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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

Mood Music

Why do I like particular types of writing, for example philosophising by the characters?

I’ve just enjoyed “Next of Kin” by Joanna Trollope, with her accessible style, in which one can comfortably immerse oneself. Authentic characters abound, faced with successions of challenges. Her effective description conveys atmosphere, seasons and a true sense of place, all of which enhance my enjoyment. If I examine my reactions more precisely, however, it’s her characters’ doubts, dissatisfactions with their careers, prospects or relationships that I enjoy most of all.

They make me feel good about myself. I can compare my own achievements and progress with those of the heroes, heroines, villains, cowards, bullies and bastards, to my heart’s content. I love it!

Developing this idea, it seems reasonable that just as one doesn’t always fancy the same meal, different styles satisfy different moods and psychological needs. I find some authors simply easier to read, while others present myriad levels of challenge to endurance and comprehension.

So, on any given occasion, how much mental effort might I be willing to expend, following characters’ musings, the back story, etc.? This varies greatly, depending on my mood and circumstances. I appreciate easily attained escapism, comedic, dramatic or otherwise, when stressed. In less demanding conditions, I enjoy comparing my own thoughts on deeper questions with that of the writer and hence their characters. Many of the more reflective types of novel contain such passages. Iris Murdoch, herself an eminent philosopher, frequently has her characters confront central issues such as purpose, belief, reality and relationships. Sometimes, using her uniquely powerful, uncompromisingly mordant style, she illustrates their musings with topographical or other flights of metaphorical allusion.

Authors of this level of accomplishment have taught me many interesting writing lessons. I frequently see and admire how dialogue can be such a powerful characterisation development tool. Individuals’ reflections about their colleagues, families, friends and adversaries can be a powerful additional means of developing their personalities on the page. This technique can also be very amusingly inverted, resulting in a Malvolioesque self-aggrandisement, as the character’s ego is revealed.

After mental effort in another area, for example in teaching myself finite element analysis, I often appreciate more mentally challenging writing. Characters wrestling with the eternal philosophical questions, comparing the merits of the academic disciplines and professions, or questioning societal and family conventions then attract me.

I am currently revelling in Sky Arts’ repeats of the “Tales of The Unexpected” TV dramatisations of short stories, as I enjoy writing “twist in the tail” yarns. I’ve already learned (or revisited) several useful points, the most notable of which so far has been simplicity.

Several of the dramatised stories have worked really powerfully, in part due to the simplicity of their plots.

Several others didn’t really seem to work at all, as the impact of the twist was nullified in various ways. In one adaptation, more than one fact was concealed from the viewer. This renders the whole narrative arbitrary, as it cannot then be said to hinge on one concealed fact and one corresponding clue. In another, the punch line came far too early, dissipating the tension. It was followed by several other minor developments that added nothing to the suspense or the story. In another, the punch line preceded what seemed an unlikely, hence arbitrary, additional revelation, to which there seemed to have been no clue.

I enjoyed puzzling over how these might have been improved and thereby rendered more dramatic.

When I first watched these TV adaptations, 40 years ago, I never dreamt of being a published writer. The additional enjoyment derived from that retrospective critical viewpoint is reward in itself.

My debut novel, Theta Double Dot, is published by Austin Macauley.

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