Destructive Forces - By Tania Trollope

Comments for the Writers' Workshop

This is a sample based on a recent original report.  Names, places and themes have been altered to protect the author's privacy. Large sections of the report have been deleted to keep the length manageable. Deletions are indicated by square brackets.

Please also note that this report was on a writer's first chapter only - hence the relatively short length of this report.


[... Overview]

Your main character is good. We pick up a sense of who he is and the general content of his inner world very quickly. He’s sympathetic without being boring, and we get a feeling that he could take us somewhere unusual and dark. There are a few things that need tightening, however.

Unless I missed it, we don’t find out his name. We really could do with this very near the beginning of the story. The idea that we’re going to spend 250+ pages in his company without anybody once saying what his name is isn’t that realistic, and it’s going to be a bit jarring if someone suddenly calls him ‘Steve’ or something halfway through. There are novels in which the main character isn’t named, but I don’t see the internal logic of yours really supporting that. He’s a modern person in the real world, where names are used. Readers don’t overly care what somebody’s called, just that they’re called something. So we need a name.

Also, we don’t get much of a sense of how these conversations with the Priest are fitting in with the rest of his life. We know that he has relationship troubles, and we get hints about incident, but it’s very vague. Of course, you can deliberately not show the readers things in novels, but here I think it would be to the story’s benefit if we were shown a bit more. We should see a contrast between how your main character is with the lecturer, and how he is in different situations. Then, as the lecturer’s ideas begin to permeate his thinking, we can see a change in his behaviour in his day-to-day life. Otherwise, we’ve only got the Priest’s word on any progress he seems to be making, which would work if they were secluded somewhere together, but as they’re not, the other elements in the main character’s life need to be part of the story.

[... - Further detailed discussion on main characters and plot]

Use of Language
The text itself is very readable, with a high level of clarity. You employ a wide vocabulary, and the overall style is strong enough for it to be a good page-turner. There are a few issues here, generally to do with the way in which the story is narrated.

The main problem is that your main character is always telling us everything with hindsight. So we not only get told what happened at the beginning of the story, but how his understanding of that event is coloured by what has happened since. For instance, we have sentences like ‘Though I didn’t realise it at the time…’ If he didn’t realise it at the time, however, there’s really no need to mention it here. At one point he mentions something that’s going to happen imminently, but hasn’t yet [Example sentences deleted] Why not just wait for it to actually happen before telling us? With your current style of narration, the reader is of course given knowledge of what will happen later in the book. If they have that knowledge, then it lowers their motivation to actually carry on and read. Consequently, the book may well get put down, and never to be picked up again. Just tell the reader what the character knows in the scene that’s being described.

Although it may be more accurate to write it with hindsight, as that’s how people generally describe things in real life, it usually has a deadening effect on fiction. It might work in a literary tale in which someone remembers their long-past childhood, but in a thriller, it tends to make it all a bit less thrilling. If he later finds out about the technique that the lecturer is using, then we should told about this when he does. The story would work a lot better that way, with us uncovering the lecturer’s manipulation alongside the main character. In regards to this, you may want to check out a book called The Magus by John Fowles, if you haven’t done so already. It’s rather out of fashion now, but it was a bit hit in its day. In the story a young man is taken on a psychological rollercoaster by a mysterious figure who convinces him that mythical figures from Ancient Greece are real, only to destroy that illusion and build up another one, only to destroy that one and so on.

It may provide a good model of how to portray the establishment of a belief by a master to a pupil, albeit an unwitting one. Nearly as soon as the story begins, we’re provided with an explanation of who your characters are, and why the scene we’re observing is taking place. Rather than give this information out so quickly, you should hold on to it and just let the scene unfold, so that the readers are asking themselves who these people are, what is happening and why. They’ll keep reading to find out, and by the time you slip them the answers they’ll be hooked. [Detailed discussion on plot development]

Delayed pleasure is nearly always better than instant gratification when being told a story. [Example sentences deleted] Occasionally the main character addresses the reader directly [Example sentences deleted.] I would avoid this. Although it’s a device that does get used occasionally, it’s very hard to get right, and would only really work in something more character-driven. Thrillers are by their very nature centred somewhat more around events, so I don’t see room for it here. [Example sentences deleted] I wasn’t sure about the use of the second person in some chapters. It rather felt as if someone was trying to brainwash me, telling me ‘you do this, and you do that’, my reaction being, ‘no, I don’t.’ I know it’s a technique that some writers like Jay McInnerny have used on occasion, but I’m not convinced it works here. I don’t see it fulfilling much purpose, other than differentiating these chapters stylistically from the other ones. Also, when used in the context of a thriller, it had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of those Choose Your Own Adventure game books from the Eighties, which I don’t think anybody deserves to be reminded of!

Perhaps you could differentiate them simply by putting them in the first person, but in italics. What if the main chapters weren’t in the first person, but the third, with the interrupting chapters in the first? Maybe that would work better, with us merely observing from a distance the process by which the main character is indoctrinated with the interrupting chapters giving us a first person account of what his state of mind is once the process is complete. Some novels have to be in the first person, or they don’t work. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, would be utterly pointless in the third. Does your story need to be in the first, however? I’m not convinced it does. If you do decide to experiment with writing in the third person, please check out the free advice section in the Writer’s Workshop website, which will set you up nicely with all the rules you need to follow in order to work in it correctly. I hope you have found this report useful. Please remember, however, that all of the above is only an opinion, with a focus on areas I feel that are in need of development, which you may accept or reject as you see fit. Do feel free to contact me to discuss any of the above. Best of luck!