It's crucial to invest in the groundwork of story before going on to potter in prose if you mean business (i.e, to sell books.)
Our 'big story' course - the Classic course, one option in our series of online novel writing courses - is good for all writers but absolutely essential for those who are world-building - which is to say writing Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult and Children's. Pack it in your writer's kit bag, toss it behind you back and whistle all the way to the literary agency (nail that theme tune en route).
I'll be referring to the 'classics' in this blog but don't worry, I'm not being lofty and referring to works of Ancient Greece etc, I'm being low-brow. Populist! (Hoorah!) I'm referring to the golden classics of fiction, the bestsellers enjoyed by adults and kids. The genre-busting crossovers!
The course delves into the cunning plots of seven of the ten bestselling books of the last hundred years. (With apologies for the omission of E.L James Fifty Shades of Grey.)
In his work 'Mysterium Coniunctionis', CG Jung explained the paradox that is the alchemy of creation, the conflict between two forces.
“The factors which come together in the coniunctio are conceived as opposites, either confronting one another in enmity or attracting one another in love.”
In adult novels, we see the war within and also without, and the novel is driven by the main character’s ability to incorporate the ‘other’ or that which seems at the outset of the story to be in opposition to himself or herself.
One day a grandfather was talking to his grandson. He said, ‘There are two wolves fighting inside all of us – the wolf of fear and hate, and the wolf of love and peace.’ The grandson listened, then looked up at his grandfather and asked, ‘Which one will win?’
The grandfather replied;
‘The one we feed.’
In the classic, the threat of evil threat is located outside the self, yet within the safe sealed environment bound by front and back cover. (Ah, how the spine of the book tingles with the conflict!)
'Evil' isn't commonly granted the same credibility as an independent ‘ineffable’ force like 'Good'. We tend to see evil in terms of 'agents' and 'events'. In reality most of what we experience as 'evil' lurks in agency or non-events (the ‘banality’ of evil (Arendt), when good men do nothing (Burke.) Evil, it is commonly accepted, is an absence. (All the things we didn't do?)
Not so fast! In the classic, evil is given a physical form, brimful of intent to destroy all that is ‘decent’. It’s the opposite of Peter Pan's 'youth' and 'joy’, the ‘little bird’.
It’s a miserable old bird.
Yes, well, let’s take the general point even if we’re a tad sick of chummy old male wizards and foul-breathed hairy malevolent crones.
Evil should be introduced with the fanfare of awe and dread - some natural phenomena misfiring to create a super-natural sensation - to strike up the big band of feeling.
Accessories to the onset of evil are those human feelings which encompass fear of exposure (to the elements and ridicule), leading to loneliness, ostracism, abandonment and of course as a social creature this compromises our survival entirely.
Only a hero has the stomach for going it alone in the face of evil with all these feelings working against her or him. The rest of us are shit scared.
Before evil strikes in Peter Pan, the youngest child (always the most sensitive - think of your youngest character as the barometer in the story) senses it, and feels ‘lonely’.
It was the stillest silence they had ever known, broken once by a distant lapping, which Peter explained was the wild beasts drinking at the ford, and again by a rasping sound that might have been the branches of trees rubbing together, but he said it was the redskins sharpening their knives.
Even these noises ceased. To Michael the loneliness was dreadful. ‘If only something would make a sound!’ he cried.
As if in answer to his request, the air was rent by the most tremendous crash he had ever heard. The pirates had fired Long Tom at them.
JM Barrie: Peter Pan and Wendy.
CS Lewis philosophised on evil in The Problem of Pain, deeming it with a brisk wave of the hand as an unwholesome by-product of God-given ‘free will’ - it’s there so that we can choose to do good. It’s all about ‘agency’. The root meaning of the word ‘evil’ is akin to modern German ‘Übel’ which incorporates ‘transgressing’ and ‘suffering’. In Judaism, evil is not real, it is per se not part of God’s creation, but comes into existence through man’s bad actions.
No matter which way you turn it seems that when thinking about evil happening to you, you come back to you. Your own ability to make choices and choose actions.
That's a bummer. When it comes to bad things, I'd prefer to blame a lisping bald knee-high creature than myself. It would be an unholy relief to have a poltergeist about the place, a constant unseen enemy. It would stop us falling out in this household, holding grudges over towels left on the floor etc. That bloody Gollum again...
To Jung it seemed that people tend to believe evil is something external to them and project their shadow onto others.
“The acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil! Yet it is just this that the modern man insists upon. He wants to live with every side of himself—to know what he is. This is why he casts history aside. He wants to break with tradition so that he can experiment with his life and determine what value and meaning things have in themselves, apart from traditional presuppositions.” Carl Jung.
Use your shadow side!
Teaching adult fiction story-creation in The Niney Day Novel course, I make sure my writers have set up their main players before writing and in our first call we talk about them, particularly the main character. Their moral blind spot is the driving force of the narrative plot in a novel. You almost don't need anything else to start writing. They are blind, and then they see. Even if briefly, they see at the end of the book. Pop that on a post-it on your wall and write.
When creating the big players, it's like this. You use your own flaws and failings and grant them to the 'bad guy' or antagonist. They come alive, you get a little light relief. (Laughing at yourself is highly recommended and the only therapy that ever did me any good. It should be more widely prescribed.)
If it's a classic you're after, you gotta have a bad guy. It's such a joy to write. Writing my novels, what has brought me back to the white page more faithfully than anything else is the promise of a next scene in which the 'bad guy' behaves even worse than the last. Cathartic entertainment, yes please.
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. A seven-headed dragon is, perhaps, a very terrifying monster. But a child who has never heard about him is a much more terrifying monster than he is. The maddest griffin and chimera is not so wild a supposition as a school without fairy tales….Fairy tales are the oldest and gravest and most universal kind of human literature. (...) Exactly what the fairy-tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear...fairy tales restored my mental health.”
The reader is presented with evil in a charismatic format, which embodies temptation and ill-discipline and it’s the tussle on the front line of discipline which prepares the reader to deal with the enemy inside.
TRIUMPH FULL STEAM AHEAD!
Post-script: The good news is that evil doesn’t exist, when you and I cease to exist. It’s a figment, similar to Hook in his pirate boat. It doesn’t exist in the universe or unconscious or the great beyond. It’s the product of human agency.
“The centre of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.”
Twelve Types 1903, GK Chesterton.
What you dream is more likely to be reality, than reality which is just a passing bad dream.
But is boring and tiring dealing with the war inside. We are temporary, our dreams once fictionalised last forever. I am bad, therefore I write.
Thank God for fiction, as CS Lewis might have said.
Let’s deal with the villain with a sword, my bullies!
Have at you, loathsome varmint!
If you’re just starting out, you’d be wise to start with The Classic Course which will help you nail the big idea here. If you would like guidance all the way from an idea through to completing a book to publishing standard then our Book in a Year plan is best for you here. If you’d like to get stuck in and start writing an idea you have, then our Ninety Day Novel course would be the jumpstart for you here. You’ll be able to choose your own tutor from our award-winning and bestselling authors, and as a member you’ll have access to our regular writing classes. You’ll enjoy the worldwide community of writers like you in every time zone. It’s a happy place and you’ll find a warm welcome whether you're an old hand or a complete beginner. Discover why so many writers describe The Novelry as 'life-changing' (it's the phrase we hear most!) Happy writing starts here.