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.

Painful Reading

The daily pictures on my Instagram page are devoted to a particular theme that changes every month. Previous ones include photographing red objects, finding signs containing numbers, and completing a 1000-piece jigsaw.

This month’s theme is called Fifty Shades of May, an exploration of the influential but largely mocked E L James novel, which has turned into more of a literary analysis than I’d expected.

Let me tell you in a nutshell how it’s going: my copy is 514 pages long and I’ve already managed to eke out five days of criticism from the first 10% of the story.

On day two, for instance, we looked at how some words didn’t carry much weight and could have been trimmed. On day four, we explored the character background of the 21-year-old Anastasia, through her assertion that nobody had ever held her hand before, and her reaction when Christian Grey does it without asking her first.

At some point, I will have to read past page 50, but if these initial reactions are representative of the rest of the novel, it’s going to be a painful ride.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Time and Motion

I’ve recently been placing a lot of effort into my Fun a Day project, which I talked about last month. It’s now been dubbed Junkuary, as it makes use of recycled materials.

This means that my writing has taken a back seat as I’ve made an effort to step away from using words and focus on visual art. However, this is only temporary, and I’ll go back to writing shortly.

Head over to my Instagram page to see what’s happening, and I’ll catch you here next week for more talk of prose and poetry.

Ready, Get Set, Stop

On this blog, I’ve been talking about Fun a Day Dundee, a project where artists and other creative sorts are encouraged to work on ‘something fun’ during January. For those who make a living from their art, this is traditionally a slow month after the chaos of Christmas.

For my previous two FADD projects, I’ve taken the opportunity to undertake writing projects. I’ve happily updated my Instagram page each day showing draft work, with a view to improving it at a later stage.

I’m at a point with writing where I don’t mind showing people half-done work. But I plan to use FADD to step away from writing and attempt something new, and I don’t want to reveal my pieces before I’m ready.

Nonetheless, there’s no requirement to show works in progress, and I will keep Instagram updated with something relevant to the project each day.

I also have a handwritten diary to log my process and progress, so when I’m ready to show my work, the details will be there.

It’s Been a Good Week

It’s been a good week for completing some writing. It has, in fact, been a terrific week for this activity. However, it’s left me with no time for writing a blog entry.

I therefore refer you to my Fun a Day project on Instagram . The captions of the last ten or so posts talk more about the fragments of text in the pictures.

I’ll be back here next week with a full entry.