Connect, connect, connect. Our brain sits in blood-filled darkness; craves light and sound and meaning. It needs you to feed it, stimulate it. And what it loves most are stories.

This is how it used to be many years ago: most of the food a brain got was unstoried, other than a day can be said to begin and end at some point. It was shown trees and grass and dogs and cats and buildings and other people. These things responded to their own rhythms. The brain observed but didn’t really feel inspired by them very often. But that quiet co-existence with the everyday provided a natural balance to the time when a story might appear. For centuries, they would come largely from family and friends, and the occasional professional story-teller. And when they did, the brain became if anything over-stimulated, running with the magical coincidences of a meaningful, if not strictly true, adventure.

Books came, then the radio, film and TV. Stories were easier to find and a hungry brain could snack and feast on them around the clock. But for most people, there was still the contrasting quiet, even dull, trees and trains and other people between the stories. They say it’s the space between notes that makes music work. Perhaps it’s the same for stories: that they work best between the less shaped spaces of our lives.

But it seems now that those spaces are in danger of disappearing for good. The brain wakes up today and immediately connects, not to the solid continuance of walls and windows and the garden outside, nor even to a distant voice on the radio, but to aspects of itself via social media. Messages from friends answering messages from oneself . . . the ongoing story of each other and us. It continues through breakfast, walking down the street; travelling to work; at work in many stolen moments; on the way home; while sharing a meal in a restaurant.

All of this connection is done under the mantle of story. We believe we’re living the story of our lives. But the truth is, it’s not a story. It’s a never-ending stream of unremarkable and unmotivated fragmentary scenes. You go on Twitter and tell your followers, “I had a great tofu burger for lunch today.”

So? screams the brain.

“Sneaked off work early today.”


“Amazing! Bumped into an old school friend I haven’t seen for ten years!”

So: this happened next is the meat of story. It is the reason-coupling that links separate scenes. Scene B happens because of what happened in scene A. So is everything.

But there is no so in a standard Facebook life.

Yet we keep telling our brains that there is. Which means they live most of the day in the midst of a massive lie, a world-wide conspiracy, where millions keep insisting, this is story, this is story, this is story.

But there is no so.

There also is no quiet contrast to real story. For some years now we have been telling our brains that everything is story. So, what happens now when the brain is introduced to a real story? Increasingly, it feels agitated, rather like the religious zealot being confronted with hard evidence that his god does not exist. It does what zealots do, which is to ignore the evidence and look instead for ‘evidence’ of its own.

I believe we’re seeing the beginnings of brains destroying real stories in order to preserve their false belief that ordinary life is story.

Mainstream television, movies and books increasingly produce nonsensical, sequentially unmotivated and ultimately purposeless ‘stories’. Plots are thin and often full of holes; characters behave purely in reaction to their circumstances. It’s not so much that most brains don’t notice this; it’s more that they want the shapeless plots and illogical sequences of events and the too many coincidences, so that their viewing/reading is a continuance of their false storied lives. Not a stimulating distraction from.

What’s a writer to do? Well, if he’s been well and truly socially networked, nothing. His writing will automatically adjust to producing non-story stories. He’ll nod admiringly as Dr Who runs around aimlessly, waving his sonic screwdriver to make everything all right. He’ll just shout with the fans if anyone tries to point out the lack of decent story: “Hey, it’s okay; it’s Dr Who!” He’ll watch all the videos from Comicon where the cast pay homage to the brand, where no one talks plot or arc or meaning.

He won’t notice the frantic editing to up the pace, to sleight of hand viewers over the plot holes and inconsistencies. He’ll smile admiringly as actors publicly pay their dues by fawning on about how getting the call to be on the show was a dream come true, not just another job. The pre-series build-up across all media heightens the gloss and builds belief: surely all this money spent on telling us how good the show will be means it really must be good?

For a decent plot to work, the pace has to slow down for a while. First, the writers have to take time out to really think through what their character needs to do in order to convincingly pull through. Then the writing itself has to pause between effects; it has to introduce cause. Finally, the actor/character has to do the same; to deepen, in effect.

But there are no pauses on social media; no causes. Just effects. Oh dear. Then, as with politicians, newspapers, football clubs and friends, the writer has to follow too.

Good plots and causes are now a luxury, by and large. It used to be the writer’s personal message that needed to be slipped in under the story’s radar, so as not to distract the reader. Now it’s the story itself that has to be stuffed inside a sugar action pill and swallowed unconsciously.

Good stories are now like high fibre foods: necessary for digestion but not much fun. And of course, on Facebook Fun is God.


Sometimes when I’m teaching, new ways of expressing things just turn up. So it is that I’m standing next to a flip chart on which I’ve just written PROSE IS A VEHICLE. I look around at the eight students sitting behind desks arranged in a loose arc. We’re in one of the large sunny rooms of a pleasant college in Oxfordshire. The course is for near-beginners and we’re on our second day. I think it’s going pretty well, but you can’t always tell.

“Prose is difficult to discuss,” I say, “even though you could argue it’s the most important element of writing.”

“What kind of vehicle?” says Steven, brow furrowed. Steven is a retired civil engineer.

“Well,” I say, “that depends on what kind of writer you are.”

“I don’t follow,” he says. “Surely, the best vehicle is the one that gets you from A to B at minimal cost and maximum mechanical efficiency.” I think he has a twinkle in the eye which I take to be a welcome sign of the healthy beginnings of self-parody.

I love these moments, when I have to let the idea inform me, rather than the other way round.

“That may be true if you’re an out and out commercial writer,” I say. “Then, prose for you is mostly just functional.”

“So,” says Steven, “you’re saying that for a commercial writer, prose is like a Ford Transit van, whereas for an arty writer it’s a – ”

“Pimped up Morris Minor!” says Jools, one of the younger students.

“As usual,” I say, “analogies only take you so far. What I think I’m trying to say is that functional, well-constructed prose will do the job but it mostly suits the passenger who just wants to know, ‘Are we there yet?'”

“So, are you saying that with good writers, it’s all about the journey?” says Dawn, with just a touch of world-weary sarcasm.

What do I mean? Why are analogies so limiting? The idea seemed simple enough: prose is the vehicle which takes you on your trip through the story. But I can see now that if we stay with this analogy we’re in danger of saying that prose is a fixed commodity: once built, it’s always going to be the same, whatever the journey.

“You have to keep re-building it as you go,” I say, “depending on the territory.”

“Like a Transformer?” says Jools.

This reminds me that I really must put on a specialised Fantasy and Science Fiction writing course soon. Most of my references are F&SF, and a lot of my students’ are too. I blame Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry and whoever it is that writes Dr Who these days.

“Kind of,” I say, “but I think it also has to change between proactive and reactive continually, whereas Transformers basically just kick the crap out of each other.”

Most of them look confused. I’m probably confused, too, but I press on.

“If you look at extremes,” I say, frantically searching for examples, “you’ve got, say, Jeffrey Archer and James Joyce. Archer’s prose is always running ahead of itself, always verging on premature plot ejaculation. He can barely hold in the climax – sorry – just wants to get you to the pay-off as fast as possible, before you have time to notice the utter lack of believable characters and the creaky storyline that was nicked from Scooby-Doo. With something like ‘Finnegans Wake’, however, almost all the meaning is in the prose itself.”

“Have you actually read Finnegans Wake?” says Mark.

“Of course not,” I say. “But we studied a passage of it at college. It read like gibberish until our tutor showed us how it was actually packed with historical puns and references.”

“At least Jeffrey Archer tells a good story,” says Jess. “With a proper beginning, middle and end.”

“Anyway,” I say, “I think we’re saying that good prose does more than just get you there but not so much that you lose sight of the story.”

Jools asks the question I always dread around about this time. “Examples?” she says. “Which writers use good prose?”

I think about my own writing. Definitely, there have been moments when I’ve felt the story, the vehicle for telling it and me, the writer, all merge into one headstrong force, riding the plot, even teasing it, while at the same time encouraging the characters to not just join the flow but if they feel like it, to build an otter dam and turn it into their own special world for a time . . . then the prose has its own life: not plot, not character, not voice, not tone, not even words exactly, but some kind of spirit machine that you barely even believed in until that moment when it just turned up.

“I’m not sure it’s ever all of any one writer’s work,” I say. “You get it in Dylan Thomas at times; and Ray Bradbury and Doris Lessing. You have to find your own examples. And if you produce it yourself it probably won’t secure you a sale. But you’ll know it when you write it. And so will anyone else who reads it, who isn’t a slave just to what happens next.”

“I’m probably stuck with the Ford Transit,” says Steven. “I’m very literal.”