Narrative 101: The Anthology

Apropos of nothing, I’ve lately been thinking about the anthology as a method of storytelling. There’s no particular game we’re dealing with today – it’s more just a reflection on the process of writing in that mode. One of the things about the anthology is that it gives you an opportunity to move around a theme in a few different ways. So for instance if we wanted to write about power, say – let’s just run this through for a bit. It’ll be pretty broad and hacky, but as a general approach, this is how I’d begin. Say we wanted to write about power. At time of writing, the Harvey Weinstein trial is underway, so let’s build something around that. A leery boss uses his authority to sexually harass a female employee, and she takes him to court.

First question: does she win or lose the case? It depends on what sort of story you want to tell. If she wins, it’s happier, more hopeful – but maybe it’s also too simple and kinda skating over the trauma of that experience in a bit of a glib way. If she loses, it’s a downer ending, but maybe it’s the sort of downer ending that spurs people to action. Maybe it makes them recognise sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious issue, not only because of the event itself but because of the low likelihood of the victim seeing justice.

Let’s put that on pause for a second, and think more about our overall theme of power. Obviously there’s the boss misusing his power in the workplace. Are there any other types of power that might be relevant to the story? I guess there’s the power of the court, that legal authority. There’s also a question about the media and popular perceptions of the trial. Okay – so maybe the woman loses the case, more because of lack of evidence than anything else, but the media furore around the whole thing sees the boss fired and his career and reputation destroyed. That’s an interesting little twist. It also creates a dynamic of place. The harassment happens in private, somewhere secluded. But the media and the trial are very public affairs. The manager is in some sense fired because of the public. It’s the public backlash, the PR burden on the company – that’s a type of power wielded by the public against the manager and the company.

Now we’ve got an interesting cluster of themes. We have the idea of power, and the interplay between public and private spheres. We can start riffing on those themes. At this point, you really just want to start brainstorming. The ideas don’t have to be good, they just have to be numerous. A story about a performer who you only ever see from the outside. You’re never given the intimacy to find out what’s going on in his private life – you’re always kept at arm’s length. The recent Taylor Swift movie is interesting in that regard, actually – Miss Americana. “Too stage managed to really sing,” said the Guardian. Too regulated for the audience to feel like they’re getting an authentic view of her. Fine – let’s take that, and lean into it. We’re not even going to pretend to give you an insight into our performer’s private life. We are going to aggressively keep you out of it. A story about a woman in an old folks home who wants to move into the next room. A shock jock who says increasingly outrageous things because he’s tired of the job and too proud to resign; but no matter how bad he gets, his ratings continue to climb, and his bosses refuse to fire him. An electrician who works mostly underground. Works for the public, but nobody ever sees him. There’s a cheap pun on power, too.

So you collect up all your ideas, and you sit and look at them for a bit. You think about their relative arcs, how they relate to each other. The broadcaster and the performer are both in entertainment, so you’ve got to think about how you differentiate those stories. You think about the broader context too. The shock jock is a variation on The Producers – that’s not how I came up with it, but it’s how it’ll be interpreted. Maybe it needs to go – or maybe we can offer a new take on the basic concept. The last thing you do is you scrap the scaffolding. The Weinstein story goes in the bin – it gave us a framework, a starting place, but it’s obvious and boring, and it’s hack, and so it goes in the bin. And leave a couple presents for your audience. Absolutely do not use the word ‘power’ in any form in the story about the electrician. Keep it out, and wait for your readers to identify the theme themselves. One day, one of them will go ‘yeah well it’s a series of short stories about power, and there’s this one about an electrician, and – oh for fuck’s sake’.

For me, the key to the anthology is that you circle around a set of ideas and approach them from a series of different angles. It’s like facets of a gem. You’re almost writing the same basic story in a few different ways – that’s not totally accurate, because it’s one conceptual cluster, rather than the same style or narrative arc or whatever else, but – the anthology exists in that tension between sameness and difference. One jewel, lots of perspectives. That was the heart of my complaint about Stories Untold, back in 2018. It had a lovely little house of cards, and then it didn’t. The cluster of stories became one story, and the tension between sameness and difference just became sameness. It was the juxtaposition that made things interesting. Anyway – look, it’s not the complete process, but it’s how I’d start creating something like an anthology. It’s very top-down, I suppose, very concept-first, fabric-later. Notice in particular how there’s not really any medium set forth in my process – could be a novel, film, whatever. That’s a consequence of how I approach storytelling. Other people will start from different places, and will probably have quite different results. I’m not a fan of writing advice, generally speaking. I don’t think this is necessarily a process you should try and imitate. If there’s something that fits, feel free to take it – otherwise, I guess it’s just me sharing.

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