Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.

Improvisation and Motivation

Over the weekend, I had my first experience of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). If you’re unfamiliar with this, here’s a brief introduction.

I enjoyed my experience because players are allowed to improvise parts of the storyline beyond how the Dungeon Master has described the scene. For example, my character had a vivid dream as part of the story, but I could interpret the images any way I wanted, and that interpretation would contribute to the direction of the story.

The experience reminded me of an exercise from drama class in high school. Each participant was given an outline of a setting, plus an individual motivation kept secret from the others until we revealed it through improv.

This produced natural-sounding dialogue, even from school pupils without an acting background. Similar methods are used by some reality TV shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex, to avoid the action sounding too scripted.

The same principle can be adapted for scripted drama. Aaron Sorkin takes the approach of working out what each character wants, then writing the scene accordingly. In this way, he’s produced The West Wing and The Social Network, among many other screenplays.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking part in more D&D sessions. I think the key to making a more interesting campaign is to work out what exactly my character wants and bringing it to the surface when interacting with the other players.

I believe improv keeps me sharp, and roleplaying seems to be a great way to exercise that metaphorical muscle.