So I finished Fifty Shades of Grey.
I almost love it. It’s magnificent, in its own way. I heard it was bad, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality. It’s so terrible it’s almost art, a sort of masterclass in How Not To Write A Novel. (Read it, learn it, love it.)
Ah, but you say, it sold, didn’t it? The author is now papering her downstairs toilet in banknotes, still has enough money to put her kids through college debt free and she’s been on Newsnight.
Well, yes – perfectly true, except she’s an outlier, a freak. There are literally hundreds and thousands of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey out there. If you’re going to crank out a book as cack-handed as this one, you’d better pray it ‘goes viral’ amongst the sexually frustrated bookclub set, because the rest of them are languishing in slush piles from which they will never again emerge to see the light of day.
Anyway, if you want to make a fortune from your writing and top the bestseller lists and go on Newsnight, then good luck to you. I’m not talking to you anyway. I’m talking to you. Yes, you – the writer who strives to be good.
For you, this book is a smorgasbord of wonderful examples. I know I’m always saying that the best way to learn to write good books is to read good books, but you can also learn a huge amount by reading bad books.
And Fifty Shades of Grey is bad. Wow, it’s bad. It’s just straight-up stinky. We may as well get started here and now because the book opens with a doozy.
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.
Damn my hair – it just won’t behave,
and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.
I want my mother. Mummy, make it stop!
I remember laughing at Dan Brown for hauling Robert Langdon out of bed and over to a mirror so that he could describe himself. E.L. James doesn’t even bother getting her heroine out of bed – she plonks her straight down in front of a mirror so that Anastasia Steele can helpfully tell us what she looks like.
I roll my eyes with exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.
At this point, I give up. Sorry. It’s like four whole chapters of Ayn Rand-level awful distilled into one astonishingly ugly sentence. You’re on your own. Bye.
I’m joking, of course. Let’s look at the pertinent details this sentence conveys.
Ana has large blue eyes.
Ana has unruly brown hair.
Ana apparently has the ability to stare, gaze and roll her eyes all at the same time. She should probably see a doctor.
And I should stop boggling at this sentence. Picking out ill-constructed sentences in this book is like shooting Fifty Kinds of Fish in a barrel.
Let’s be serious. What does it mean to you to know that the heroine of a book has blue eyes, brown hair and a frizz problem? What does her having brown hair and blue eyes reveal about her as a person, other than that she has brown hair and blue eyes?
For contrast, here’s another famous book which opens with a description of the heroine.
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted up at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upwards, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.
That’s a chunky old lump of description right there, usually the kind of thing that stops a narrative in its tracks, which is maybe why Margaret Mitchell decided to make it the very first paragraph of Gone With The Wind, just to get it over with.
Now read it again. List the things this paragraph tells us about Scarlett. It doesn’t just tell us that she has fair skin, green eyes and dark hair. It tells us that her skin is coveted and cosseted and that she’s not just charming one man but two – the Tarleton twins. And what does that square jaw suggest about her character?
This is a great description. Whatsmore, it’s relevant. Margaret Mitchell is not telling us what Scarlett looks like for the sheer hell of it – Scarlett knows she’s attractive. She’s a vain, self-centred flirt and her self-serving vanity is at the core of her character driven story. You can’t separate Scarlett O’Hara from her green eyes and magnolia skin any more than you can separate Jane Eyre from her Quakerish frocks.
Let’s take a look at Jane, while we’re on the subject. Here’s a heroine who’s in the same first person position as Anastasia (The ‘I’ character.) Does Charlotte Bronte plop Plain Jane down in front of a mirror in order to describe herself?
Well, yes she does.
Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: to-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.’
There are no rules in writing that you’re not allowed to break, so long as you break them well. It’s not that Jane Eyre goes to the mirror to describe herself to the reader – Jane goes to the mirror to draw a self portrait, to compare herself unfavourably to the beautiful Blanche Ingram, with whom Mr. Rochester is said to be fascinated. This is relevant to Jane’s character. This is Jane calmly but firmly punishing herself for not looking reality in the face. It’s also an ironic paragraph because the portrait of Blanche she plans to draw for comparison is drawn only from the servants’ descriptions of the beauty – she hasn’t actually met Blanche yet. Jane is prone to imagine that her ‘betters’ are a damn sight better than they really are. The passage underlines both her steadfast honesty and her naivete, two of the core traits that have made her such an unforgettable heroine.
Obviously this is not the only reference to Jane’s appearance in the novel – her appearance is often referred to by other characters, from the horrible relatives who call her ‘a little toad’ to Rochester himself, who is impressed by her air of stillness and calm.
Your other characters are people too. They’re a godsend if you’re writing a first person narrative. You needn’t stick anyone in front of a mirror – just let the other characters react to your narrator’s appearance. Let them react naturally. A pretty character is going to be used to people seeing them as pretty and vice versa. Scarlett O’Hara makes men act like fools so often that she’s infuriated and fascinated when Rhett Butler manages to keep his head in her presence. Similarly, Jane is so accustomed to being treated as the human equivalent of dry rot that she’s incredulous when Rochester turns his affections on her.
There is so much more I could say about descriptions in fiction but I’m slightly scared by how much I’ve already said. And this was prompted by the first half page of this buggardly awful book.
Worse? It’s a fucking trilogy.