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 Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

Caption man.

On Friday night, I was invited out to play what was described as ‘a writing game’. Faced with this offer, most normal people would perhaps turn it down; writers, on the other hand, are not normal people.

It was arranged by a friend of a friend and we met in a hotel bar. I was expecting it to be like a writing class, where the leader gives you a prompt – perhaps six words, or a fragment of speech, or an old photograph – and you have five or 10 minutes to write down a passage inspired by it.

Instead, we played a game of Dixit, which I hadn’t heard about before. The rules are hard to grasp at first, but they become more obvious once you see a round played. I won’t go into all the instructions and caveats, but here they are in a nutshell:

You’re dealt six cards, each containing an illustration, and you have to think of a caption for it. The other players then have to guess which card was yours by the caption you gave it. If everyone guesses or nobody guesses, you don’t score any points; but if some players guess, you do.

Who Moved My Cheese?
Who Moved My Cheese? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a tricky balancing act between not describing the card as it is, but not being so obscure that nobody understands it. For example, I received a card depicting a maze with butterflies around it. If I’d been asked to describe this card to someone, that’s very much what I would have said. But to prevent the other players from getting too easily, I gave it the caption Who Moved My Cheese? after the business book of the same name, featuring mice who live in a maze. As it happens, none of the other players had heard of the book, so nobody guessed it.

This is a principle that also applies to writing. I recently read the PD James novel The Children of Men, and I was disappointed by how often the author spelt out details that could have been shown through characters’ actions.

On the other hand, I can recall several anthologies where their respective editors seemed to equate vagueness with literary worth. The stories would have a set-up, a change, then would end with insufficient details so the reader had no idea how the situation was resolved. Even stories with an open ending will generally provide enough clues for the reader to imagine which way it went once the narrative stops. I refer you to the ending of The Day of the Triffids.

Only a few writers can get away with an unexplained ending, such as the Monty Python team, whose sketches would end abru