Morality Play and Sinful Folk – A Post on Writing Technique

Barry Unsworth

                   I read Barry Unsworth’s spare and thoughtful medieval tale Morality Play with an eye towards how I could understand better my own work on my novel Sinful Folk and how I could improve on my approach to the medieval mileau. This was my intent in reading Unsworth. However, what I found was that I ended up spending more time thinking about how my plot is structured, and the particular complications that both Unsworth and I run into as we place a novel in an era without CSI: Miami¸ Sherlock Holmes, child sex abuse cases, any detective clichés at all, much less a clear rule of law beyond feudal might-is-right.

Ursula Le Guin is right when she says that “All storytellers work pretty much the same way, with the same box of tools… try to make each exercise the account of an act or action. Write about something happening… That’s what narrative does. It goes. It moves. Story is change…. Plot connects one act to another, usually in a causal chain” (Steering Craft xii / 145) As I read Unsworth’s book, I found myself mentally connecting events, thinking of how one event caused another, and I critiqued my own Sinful Folk book from this angle. All too often in my book it seems to me that happenstance, chance, and other circumstances combine to reveal to my main character, Mear, what is really going on. Mear does not take action to uncover events and reveal the truth. Because there is little overt action on the part of my main character to uncover the truth, it does not feel like the heroine is making things happen. Instead, she is often just having things happen to her, not because of her.

This, I believe, is a critical flaw in my book, and one I hope to remedy over the coming weeks. Morality Tale demonstrates medieval characters taking overt action, even if that action is writing their own play to confront a nobel with the truth of how a child died, and it also demonstrates characters struggling to find a way within their world to find the truth. This latter is an internal-wrestling that my character(s) share with Unsworth’s band of medieval actors, but his characters are more forceful in their actions, and I take this as a good corrective.

After all, Sinful Folk is structured as an investigation. My goal is to lead with the seminal scene, and come back to that scene again and again, fleshing it out for the reader each time with more information. If successful, one can do what Joseph Heller so succeeded with in his breakthrough novel Catch-22, where he repeatedly returns to the scene of Snowden’s death, and adds more detail, more understanding of the scene, and greater emotional depth, so by the end of the novel, the story hits you right in the solar plexus.

In Sinful Folk, I begin with that seminal scene, but I don’t really have my main character “investigate it” in any meaningful way, and I don’t really return to it to add more depth to it, until very near the end, when you hear the same scene re-told from the perspective of Cole, and we finally understand the motivations for killing the boys. The thing about this opening “mystery” in Sinful Folk is that we understand exactly what happened, but we do not understand why it happened… which implies a how question as well. This question of motivation and of desire-to-harm is the overriding concern of my novel, and I hope it is a compelling question for my readers to try to answer as the story progresses.

In Wilderness of Mirrors – the new spies + sorcery novel I’m working on – this critical “investigatory” scene is in 2002, when a team attempts to “raise” an unearthly power from its hiding place deep in the Syrian desert. In that novel, I’ve taken a different approach from Sinful Folk – I don’t reveal much about what is actually happening here. I believe by concealing that important information, I can inspire my readers to follow me down the rabbit hole to discover why it happened.

The structure suggested to me for Wilderness of Mirrors by the novel Declare is akin to Orson Welle’s classic movie Citizen Kane, in which an initial death scene opens so many questions you want to go into the character’s past to discover the answers. However, my story does not focus on the main character’s death scene (by now, 50 years after Citizen Kane, that’s a little trite), but instead on a formative experience that may – or may  not – cause him to fall apart and may (perhaps) even cause him to lose his memory as well. It is the stuff of soap operas, but the whole “regain my lost memory” gambit is a great device to delve into the past. I’m just not sure I need it in order to understand my character’s history.

What Tim Power’s Declare demonstrates to me is that you can set up a question in a scene and then return to that scene over and over with new knowledge of the past that makes that scene matter more, and in new and different ways. To describe the effect with an extended metaphor (not a scene from any book), at the beginning, you watch someone fire a gun – and at the end, you take the bullet in your heart and die. To cite yet another example, the movie Memento does almost precisely this motion. It starts with the “end,” showing the gun being fired, and then backtracks through time to show how it happened that this man was led to fire that gun. The beginning raises questions. You (as a reader) want answers. The end should make that answer resonate emotionally in ways you may not have expected, but should try to lay to rest the original questions with a satisfying punch. In this regard, Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play performs exactly the right moves: the question is laid out, the investigation proceeds, the villain confronted, the answer is received.

But in order to get to that satisfying resolution, Unsworth did run into many of the same things I struggle with in Sinful Folk. My novel – and Unsworth’s work – is set in a distant past, and it is often a stranger and more different era than many of us assume. Most readers of medieval fiction seem to assume that knights were seen as heroic saviors (most were not), that the church was benevolent (it often wasn’t), and that villagers had a simple and happy lifestyle (many starved, and there were repeated uprisings of the peasantry). There are even other matters that require explanation – knights and kings are often seen in depictions as playing chess, yet chess as a game we know now didn’t exist until well into the 1600s. The culture also wasn’t nearly as stratified as we think in popular literature today. Nuns and priests often had children, families, and property (not a commonly assumed idea today), and there was near-constant motion of people between the nobility and the priesthood (the priesthood or the nunnery was often a temporary – if elongated – vacation or holiday from the responsibilities of the court). Abbots had armies and swords, and fought kings. It was never quite clear who was in charge, and women often had a lot to say. Despite this, there were also few of our modern societal conventions.

So if I am writing with my audience in mind, I have to do two things adroitly. The first is perhaps to gently educate my readers, without beating them over the head with information dumps and scholarly information and correction of mis-information. The second is that I must also tell a good story that fulfills some basic genre expectations. And the story has to move along in a way that doesn’t destroy reader expectations – if we’re in the medieval era, we’re going to have a village, firelight, some snow, and some characters from the church. Perhaps a knight, an encounter with nobility, etc.

And if we are to be faithful to the medieval mindset, it often means that we must allow our characters to unthinkingly adopt and endorse ideas about faith promulgated by the Catholic church (the only church in that day and age). It also means that we must allow our characters to unflinchingly endorse misogynistic views of women, their role, sexual pleasure, and other matters that were assumed as part of common wisdom during that era to be unshakeable.

I confront basic assumptions about the medieval era and I get around some of these questions by having my main character be an outsider in so many, many ways. At first, any reader who knows medieval literature (especially Chaucer) might recognize that having my main character have her doubts about church doctrine at the base level (not merely the humorous level) might be unlikely. However, since my main character is secretly Jewish, this fact becomes more and more evident, and influences her perspectives on the church. I had to think carefully about her perspective on the church, though, because given the pervasive influence of the church, it was unlikely she would overtly reject or question the church’s teachings. I found a way around it, but only by adhering to the rules enforced by the historical period.

I also found a way to think in a more “modern” way about class, gender and sexuality, by having my main character become both male and female at different periods in her life, and by becoming / finding different “classes” in the culture at different points in her life as well. This allowed my story to open questions of class distinctions and gender distinctions in a way that is not open to most stories set in the medieval era – or at least to be more “honest” in my character’s questions.

In Morality Play, Barry Unsworth confronted similar problems. He had a mystery he wanted characters to solve, but he had none of the tools of a “standard” detective novel – because the conventions of detective fiction, and the roles played by detective and clue-finder had not been thought up yet in the medieval era. If he super-imposed the “idea” of being a detective on his characters’ minds, it wouldn’t feel authentic to the story or true to his characters’ understanding of their world. Unsworth’s story features a troupe of players (turns out I feature a similar disparate and dissolute group of players half-way through my novel Sinful Folk in a chapter just following the departure from the Abbey). Since he has them featured as actors, he affords himself some flexibility in their behavior and their understanding of the malleability of “roles” and “falseness” in the world around them. In many, many ways, making them actors is a masterstroke, because they also have a “stage” on which to confront the evil they find – much as Hamlet had a stage on which he wrote the confrontation of his uncle. In one area, Unsworth fudged, but as a reader I want to forgive him. Unsworth has his actors “compose their own play,” which was highly unusual for the era. But there are two reasons that I’m inclined to forgive him this historical change. The first is that he has his characters visibly debate whether or not they can do such an unusual thing (demonstrating the writer’s awareness of the character’s historical moment), and secondly, I am willing to forgive him because it is a very compelling necessity for the story itself. If you’re telling a good story, and a certain moment is necessary for the progression of that story, a lot of sins against history are forgiven.

Sinful Folk has subsequently been published. You can buy the book here >>

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