The power of storytelling

Beowulf is the name given to the oldest surviving English-language poem. One of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature,  it is a true epic, with a legendary hero: Beowulf of the Geats, a Scandinavian tribe.

The story begins when Beowulf receives a message from the Danish king asking him to come to Denmark and fight a monster called Grendel which has been terrorizing Heorot, the king’s mead hall (basically a huge private pub).  The Danes are in a right pickle. I mean, nobody likes the idea of being eaten by a monster while knocking back a few pints of mead, swapping battle stories and comparing lustrous facial hair with one’s fellow Danish noblemen. Yet they just can’t bear the thought of drinking at a different pub, so Grendel continues feasting on them.  In sunny Sweden, Beowulf sighs, goes, “Fine. I’ll put on a clean pair of underwear and set sail, even though the weather forecast is a bit nasty.

When he gets to Heorot he not only kills Grendel with his bare hands, but also slays Grendel’s mother (bizarrely played by Angelina Jolie in the 2007 movie version), thereby saving the Danes and receiving a free pint of mead for his troubles.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Geatland, 50 years later: Just like Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, Beowulf (now king of the Geats) is all set for a nice, long retirement, possibly contemplating a Baltic cruise with his wife or a leisurely trek through Tuscany in a motor home. Then a terrifying dragon attacks the country, burning everything in its path. Beowulf once again realizes that he’s the only man who is man enough to do a man’s job and sends his soldiers away so that he can take on the dragon single-handed. All except for one trusty fighting companion, Wiglaf (in the Mel Gibson role), who teams up with Beowulf in archetypal buddy film fashion and ultimately slays the fiery beast.

Sadly, our hero is mortally wounded during the battle. As he lies dying, Beowulf commands Wiglaf to build a huge burial mound called a barrow atop a cliff so that sailors returning home will remember his heroic deeds:

A barrow bid ye the battle-fanned raise
for my ashes. ‘Twill shine by the shore of the flood,
to folk of mine memorial fair
on Hrones Headland high uplifted,
that ocean-wanderers oft may hail
Beowulf’s Barrow, as back from far
they drive their keels o’er the darkling wave.

(Modern English excerpt from Beowulf chapter, 38)

No, Wiglaf didn’t say, “Huh?” on hearing those words; he actually went and built the burial mound. Here’s a photo of it, bedecked with cows.

Beowulf's supposed burial mound.

Beowulf’s supposed barrow, or burial mound.

Beowulf was clearly aware of his own heroism and greatness. His instructions to Wiglaf were intended to make sure that he went down in history. It makes sense, right? Build a big monument, just like countless other leaders have done in the centuries since. Yet here’s what’s interesting: the only reason that Beowulf’s heroic deeds are remembered today is because of the two unknown scribes who wrote the poem. One single copy of the work survived for over a millennium. Old English words beautifully transcribed in a crumbling manuscript have preserved the legacy of King Beowulf better than any physical monument could have.

This is the power of storytelling. It rouses emotions. It inspires. And it persists.

A scene makeover

This week I rewrote a scene from my YA novel Silent Symmetry, the goal being to make it a bit more suspenseful. I’m sharing my rewriting method in case it’s useful for other writers, either aspiring or already published.

When I need to give a fiction or screenplay scene a makeover I find it unproductive to work on the existing scene. Why? Because I’m too precious about what I’ve already written. Oh, those wonderful turns of phrase and deliciously appropriate vocabulary choices! Right. It wouldn’t need a makeover if it was so amazing…

Blank pages

The dreaded blank pages can be your friend!

So I find it best to set aside my original scene, start a new Word or Final Draft document and rewrite it from scratch. That way, the best bits from the first version of the scene should automatically pop into my head when needed, while the chaff will be forgotten. Even though most writers hate the blank page, it’s actually the most effective tool if you want to truly revamp your scene rather than simply tinker with it.

Then, when you have your brand new version, you can see whether it’s an improvement on the original and incorporate whatever elements you’d overlooked but were actually good (since the human mind, and hence this method, isn’t infallible).

Oh yeah – here’s some news – the Silent Symmetry rewrite is done. I started proofreading yesterday. Out loud (as I discussed in a previous post). It’s kind of fun and really is the only way to make sure the sentences flow and that you haven’t made any mistakes.

And now it’s time to get back to it!

[“Image courtesy of adamr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net”]

Happily ever after…

According to Lost co-creator and Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof, “Good stories, you don’t know where they’re going to end.” He’s got a point. What makes a work of fiction great is when you can’t stop thinking about it once it’s done.

This means that you can’t end your story with “And they lived happily ever after.” It works fine for fairy tales. A cottage in the forest made of candy is enough for a story to be memorable to a 4 year-old, so there’s no need to raise any questions about whether the witch’s treasure will corrupt Hansel and Gretel in later life. But for an adult, this is where the story might get truly interesting.

I’d say it’s the difference between dead fiction and living fiction. Like a dead person, dead fiction might be wonderful in a nostalgic way: “Remember when such-and-such happened?” or “I loved the way he dealt with the turbaned guy with the big sword in the market square.” But living fiction, like a close friend or relative, is wonderful because you don’t have all the answers: “I hope things turn out all right for her,” could be what someone might say on sending a daughter off to teach English in South Korea for a year or after leaving the movie theater following the Prometheus end-credits.

Young Adult fiction by definition lies somewhere in the middle. (So does childish adult fiction, by the way, be it romance novels or trashy thrillers.)

My challenge in writing Silent Symmetry has been to find a balance between answering some questions while leaving others open, possibly to be answered over the course of the trilogy. Possibly not.

Now I think about it, it would almost be a good idea to start a story with “And they lived happily ever after.” Maybe I will…