Thursday, 18 August 2011

According to Sophie Hannah No One Would Ever Do That!

Today’s guest blogger is award winning author and poet Sophie Hannah. Her novel The Other Half Lives was shortlisted for the 2010 Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year Award and is currently shortlisted, under its US title The Dead Lie Down, for a Barry Award. Her first novel was adapted for television under the title Case Sensitive in May 2011. A second series has been commissioned. She is currently working on her seventh novel featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer entitled Kind of Cruel and it is due out in February 2012. Sophie is fascinated by properties and spends a lot of time looking at property sites.

Here’s what I find implausible: that time and time again, intelligent people will read a crime novel with an unusual plot, or watch a thriller at the cinema with an outlandish storyline, and say, ‘But no one would ever do that’, or, ‘But that would never happen’. That’s right – I can't believe that anyone can't believe that bizarrely improbable things happen in real life. Take my sister, an otherwise rational person. For years, she and I have disagreed about the Hitchcock film Vertigo. We both love it, but whereas I love it unconditionally, my sister thinks it’s flawed. ‘There’s no way Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t recognise Kim Novak when he bumps into her on the street and she’s got dark hair and a different name,’ she says. ‘He wouldn’t be entranced by her resemblance to his dead beloved; he would know, straight away, that she was the same person.’ For years, my counter-argument went something like this: ‘Oh, well, maybe you have to suspend your disbelief a bit, but so what?’ Then something happened that changed my mind. I was in Crete, in a tiny place called Loutro, and I went swimming in the sea. Treading water beside me was a man who looked very much like a good friend of mine, someone I’d known for fifteen years and saw regularly. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, look, there’s Giles’, what I thought was, ‘How odd that a stranger in Loutro looks so much like Giles’. I was convinced that he couldn’t be Giles; there was no connection in my mind between Giles and Loutro, and it would have been too huge a coincidence for both me and Giles to be swimming in Loutro at the same time. I said nothing to this man and carried on swimming. Next time I swam past him, I heard him cough. In a distinctive way. I thought, ‘That’s Giles’ cough – an exact copy of it.’ Tentatively, I swam up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, you aren’t by any chance...?’ Even then, I wasn’t convinced enough to say, ‘Hey, Giles! What a coincidence!’ Even then, if he’d said, in Giles’ voice, ‘I’m terribly sorry, my name’s Duncan and I’ve never seen you before in my life’, I’d have believed him and apologised for bothering him. ‘Sophie!’ he said. ‘I wondered if it was you, but I didn’t think it could be.’ Each of us trusted our own incorrect assumption that the other one couldn't possibly be in Loutro more than we trusted the evidence of our own eyes. I remember thinking it odd that he started to look so much more like Giles as soon as I knew he was Giles – before that point, the resemblance wasn’t quite so overwhelming, because I was viewing him through the lens of what I thought I knew.

All of which convinces me that a) my sister is wrong about Vertigo and b) people talk about suspension of disbelief when they shouldn’t; there should be no disbelief to suspend. If I asked a hundred people, ‘Has anything implausible ever happened to you?’, most of them would say yes. If I’m right, and if we allow ourselves to extrapolate from the past to predict the future, that surely means there’s a strong likelihood of coincidental, unlikely things happening all the time. People say ‘That would never happen’, when what they mean is, ‘I’ve never heard of that happening, and therefore I am choosing to believe that it couldn’t happen, because I’m an unimaginative person.’ Take the true story of the man who has come to be known as Canoe Man. He and his wife pretended he was dead, even to their two sons. Especially to their two sons, you might say. Meanwhile, he’d cut a hole in a bedroom wall and put a cupboard in front of it, and when anyone turned up at the house, he would climb into the wardrobe, through the hole, and into the house next door which (and if it were fiction people would say, ‘Oh, how implausible’) was a) owned by him and b) conveniently empty. Later, after getting away with it, he and his wife allowed their photograph to be taken for a website (‘Oh, come on! If you’d faked your own death, would you really let someone photograph you for a website?’) and the whole story came out: a fascinating, unique story, just as Vertigo is a brilliant, gripping story, and one that could happen. Can anyone prove, categorically, that it couldn’t? Can anyone say for certain that no one man would ever meet a former lover he believed to be dead and take her to be a different person? For something to be plausible, it only needs to be possible for it to happen once, in a particular and often unique combination of circumstances. This is the yardstick that I believe all writers of crime fiction - or indeed any fiction - should use.

The onus should be on the disbelievers, whenever they say, ‘No one would ever do that’, to prove they’re right. In the absence of concrete proof, we have to choose: do we dismiss possibilities or embrace them? Do we only want to write and read about people behaving in commonplace, likely ways? Well, probably only if the protagonists’ reactions to those ordinary events are in some way unlikely or unusual. A novel about a man who left his wallet at home and then went back to pick it up later would be boring; a novel about a man who forgot his wallet and, as a direct result, decided to give away his vast fortune to the poor, or suffered a complete breakdown and came to believe that he was a gerbil – that might be more interesting. And the disbelievers would carp that it was implausible.

Let’s assume the carpers are right: no one would ever do those extraordinary, seemingly impossible things they refuse to believe in; the only stories that are possible are the ones that strike us as probable. In that scenario, wouldn’t it be the duty of writers to invent things that ‘would never happen’, as the only way of extending our imaginations and experience? If it’s really impossible for something staggeringly unusual to happen, thank God people make up implausible stories that show us what we might do, even if we haven’t done it yet and might never do it. It is the events in which we become embroiled and entangled that define us as people. Or, to put it another way, without plot there is no character. Devising unusual, even far-fetched plots is the proper way for a writer to explore the extreme possibilities of character. Contrary to what many creative writing manuals tell us, characterisation is not about your protagonist's favourite breakfast cereal or make of car. It's about how your fictional heroine will react when she finds herself in a predicament that she didn't foresee, because it was so unlikely to happen.

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1 comment:

Lesley Cookman said...

I'd never thought about it like that! Great post, thanks.