Thursday, September 09, 2010

David Mitchell: Advice on Narrative and Plot

David Mitchell
(Image from Random House)

In an interview conducted by Catherine McWeeney for Random House's "Bold Type" webpage, David Mitchell gave some excellent, concise, practical advice for aspiring writers:
A trick to writing a compelling narrative is so simple it's often overlooked: invent a character the reader likes and make nasty or dangerous things happen to him or her (the character not the reader): Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Molder and Scully, Huckleberry Finn, Agent Cooper. Similarly, plot possibilities swarm around criminal elements like bees around a hive.
The advice about character is intuitively credible, and also coheres with my experience as a reader, so I can fully affirm the validity of Mitchell's principle here . . . for whatever my opinion might be worth.

I'm less sure about his principle concerning plot, so I'll have to think about that, but he certainly applies it in his second novel, number9dream, though his first principle seems even more obviously applied in this work.

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At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tricky part comes about when "loopbacks" are employed. An artist such as Vonnegut deftly handles the Mobius strips (perhaps because Kurt drew from both the imaginary and the actual).

The difference (and the problem) I think, arises from how/where the author intends to involve his participant. Vonnegut clearly seemed to intention his reader toward intuiting to 'sense the linear' (basing his opening paragraphs on a firm foundation) whereas the author of your current read, fails to begin on a firm foundation. Plus (as Vonnegut realized) his works would be received from the outset as "Science Fiction" and thus immune from overly shallow critical analysis. Meanwhile fully cognizant of the allegorical.

This author, I think, failed to comprehend the appreciations of his intended audience.

Just an opinion of course, so far I've received no solicitations from the NYT as a book reviewer.


At 6:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

On the other hand, I like Mitchell's stories more than I liked Vonnegut's, so Mitchell must be doing something right . . . or write.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So where did you find yourself "involved"?

The third paragraph of chapter two perhaps?


At 8:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hard to say. Mitchell catches me early with a hook and keeps me interested until I become attached to his main character. But the attachment is fairly soon, I think. The characters have some appeal from the outset.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was placing my dinner on the stove when the thought occurred to me, we may be looking at it from different aspects. I mentioned loopbacks and Vonnegut simply as a means (and relating to your earlier post) of addressing a "literary device" in an author's toolkit.

Your follow-up tends to confirm my supper prep thinking (I think). Too bad the thought didn't come to me before I did the doggone letter puzzle thingy.

(Incidentally, 'the Blogger-Monster' - aside from the earlier problem of disappearing comments - is presently not presenting the puzzle until after the first time I hit "Publish Your Comment" which isn't a problem for me since I learned long ago to copy my text because I usually 'timeout' anyway. To some, maybe...

I agree with your assessment of the work being discussed at present - Vonnegut's work after some arbitrary line, isn't a uh, comparable baseline for this work - but to me personally, I see especially from John Lennon's piece and the cited author, parallels of what I'd label "device." Whether or not my opinion is applicable, to your own, it seems to me now is perhaps not a bone of contention, so to speak.

I cited that specific paragraph because that was where I got drawn in. And it turned out to be that the next day's appointments (for me anyway) should not've been made because I'd recently visited a bookstore.

I smell something burning and my smoke-alarm is sounding like my ex.

Typing this is not a "literary device" but I've found when those two things occur in close proximity - it's time to leave the Internet.


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I can see that Mitchell could possibly be difficult at the outset -- that opening paragraph of Cloud Atlas can be off-putting if one doesn't know what the word "beaver" refers to.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:30 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

I agree with you about the validity of Mitchell's "character principle," Jeffery. I think he's probably right about plot possibilities, too -- at least if I'm understanding him correctly. Murder mysteries and crime novels, for instance, have "built-in" plots. The addition of crime or criminal elements in a story is a "simple" way to make things happen, to move things forward. When I think about the big 19th century novels, it seems to me that lots of them include at least some criminal elements (especially, say, Dickens and Dostoyevsky).

What I'm enjoying about Mitchell is how easy he makes it look. I think he's ever so slightly a show-off, in the best sense, as though he's saying to the reader, "Hey, look what I can do! Isn't this neat?" He seems to invite his readers to enter into the joy of the performance. Anyway, reading Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were deeply pleasurable experiences for me, and I've have had little of that kind of pleasure with much of the contemporary "serious" fiction I read. Maybe I'm just reading the wrong books.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

At one time, KM, I swore that I would read only the classics because I couldn't stand most of the contemporary stuff, but authors like Mitchell have moved me to revert.

I'll think about your words on the 'criminality' of many good books.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:47 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

I feel the same way about most contemporary fiction, but I'm pleasantly surprised every now and then.

By the way, bless you for ignoring the egregious subject/verb agreement error in my previous comment. You're a gentleman and a scholar.

At 4:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You refer to "reading Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were deeply pleasurable experiences"?

I'm getting too old to notice such minor typos . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:20 AM, Anonymous David Duff said...

I don't quite understand all this 'loopback' and 'intuiting' stuff that 'JK' is on about, all I know, as a man who buys 'pulp fiction' by weight rather than volume, is that the body count must begin early and the final tally must be suitably large!

No-one achieves those deadly aims better than 'Jack Reacher', the man I wish I had been were I not a weedy, old Englishman.

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK's concepts are above my pay scale, but this Jack Reacher sounds like a man whom I'd understand too clearly . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am definitely going to pick up one of David Mitchell's books before long. If Mr. Duff likes a high body count, he should look into books by Tim Dorsey. Not a lot of literary genius, but a heck of a fun read.


At 6:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Jay.

Jeffery Hodges

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