Monkeys with Typewriters

:How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories

by Scarlett Thomas.

The title for this book (and therefore this post) is drawn from the author’s reflection that it actually does make a difference to us whether books are written by our fellow humans or by monkeys playing with typewriters and striking lucky with Hamlet.
Because stories tell us what it’s like to be human, and monkeys, regardless of whatever genetic overlap they may have, simply have no idea.


Scarlett Thomas’ advice on writing has been refined by years of teaching writing (as well as writing herself), which gives her work a rather practical (if elementary) edge.

There are some areas, however, where I found myself unable to relate – for example, the matrices she has her students draw up to consciously mine their pasts and interests for writing material, in the section on How To Have Ideas. I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble coming up with ideas. It’s getting the time to work them out and finish them off that I struggle with.

There is also the matter of differing styles of writing. Thomas is experienced enough to have realised that not all writers are minimalists, and therefore paring every sentence to the bone will not be a fruitful exercise for some. While all can benefit from considering whether their words are pulling their weight, effect-wise, there’s no use trying to edit yourself to this:


if your natural style is something more like this:

Carnevale di Venezia - 2010

No prizes will be offered for guessing at which end of the continuum I frolic.

The part of the book which I enjoyed the most, which has stayed with me the longest, and which I think for me at least is the most challenging, is a relatively short section near the end of this book (not counting appendices, notes etc etc).

It deals with the concept of the thematic question – the big universal question with which your story deals (although, please note, rarely answers). What is the nature of power? What is love? What is truth? What does it mean to be human? and so forth.

Then, as with her students, she sets the challenge of boiling it all down to one word – a seed word, as she calls it – which encapsulates the thematic elements of the story and resonates through it in all manner of ways.

my name on a grain of rice!

It is, she admits, not an easy exercise – she suggests practising on other people’s novels – but once you find the word for the work it is enormously exciting and enlivening and helps you keep your story on track – because now you know, right deep down at the heart of it, what it is about.

Plus, as she points out, it’s much handier for fielding the question at parties: “what’s your book about?”

Disclaimer: no-one gave me a copy to review, nor did I part with my hard-earned for it. I borrowed a copy from the library. You may consider that this makes me a Scrooge who won’t support her fellow artists; I consider that this makes me an unbiased reviewer.

Propping up Plot with a Bukkit

No, that isn’t a typo.

I refer to the late great Vladimir Propp, who had the fascinating idea of classifying plot elements in the same way Linnaeus classified plant life.

His work focussed on the Russian folktale, which he boiled down into 31 plot elements or ‘narratemes’ – not necessarily all present in any one tale, but generally occurring in the same order.

To see what I mean, and have a bit of fun, try this Russian Folktale Generator – you select the narratemes you’d like to include, and the programme comes up with a (varyingly) specific example, forming your very own folktale.

"Nature lends such evil dreams"

This leads me to my next point, because (as you will know once you’ve tried it) the programme may have some great plot ideas – I particularly liked the trail of blood – but great storyteller it ain’t.

So much of writing isn’t the story, after all – it’s how you tell the story. There are a limited number of plots in the world, so we have a fairly good idea what’s going to happen, but we want to know how. Or, in the case of writers like Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, we may even have an inkling howdunnit (or whodunnit), but we go along for the ride anyway because of the telling. Because of the voice.

Take Back To Beat – Gomma Vulcanizzata

Like fingerprints, no two voice prints are the same.

And this is why it is important for a writer to have their own voice (even if it includes myriad subordinate clauses and sentences that start with the word ‘and’). Which leads us neatly around to the subject of Chapter Two in the Artist’s Way – recovering a sense of identity.

To be sure, Julia Cameron is thinking more along the lines of recovering your identity as a writer, but there is also the element of recovering your identity as this writer.


Like the Walrus and his Bukkit, I am happy to have my writer’s voice back – it’s been away and I missed it.

But to return to Propp, leaving Chapter Two for another post:
as well as the 31 narratemes, such as LACK (They took my bukkit!) and BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION (have you seen my bukkit?) Propp classified 8 character types found in these tales.

These include the hero (our friend the lolrus), the villain (obviously, whoever took the bukkit) and the princess and her father, who, Propp notes, are functionally the same – the sought-after one. (They are the bukkit.)

Now, while I don’t suggest that all stories could or should fit the Russian Folktale structure (bukkits aside), it can be very helpful in sparking new ideas for a saggy plot.

Of course! you cry. Where are the helpers who aid the search for the bukkit?

1765 G takes blue bucket

What – or who – sends my hero off on their journey? Where’s the showdown with the villain? The pursuit with the prize? What false hero tries to purloin the hard-earned reward? What’s a walrus got to do to get his bukkit back? And so on and so forth.

And if all else fails in your attempt to dig yourself out of a plot bog, follow a blood trail – see where it leads.