NEWS19 March 2015

‘Good storytelling should be in the service of good ideas’ author Sebastian Faulks told Impact 2015

News UK

UK — “Good storytelling should be in the service of good ideas”, English novelist Sebastian Faulks told delegates at Impact 2015, but warned that while thorough research is a must, the reader should feel they are “discovering something, not having it rammed down your throat”.


The author of books including Birdsong and Charlotte Gray who successfully combines the often awkward bedfellows of popular and literary fiction, was addressing an audience yesterday ( 18 March) at the climax of this week’s MRS conference.

In a wide-ranging and entertaining talk, he shared various aspects of his profession, including the art of great storytelling.


“Good storytelling should always be in the service of good ideas,” Faulks said. “The theme comes first, then the characters that are capable of enacting it, then the story, for people to understand what you’re on about.”

Faulks went on describe the triumvirate of the book, the author and the reader.

“The subject matter is the apex of the triangle, the author is a corner and the reader is another corner,” he said. “Most of the time the author and the reader are looking at the apex, but sometimes, the author talks directly to the reader along the base of the triangle.”

He cited an example of this, when in Birdsong one of the main, and the most likeable, characters is killed off suddenly, without preamble. 

The reader is shocked and perhaps feels animosity towards the author, Faulks explained. But it is the feeling that the author is ruthless and not afraid to break convention that leads to tension later in the book when the protagonist is in a life-threatening situation.


Given that Faulks’ novels, particularly the early ones, are set in the historical past, thorough research has been a key part of his craft; often taking more time than the writing itself.

“I wrote Birdsong very quickly,” he explained. “The research took two or three years and the writing just six months. I would write furiously in the morning and visit the Imperial War Museum in the afternoon and immerse myself in documents. Then I’d go home, talk to my wife about it, then dream about it and get up in the morning and start writing again.”

But he warned that while the author may have become obsessively immersed in the reams of research he or she has conducted, avoid “the temptation to over-share”.

“You have to be strict,” he added. “The practical thing is to do the research, read it and then shut it in a room. In fiction, you’re not trying to put across the truth but the illusion of truth.

“It’s a question of how bleeding obvious do you have to be. Part of the joy of reading a great novel or seeing a great piece of advertising is you want to feel you’re discovering something, not having it rammed down your throat.”

Write about what you don’t know

Finally, Faulks was quick to dismiss the wisdom of the adage ’Write about what you know’.

“It’s one of the worst pieces of professional advice ever given, as I discovered over many long and barren years,” he said. “Write about what you don’t know. That’s what liberated me.”