I don’t suppose it’s surprising that composing in different artistic genres and media should be simialr but these things always catch me unawares. Like on Sunday when I was half-listening to Elaine Page on Radio 2 interviewing songwriter Steven Schwartz. When he alluded to songs which tell a story successfully, something he also tries to achieve, I sat up and took notice.
“I tend to know what I’m aiming for, either at the end of a verse or the end of the entire song. The craft is to make it invisible – not to make it obvious your intending to go somewhere with it, just have it feel as if it’s naturally taking you there.”
I was struck by how similar this is to writing a novel – both the need to have an end in view (even if the means of getting there isn’t always apparent) and the need not to give the ending or even the course of the journey away, since otherwise the reader will lose interest. Yes, yes, obvious, I know! But hearing things in a different context makes you think about them more.
Sometimes this idea of concealing things from the reader sits uncomfortably, as if we’re trying to pull off some kind of conjuring trick and I find this whole ‘who knows what when’ situation (taking into account characters, reader and author!) the hardest thing to pull off.
At other times (in historical fiction or where a ‘prologue’ foreshadows future events) the reader knows at least some of what is going to happen, so the trick is not so much in the ‘what happened’ as in the ‘how’ it happened and how the characters will make it (or try to stop it) from happening.
You may have guessed by now I am back in novel-writing mode and wrestling (in a less abstract way!) with matters like these. But on Sunday I did have a final revelation which felt like a breakthrough. Novelists don’t reveal where the story is going not because they don’t know, but because the characters don’t. If we walk faithfully by their sides, showing the reader where they are in terms of space, time and psyche, the story should unfold in a way that’s right for them and for the reader.
I don’t know how many songwriters worry about ‘show not tell’, but for a novelist this is the nub of it. Obvious, innit?