The Importance of Structure and Conflict

This entry gives away the storyline of the novel The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kae Tempest. If you don’t want to know, it’s a good idea to skip this entry.


Every six months or so, one of my writing group members runs a 12-hour read-a-thon, where members can encourage each other to engage with a book they want to start or finish. We had the last one on Sunday just past, and I finished reading the aforementioned novel.

As a long-time fan of Kae Tempest’s other work, including poetry readings and music-backed albums, I really wanted to enjoy this, but what a letdown.

We’re led into the slightly seedy, slightly grimy world of the characters. But when the characters’ backgrounds are spelt out one after the other, it quickly becomes directionless.

Around two-thirds of the way in, there’s a scene where some chancer is beaten up after trying to charge a drug dealer double the previous price. This would have made a fantastic opener, from which we could have seen the tensions rise. Instead, any conflict is almost immediately resolved in the following chapters.

The book also suffers from some hallmarks of the first-time novelist. Firstly, Harry is a thinly-veiled version of Tempest. Secondly, the other characters all talk in a similar manner to each other, and not much conflict is built up between them for most of the time.

All the elements of a great story are there, but the final product feels like a collection of notes than a cohesive whole. The only element that made me push on through is the poetic prose throughout.

Having reached the abrupt ending, I recalled hearing about the first edit of Star Wars. It didn’t impress test audiences very much.

There is a standard story structure underpinning almost every major film, so an editor carefully went through the footage and shuffled it into an order closely resembling that structure. Here is the video of how it was done:

Had someone done the same with this novel, I might have been giving it a far better review.

Proofreading at Speed

One of the best ways to proofread a new piece is to leave it aside for a while, and then revisit it in the future. Writing and reading are two distinct processes, much like cooking and eating,

My preferred formula is to leave one minute per word, or 24 hours, whichever is longer. To find this, divide the number of words in a piece by 60. So a 600-word short story would be set aside for 24 hours, while an 80,000-word novella would be left for over 1,333 hours or around 56 days.

But what if you have a deadline that won’t allow the piece to be set aside for long? Here are three ways I’ve learned over the years to speed up the process.

Change the typeface

Microsoft Word is usually set up to type in Arial or Times New Roman, with equivalent typefaces available for Mac. However, there are countless others pre-installed on both operating systems. Save your work, then convert the text to something completely different.

I suggest picking wider letters than usual and increasing the font size, because the eye tends to focus on different parts of the same words, and any errors will seem more obvious.

Read it aloud

For the avoidance of doubt, there’s no need to read it to anyone, just as long as it’s out loud to yourself. This method is good for picking up poor grammar and clumsy sentence construction that reading alone often misses.

Make your computer read it out

I used to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking a lot, and that has a feature to read text from the page, although Word and other word processors also have this built in. I have a particular problem with typing form when I mean from, and vice-versa, and this method is particularly good at finding these.

Older speech synthesis is a little grating for longer pieces, but the inflections have become much more realistic over the last decade. Just ask the actor Val Kilmer, who was given a cutting-edge system after he lost his voice.

… and a disclaimer

Murphy’s Law dictates that a blog entry about proofreading will contain some errors that can’t be attributed to stylistic choices. I haven’t found any, but I’m sure my many readers will be all over it.

Finding Poetry Where It Ought Not to Be

Last week, I found myself looking at the Iraq Inquiry, published in 2016, for no reason other than curiosity. Its author Sir John Chilcot had compiled the document from hearings held between 2009 and 2011. As the full report runs to 2.6 million words, there is a search function on a dedicated website.

Unbelievably, report-writing shares a trait with poetry: the text is usually trimmed back to the bone, with no unnecessary words. There are some poets who take advantage of this to create found poetry.

I thought I would try this myself. Of all the words in the Chilcot Report, there are three direct references to poetry, and all of them are about the same event, namely the Basra Poetry Festival. This is mentioned in passing as part of a wider point about peacekeeping activities.

And it was during a meeting of my poetry group last week that the piece began to take shape. By the end of the meeting, I had a draft version of my final piece, formed of two paragraphs taken directly from one of the sections.

I still need to see whether the piece works after it’s been left aside for a while, but it’s looking like a winner this time.

Creating and Performing a Story in Six Hours

The tale in this entry happened on Tuesday evening of last week, just too late to be included on the blog.

At around 3:15pm, I received a message from a comedian pal. He was due to debut a new show that evening, but one of his warm-up acts had dropped out. He asked for anything of a spoken-word nature to fill a ten-minute gap.

I have plenty of pieces available, but Tuesday night is also when I lead National Novel Writing Month on a Discord server. Some of the members love to put together collaborative stories, so I gave them a challenge.

Starting with a line from a book, namely Clubbed to Death by Grant Hill, I invited them to add up to three lines of action or dialogue in each subsequent post, inviting them to be as humorous and/or surreal as possible. Subject to minor edits to keep the flow, the story was read out to an audience that very evening.

So here for your interest is the version created after editing.

We also have a recording of how it sounded at the venue; the technical quality isn’t great, such is the nature of live performance. Starting at 4:33, listen out for how I accidentally printed one sheet on top of another, rendering the print unreadable, but didn’t realise until I was well away from home.