In the not so distant past I attended the ‘Writing Dramatic Dialogue’ class run by author John Harman. I had hoped that it would help me limber up my writing muscles: what I didn’t realise is that it would give me licence to kill – in the literary sense that is.
John started by telling us:
‘You sit in a room by yourself, making up words for people who don’t exist.It’s madness. They can put you away for that. You either get paid or put away.’
And towards the end of the day he admitted:
‘Writers are allowed to steal anything. If it is nailed down, get a crowbar. There is no copyright on lines of dialogue or ideas. You can steal anything.’
No wonder no one’s Mum wants them to be a writer when they grow up – it’s nothing to do with hanging on the fringe of dubious society or the non-existent pay cheques. Writers wind up being thieving mad people. Personally, I cannot wait.
After a second workshop by John Harman, I was able to extend the notion that writers are ‘thieves and mad people’ to include the proposition that writers are also promiscuous Machiavellian bastards who can defy the laws of physics. Cool hey.
He told us:
Figure out the worst thing possible you can do to your hero, and do it. Show them you are a bastard as an author. You’re meant to be. You are God. You have become Machiavellian.
John was explaining the concept of chiasmus, the Greek word for cross, where the story reverses on itself. Such as ‘what matters is not the men in my life, but the life in my men’ or ‘You do not live to eat, you eat to live’. He told us that we must constantly be looking for ways to reverse the story and, if possible, torture our protagonist by putting them in situations that would put them under complete and utter duress.
His complaint about first time writers was that we are all too nice to our heroes, and very rarely want to hurt them. Imagine how lame ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have been had Shakespeare decided to let them live happily ever after. Why is this story one of the greatest of all time? Chiasmus. The story starts with our protagonists alive but apart, and finishes with them dead but together. Neat.
Then we were told:
Writers are promiscuous. We are writing one story but we keep thinking about another.
Finally he concluded:
Writers are not subject to the laws of gravity. If you are an architect you must start with the foundations or your building will fall down. A writer can start anywhere: the middle, beginning or end.
I think the key though, is that writers need to actually start. And once they start (as is particularly true in my case), they need to continue.
* This post is an edited version of two articles published on Relentless