Authors! Remember all those writing tips you trawled through, hoping to find some secret formula to producing winning fiction? Remember all those RULES?
A killer first page – punch your reader square in the chops with an attention-grabbing, scene-setting, character-revealing, action masterpiece that straps their eyes open like a Clockwork Orange civilising machine.
The hero’s journey – have your protagonist endure a change, struggle against adversity, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and at the last, prevail!
Deep POV – write from inside the character’s head, so the reader feels what the character feels; but don’t jump around from mind to mind or you’ll confuse your audience – whose thoughts are these?!
Dialogue tags?! Kindly remove all your naïve instances of “bemoaned” or “murmured” or “whispered” or “specified” or “enquired” or whatever other word you found in the Thesaurus under “said”. Dear oh dear…
AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT
Drag your adverbs from your writing and burn them in the street, thank you very much; and apologise to the Gods for your sacrilegious blasphemy. You may find it polite to flog your back with barb wire in penance, you fucking heathen.
Apologies. You read a lot of writing tips when you can’t bring yourself to actually write anything, because it makes you feel better. It almost feels like working – like you’re building up your power bar before re-entering the fray.
And each article is more outspoken and uncompromising than the last, because people with conviction sound better. Look at me, for instance: everything I write is true and honest and if you challenge me I WILL END YOU.
Well guess what? Turns out, you can write a brilliant, frightening, engaging and exciting work of fiction, while pissing on everything every author has ever written about how to bloody write.
That is, if you’re Aldous Huxley.
Let me explain…
A killer first page
I dare any aspiring writer to send off a manuscript that starts with the line:
“A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.”
Bam! I’m hooked! Tell me more about this evocative urban mundanity. You know what? I’d like an educational tour of this facility. What’s that Huxley? “You’re welcome”?
You see, science fiction was largely about ideas in the 1930s, back when Brave New World was published. It was more reliant on concepts than character and perhaps forewent convincing relationships where portension was paramount.
The entire first chapter of Brave New World is world-building. We are introduced to the idea of people born in labs, to the theme of conformity, and to the tone of accepted – even lauded – bureaucracy.
But there’s no protagonist. Perhaps the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning (promptly given the acronym DHC) could be deemed the antagonist? But who cares? We’ve no protagonist yet, so no one to envision conflict between.
The hero’s journey
First off, name the hero of this fiction. Is it ever-conforming Lenina? Perhaps it’s reasonably jovial Henry. Or brooding Bernard?
No, no and no. You have to wait until chapter 7 to be introduced to the protagonist – John the Savage. His is the world being turned upside down, his is the journey upon which we embark, and his is the discovery that provides the conflict and drama.
But do we have the conventional construct of his ultimate victory over an antagonist? Does he overcome hardships? Battle an enemy? Change the world for the better?
Does he bollocks. He is driven insane by the world he discovers, devoid of art and emotion and family and pain, as would we. His arc is to tumble into madness, simply to convey the horror of such a place, deemed utopian by its denizens.
You may have read about deep point-of-view, but if not, a brief summary: rather than an omniscient third-person narrator, who sees all and tells all, Deep POV is similarly third-person, but from the perspective of a single character. What’s related is what that character sees and feels, and nothing more.
The technique is considered “good writing”. It’s sharp, evocative and engaging, with focus and drive (when done well).
More than one character can lead this perspective, but it is important to signpost to the reader whose head they’re in to avoid confusion, and certainly not to jump from head to head in the middle of a scene. In Deep POV, our lead character does not know what the other characters are thinking, so nor should the reader.
George R R Martin is an obvious proponent of this technique in his Game of Thrones books: each section is told from a certain point of view, unnecessarily signposted at the beginning of each with the name of the character in question. Tyrian’s turn now. Ned wants a go. Ok, Aris, you take us round for a bit.
What you don’t do is flit back and forth, a couple of lines here, a couple of lines there, dialogue in one place, dialogue in another, Henry talks to Bernard; Lenina talks to Fanny; Mustapha Mond continues his speech.
Unless you’re Huxley, in which case, fill yer boots! Just read chapter 3 and make sense of who is talking to who, where they are, and why it’s important to us.
Of course, there’s reason behind it: madness.
Oxymorons aside, we are purposefully bamboozled. Huxley wants us reeling, confused and appalled. This is a world where happiness is paramount, order is maintained, and everyone is conditioned to be content in their place in society.
We must reel. We must reject it; find it alien and horrible and confusing. It’s a whirlwind of soulless tedium designed to make us feel sick.
“You can take your dialogue-tag advice and your adverb aversion,” Huxley defiantly insisted, “and shove them emphatically up your behind.”
There are many ways to go about indicating dialogue, and so many conflicting assertions, you might come to the conclusion that everyone’s wrong in thinking it matters at all. For instance:
There’s the said-sadists, who insist every word uttered is preceded or concluded with a “said X”. The theory is, “said” almost disappears, it’s so ubiquitous, leaving our brains with only the dialogue itself.
Then there’s the verb-vindicators, who scream and shout, or whisper and whimper, or propose, postulate and prophesy, before – inevitably – ejaculating all over the page.
There’s the adverb adders, who brazenly insert “ly” words in the face of convention. These folk are the most reviled in the world of writing.
Not to mention the action advocates, who indicate the speaker by making them twitch or grin or put the kettle on or plunge a dagger deep into the ear of a SNARLING GORTHAX – “Take that!”
I’m a fence-sitting moderate. There are a few us about, but our conviction isn’t as strong. We tend to list the varying techniques and say they’re all good, if used correctly and modestly.
Huxley, however, is an adverb-adding verb vindicator. Turn to any page in the book and you’ll find glorious nuggets like:
“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically.
“Just to please me,” Bernard bellowingly wheedled.
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
Oh, man, that last one. I mean, they’re all funny, aren’t they? They’re the kind of examples you try to make up to take this piss out of adverb adders. But that last one… it might easily have come from the work of Dan Brown. Marvellous!
I’m not going to say I approve, necessarily; I think it was just the fashion at the time to avoid “said” tags. But when all’s said and done, it didn’t really matter to Brave New World.
And that’s because: ideas.
What’s amazing about this book is how frighteningly familiar it all is, despite being written more than 80 years ago.
With cinema being dumbed down year after year with numbing superhero flash-bang 3D rollercoasters, we’re a step away from Huxley’s vision of the vacuous “feelies”.
Meanwhile, our society is all too familiar with the meaningless promiscuity that Brave New World portends. “Everyone belongs to everyone” could be a slogan for Tinder, for fuck’s sake.
And as for consumerism necessitating the repression of an underclass to keep the wheels turning, we see that every single fucking day.
Science fiction at its best puts a distorted mirror up to our existence and demands we find the similarities. In Brave New World, it’s all too easy.
And for a writer, it puts a mirror up to conventional writing advice and says: “They’re all talking bollocks.”