Seven Plots and a Website

Supposedly,  there are only 7 plots around from which all stories are constructed. You know – the rags-to-riches story, the redemption story, the requited (or occasionally unrequited) love story. Triumph over adversity, journey of discovery, mystery unravelled. An aphorism, to be sure, but probably grounded in some truth, as aphorisms tend to be. On the other hand, not particularly useful – it is like saying the blues has 12 bars and a base chord sequence. So what? There are a lot of blues still to waiting be wailed.

But this topic is one of abiding interests to writers of fiction, particularly after the pop and fizzle of the last novel. What next, you ask yourself. And from where. And if ever.

There is actually a website that will construct the structure of the story for you, based on time tested principles and plots. I think about this as I wrestle with my new book, now in painful labour. I stare sightlessly at interesting things in the real world that would otherwise elicit comment, because my brain in a deep thrash as to how to keep the arc aloft, how to keep my characters in voice, how to nurture the themes which interest me, how to balance tension and resolution, and most anxiously, how to keep the reader attached.  The process is wildly volatile and in the end, a total mystery. Enough so that a website or course  or book purporting to distill the rules should be distrusted with an attitude of extreme skepticism.

I have just finished Column McCann’s new novel Transatlantic. He won the National Book Award in the US a few years ago for the wonderful Let The Great World Spin. He is in that pristine group of exceptional novelists whose command of craft makes other writerly aspirants just that much more aware of their own failings, and how far they have yet to travel. We are not supposed to compare ourselves to others, we are supposed to be satisfied with the rare privilege to tell a story something and have it heard.

Yeah, right.

When McCann was casting around for a new idea for this book, I wonder whether the website would have come up with the goods for him to have imagined this plot:

Think I’ll slap together a little yarn about a couple of generations of Irish women, starting from a poor maid during the potato famine of 18th century and ending with her great great grandchild, now now at the end of her life in 2011. I’ll have an 18th Century fictional maid meet the real historical freed slave, intellectual and abolitionist Frederick Douglass during his visit to Ireland, where the seed of  great American opportunity will be planted in her head.  I’ll have her leave for the promised land  in cheap steerage over the Atlantic and follow her life and times.  And those of her daughter and her daughter and her daughter as poverty gives way to financial security and an eventual return to Ireland to face an all-encompassing loss. I’ll throw in a couple of chapters where one of these women meets Senator George Mitchell (still alive and well in real life) in Ireland as he facilitates the peace accords, so I can stir some my thoughts about the Troubles. I will dig deep into the depredations and keening mothers of the American Civil War in the 19th Century.  Oh, and to prop up the middle generation of these woman I will insert a couple of real historical pioneering Irish pilots who flew one of the first transatlantic flights from Newfoundland to Ireland, but in this story they will carry a letter from one of our Irishwoman that will become a key to generational memory in the hands of a fading matriarch. My history will be exhaustively researched and imaginatively integrated into my fictional characters. And my readers will care deeply about these these women over their 150 year lifespan.

See how easy it is?

Stepping Out – the movie


15 July 2013

Subject:               Stepping Out by Steven Boykey Sidley optioned for feature film production

From:                   Pan Macmillan South Africa

Stepping Out, the novel by award-winning author Steven Boykey Sidley and published by Pan Macmillan has been optioned for feature film production. The screenplay, also written by Sidley, will be brought to the screen as a Canadian-South African co-production headed by respected producers David Selvan (SA) and Neil Dunn (Canada), producer of Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe.

‘Stepping Out started life as a script, so this brings it full circle’ Sidley said. David Selvan, who has just wrapped production on The Perfect Wave, said ‘This is a gripping story, both comic and profound, with a set of mouth-watering roles for A-list actors. We look forward to casting and shooting in South Africa and Canada’.

Harold Cummings has led a good life – honest, cautious, prudent. Now retired, financially secure and terminally bored, he asks himself – where are my rewards? When his wife Millie is called away from home for a few days Harold slowly begins to unravel. Starting with small incidents of risky and uncharacteristic behaviour, he quickly spirals into a no-holds-barred encounter with the seamy underworld of the city. Harold careens shockingly and comically into a world without handrails, one that he finds terrifying but strangely compelling. As he is drawn into the ambit of a young hooker and her child, drug dealers and a violent pimp, Harold is forced to confront his demons head on, and to find the means to reverse his slide into self-destruction, and to find grace in the choices he has made.

 This is a story about the relevance of a life carefully lived, the nature of good and evil, deceit and honesty, the balancing of risk and reward, and the meaning of loyalty, love and forgiveness.  By turns funny, sad, chilling and provocative, Stepping Out continues the dark and humorous intellectual explorations of Sidley’s acclaimed debut novel, Entanglement.

Steven Boykey Sidley is the author of Entanglement, which won the 2013 UJ Debut Prize and was shortlisted for the Sunday Fiction Prize. Stepping Out is his second novel, published in February 2013.

What the UJ judges said about Entanglement

University of Johannesburg Prizes Judge Craig MacKenzie Comments on Winning Books: Life Underwater and Entanglement

by Lindsay on Jul 2nd, 2013

EntanglementSteven Boykey Sidley takes the UJ Debut Prize for his riveting first novel Entanglement(Picador Africa, 2012). This thriller-cum-novel-of-ideas is set mainly in an unidentified part of the US, with a foray into London. In an interesting trend among emerging South African writers (Lauren Beukes and Amanda Coetzee are two other recent examples), Boykey Sidley eschews South African settings and themes entirely.

The novel opens and closes with addresses to graduating students by college professor Jared Borowitz. The first is arrogant and cynical, the second humble and heartfelt. What happens in between these two addresses is what changes Borowitz and utterly engrosses the reader.

The first catalyst to a change in Borowitz’s attitude is a visit to his dying mentor, an eminent scientist. The nature of the last encounter between the sage and his student is startlingly unexpected, and the younger man starts to have doubts about his settled views on life. But he needs something much more visceral and life-threatening to convince him that he doesn’t have all of the answers after all.

A little time later, Borowitz, now back in the States, heads into the country with his girlfriend and some friends for what is intended to be a rejuvenating and fun weekend. But his casual arrogance sets him on a collision course with a local forest-dweller at a nightclub in the nearby town, and events take a nightmarish turn for the worse.

Entanglement is a compelling, unputdownable novel, but it is much more than a thriller, and lingers long in the mind afterwards. It ranges over aesthetics, sex, philosophy, religion and science, among many other things, but always in a way that is fresh and vital. Boykey Sidley has the rare ability to deal with weighty matters in a deft and engaging manner. This makes Entanglement a very memorable debut.

Craig MacKenzie is Professor of English at the University of Johannesburg and a panellist on the UJ Prize. This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.