38. Chains

During the research period for Labyrinth, Greg and I published a different quotation every day on this website – as well as stories of saints and madmen and medieval proverbs. On the last day in January 2003, it was Kafka’s terrible acknowledgement from his nightmare novel The Trial:

‘Es ist oft besser, in Ketten als frei zu sein.’ (Often it is better to be in chains than to be free.)

There is security in imprisonment – there is acceptance. Is that what Buddha taught, acceptance? Is that humility? It was the Christian T S Eliot who said:

‘Humility is endless.’

For a writer who wants to entertain, to involve her readers in the decisions and indecisions of her characters, acceptance is dull. Not an endless ocean or a majestic desert. A grey, blank wall.

Drama that involves us – as readers – in imagined events, arises out of conflict. It might be a detective remorselessly tracking a murderer. A child seeking affection from a cold parent. It might be a tiny thing – Vladimir and Estragon want to go, but cannot bring themselves to leave. Or a quest – in the teeth of many dangers – for some secret prize, or to hide some awful secret.

In each scene that you write it is important that you have a clear idea of what is at stake. Who wants what? Why? What stands in their way?

This doesn’t mean that you must spell these things out in the first lines. Remember to show not tell. But be certain of what chains bind your characters.

And how they struggle to be free.