Saturday, June 5, 2010

W. Somerset Maugham - Notes on William Cane's "Writing Like the Masters"


Somerset Maugham's writing characteristics:
· Orchestrating contrasting character personalities to advance plot
· Well-crafted surprises

Somerset Maugham has been called “one of the first masters of the plain style.”
George Orwell said, “The modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”
- Woody Allen’s favorite book on plotting, “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” suggests characters must be orchestrated. “If all the characters are the same type…it will be like an orchestra of nothing but drums.” (p. 73) Character personalities must differ in a way that leads to interpersonal conflict; it’s captivating to observe main characters who seem to be always on the verge of a quarrel. A plug for the recent Sherlock Holmes film: The bantering between Holmes and Dr. Watson is a musical comedy in itself. Highly amusing, especially if you have the fortune of a similar sort of friendship.

Maugham boosts his readers' intrigue by placing his characters in situations they were forced to make difficult decisions. Think: Reality TV. Difficult decisions such as, Should I vote him off the island even if we’ve been sleeping together all season? Should I have a threesome with my roommates in our hot tub the first night we meet?

- Good writing is the ability to reveal only so much of the story as is necessary and hold back other events that will ultimately surprise the reader:

Just when we think that Larry and Isabel are going to be happy, Maugham reveals that Larry is more interested in finding truth, enlightenment, and wisdom. (“The Razor’s Edge”) Just when we think Philip Carey is going to be content with Norah, Mildred appears. (“Of Human Bondage”) Just when Strickland seems to have found a woman he loves by stealing Stroeve’s wife, he casts her aside and causes her to kill herself. ("The Moon and Sixpence")" (p. 79)

Somerset Maugham’s surprises are plausible; the twists are integral to the story. While it is surprising that Larry prefers studying to marriage, Maugham has prepared readers by mentioning earlier that Larry is an intelligent, thoughtful young man.

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