Why I Write: Kim Curran

It’s probably easier for me to tell you all the reasons I don’t write. I don’t write for money. Or fame. Or to work through any psychological trauma. I don’t even write because, as many authors say, I have to; because I would die if I couldn’t put pen to paper.  I’m not even sure I write because I feel I have something important to say.

I write because I love it.  It’s so trite to say that, and I wish I had a deeper, more noble motive. I wish I wrote because I wanted to change the world or because I had a grand political purpose. But nope. For me, writing is an entirely selfish act. I write because it’s the one thing that when I’m doing it, I don’t feel like I should be doing something else.

Like all authors, I started as a reader. I would escape into worlds where heroes and villains and gods and monsters did battle. Where children were the stars and adults merely obstacles blocking their way to victory. Reading gave me a sense of power, a sense of belonging. I was never alone when with a book.

DeleteIt was a simple extension to start inventing these stories myself. I had a little red typewriter when I was eight and I used to bash out stories about monsters with two heads called Fluffy and heroes with eyebrows like mating caterpillars (I’m proud of that line to this day). I felt like a god.

Today, many, many, years later, I still do. When I write, I have complete control over the worlds I’ve built. I get to create characters then put words in their mouths and life in their limbs. I’m like a little girl playing with her toys. Only this time, I get to share those games with anyone who wants to pick up my books.

I write because as the youngest of three girls I was ignored and interrupted a lot. And when writing, no one can do either of those things. It’s like waving a giant flag that says, “I am here. I exist.”

I write because I make sense when I’m writing. The overactive imagination that got me into trouble in school, the endless useless bits of information my magpie mind has collected over the years, and the fact I would happily live in my PJs and never leave the house all make sense when I’m writing, in a way they never do when I’m out there in the real world.

And finally, I write because what other job can you do while wearing a dinosaur onesie?

Kim Curran KimCurran

Kim Curran is the award-nominated author of books for young adults, including Shift, Control and Delete. She works in advertising and is obsessed with the power of the media on young minds. She is a mentor at the Ministry of Stories and for the WoMentoring Project, and lives in London with her husband and too many books.

Order Delete here, and say hi to Kim on Twitter.

QuickFic 27/03/15: The Winner

Well, that was a monstrous amount of fun.

That was a joke. A topical word choice based joke.

See, we asked for stories of 250 words or less, using this quote as a jumping-off point:

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… which is of course the opening line of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

And you did us proud. Stories about all kinds of things, written in all kinds of genres. We loved them all.

But the point of this whole thing is that we have to choose two to love just that little bit more.

These are those:

RUNNER-UP: Liz Hedgecock

Motion Carried

‘Now, if we could move on to agenda item 4.2…’ The Chair’s dark gaze extinguished the delegates’ chatter as effectively as a cloth dropped over a parrot’s cage. ‘Rhinitis, I believe that you’re leading this.’

Allergic Rhinitis bounced up from his seat and squared off the edges of his paperwork. ‘Yes, Chair. Item 4.2, Sub-Committee Equality Scheme, Phase 1.’ Capital letters rang through the room. ‘Since our last meeting I have convened a sub-sub-committee and canvassed female participants.’ He paused, blew his nose with a large red and white polka dot handkerchief, and stuffed it into the pocket of his hairy tweed sports coat. 

‘Excellent.’ The Chair inclined his head. ‘And the result?’

‘Allow me to present our new committee members.’ Rhinitis sprang to the heavy double doors and pulled them open, revealing the silhouettes of three women.

‘Excessively-High Speed-Bumps…’ A tall woman sporting a polo-neck and pince-nez strode in.

‘Verruca Plantaris – ’

‘Call me Verruca, dear.’ A stout lady in lisle stockings stumped in.

‘And Multi-Level Online Games.’ 

She sashayed to the head of the table and poured herself next to the Chair, who couldn’t help smiling at her. ‘So lovely to be here, Red-Tape.’ 

He watched the way that she nudged her pen forward, left, down, and found that he was doing it too. They all were. 

And the Sub-Committee of Afflictions, Distractions and Setbacks (Second-Class) never did action its action list. But it didn’t mind.     

 

WINNER: Henry Peplow

The Escape

The air stinks of coal and tar and the sweat of the men. You hear the rush of water over their oars and curse them for not muffling, as smugglers should, though you do it quiet so as not to rankle them. A fog steals the colour and the form of the world, so the retreating dock is a pencilled sketch rubbed and smudged across a page, and the sea beyond but a miasma.

You feel the purse in your coat pocket and smooth the flap to conceal it, as if even here some sly-fingered urch might creep upon you. And now you hear the horses, breeching the dock and scattering the sound along the cobbles so it rolls out onto the water, so close it makes your heart lurch. And the calling! The oars are flying now. Scraping gouts of water in each blade so the bow crackles. The fog settles dew onto your face to tame the blood-rush, and you see the great hulk emerge sudden from the vapours.

You press coins into the calloused hands of the oafs who ask for more until you draw a weapon already primed and scale the ladder up onto the deck. Even in the fog, enough air swings the great sail into a soft billow. The ship swings on its keel to clear the stench of land and shake off the bounds of its people. You’re laughing, great bellows that carry across the water, back to the dock.

 

Congratulations to Liz, and double congratulations to Henry, who is the very first person to win QuickFic twice!

And thanks to everyone who entered – you make our Fridays fly.

QuickFic 27/03/15

Hi there! What’s that you say? You feel like today’s a day for a competition where you write words to win books?

Well, how fortunate. So do we.

If you haven’t played QuickFic before, it’s quite straightforward:

At 9:50 on a Friday morning (just about right now), we give you a prompt. You write us a story of up to 250 words using that prompt, give it a title, and send it to us at academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 this afternoon. Not a second after.

At 3:30pm, we announce a winner, and that winner wins not three, not four, but FIVE excellent books.

Sound good? Good!

Here’s that prompt we mentioned:

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Ooh-er.

And those books? Why, ’tis these ones:

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L-R: Paul Auster: Collected Novels, Vol.3, Past Crimes, The Spider King’s Daughter, Poetry Please, The Girl With A Clock For A Heart

See you at 3:30!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, let’s say. 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: There’s No Place Like Home… Or Is There?

wwehut_799

Location, location, location. Sometimes it’s the first element you select for a story, and it’s often the first thing that a reader really identifies with, too. A well-described landscape can be hugely evocative; the atmosphere for your novel can be decided quite literally by setting the scene.

So what happens if you change that fundamental strand of your project’s DNA?

Well. Let’s find out, shall we?

wwemountains

 

If you’ve got a manuscript making itself at home on your hard drive

It’s time to take your characters on a little holiday. Choose a tricky scene which you’ve had trouble writing, or which doesn’t seem to quite work, and try relocating it somewhere completely different.

If you’re feeling brave, go wild – stick the characters on a desert island, or in a submarine. Removed from the world of your novel, are there still issues with the scene? If so, it could be that you’re trying to force your characters to act or speak in a way which doesn’t feel natural or logical; you may need to consider removing or rethinking that section. Or does changing the place free up the characters and help you make the scene flow? If it does (hooray), try to translate this back into a version in your story’s “real” world.

Sometimes just a simple change of scenery will do – if the tricky bit happens in your character’s sitting room, move them out into the street; from work to weekend stroll. Does that change the dynamic?

If you haven’t got a work in progress, or you want a little palate cleanser

Write a short story about a person finding themselves entirely (and geographically) out of their comfort zone. It could be a New Yorker in the Outback, or a Poet Laureate on an 18-30s booze cruise.

How does putting a character in an unusual location help you, the writer, give us information about them?

We have new creative writing exercises for you every Wednesday. And if you can’t wait a whole week, join us every Friday morning for our QuickFic competition – write a story based on that week’s prompt for a chance to win a stack of books.

Why I Write: Francesca Haig

When I was a child, my babysitter used to offer me fifty cents for each half hour that I’d manage not to talk. Not once did I manage to earn a cent. That love of language, and of the transporting pleasure of storytelling, made me pretty unbearable as a child – but it’s the same reason that I’ve always been an avid reader, and it’s also the same reason that I write.

As both a reader and a writer, the thing that always fascinates me more than anything is the9780007563050 function of metaphor – its ability to transform, and to make you see something in an entirely new light. When I read a really striking metaphor, it has such an odd double impact. On the one hand, there’s the sense of shock, the jolt provided when a metaphor’s utterly fresh and unexpected: I never would have thought of that. And, on the other hand, the recognition that makes you smile and nod to yourself, because even though the metaphor is entirely new, it also has a sense of accuracy: that’s exactly right.

That kind of precision is what Flaubert was talking about when he said that ‘Poetry is as exact a science is geometry.’ I’m far too much of a wuss to get a tattoo, but if I were braver, Flaubert’s quote is what I’d choose to inscribe on my flesh. The ability of brilliant metaphors to combine innovation and recognition creates such a frisson, and for me that’s what I’m always searching for as a reader, and aiming for as a writer.

And because the writer is always present in me, even when I’m just reading for pleasure, when I encounter a wonderful metaphor my joy is accompanied by a stab of envy: I wish I’d come up with that. It’s probably my competitive streak, as much as any idea of ‘vocation.’ But there are few satisfactions greater that the feeling when the metaphor that clicks into place is one of your own.

Each metaphor is a risk: will this work? Have I gone too far/not far enough? When you know that you’ve nailed a metaphor, it’s a real sense of exhilaration. I used to do a lot of rock-climbing. Now I just write, but I think it fills the same desire for risk. If your writing doesn’t involve risk, then what’s the point?

There’s a particular pleasure in writing poetry, for me, because the focus is so entirely on the language. The big-picture things that have to be juggled so carefully in a novel – plot, character, structure, pacing – fall out of view, and instead the language itself dominates. Of course there are other things at play in poetry – plot, character, structure and pacing can all be present, but they turn on a comma, or a carefully executed line-break. There’s a kind of purity in that, and a singularity of focus, which draws me back to poetry again and again. Writing novels has its own pleasures and challenges, of course – a novel is expansive and one can live in it for so long, and develop things that a poem doesn’t permit. But the purest form of writing pleasure, for me, whether in a novel or a poem, is that single line or image that snatches the familiar away while at once making it clearer than ever before.

Francesca Haig

Francesca Haig is an author and academic. Her first novel, The Fire Sermon, was published by Harper Voyager this year and is being translated into over twenty languages. Film rights have been optioned by DreamWorks. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and anthologies in both Australia and England, and her first collection of poetry, Bodies of Water, was published in 2006.

Buy The Fire Sermon here, and say hi to her on Twitter.

QuickFic 20/03/15: The Winner

Phew. That was a jump-start to our weekend.

See what we did there? Because the prompt is of… Yeah, okay.

We asked for stories of up to 250 words on this bouncy couple:

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And you jumped right in, oh yes. There was romance, there was comedy, there was drama and there was the eternal void (we particularly enjoyed that entry, Thom). Very lovely stuff.

Anyway. We have to pick a winner, because that’s kind of how it works, and so we have.

And here those winners are:

RUNNER-UP: Alexis J Reed

Starfish Flick

They call it the ‘starfish flick.’ It’s one of the hardest moves to pull off. Right up there with the surprise shoulder turn and the thoughtful chin hold. It can look disingenuous and forced. The best models make it look joyous. An ecstatic burst of extended limbs.

I’ve been in make-up and hair for an hour. Arrived this morning with a serious case of the frizzies and the stylist has been battling with it ever since. Hairbrushes brandished like bristled Excaliburs. She’s managed to tame it down and stands back admiring her victory. The make-up artist tsks at me about the bags under my eyes and the dryness of my skin. She layers red lipstick on, thinking it might detract from the overall hideousness of my face. Her words, not mine. And I haven’t even been offered a coffee yet.

Tommy McKenzie saunters onto the set with his jacket slung over his left shoulder and I swear about three girls pass out in his wake. He goes to wardrobe, emerges looking every bit the university boy. He winks in my direction. I nod back. He’ll get no fawning adulation from me. I’m too busy running through the starfish flick in my mind.

We jump. We smile. The camera blinds us. Strange that a millisecond of action will be held forever on celluloid. But each time we jump I can feel infinity calling and I answer with a starfish flick that will echo down the ages.

WINNER: Fran Harvey

Puppeteer

The strings are fine, so light as to be invisible – but they cut cruelly into the wrists and ankles, tug at the cheap cloth covering elbows and knees.

“It’s a learner driver,” murmurs Gordon, through his rictus grin. “Oh God, I hate learners.” His left arm jerks abruptly up, swings out sideways in a line and smacks Judy in the back of the head.

“Might just be the Master loosening his fingers,” says Judy hopefully, as her legs buckle and flap, a drunken goose-step.

“There’s a tangle coming, you wait and see,” says Gordon, and he spins on his strings, one foot caught behind Judy’s knee. His head nods up and down and couple of times, and there’s a clatter as he’s dropped for a second. He rests gratefully, head at a rag-doll angle. From here he can just about see up Judy’s skirt. Her arms open welcomingly, her head tilts to one side. “Here we go.”

The strings pull taunt, and they stand to attention. Lean to one side, lean to the other, heads forward, heads back.

“A proper beginner,” whimpers Gordon, as his left foot taps to no discernible rhythm.

“Just keep smiling,” warns Judy, bravely. “It’ll be over soon.”

The jumps begin – arms wide, legs out, jump jump jump. Everyone has to start somewhere. 

 

Congratulations, Alexis and Fran!

And thanks to all our entrants. You make Fridays our favourite.

See you at 9.50 next week for a brand-new prompt – bouncy weekends to one and all.

QuickFic 20/03/15

Hello there. Come on in – can we take your coat?

It’s time for that most fun of Friday fun times: QUICKFIC.

If you’re new round these parts, let us explain how it all works:

At 9.50 on a Friday (right now, in fact!), we give you a prompt. It might be a photo, a phrase, a feeling (it won’t be a feeling). You write a story of up to 250 words about that prompt, give it a title, and send it to us at academy@faber.co.uk by 2.50pm this afternoon, March 20th. Not a moment later.

At 3.30pm, we announce a winner, and that winner wins books.

We like books.

Great. We’ll get going, shall we? Here’s this week’s prompt:

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They look like they’ve got a Friday sort of feeling, don’t they?

And if you need a little more persuasion, these are those books that the winner will win:

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L-R: Prey, Drifting House, Flight Behaviour, The Dead Beat, Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

NICE.

See you back here at 3.30!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, let’s say. 

Style Versus Story: Richard Skinner

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Students often ask me why I place so much emphasis on ‘story’ and not on the way a writer writes. The answer is a difficult one to articulate in a short time because to answer truthfully means that we have to grapple with the very notions of why we write. I think the beginning of a writer’s ‘style’ lies somewhere very deep inside oneself. Seamus Heaney described it thus: ‘You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into the waters that will continue to entice you back. You have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.’

A writer’s style is not just to do with the basic practical choices a writer makes about how to write, it is also to do with something more intimate, or even philosophical, than that. It is closely wed to notions of perception, personality, morality, and possibility; it is tied to the choices we make in life. In your writing, readers should be able to hear the contents of your heart, your mind and your soul.

So, if a writer’s ‘style’ is the sum and signature of their personality, then a writer’s true biography amounts to no more than the story of their style. And when we talk about a writer’s style, what we are actually talking about is their ‘voice’, which is something that a writer can only discover for themselves in, and over, time. A writer’s voice is the deepest reflection of who they are and this is absolutely not something anyone can, nor should, ‘teach’.

As a tutor, I can do nothing about the tone of your voice as you speak, but what I can engage with is what you say, i.e. your ‘story’. The elements of good storytelling are something that can be discussed, examined, tested, moulded, learned. Underneath any amount of layering of tone and texture there should be a rock solid story. A writer’s first business is to decide: what’s going to happen? To whom? When? Where? Once you have your story, you need to decide in what order you’re going to place those events. Putting them in different orders will create different effects.

Plotting is finding the desire lines in your story, the path of least resistance. By thinking through your story again and again, you become more and more familiar with it, knowing better and better for yourself how it should be told. And this is what we do on the six-month Writing a Novel course. We discuss, examine, test, mould, learn and I ask again and again: ‘Where’s the story?’ I answer this question as like standing in a stream—although you can’t see it, you can feel the current on your ankles, can’t you? You can see ahead of you how the stream flows. Getting to know the structure of your story is standing in a stream. Feel the direction of the current and go with the flow. Dip into the waters of yourselves.

Richard SkinnerRichard Skinner 250_250

Richard Skinner is an author, poet and Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. He is a tutor on both our six month Writing a Novel course and our one day Start to Write courses.

Why I Write: Alex Christofi

I can’t say when or why I started writing. The truth is that I have always written. I wrote before I had any interest in why I wrote or what its purpose might be. I felt instinctively that words were the only way to arrange a thought, and arranging my thoughts became a kind of game. It is a kind of compulsion, which, since I am doing it anyway, I may as well use to understand and resolve the world around me. At a certain point I decided that I wanted to write for other people, to tell them stories, arrange their thoughts, and writing became a little less about me, but there is still a paradox at the heart of it: I have to think I am writing something that is worth other people’s time.

When writers write about writing, there is a common idea that they are doing so for posterity. Some of us have a romantic idea of writing as a kind of continuance, a way of persisting in the world after you die. Books become almost like the children of a mind, living on in the world after their parent is gone. My novel will be lodged with the copyright libraries, my name on record. Yet there are 14 million books in the British Library. It is a vast mausoleum of thoughts, the older names fading from view like weathered headstones. I recently borrowed a book published in 1976, and it still had the return card lodged in the front from its previous borrower in 1988.

So if I accept that my writing is not about me – that the part tied up with my ego is not going to last very well whichever way you look at it – it becomes about the story itself and what it can do in the present. There are a few particular characteristics of the novel, which set it apart from other media, and which make it quite a unique way to tell stories.

Firstly, a novel makes humans out of us. The form by its nature doesn’t just show us people who don’t share our life experience, it forces us to imagine what it is like to be them. So many of the world’s problems arise from a lack of empathy with others. We feel that some others are not like us, can’t understand us, don’t have the same needs as we do or, perhaps, in less generous moments, that our concerns are really more important. Reading novels forces me to imagine what it must be like to be someone else: young, old, an outsider, deaf, gay, female, religious. Novels help me to see how different life is across decades or on the other side of the world. And spanning all that difference, there is always something uniting about our shared needs for love, purpose, dignity and food. (Yes, food. Who doesn’t love food?)

glassThe novel may not always shout loudest, but it stays with you in your bag and by your bed, insistent and persuasive. In the shouting match of modern media, the novel is a fireside chat, a weekend away in a country B&B. Under its influence, you start to look at trees for what seems like the first time in a month, you talk about the things that have been bothering you for a while, and you realise that this, here, now, is life.

A novel is pretty much the only chance that a person gets to speak to a stranger, without interruption, for ten hours. To arrange a few thoughts with them. It’s a fantastical, terrifying opportunity. What would you say? Perhaps you are afraid they will walk away, so you focus on holding their attention. Perhaps you want to make a point about politics or society. Maybe your priority is to show them that, if things always seem to go wrong, at least they get better in the end. I suppose if you’re very good at it, you could do any number of things at once. For me, I think the most important thing is to reach out, to lend my hand like Larkin’s old toad. If I could only impress one thought on a stranger, I would tell them that, if all of us sometimes feel like we are struggling through life alone, at least we are alone together.

Alex Christofi

alexchristofiAlex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel, and you can buy it here. Say hi to him on Twitter.

Sir Gawain and the Study of Plot

During 1987–88, I was a TEFL teacher in a small village in northern Italy called Magenta. The town was so-named after the decisive battle fought there in 1859 and won by a French-Sardinian army led by Napoleon III against the Austrians. According to local legend, so many lost their lives that day and so much blood ran in the streets that they named the colour of so much blood after the town. When you exit Magenta railway station, the first thing you still see is a villa peppered with bullet holes.

The school I taught in was owned by local priests and one of them would arrive every Friday evening and take away a bag of cash with him. The classes were organised and taught by myself and one other teacher, Chris, and we were left pretty much to our own devices. I taught evening classes twice a week as well as some one-to-one lessons with local businessmen who had to learn English for their jobs. These hour-long one-to-one sessions were tortuous as the businessmen were often there against their will and were always dog-tired after a day at work. I remember one very overweight man falling asleep in front of me every time we tackled the present perfect.

One day, however, in walked a student with a strange request. His name was Bruno and he was 16 years old. He said that, at his local gymnasium, they were going to read the 14th-century Middle-English alliterative romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he wanted someone at our school to help him tackle the text. I had, and still have, no idea why an Italian secondary school would put their 16-year old pupils through such an ordeal, but I was intrigued and so agreed. From then on, we met at the school once a week for three months or so, each time going through line-by-line a section of the text I had photocopied for him the week before. I was as much a newcomer to the text as Bruno and learned just as much as him about the intricacies of Middle-English verse—the way the alliterations come in threes, the way the stresses produce the four-beat pulse of each line, the turning of the shorter ‘bob and wheel’ sections. It was one of the most unusual and rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a test of courage and a tale of the limitations of personal integrity. The story opens with a giant Green Knight arriving on horseback at Camelot and issuing a challenge—any of King Arthur’s knights may cut off his head with a single blow of an axe on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in one year’s time. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and famous as the most noble of his knights, immediately stands up and accepts the challenge. He makes his strike and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, but the Green Knight merely picks it up and rides off, telling Gawain that he must seek him out and fulfil his part of the bargain. The text follows Gawain as he rides out the following winter to find the Green Knight and face certain death.

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Not just a story of chivalry under duress, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a nature poem, a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story, a 2,500-line tongue twister, a myth and a morality tale. The imagery is unforgettable. As Gawain rides along the borderlands of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, we see the turning of the seasons; the hills, vales and forests gripped in winter’s clutches. Gawain sleeps in his armour, taking shelter under waterfalls, and the pages of the poem seem tinged with frost.

Four years later, I was doing an English degree at Sussex and came across Gawain again, this time in a course on Semiotics. The tutor for that course, Jacqueline Rose, was looking at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in light of an essay entitled “Morphology of the Folktale”, written in the 1920s by Russian theorist Vladimir Propp. The essay is still one of the most fascinating and convincing demonstrations of the underlying homogenous nature of all plots. For his essay, Propp looked at more than a hundred folktales and drew up a chart, or ‘morphology’, of their basic elements. He first of all noted that there were only seven basic character roles: Hero, Villain, Donor/Provider, Dispatcher, Helper, Princess and False hero. He then made a list of the thirty-one basic ‘functions’, as he called them. Not all the folktales included every single function, but the overall shape of all the tales remained the same. The functions are:

  1. A member of the family leaves home or is absent.
  2. A restriction of some kind is placed on the hero.
  3. The hero violates that restriction.
  4. The villain tries to find the hero.
  5. The villain secures information about the hero.
  6. The villain tries to trick the hero into trusting him.
  7. The hero falls for it.
  8. The villain hurts the hero’s family or one of the family desperately lacks something.
  9. This injury or lack comes to light and the hero must act.
  10. The hero decides upon a course of action against the villain.
  11. The hero leaves home.
  12. The hero is tested in some way and, as a result, receives a magical agent or helper.
  13. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
  14. The hero uses the magical agent or the helper aids him.
  15. The hero is led to what he is looking for.
  16. The hero fights the villain.
  17. The hero is wounded or marked in some way.
  18. The villain is defeated.
  19. The injury or lack [in #8] is put right.
  20. The hero returns.
  21. The hero is pursued.
  22. The hero is saved from this pursuit [Propp notes that many of the folktales ended here].
  23. The hero returns home, unrecognised.
  24. A false hero makes false claims.
  25. A difficult task is set for the hero.
  26. The task is accomplished.
  27. The hero is recognised.
  28. The false hero or villain is exposed.
  29. The hero is transformed in some way.
  30. The villain is punished.
  31. The hero is married and/or crowned.

What’s remarkable about Propp’s morphology is how well it can be applied to all kinds of story, from any period, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here is a synopsis of its plot in ‘Proppian’ terms:

On New Year’s Day in Camelot, King Arthur’s court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on condition that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day later (4). Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur’s knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge (5) (6) (7). He severs the giant’s head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year’s Day the next year) and rides away (8) (9) (10).

As the date approaches, Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight (11). His long journey leads him to a beautiful castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife (12); both are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Gawain tells them of his New Year’s appointment at the Green Chapel and says that he must continue his search as he only has a few days remaining. Bertilak laughs and explains that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and proposes that Gawain stay at the castle (13).

Before going hunting the next day, Bertilak proposes a bargain to Gawain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, the lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits Gawain’s bedroom to seduce him. Despite her best efforts, however, he yields nothing but a single kiss. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest responds by returning the lady’s kiss to Bertilak, without divulging its source. The next day, the lady comes again, Gawain dodges her advances, and there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, and Gawain accepts from her a green silk girdle, which the lady promises will keep him from all physical harm. They exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses. Gawain keeps the girdle, however (14).

The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle. He finds the Green Knight at the chapel sharpening an axe (15), and, as arranged, bends over to receive his blow (16). The Green Knight swings to behead Gawain, but holds back twice, only striking softly on the third swing, causing a small nick on his neck (17). The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert (18), and explains that the entire game was arranged by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s enemy. Gawain is at first ashamed and upset, but the two men part on cordial terms (19) and Gawain returns to Camelot (20), wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak (21). Arthur decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure (22).

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone should slavishly follow Propp’s morphology, but it is a brilliant, illuminating way to see how a plot works in practice, from the inside-out, as it were. Reading Propp’s morphology in tandem with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight showed how well its author had laid the traps and sprung the surprises. The beauty of the tale is that, while the story initially seems to be about one thing—the beheading game—it turns out actually to be about something else entirely—temptation.

Ultimately, every story has its own personality. Plot may be the genetic code of a text, but, just as human beings who share the same DNA are obviously and wildly different from each other, so books that show their common lineage are also peculiarly and stubbornly individual. Thank goodness for that! There are very many stories that follow, more or less, the same plot, but it is the writer’s task to create stories, not copy plots. Stories these days might not be original, but they can still be authentic.

Richard Skinner

vademecumRichard Skinner is an author, poet and Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. This essay will appear in his forthcoming collection Vade Mecum: Essays, Reviews & Interviews to be published early this summer by Zero Books

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was also one of the inspirations behind Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant