I went to see a new play at the National Theatre, Sunset at the Villa Thalia by Alexi Kaye Campbell. It was a good night: an interesting play which had some potent things to say about politics and personal responsibility. It was well acted and staged. I liked a lot of things about it but one aspect of the play’s structure kept occurring to me.
There are four main characters – a younger and older married couple, who meet randomly on holiday in 1967 in Act One. They meet each year but we don’t meet them again until 1976, in Act Two.
We see four-hander conversations, and two-handers. Each couple talks privately. The wives confide. The husbands discuss. Each husband talks to the other man’s wife. That’s the plot. It’s simple and clean and the dynamics of each pairing make for some great theatre: funny, poignant, intense, fiery.
My novel Ready to Love has a lot of characters, partly because I wanted to avoid a tendency to introspection. (The next one will deliberately have a smaller cast.) There are two-hander conversations, but often three- or four- or even five-handers. It would have been impossible for everyone to address each other. And no one speaks without being viewed through the lens of one of the two main characters: Minna and Jeff.
I began wondering what it would be like to unleash some other pairings and let them play. I love the challenge of short stories. Jan Mark knew they aren’t like mini-novels or chapters. She knew they focus on a moment after which things ‘are never the same again’.
I always wanted this blog to explore work-in-progress, so I’m presenting a draft of the first story I’ve worked on, ‘Lost Among Equals’, which you can read here. I think Celia, my character Jeff’s mother, and Niamh, Jeff’s cousin, are altered in a small but significant way that is entirely a consequence of their sudden engagement with each other. You can read it here.
The story happens after Ready to Love ends, but I don’t think you need to read the novel first. (Although I’m very happy for you to read it as well.) I hope you enjoy it. (Both.)
It’s just under 2,000 words which felt like the right length – and a good one for short stories in general. Helen Simpson, who is one of our finest short-story writers – read A Bunch of Fives for her selection of her best work over five collections – thinks so too. I followed her example in the Guardian Writers’ Rooms series a few years ago:
‘Here’s my room towards the end of a first draft of a story, a 2,000-word commission for radio … [when] I’m writing to a specific length … [I] spread out the right number of pages so I can see what they look like. I put up a folding trestle table bought for £8.99 in Homebase … and when the pages are laid out I step back and look at the shape of the story and how it’s paced. One page of A4 is 250 words in my handwriting, and there are eight pages here.’
The advice worked for me. Might it work for you too?