Shhh! What was that noise?
I’m humming along on the laptop, metaphorical wind in my hair, hitting a nice steady cruising speed and then there was that noise. I’m not sure but I think it might just have been the sound of my plot gears grinding.
That sound is the one I call ‘The Clunk’. Yes, you know what I mean. It’s that bit when you’re reading a book and you’re brought up short or feel a little invisible wince as, for a second, you hear the book ‘machinery’ going into overdrive.
Look, what an unexpected twist! A startling moment of revelation! What a cliff-hanger!
Clunk, clunk, clunk.
It’s hard for storytellers to entirely avoid the clunk. By definition there have to be some plot devices or elements that drive the story forward, simply to get the intrepid hero/heroine from A to B, creating a sense of peril or surprise before the resolution.
Thankfully, readers have different tolerance levels for clunk. For example, I think Dan Browns novels, The Da Vinci Code particularly, clunk along like my mum’s old Nissan Micra trying to get past 55 in the middle lane but that hasn’t harmed his sales.
Clank, clank, clank.
Even literary masters aren’t immune to engine problems. Look at Thomas Hardy’s novels, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the The Mayor of Casterbridge. They have more clunk than Stephenson’s Rocket (or should that be clank). I have to resist the urge to stick my hands over my ears every time a crucial letter gets accidentally shoved under a doormat and lies unread for ten chapters, a person reappears from someone’s past at a very inconvenient moment or a sailor/soldier rises from the grave. This doesn’t mean the writing is bad or it stops you enjoying the book, you just decide to take it on faith as part and parcel of the ride.
Fingers in ears!
But it’s a dilemma for writers. Plots and characters should act in a way that seems psychologically convincing, shouldn’t they?
During the filming of the classic film The Birds, actress Tippi Hedren famously asked Alfred Hitchcock why the heroine decided to venture into the dark, dusty, cottage attic in the middle of a bird-related siege.
‘Because I need her to,’ Hitch replied. Basically because he knew chucking seagulls at Ms Hedren in a dark room would make a great scene. He ignored the clunk.
This is why storyteller extraordinaire, Stephen King, in his manual ‘On Writing’ says he abhors ‘plot’. He likes to let the characters lead him as he goes along, that way their actions always make internal sense. Doesn’t always work, mind you. Just think of the ending of IT or The Stand!
Rattle and Hum.
So, I‘m at the laptop, writing and re-reading and listening hard for the clunk as I drive along. I think I’ve got the noise down to a quiet little rattle now and maybe that’s the best a writer can hope for. After all, real life isn’t a series of convenient beginnings, middles, exciting bits and ultimate ruin or catharsis. Imposing structure on a story is clunk in itself, and very necessary, otherwise you’d just be writing text books, not novels.
A little clunk will get your book through its reader MOT – how much depends on their hearing and how much they’re enjoying the scenery!
Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Mark Billingham’s Rush of Blood – an absorbing and layered thriller about three couples, one Florida Holiday, one dead girl and many red herrings.
‘Listen up’ moment – what was that about a kayak??
Sabine Durant’s Under Your Skin.
A twisty thriller with some enjoyable media satire in which TV personality Gaby Mortimer discovers a dead body only to find she becomes a suspect.
‘Listen up’ moment – You touched her bra and you just remembered that now?
Tana French’s Broken Harbour.
Atmospheric thriller set in post economic depression Ireland where a young family have been brutally murdered in their home on a ghost estate.
‘Listen up’ moment – Holes in the walls? Mink on the loose? Are you sure?
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A deliciously dark, multi-narrative, domestic nightmare surrounding a missing wife.
‘Listen up’ moment – do you really want to make friends with the sort of people who hang around cheap motels??