Picture this. You are in the pub with a group of friends and there’s a gap in the conversation. You heard this joke a while back and it pops unbidden into your head. You step forward and find you are holding the floor.
‘Have you heard the one about?’
The audience is hooked and you start well. The trouble is, the joke isn’t quite as clear in your head as you thought. If you’re anything like me, you get almost to the end then realize you’ve missed some vital detail along the way. The punch-line just won’t work. Or it turns out that you’ve somehow given the punch line away too soon; the joke – and the audience – are left hanging out to dry.
You’ve blown it. You flap and flounder like a stranded fish. ‘No, no, sorry, that’s not it! Hang on, hang on, I’ll do it again.’ And you do, but mainly for your own satisfaction. The gang has lost interest and drifted back to the bar.
Well, a novel is a tad longer than the average joke, and not necessarily comical, but in terms of the plot it works in much the same way. Timing is all. The information has to be revealed in just the right order and at just the right pace, or it won’t work. But if it does go tits up (and there’s a lot more to go wrong in the 100,000 words of a novel than in a thirty second joke) the result is usually the same; you have to start over. And it’s a very long way back.
Of course, if you’re one of those writers who doesn’t even begin until every scene and character has been researched, planned, and filed on coloured cards, you’re less likely to mess up and find yourself, as I do, stuck on the hamster-wheel of constant plot revision. But even you (yes you, Clever Clogs) might still have something to learn from our comedy metaphor.
If constructing the ‘story’ of a joke is vital, it’s really only the start. Remember Ronnie Corbett in the chair? The punch-line could be an old chestnut or a pretty lame pun, but he found a way of telling it, with all his infuriating digressions, that would have you laughing just for the sheer relief of getting to the end. Do you think that didn’t take practice? Or if you prefer your comics standing up, think of Live at the Apollo. These guys (I’m including girls of course) might sound spontaneous as they toss one-liners to the crowd, but I bet every shrug, every wave of the hand or pause for a knowing smile has been rehearsed and rehearsed some more. That’s why, even if there are only seven distinct plots in the whole of literature, it doesn’t really matter, because successful writing is in the performance. So before you even think of putting your novel on the stage, it has to have style, flair, panache and the patina that come of regular and enthusiastic polishing.
When that agent opens your envelope, the floor is yours. Make sure you don’t choke. Make sure they remember your name.
Alison Bacon is a native Scot who lives in the West Country. A glutton for writing punishment, she is currently toying with a third novel. She also tinkers with short stories, one of which recently made it into The Yellow Room Magazine. She loves having visitors at http://debutnovelist.wordpress.com or you can follow her on Twitter as AliBacon.