Among the awards for Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s most recent novel, The Natural Way of Things (2016), was the Stella Prize. She gave a full-day masterclass to postgraduate students at the IIML on 4 September 2019. MA fiction workshop member Caleb Harris was there.
As well as being a lauded novelist, Charlotte Wood is in demand as a creative writing teacher. So along with conveying an inspiring day full of practical tips, my goal with this write-up is to avoid giving away too much of her best material on the internet. Here, then, are a few snap shots of an engaging masterclass, which included helpful handouts and exercises, and was entitled ‘Building Narrative Tension’.
When Wood started writing she felt ‘doomed in terms of story-telling’. She loved language and knew she could create a good image, but the idea of keeping readers turning pages seemed a mystery. This was her stage of ‘she said nothing, and turned away’ stories. The stories often contained a sensitive character staring ‘at dust motes turning, or whatever’ and feeling things very deeply, but then doing nothing. ‘The one thing [the characters] never did was to act, because to act is to show yourself and they weren’t ready to take that risk, because I wasn’t. Nothing happened in my stories.’ She wanted to share with us what she learned in emerging from that period of deeply felt, but static writing. ‘These are things to try when you feel your writing is a bit flat, and needs a kick along.’
She stressed that for all of her suggestions, there were many great works of literature which did the exact opposite. ‘Every writer finds their own way of writing. Part of your job is to find your own process.’
Her first strategy was about action. Australian novelist James Bradley suggests writing at the top of every page: ‘What happens on this page?’ Characters should be kept moving, even if it’s as small an act as making a cup of tea. ‘And if they’re in a hurry, even better.’ Realising something didn’t count as action, though some people could pull it off. ‘Alice Munro can do anything, basically.’
While some characters were inherently passive, even this could be conveyed with the likes of ‘micro instances of drama’. An example was the protagonist in the film The Graduate, who’s constantly being held captive, in big and small ways. ‘The tension in the reader rises’. Wood took that idea and used it for a character of hers. She decided to never give him a moment’s rest, even though he was just having a very ordinary day, going to work at the zoo. Another example was TV’s The West Wing basically consisting of people walking and talking very fast, so that the energy stays high, even during complex discussions. Even tiny things like having a character pick at laminate on a table, or a listener tapping their foot impatiently, could create tension. The idea was to use the body in space. ‘We are our bodies; our thoughts and feelings happen in a body. Imagine something you felt, in your body, and ratchet it up a thousand times.’
Playing with time also helps tension. An example was the use of big calendar events, such as Christmas, Passover or anniversaries, when people are with family or wishing they were. ‘There’s a lot of intense emotion built in… it can give your writing a jolt of energy’. Another way was using a setting or situation where time is on everybody’s mind. The Natural Way of Things, for example, takes place in a prison, so there was a natural problem of energy, since no one could go anywhere and all the days could have seemed the same. One solution Wood found was breaking the book into four parts, for the four seasons, and showing the changes as the year went by. Section breaks, chapter headings and titles could do a lot of work in that way.
Surprising the reader was an important tension-fomenter. It didn’t necessarily have to be via car crashes or violence. ‘You can push even small, ordinary moments into drama. We want to discover something.’ Spilling food on a friend’s rug, for example, could actually be very intense if the food was chicken blood, the rug was white and expensive, and the friend was vegan.
Arguments could be improved simply by being made ‘more vicious’. Sometimes writers shrink from such intensification, saying it wasn’t realistic, but Wood advocated another idea of realism. ‘Writing is like life, but it’s not life, and that’s why we want it.’ Some writers are worried about becoming melodramatic, but most could afford to turn up the intensity several notches. ‘If you’re afraid of melodrama [in your work], you probably need some.’
Still on the theme of surprise, she noted the pleasure of discovering a way to write a character that didn’t fit the ‘type’. One example was a prison guard in The Natural Way of Things, called Teddy. Wood had been writing a stereotypical burly guard. ‘I was boring myself to death.’ Then one day she saw a fit, dreadlocked guy walk by, who looked like he might enjoy surfing and yoga, and thought: What if it were him? Another example was novelist Richard Ford inventing a suburban real estate agent who is also, in a sense, the Dalai Lama. Alice Munro often does this by having something vividly transgressive done by a character who had not seemed that way inclined: ‘A great big bomb chucked in the middle of all these good girls’. A class mate asked how to apply this idea to real people, in non-fiction? Wood: ‘Think about what’s surprising about this person, their contradictions. We all have them.’
Observing life in all its messiness as well as all its beauty was another way to inject tension. We can tend to think that because it’s a story, ‘art’, we have to tidy it up and make it beautiful. At a zoo in preparation for writing a zoo scene, Wood tried to widen her gaze, and noticed new things: a chip packet on the ground, a fork lift, a mother holding her child up to a cage and saying, ‘he’s looking at you,’ a bucket of celery sticks. From that she was able to include in her subsequent scene much more texture, which she could push out into theme and structure – things like the ugliness of consumer culture, that human desperation to put ourselves at the centre of things. ‘If you’re getting bored, the reader will too. The one real rule is don’t get bored. That feeling of, here we go again.’
Concentrating your setting and time-frame were often very useful in creating tension. ‘You’ve got to have a setting, so why not use it in a conscious way?’ Changing the space could create interest, but it could also unhelpfully release the tension built up in the earlier space. Prisons, hospitals and police stations were obvious examples, but a family home could be just as usefully confining. ‘The reader knows something is going to blow’.
The principle of compression could also be usefully applied to editing. A great exercise we did was taking a scene of our own, which we’d been asked to print and bring to class, and chop it down into as little as two or three sentences. The idea was not necessarily simply cutting or summarising, but rather letting one or two strong images stand for the whole. Wood’s example was a long, blow-by-blow train journey which she ended up rendering just through the shine of the passing train’s lights in the eyes of a cow, turning its head in a paddock. Trying this seemed to produce a particular relish among our class. Wood said a new writer she was mentoring found the same enjoyment, commenting afterward: ‘It was a whole long line of material, now it’s a coiled spring’.
After lunch Wood got onto what Paul Simon might have called ‘hints and allegations’: suggestions by the author, to the reader, of conflict and troubles to come. As an example she read out the beginning of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land. ‘In that swift little set-up, he’s planted lots of little time-bombs to go off later… we’re programmed to find out what happened.’ A class member asked how that’s done, if the author is still figuring out what happens while they write, as is often the case? Wood likened it to casting out a fishing line. You can ramp up the tension artificially, discover what could happen, then decide if you like it. ‘Say something wild, throw it out there and see what comes back. You don’t have to publish it.’
Another option was simply leaving stuff out, as Wood chose to do with the details of the back stories of the imprisoned women in The Natural Way of Things. She felt it created a helpful sense of estrangement, confusion and unease, though not every reader liked it. ‘But if you try to please everyone you’re going to create a hideously dull book.’ To illustrate, she read out possibly the best-received quote of the day, by David Simon, creator of TV masterpiece The Wire. This was Simon’s explanation of why he favours challenging world-building and street jargon:
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
In that spirit, Wood urged us to claim the freedom not to explain everything. She talked about a scene of hers, where a grieving, shocked character thinks she sees a small creature in her car. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. It’s enough of a disruption, a tiny mystery… to cause unease, discomfort every time she gets in the car.’ She quoted novelist Amanda Lohrey on liking a novel always to have ‘a message from another realm’, and not wanting everything too mastered, too known. ‘Introduce a shiver of the unknown into your story’, Wood said.
She did, though, sound a note of caution on secrets, especially ‘big reveals’, which can often fall flat and/or leave the reader feeling tricked. A better tactic was to consider, what are the broader questions this secret raises? Revealing the secret early, then exploring such questions was often a better source of power for the novel, than building up to a big reveal.
It could often be helpful simply to leave secrets unsaid, or mysteries unexplained. ‘People don’t go around explaining their world to themselves.’ She quoted James Bradley again: ‘Density of information doesn’t make fiction real, density and quality of imagination makes fiction real.’ All this could be summed up in ‘skip the boring bits’, Wood said. ‘If they’re there because you think they should be, but it feels quite dull – chuck ’em out.’
In connection to this, the question came up of who to write for. If not the story-killing average reader, who was Wood’s ideal reader? ‘I work to a reader who is smarter than me and quite a critical thinker.’ From that we got onto workshopping, and how much you should stick to your guns when people don’t get your drift (or just don’t like it). If a few people have the same questions, looking at clarifying is probably a good idea, Wood suggested. ‘But remember there’s a difference between confusion and productive ambiguity.’ There was an element of tight-rope walking required between these.
Less explaining is often more, though, especially when it comes to editing. ‘I throw out way more than I end up with.’ She remembered writing fifty thousand words of a novel and getting bored. ‘I printed it out and I realised I didn’t know whose story it was. Then I realised it was about one sister. So I cut out everything that wasn’t her, or didn’t shine a light on her. I cut out thirty thousand. I was initially horrified, but then liberated.’
The final point was about simply telling truer stories, and telling them better. ‘You want to turn the page, because you want to stay with this voice.’ It was a case of giving every sentence a quickening impulse and energy. ‘Put one of your better, more living, energetic paragraphs up front, then get rid of everything that doesn’t match it… find the truth and take out the lies. I feel evangelical about telling the truth in fiction.’ The point was to never leave anything in that you didn’t believe, even if it sounded good. ‘In your heart, you know there’s a bit of fakery going on. Mean every word.’ To illustrate, she bravely read aloud an early draft of a piece of finished work, then the final version. ‘This is a bit embarrassing but… I want you to see how it changed.’ The problem was how she had depicted a middle-class character’s fears of becoming homeless. ‘Every time I went past it, I had a false note, a bad feeling.’ When she fixed the false bit, making it ‘realer’, it ended up having a positive effect in the whole text. ‘If I’d left it in the fake version, I wouldn’t have discovered all this other important information about her – things like middle-class attitudes to beauty, shame, appearance.’
Wood had a list of types of lie worthy of rooting out. My favourite was avoiding things people only do on TV, like pacing up and down, or looking in mirrors and not liking what they see. ‘Don’t go to that shared library of images, of the shared imagination.’ Good ways to listen for these ‘lies’ included reading your manuscript aloud, and retyping it. ‘You can feel the boring bits coming.’ Not stopping thinking just because the manuscript was getting close to publication was fundamental. ‘Think about the meaning of the words on the page, the line, the sentences… Excruciating garbage can still be found.’
There was time for a couple of questions to finish a nourishing day. What if an early reader says ‘cut that bit’ and you do, but then a subsequent reader or editor says ‘Oh I loved that bit’? Wood said this pertained to learning to trust your instincts. Learning to receive feedback was also crucial, and a big part of that was not defending yourself. ‘Just listen. Don’t reject, don’t accept. Just sit with it a while, then decide what to do with it.’ Sometimes, it came down to ‘heat seeking’: Going with something you can’t leave alone, regardless of feedback. ‘This is the big question all of us have to face: who’s running this show? Me.’