When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.
Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.
I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.
This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated. How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.
As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.
Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.
We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.