And why not?


Hello, and welcome to themanwhofellasleep's writing masterclass. A lot of people ask me: how do I become a great writer? I tell them it's a lot like ski-ing. You need to own the right equipment, go to the right mountain and always wear wrap up warm and wear plenty of sunblock. It is a particularly poor analogy.

I'll let you into a secret. I have no idea how to write. I just bang my head against the keyboard for 20 minutes and when I look up, a page had been written. (note: piano players can also try this to write songs) So, there is no real magic to writing, you just have to knuckle down and act the part. Try growing a beard and resenting mankind. It's a good start.

According to some research that I have mislaid, there are only seven basic plots in writing. They all pit man (or woman, I will begrudgingly accept) against various difficulties, and out of the conflict a story emerges. I'm not sure the research is entirely accurate, because Watership Down is a good book and it doesn't pit man against anything. It has rabbits in it instead. Anyway, for the sake of argument, here are the plots:

  • 1) man vs. nature
  • 2) man vs. man
  • 3) man vs. the environment
  • 4 )man vs. machines/technology
  • 5 )man vs. the supernatural
  • 6 )man vs. self
  • 7) man vs. god/religion

To these basic plots I would add my own fiendish variation:

  • 8) man does absolutely nothing

Stories where things actually happen seem very implausible to me. Because, personally I do very little. In fact, on a good day I do very little, on a bad day I do nothing at all. Can you imagine how crowded and unpleasant life would be if it were really like stories, with all that adultery and jealousy and murder? And yet, apparently life is really like that! People actually get out of bed and do things! Remarkable.

I've always felt that stories are spoiled by plots. Often I read books and I'm enjoying the characters meandering around and suddenly - murder! And I think to myself: oh, you've gone and spoiled it now. Let's face it, most detective stories would be much improved if they got rid of the dreary whodunnit aspect and just let the characters behave like normal human beings (or rabbits). No murder, no murder weapon, no motive. Just people sitting around clipping their toenails.

If I were in charge of world literature, I would rewrite the great works of fiction and remove their plots, like an earnest chef filleting a fish for bones that stick in your throat. The Bible would be much improved if instead of nailing Jesus to a cross, they just ignored him and let him get on with whatever he did.

The irony of writing is that the kind of people that do things are rarely writers, and the kind of people who are writers rarely do things. I'm sure there are people out there who riot and steal cars and go on protests and change the world, but I doubt they are very good at commas and apostrophes. Similarly, I am world-famous for my literary skills, but have yet to master the fine art of leaving the house.