The Mind’s Eye: Getting Inside The Story

So, The Fighting Man has been out for a few weeks.

It’s already had a number of reviews and ratings on Goodreads but the thing that pleases me most is the number of people who’ve said: “I really felt like I was there…in the story.”

That’s the best feedback of all because it is exactly what I hope to do every time – transport the reader inside the story.

But how do you do that? What is it about mere words on a page that can convey images and spark the senses – make the reader feel like they are actually there with the characters and see the action as it unfolds?

Obviously, I can’t answer that question definitively – not least as everyone is different and multiple readers will respond differently to the same words/style etc. But those for whom it can work…what are the triggers? What are the stylistic tricks that open the story portal and make the reading experience more like a real experience happening inside the reader’s head?

I’ve never really thought about this before so what follows is a series of guesses. As usual, I’m making it up as I go…

First off, the reader mustn’t be conscious that they are reading. The writing needs to cast something like a spell over the reader so they live the story as the pages turn. It takes a lot of careful work to set the spell and it’s easily broken. Awkward prose; anachronistic words or concepts; characters out of character – any of these can jolt the reader out of the story flow – make them conscious they are reading.

A story spell starts with the set up – an opening which engages the reader immediately and sucks them into the world you have created. The Fighting Man introduces the reader directly to the main character’s (Brand’s) world and the main philosophical force that underpins it. The idea of being tested by God was a powerful compulsion in the C11 and is crucial to my story.

Of course, you can’t labour a point like that with explanations or the story will get bogged down and boring. The readers need to know about it (and occasionally be reminded of it) but they need to know it via something they can feel rather than something they have to think about.

The other way I quickly introduce readers to Brand’s world is by engaging their senses – especially smell. One of the biggest differences between the medieval world and the modern world is how it smelled. Modern first world readers would be assailed by the stench of Brand’s world – open sewers, tanneries, wood smoke, rotting meat and fish, animal dung everywhere – and yet the people of the time would have noticed it no more than modern people notice the smell of traffic or hospitals. Brand, however, hates the smell of shit – one of the first things we learn about him – and instantly the modern reader identifies with Brand and his shitty world. We can smell it also and share his disgust.

The other key part of the set up is introducing the reader to the main character’s central problem. Brand has two – the need to avenge his family and the pursuit of Valla – and within two chapters the reader is already anticipating the journey ahead. All the writer has to do after that is to (at least) fulfil the reader’s anticipation and if possible exceed it. By exceeding it I mean gradually broadening the scope of the story so it becomes much bigger than the reader’s original expectation. If you can carry that off you will surprise and delight and that is what readers most enjoy.

After the set up, the story has to flow. My stories typically follow the journeys of multiple characters – which is a gamble. Extra story arcs can enrich the reading experience, but they can also overcomplicate and confuse. The secret is to keep the additional journeys as simple as possible so the reader isn’t distracted by too much information or too many agendas.

The main character’s journey need not be simple but it should be easy (enough) to follow. And all the other characters’ journeys must add to the climax in some way. The pace of the story has to really speed up as the plotlines converge and push each other towards the finish.

The plot is a major part of the flow that sweeps the reader along. The Fighting Man is built around the events leading up to Hastings in 1066, but the plot is essentially generated by the fictional characters interacting with the historical characters. Brand, Valla and Malgard are the key fictional characters and it is their motives that drive the main plot. What this means is that while the readers know how the story will end on one level (the Normans win), on a different level they have no idea which makes the book gripping for the reader as the plot winds towards its heroic/tragic/bittersweet conclusion.

The subplots are mainly for the historical characters and the way I interpret their actions a thousand years later. I find Harold and Tostig Godwinson fascinating. Aelfgar also, and Edward the Confessor is an intriguing fellow. The Conqueror, of course, must have been one of history’s greatest gamblers and the Bayeux Tapestry is full of holes and riddles. I had a lot of fun interpreting the Tapestry (including the upper and lower borders with their many mysterious figures and symbols). Much of it trickles into the story and gives it some of the (hopefully) authentic medieval flavour.

In some ways, flavour is the hardest part.

Giving the reader an authentic feeling medieval experience is not easy. As noted above, I started with God and smell to link the reader with Brand and his world, but that won’t be enough. You have to use words and concepts throughout that would have been recognisable to the people of the time, while simultaneously entertaining a modern reader who wants insight into the past while inevitably processing that past through a sophisticated modern prism.

Some of this is easy – use of weapons for example – Brand has to use the weapons of the time, but what about other things? Like food, technology, transport, architecture, music, relationships, drinking culture, sense of humour? These, and any number of other matters, are major challenges. Get them right and they deepen the ambience and keep the reader under the spell. Get them wrong and the reader is irritated and bumped out of the flow. Some (like food) can be easily fixed with research but others are much more of a challenge – like sense of humour for example, how can we really know what the people of the C11 found funny? I always have some humour in my stories but sometimes the temptation to add a funny line must be resisted because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a C11 person would say.

Finally, and possibly the hardest ingredient to describe, is technique. There are the simpler things like ensuring the rhythm of your sentences is just right – excess syllables pared back and a little tasteful alliteration here and there – but the really hard thing is this: to put yourself in the story.

This is perhaps the core of successful story telling – actually immersing yourself in the story and describing the atmosphere, action and dialogue without conscious effort. When I am working well it’s almost like going into a trance where the words pour out of my fingers into the keyboard. I am so oblivious to what has happened that when I open the laptop for the next session I read back over my latest work and can’t remember any of it. For me, this is the best part of being a novelist – it’s as close as I can come to not being me and experiencing the story as a reader.

But how do I do it?

I can’t say exactly how it works because I don’t know. I’m guessing that the imagination is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the more powerful it becomes. Anyone my age with the same interests as me will have seen countless images and actions of medieval people. Add to that the vast amount of material I’ve read about the specific period and incidents and I can literally see – in my mind’s eye – Brand and Harold and Valla et al, and everything that happens to them.

It really is like watching a movie in my head, and if I can somehow get those visuals (and other senses) onto paper then I know I’ve done a good job.

In the end (of course) whether I’ve done a good job is up to the reader. But the reader will never feel themselves to be inside the story unless I’ve already been there myself.

 

The Fighting Man is available in all good bookstores or Booktopia. Ebook also available through all the usual sites.

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