The Essential Voice of Red

I may have previously given the impression that I generally don’t like it when good stories get adapted to suit another medium, such as when a book is adapted for film. If that is the case, I owe you an apology because that is not exactly what I meant and it is certainly not true. Remakes and adaptations often can be very good if they are made by someone who knows exactly what they are doing.

The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont) is, in my opinion, one of the most splendid films I have ever had the privilege of watching, based on the equally splendid Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens (though really, you should have either read it or watched it by now; everyone should have) but suffice it to say that it is set in the Shawshank State Penitentiary and follows the story of a man called Andy (portrayed in the film by Tim Robbins) who befriends a fellow convict called Red (Morgan Freeman) while serving a life sentence for murder. In both the book and the film, Red also acts as the narrator. There are lots of good things about the film adaptation I could focus on, but it’s the narrative voice in the film and the book I want to focus on just now, because it is a prime example of a director demonstrating that he knew exactly what he was doing.

At first, Morgan Freeman might seem like an odd choice to play a character who the book describes as a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. A less skilled director may have been tempted to simply cast a good actor who more or less fitted the physical description. Wonderful an actor though he is, this would clearly not be Morgan Freeman. No accent he could put on would change the fact that he simply does not look like a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. But when you read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, it is hard not to hear Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice on almost every word.

Narrative voice is always important in fiction but especially in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The narrative is more reflective than descriptive, giving us only snapshots of how Red remembers the specific events that occurred in Shawshank during the twenty-seven years of Andy’s incarceration, woven together in such a way as to create a fully fledged description of how Andy arrived at Shawshank, protected himself while there and eventually made his dramatic exit, rather than giving us a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened to Andy or to Red.

It is this, the narrative voice in the book, that makes this role so right for Morgan Freeman. Other very famous and very excellent actors were considered and they might have even been able to do the character justice to some extent but I doubt if anyone else could have pulled off the voice-over narration quite the way Morgan Freeman did. There was a worldly-wisdom about Red in the novella which suits the type of character Morgan Freeman typically plays so well. He observes what is going on around him and he evaluates his own relationship with Andy in that philosophical and darkly humorous way that we have come to expect from Morgan Freeman. Given that the novella is written in the form of Red’s own reflections on his relationship with Andy through-out the course of his sentence, I think it was probably essential that this narrative voice, created by Stephen King in the novella, was maintained for  Darabont’s film adaptation.

I suppose it could be because I’ve seen the film that I imagine it in Freeman’s voice but I don’t think so. I’ve seen Live and Let Die more times than I care to number, but when I read the book, the 007 I encountered there was more like Daniel Craig’s Bond than Roger Moore’s. It wasn’t just what he said; it was how he said it. James Bond in the novels is a far colder man the somewhat playful character Roger Moore portrayed, no matter how alike the basic plots may be. Craig’s crisp, masculine voice delivers each short, bitey line in a way which fits the cruel persona we find in the books. The same is true of Red in Shawshank, though Bond gets away with using a wider variety of actors far more than Shawshank would have because the different kind of narrative voice it employs made voice-over narration unnecessary in the Bond films.

Of course, Morgan Freeman does not single-handedly make The Shawshank Redemption the movie it is. There are a million other good reasons to watch this film and all of the actors give a top-notch performance but for me, the actor Darabont cast to play Red was a make-or-break decision for this adaptation on account of that magnificent narrative voice employed in the novella and I’m pleased to say that when it came to casting for The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont chose well.

Learning From Rejection

I hadn’t really intended to post another one of my own stories this year. I know you probably don’t come here just to read my rejected competition entries and to be honest, I always intended (and still do intend) for Penstricken to be a blog about fiction as an art-form, rather than a dumping ground for my odds and sods. The reason I have decided to post just one more of my own stories this year is because it’s nearly Christmas and this story does have a bit of a Christmas theme going on in it. However, rather than just giving you the story to read and expecting you to like it, I’m going use this story as an example of how writers can (and should) use their rejected stories to help them develop as writers, by analysing their own work to see how they might improve upon it.

So, without further ado, here is the story I submitted (originally without a title) for the Scottish Book Trust’s fifty word story competition (Dec 2015). Since it did not win, it was an ideal choice as a seasonal story for our study in self-improvement.

Cold Brass
By A. Ferguson

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play. But the supermarket’s manager had offered us all free mince pies if we stood outside in the snow for an hour and played a few carols.


Now if only I could get this thing off my face…

This is a tale about a gluttonous musician who sees an easy opportunity for free mince pies (traditionally eaten in the UK during Christmas time), only to end up with his trumpet stuck to his mouth because of the cold. Anyone who has ever played the trumpet outdoors in winter (like me!) will tell you that the mouthpiece can be excruciatingly cold if the temperature is low enough (though I admit, I don’t know for sure if anyone has ever actually become stuck to their trumpet in this way or not).

The first thing I considered in coming up with this story was the competition instructions. The story had to include the phrase ‘cold as ice’ somewhere in the body of the text and with an upper limit of only fifty words, you can’t afford not to make those three words count. For me, this was the biggest stumbling block to constructing a story I was proud of. I allowed those rules to restrict my imagination, insofar as when I read the instructions, I immediately began trying to imagine physical objects which might be accurately described as being ‘as cold as ice’, with a view to constructing a story around them. Having read the winning entry to this competition (available from the Scottish Book Trust’s website), I noticed that the author of that story took a very different approach, incorporating the phrase ‘cold as ice’ into the dialogue of an altogether more original and imaginative story than the one I produced. The end result was a story with a profound theme running through it, which very likely stood out from what I imagine to have been a crowd of stories dealing with Christmas and winter in general.

In short, a better approach for me might have been to write a good story and make it fit the given instructions, rather than allow the instruction to stifle my imagination.

However, sticking with the plot I’ve got, I think there are still a few things that could be done to improve the basic flow of the narrative. For example, I feel like the second sentence starting where it does creates an uncomfortable pause and would perhaps have worked better if it were joined with the sentence that went before, like so…

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play, but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Better? Maybe?

I’m not sure about the parenthesis (‘almost painful to play’). Rather than constructing a sentence which basically says, ‘The mouthpiece was cold and I didn’t like it’, it might do better to do something like this:

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Most of us can probably imagine what it feels like to have ice pressing against our lips, even if we’ve never actually experienced it. Perhaps if you’re a writer, you’ll have heard the old axiom about showing, rather than telling. Well, that’s what this is. Now the simile is used to help the reader feel for themselves what it is like to blow a trumpet on a snowy day, rather than to give fairly bland technical descriptions of a cold mouthpiece and a nondescript sensation which is almost-but-not-quite pain. It also brings our word-count down a single word, allowing us to use that word somewhere else! Yay!

Removing superfluous words is always a worthwhile exercise, especially in flash fiction. If it’s not vital, chop it. So, to further improve this sentence, I chopped and swapped a few words and with a bit of shuffling was even able to add words which I feel made the narrative a little clearer:

The trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had promised the band free mince pies if we stood out in the snow and played a few carols to the shoppers.

The main thing I have removed here is the fact that the band played for an hour. Who cares how long the band played for? That’s really not the point of this story. The point of this story is that a glutton did something that should have been nice and Christmassy for selfish motives and got his just desserts at the end of it. So I chopped that bit out and replaced it with more detail of what he was doing, rather than for how long. I also replaced the words ‘us all’ with ‘the band’, in order to make it clearer exactly who the narrator is talking about.

Incidentally, I’ve still got a word to spare after all this.

I hope this is giving you an idea of what a useful thing it is to analyse and try to improve upon your own work. It can be tempting not to bother doing any of this, especially for flash fiction which you only spent a few days working on and are not likely to ever look at again. But even if you don’t have any further plans for your rejected work, it is still worth doing something like this. Taking a little time to honestly and critically consider things you might have done to improve upon your ideas and your use of language will help you to develop your skills and prevent you from making the same mistakes in any future writing project you embark upon, whether you are an enthusiastic amateur or a well established multi-award winning author.


6 Six-Word Stories

Flash fiction doesn’t come much flashier than six words long. I mean, it took me more than six words just to make that single point!

I must confess, the shorter than short short story, shot with a shrink-ray from Shortland is not my forte. In fact, I’ve only ever done it once before today for a competition which I did not win (a recurring motif, I hear you think). So this week I’ve challenged myself to write six six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. The Story Dice is an app for Android OS which allows you to roll anything between one to ten dice with various pictures on each face. The idea is that you use these pictures to develop a story. Since I’m only writing six-word stories today, I decided to only use one die per story.

So here goes nothing…

Alea iacta est.

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. All of the following are my own work:

  1. Oxygen, heat, fuel and marshmallows.
  2. ‘Apparently his lordship opposes finger food!’
  3. ‘Impressive. A long piece of fabric.’
  4. Forsaking arms, we agreed to disagree.*
  5. Found the weapon inside the book.
  6.  Remembered iPhone; wish I’d remembered iToiletRoll!

Gosh, that was harder than I expected it would be! Maybe you should give it a bash yourself! Roll the dice and see what you come up with or just make up a six word story about anything and share in the comments below.

*I confess, I actually wrote this one a few years ago for the aforementioned competition. What can I say? It came to mind immediately when I saw stimulus number 4 and I struggled to think of anything better but what you gonna do?

The Martian’s Revenge

I may have previously mentioned that there are few things stimulate creativity in writing quite like a deadline. If you’re like me, you’ll probably have multiple competitions and other deadlines on the go at once and will be heavily reliant on your calender to keep you on track.

Of course, that only works if you put the correct date in your calender. What follows is a story I had written for a 50-word story competition which had to be set in my native Scotland. I was never very happy with this story, but being keen to meet the deadline I persevered with it anyway and was just about to submit it when… disaster! I had put the wrong date in my calender! I have missed the deadline!

Not wanting to waste all the effort and frustration I went to, I’ve decided to post it here instead. I wanted to make it stand out from the other competition entries and given that it had to be set in Scotland I thought perhaps a  Scottish sci-fi/murder mystery might be the way to go. Just to give you a little context if you’re not Scottish, the chip shops here sell deep-fried Mars bars. Bear that in mind.

The Martian’s Revenge
by A. Ferguson

DCI Mcleod had never seen anything like it. The chippie’s owner lay dead, his head submerged in the fryer. Witnesses claimed they saw a tall green man burst from the chippie carrying armfuls of Mars bars, who fled the scene in a strange car which literally flew into the night.