things get even more specific: ‘Confronted with the anxiety or fear of a woman, a man typically responds with protection/support. But if he does not know how to protect/support or, more commonly, feels like a failure as a protector, he is likely to turn the aggression on to her...’ It is reassuring to read this after writing Sarah and Jim, since the sadness at the heart of Jim’s character is that he desperately wants to do his best for Sarah, but fails her anyway.

In chapter 14 we find Deb and David having their own stinging fight. Joe has been deeply upset on a sleepover at Sarah and Jim’s, and their explanation is confused and partial. Deb is furious but Deb has stood ineffectually by, failing to support her. In the morning we find Deb exhausted but in a more conciliatory mood:

 “She found him standing in the kitchen with his back to a pile of undone washing up that towered from the sink. The surprising brightness of a winter morning poured sideways through the dirty window, giving everything the oddly significant look of a photograph. David was wearing the same clothes as the night before, crumpled and sagging. He looked up and seemed for a moment to be about to come towards her, but then he hung back, his expression dark, closed. Like a big, awkward boy, nursing his resentment. Her sudden feeling of rejecting him took her breath away. His silence, then his rebukes came back to her from the night before with stinging force.
    ‘I can’t do this on my own any more, David.’ He looked at her and opened his mouth as though about to reply, but thought better of it. She had an urge to break his silence with unkindness, to force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her. ‘I thought that when I went back to work, you’d come down from your ivory tower and be a proper Dad.’ The words swept ahead of her, but when she heard them, she knew they were true.
   ‘I am a proper Dad. I look after Joe!’
   ‘You’ve been like a zombie, since Sarah started with all this Mary stuff.’ Venom was bursting out of her, after months of trying to help and understand them all, trying to make it work.
   ‘Well, do you think I wanted that?’ He was angry now; whatever he hid in the depths of him, she had driven it to the surface. ‘Do you think I went looking for it?!’
   ‘Well then you’ve got to let her get on with it, and stop getting involved!’
   ‘I’m not involved! I don’t want to be involved!’
  ‘Then why do you pander to her? She’s just starting to leave you in peace – why does she have to have Joe just because she wants to?’ She was in full flow, and building towards a niggling resentment that she had tried and failed to reason away. ‘And the minute you left the room after seeing his bruises, you were straight on the phone to her!’
   David stared at her. ‘I had to call, to find out what had happened! And it was Jim I spoke to, not Sarah. I explained to you about Joe falling and her catching him.’
  Deb had to gather her thoughts here. She had been relieved to hear a plausible explanation for Joe’s bruises; it took some of the terror out of the night they’d been through; it had allowed her finally to go to bed and sleep. But his sobbing; his sweating; the strangeness of it all – and her standing there, the only one speaking up for him; she couldn’t quell the sweet, violent flow of her outrage.
   ‘I know that. But something is not right with Sarah, and she’s trying to suck you into it.’ Exhaustion was catching up with her and she slumped into a kitchen chair and ended hoarsely, losing the thread of her argument: ‘And I’ve had enough.’
   ‘You’ve had enough!’ There was a teaspoon in his hand with coffee on it and he smashed it down on the draining board with a great crash of crockery. ‘You’ve had enough?!’ She was shocked at his vehemence, at the noise; and stared in awe at what she had awakened; then he swept past her and she was abruptly alone. A moment later, his slammed exit reverberated around the house. She sat wondering with an odd detachment if she had broken something that couldn’t be repaired. She thought, who will I turn to if I have?

Deb here is the worm who has finally turned. The daughter of two divorced and remarried parents, she has always been the ‘fixer’ who smoothes things over for people, but this role is under severe stress as Sarah’s search for her family’s past sends David into a state of sickness and withdrawal. Now her child has been hurt and her usually yielding nature explodes under the pressure of stored up stress and resentment. I wanted this row to reveal the sudden nature of the change; her relationship with David is ruptured and under intense threat as she issues her ultimatum and accusation. This is make or break time for Deb and David. Her frustration with David’s withdrawal from her and from Joe, which is worsened but not begun in the present crisis, makes her abandon all restraint and goad him: ‘To force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her.’ I hope this attitude of Deb’s will spark recognition in readers; it stems from my own occasional row behaviour in which I hurl sometimes overblown or irrational accusations because of a need to flush something real and important into the open. Of course, I am only ever aware of this dynamic with the benefit of calm, post-rage hindsight.

Once again, the article on why couples fight had an insight that reassured me when revising this scene, and Deb’s character development: ‘Anger or withdrawal by men often stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in women, even when his anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with her.’ ‘Awoman is likely to be critical, defensive or contemptuous if she experiences (or is reminded of having experienced) fear of farm, isolation or deprivation)’. I hope my portrayal of Deb shows that her ‘fixer’ role has often been played while her own needs have been left unmet, meaning that years of rage are waiting to emerge in David’s rather hapless, unshaven face.

We rejoin David after he has stormed out: “David paced to the end of their road, where absurdly, a peaceful Saturday morning was happening; blurred shapes at the corners of his vision were a Dad and son going off for football, but if someone spoke to him, he thought he might snarl in their face. Fuck her. What did she think she was saying? Not a proper Dad. Stop getting involved. He should have stopped for his bastard coat; it was freezing. Where was he going anyway?”

I was reaching for the blundering physical motion of rage, and its lack of connection to our rational selves here. Sitting on a bench, David relives the trauma of the night before, which revives a terrible memory from his past; and this reminder of his childhood vulnerability means that he is at last able to empathise with Joe’s fear, and with Deb’s anger. “It was awful to think of it now, of that happening to Joe and him not being there to save him. Not coming running. He dropped his head further and a taste, salty and bitter, flooded into his mouth. Deb was right, he was no fucking use.”

Here I hoped to show how people during rows hear things that the other party has not actually said, and how thoughts and emotions develop as rage subsides. The reader does not know, at this stage, whether this row will make or break the couple; whether David’s sense of shame will lead to further withdrawal, or a resolution. I can reveal though that it does lead to further isolation and torment for my heroine and victim, Sarah.

However peace-loving and conflict-averse we are in life, where would our writing be without the ‘sweet, violent flow’ of rage, revealed in a good row?

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Glenn Close and the Fear of Madness; Should We Apologise for Fiction?

The actress Glenn Close has apologised this week for the way she portrayed mental illness in the thriller, Fatal Attraction. Close heads BringChange2Mind, an advocacy group designed to erase the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.This came about because her sister has bipolar disorder and a nephew of hers has also dealt with mental illness.

I have every reason to support attempts to increase understanding of mental health issues. I have friends and relatives with anxiety and depression; I know others who have watched their children grow up into adults with schizophrenia; in my twenties a dear friend of mine died as a result of undiagnosed bipolar disorder, back when effective treatments were less available than they are today. I understand Glenn Close’s discomfort, thinking of the famous ‘bunny-boiling’ role she played, when members of her family have suffered from mental health problems, but her statement made me wonder – should we apologise for fiction? Should we police it so that it only portrays the attitudes we approve of in real life? Should dramas about mental health show people recognising their problems, seeking help, receiving counselling, medication and sensible understanding, and then returning to full health? Would such a story be a drama at all?
I was already writing my story, Unspeakable Things, in which a pregnant woman is told that there is serious inherited mental illness in her family, when real life overtook me with a few surprises of its own. At the age of 13, my happy, well-balanced younger son began to suffer from strange, obsessive worries. Attempts to reassure him would seem to work for a time, and then the same worries would be back; worse than before. He was plagued by unwanted thoughts that tormented and terrified him. People tried to reassure me that odd anxieties were common among teenagers, but in the small hours, sleepless, I began to be afraid that we were dealing with a mental illness. I cannot tell you how much this thought frightened me. As my son’s condition deteriorated and he told me that he had considered suicide, I spoke to a counsellor friend. My heart thudded as I told her, ‘I just want you to tell me that this is not mental illness.’ ‘I can’t tell you that,’ she said. This was my watershed moment, in which I had to put fear and denial aside and deal with what was in front of me.
We went to the doctor’s and were referred to CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), where we eventually saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We were told that the condition is most likely to appear in families where there is a history of anxiety or low mood. Bizarrely, the inherited mental illness that I had totally invented for my story had entered our real lives.
My son was eventually treated with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and began to try different strategies to control his OCD. Over time, with enormous effort on his part, he made progress, and as he matured, he began to cope better and the bad times became fewer and further between. At 17 he is again happy and well-balanced, and has a strength and a level of empathy and understanding that he has gained from his experience of overcoming and learning to live with his OCD. I could not be prouder of him.
Did my son’s experience make me more sensitive to how mental illness is portrayed and discussed? Yes. I bristle when people tell me they are ‘a little bit OCD’ because they like their cutlery drawer in order. People with OCD suffer torment from unwanted thoughts and crippling anxieties; it is not about being a little bit fussy or liking things tidy. But do I think that fiction should shrink from representing our instinctive fear of mental illness in order to avoid offending political correctness? No, absolutely not.
The real life story doesn’t end there. My husband, usually a lively, cheerful and effective deputy head of a primary school, is currently going through a bout of severe anxiety and depression brought on by stress at work. He is unable to work and has begun a course of medication. He feels dreadful in the mornings and when I leave him to go to work, his eyes have a haunted, traumatised look. He is thin, weak and exhausted, and this has all happened in the last couple of weeks. A few months ago he was thriving, organising fundraising events on top of his usual workload and running a half marathon for good measure. As we talked over coffee this morning, he said that until very recently, he had been trying to keep an eye on his stress levels and congratulating himself on coping well; he described it as ‘frightening’ how quickly and completely the illness had overtaken him.
Mental illness is frightening. It was a deep, primitive fear that gripped me when my son became ill, and again as my husband lost control of his rational self. The fear was there long before either of these events, and I make no apology for representing it in my writing. In fiction, all that we love, all that we dream of, laugh at, hope for, flee from, fear and dread flows into language and creates stories with a dynamic all their own. Any attempt to police this creative process with inhibiting considerations will destroy it. You will know this if you have ever tried to write while wondering what your colleagues, parents or vicar might think of your story.
Of course we all self-edit and keep a watch on the attitudes that emerge as we write. I debated at length over whether or not I should include the word ‘madness’ in this post, and I have changed it several times to and fro, from the more politically correct ‘mental illness.’ In my story, Sarah is editing a book called ‘Madness and Society’, and while reading about ‘moral panic in the media’ in reaction to ‘high-profile cases of mentally ill people murdering strangers’, she thinks how she and Jim have plans to strengthen the fence between their home and Woodlands, a mental health clinic. ‘Were they caught up in the overblown anxiety, seeing the clinic as a place packed with people who posed a danger to them? Before she could put their reactions to the test, a new thought pounced and caught her: Were there dangerous people at Woodlands?’
However, Unspeakable Things is a thriller. When you set out to write a story like this, you think to yourself, what frightens me most? And for me, the primitive fear of madness had to come high on the list. I don’t mean that people with mental health problems frighten me; that I think they are going to hurt me. That would be ridiculous and unfair. It is the idea of our minds, the framework within which our very being is defined, being disrupted that terrifies me. When I was a teenager, a girl I barely knew at school came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.’ Her statement meant nothing to me and I felt awash with anxiety as I muttered, ‘That’s OK! You haven’t..?’ and tried to make sense of it. Eventually a teacher told me that she was going through a breakdown, and I was able to understand – but the strange fear of that moment remained with me. Four years ago, I was afraid for my son; a week ago I was afraid for my husband. I was afraid of the way I reacted when I first realised that Jon was ill: lashing out with a horrible mix of stubborn denial, fury, self-pity and despair, all flowing from a deep-seated fear. Now rationality, compassion and coping mechanisms have kicked in, and I know Jon will make a full recovery. But let’s not pretend that these things do not frighten us.
 This week, Stephen Fry, who is president of the mental health charity, Mind, has also spoken out, revealing that, struggling with bipolar disorder, he made a suicide attempt last year. He said this: "There are times when I'm doing QI and I'm going, 'Ha ha, yeah, yeah,' and inside I'm going 'I want to fucking die. I … want … to … fucking … die.'" It frightens me that a man who is so successful, so intelligent and so engaging, and who appears to be coping so well, could be having those thoughts even while entertaining the nation. 

Fiction must flow from how we actually feel, not how we think we ought to feel. I’m not sure we should apologise if a thriller emerges from something that frightens us, even if our rational minds tell us that what is required is understanding and tolerance, rather than fear. I write about what moves me, because the writing I enjoy is that which creates a powerful reaction in me, whether it is laughter, sympathy, suspense or fear. In life, as a family we are dealing with one of the most common types of mental illness: anxiety. I love my son and my husband, and all my dear friends who suffer from mental illness either in themselves or in loved ones; I wish them all the help, understanding and peace they could wish for. At the same time, I am writing a novel bristling with anxiety and rooted in the fear of madness, and I do not apologise for that.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Novelistic detail: the importance of food

This is a holiday blog, conceived during our week in the lovely Dalyan in South-West Turkey, which means a) you need to be a bit forgiving - I was on holiday after all, and as I write this, I am barely awake, having arrived home at 2.30am this morning; and b) it reflects my holiday reading. You can see from the photograph that even at the poolside, writing was never far from my thoughts.

Looking for holiday books that might help with my own writing, I chose Secret Smile by Nicci French because it is a tightly written thriller by a hugely successful husband and wife team. Sceptical at first, I was soon swept up in the well-drawn characters and fast-moving, hard to predict plot. My second holiday book was Grave Secrets by Kathy Reichs - another thriller, in the forensic scientist tradition of Patricia Cornwell. I picked this up in the hotel's stash of left-behind literature and I chose it mainly because it wasn't in German. This was also a good thriller and had me turning pages by the pool, though the irony was not lost on me that here I was, on holiday to relax and recuperate, sitting in the Turkish sun and reading in exhaustive detail about our heroine's retrieval of human remains from a septic tank.

What struck me in both books is how important the detail is. This was something that came up when my novel, Unspeakable Things, was assessed by a writing consultant, who delivered a wonderfully detailed report that has been invaluable to me in this rewrite. Writing about the lack of detail in my draft, in particular about setting, she wrote: 'A modern reader wants less of it than a Victorian reader would; some people close a book if they see more than the bare minimum of description. What you want isn't bulk, but a few telling details.' During this rewrite, I have been very much aware of the need for those 'few telling details'.

What struck my in both of my holiday reads was the importance of detail, in particular about food and the heroines' clothes and grooming details. Nicci French's heroine, Miranda, is forever deciding what to eat, cooking, popping into cafes and making herself hot buttered toast. During the phase when she was staking out a cafe and kept ordering hot drinks and cakes in order to blend in with the clientelle, there was so much compelling food detail that I found I was beginning to worry for her health. Dr Temperance Brennan in Grave Secrets must be permanently on a caffeine high, given the amount of coffee she takes in during a novel's worth of forensic sleuthing. With both of these main characters, there is also a lot of detail of the clothing choices made – even as the plot thickens and we wonder what a new day holds for our heroine, we are told what outfit she throws on before heading out of the door to find out.

 In the case of Grave Secrets, detail is part of what the author has to offer; as a forensic anthropologist herself, Kathy Reichs can ground her story in the facts of her science. Yet I came to realise, reading by the pool, that in it is not just this occupational detail that creates the texture of everyday reality in fiction; it is the apparently incidental detail of food eaten, clothes worn, faces splashed with water and teeth cleaned that help to create a fictional reality and a pleasurable immersive experience for the reader. As in life, food and clothing add colour and interest, and even provide a kind of comfort. In Grave Secrets, no grim detail of fleshly putrefaction or genocidal horror is spared us, and it is a strange kind of relief to learn how long Dr Tempe soaks in the bath after a day's work, how vigorously she cleans her teeth, and how she dabs on a bit of lipstick and goes out to enjoy a Guatemalan meal at a restaurant. As we accompany Miranda Cotton in Secret Smile on a tough thriller-style journey in which her life unravels, we take consolation in the cappuccinos she orders, comfort eat lemon drizzle cake alongside her and spread plenty of butter on our hot, fictional toast.

Inspired, I have begun to consider the food choices of my novel's characters. Sarah, a control freak, would surely watch what she eats. What was she cooking when she left a meal on the stove and went to do a pregnancy test - what set off the smoke alarm and had Jim running to find her? Organic chicken and brown rice? What would Jim's family eat - and could this provide the details of class contrast I have been looking for - perhaps KFC buckets that Sarah would disapprove of? Perhaps Pat would try to get Bob to watch his cholesterol and he would say that you don't live longer if you stop eating fry ups; it just feels longer.

My holiday reading has shown me that detail creates the texture of reality for us as we read, and that food  is essential to fiction as it is to life.