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.

The Secret Superpower

One of my favourite films is The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais. This is set in a parallel world where people can only tell the truth, so there’s no acting, no diplomacy and no religion. However, the main character unknowingly develops the ability to tell a lie. As a result, everyone else believes everything he says, no matter how outlandish.

It’s largely the opposite of Jim Carrey’s role in Liar, Liar, who develops the inability to tell a lie for 24 hours, making it difficult to continue his job as lawyer.

In both cases, there is a unique element about one person in the narrative universe that conflicts with the secondary characters who can’t understand what’s going on.

However, the concept needs to be done carefully so the audience can keep track of what’s going on. In The Invention of Lying, the rules of the world are explained as a voiceover at the very beginning. In Liar, Liar, the character is shown holding a blue pen while unsuccessfully trying to say it’s a different colour.

This type of secret superpower is one I’ve explored in my own novel-writing. Here, my main character can compel others to say something or to make a simple movement. He’s not the only one with the ability, but he belongs to a select band of people who do, still allowing that conflict with the rest of the world.

How the Story Ends

Although this entry discusses the endings of screenplays and short stories, no spoilers are revealed. We’ll be looking at the craft of bringing a story to an end rather than the specifics.

There’s been some disquiet over the ending of the TV version of Game of Thrones, with the consensus that it had been unsatisfying compared to the action that had gripped viewers earlier in the run. It echoes the rumbles that followed the endings of Lost a decade ago and The Prisoner in the 1960s.

Conflict is at the heart of storytelling across all media and all eras, and it’s by convention that the conflict should rise and rise as the story progresses, then end with a final resolution that ties up every plot point. Unless a writer is exceptionally skilled, it’s difficult to break away from this convention and still hold the audience.

An unsatisfying ending is usually because the writer failed to resolve the conflict, or sometimes because said conflict wasn’t strong enough in the first instance.

Let’s look at The Prisoner. The series begins when a former British intelligence agent known as Number Six is abducted and imprisoned in a coastal village, where absurd rules apply and staff attempt to nudge him into explaining why he abruptly resigned from his job.

Despite this strong initial premise, the series begins to fall into a rut. By the halfway point of the run, each episode sees Number Six attempting either to escape or to win over his captors, but failing each time in a near-predictable manner.

The final episode is consistent with the absurd rules that had been well established, but fails to answer the question posed about why Number Six had left the security services. That revelation could have been one of the greatest moments in TV history. But thanks to the erratic production, the episode instead divided its viewership.

It is entirely possible to end a piece in such an open-ended manner, as is common in some short stories, but this must be carefully done. A few years ago, I had a story published in an anthology whose stories didn’t seem to have proper endings, leaving me with the feeling that each writer was concealing a vital plot point.

However, an open ending is common in The New Yorker and similar publications. In other media, the film Teeth (2007) is a particularly good example of showing how the previous sequence of events might be about to repeat without spelling it out too much.

The bottom line is that a good ending must either indicate that the previous conflict will be resolved in some way, or an audience must have enough information to work out how it might be resolved once the narrative ends.