1 March, 2005Issue 4.2FictionInterviewsLiteratureThe ArtsTheatreWriters

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Once upon a time, and what happened next…

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman at the Oxford Women’s Luncheon Club, Tuesday 8 February 2005

Philip Pullman, Oxford-based author of His Dark Materials trilogy, is the recipient of the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass (2001)—the first time in the history of the prize that it has been bestowed upon a children’s book. A two-part dramatic adaptation of His Dark Materials, directed by Nicholas Hyntner, is currently running at the National Theatre in London to widespread acclaim; the Lyric Theatre’s adaptation of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter has just concluded a national tour; and New Line Cinemas is currently developing a film adaptation of the trilogy. The speech below was originally presented to the Oxford Women’s Luncheon Club. We are pleased to publish it here in a slightly abridged form.


I thought I’d talk a little today about stories, and about my approach to one particular aspect of storytelling. We all have such an appetite for narrative, for knowing what happens next, and there’s an enormous amount we can say about it. Christopher Booker has just brought out a book called The Seven Basic Plots of Literature, which is so heavy I dare not drop it on my foot. But I’m not an expert of that sort. I’m no literary critic. All I do is write stories, but in the course of doing it for nearly forty years I’ve thought a great deal about it, and learned a few things, too. I thought that today I’d tell you a little about one small aspect of this business, this craft, this art. And perhaps it’s the one that people who are interested in telling stories are most concerned about, because it has to do with the fear of the blank page that I know many would-be writers feel. It’s the question of how you begin a story.

Where do you start? What’s the first sentence? We all know the phrase ‘Once upon a time’, the opening of a thousand fairytales. When we hear that, we know what to expect: we’re in a world where strange and fanciful things can happen, where a princess can kiss a frog and turn him into a prince, where a curse can put a blight on a whole country until a young hero comes along to lift it, where a handful of beans can turn into a magic ladder into the sky. We wouldn’t expect the latest novel by Ian McEwan, or Anita Brookner, or (at the other end of the literary scale) Danielle Steele, or the man who wrote The Da Vinci Code, to start with that phrase. Those writers all want to persuade us that the story they’re telling takes place in the real world. When you say ‘Once upon a time’, that’s not quite what you have in mind.

And there are lots of equivalents for ‘Once upon a time’. The great tale from the Brothers Grimm, The Juniper Tree, one of the most ferocious and beautiful and terrifying stories ever told, begins ‘A long time ago, at least two thousand years …’

Setting a story ‘Once upon a time’, or ‘Two thousand years ago’, or whenever, means (apart from other things) that it’s safe from awkward fact-checking; it means we can invent whatever we like. We’re in a land where other rules apply, where we can expect things to be a bit different from here. I once began a story of my own, ‘A thousand miles ago, in a country east of the jungle and south of the mountains, there lived a firework-maker …’ And it was only natural for a story like that to contain a white elephant who could talk, and a dangerous visit to the fire-fiend in his grotto on the volcano, and so on.

Once you’ve begun a story like this—‘Once upon a time there was …’—it has a sort of momentum. You have to continue by saying more about the person or the people you’ve just mentioned; because one thing all these openings have in common is that they mention the main characters at once. Like these openings taken at random from Grimm and also from Italo Calvino’s (literally) wonderful collection of Italian folktales:

There was once a wizard who liked to disguise himself as a poor man …
There was once a young hunter … There were once two brothers, one rich and the other poor …
There was once a poor man who had three sons …
There were once twelve brothers who fell out with their father …

And so on. Get the main character on stage as soon as you can. This is a narrative technique that authors and filmmakers have borrowed from the anonymous tellers of fairy tales and folk tales, whose names are lost for ever.

For example: the first word of the most famous children’s book of all is ‘Alice’. It goes on, if you remember, ‘… was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”’

So in the very first sentence the character and her situation are established for us. Something’s going to happen—somehow, we can tell.

If we take a book written with a rather more grownup audience in mind than Alice, namely Middlemarch (and Virginia Woolf said that Middlemarch was ‘One of the few English novels written for grown-up people’), we find this first sentence: ‘Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress’. Miss Brooke, Dorothea, is of course the heroine of the story, whose impulsive high-mindedness will get her into all sorts of difficulty as the story unfolds. And there she is, right in the first two words of the story.

It’s interesting, though, to see the difference from Alice. In the book intended for children, something’s happening, or at least being impatiently hoped for. We’re right there on the riverbank with Alice, being bored, and ready for a diversion. In Middlemarch, by contrast, there isn’t any action going on. Instead someone is being described; we’re being invited to consider and reflect. And in particular, Dorothea is being described in a way that tells us what the narrator thinks we’re like. She (I’m calling the narrator she, but there’s no reason to assign a particular gender to the narrator just because the author happened to be female)—she assumes that we the readers are worldly and intelligent and sophisticated enough to know what she means by ‘that kind of beauty which is thrown into relief by poor dress’.

I’m not sure that I am, actually, but I’m flattered by the assumption. That sentence, as simple as it seems, tells us a great deal about what the book expects of us. So does this opening, from Jane Austen:

‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’.

Again, we’re opening with description, not with action. And again we’re expected to be on our toes. We’re expected to know and to notice the difference between handsome, as an adjective for a woman, and, say, pretty; and the same goes for the difference between clever and, say, wise. As for rich—Emma and her father Mr Woodhouse don’t rub shoulders with the Prince of Wales. But they are more comfortably off, shall we say, than most readers; they don’t need to worry about paying the bills. That is the sort of rich they are, which to most people is rich; so the narrator is assuming that most of her readers are not.

The first six words of Emma tell us a great deal more than they seem to, as long as we pay them the sort of attention that they deserve.

But the important thing as far as I’m concerned, is that, like Alice, like Middlemarch, like all those fairy tales, Emma begins with the main character plumb square in front of us. Alfred Hitchcock said once that if a film opens with a burglar breaking into an empty house, and we go with him up the stairs and into the bedroom and then, as he’s ransacking the drawers, we see the lights of a car coming up the drive, we think ‘Watch out! They’re coming!’ We’re not on the side of the innocent people whose house is being burgled—we’re on the side of the burglar. Because the story is on the side of the burglar. All the interest, all the investment of attention and sympathy, are on the side of the person whose actions we’re watching. My point is that one very good way, perhaps the best way of all, of opening a story consists of putting the main character and their situation right there in the first sentence. Twelve years ago when I began to write a book which didn’t have a title at that stage, but which later became called Northern Lights, I did just that. The first sentence says:

‘Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’

That tells us quite a lot. First it tells us that we’re focusing on someone called Lyra—an unusual name; and it tells us, in the most matter-of-fact way, that this Lyra has a dæmon. Moreover, dæmon is spelt not like the word demon that means devil, but with a ligature. So it doesn’t mean she’s got a personal devil; it means she’s accompanied by another being, perhaps some kind of spirit, perhaps something else, and that this being is hers in some way—Lyra and her dæmon; and that might suggest the old idea of a guardian angel, or a personal spirit guide. (Those who’ve read about Socrates might remember that he referred to his own daimon.) In the meantime, there’s the rest of the sentence to think about. What are they doing? They’re moving through a hall—capital H, like the Hall of an Oxford college—which is getting darker, so it’s late afternoon or early evening, when college servants are occupied in getting dinner ready. And we can tell that Lyra shouldn’t be there, because she’s keeping to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. If someone sees her, they’ll tell her off, perhaps, or chase her out.

So Lyra is our burglar, in the Hitchcock sense. She’s doing something she shouldn’t, but we don’t want her to get caught. And when she goes into the Retiring Room (I could have said Senior Common Room, but this is another universe we’re in, if we haven’t already guessed that from the dæmon)—when she goes in there to look around, which is very much against the rules, we’re already on her side, because of the way stories work. So when someone comes in and she has to hide, we don’t want them to find her. I think it must be a pretty rare reader who disapproves of her actions, and really wants the Butler and the Master of the College, who come in unexpectedly, to catch her and box her ears and send her out. There wouldn’t have been much of a story if they had, after all.

So off the story goes.

His Dark Materials, of which Northern Lights is the first part, occupies three volumes. In the first part, our focus is Lyra, although the narrator directs his attention (I’m calling the narrator he, but there’s no reason to assign a particular gender to the narrator just because the author happened to be male)—although the narrator occasionally directs his attention away from Lyra and towards other characters.

In the second book, a new character comes in. He’s very important: so important that the second book, The Subtle Knife, starts with his name, just as the first book starts with Lyra’s. The first sentence reads: ‘Will tugged at his mother’s hand and said “Come on, come on …”’

This was going to be a difficult thing to spring on my readers. They’ve never seen Will before, never heard of him, never dreamed that he could exist. Suddenly there’s a new character, and what’s more, he hasn’t got a dæmon. After spending all of the first book in Lyra’s world, and getting used to everyone having a dæmon, here we are in another world where, of all strange and bizarre things, people don’t have dæmons. In fact, it’s a world very like our world. In fact—good grief!—it IS our world.

Now what I had to do with the opening of The Subtle Knife, having established Will, was get him out of his world—our world—as quickly as possible, and have him meet Lyra. It had to happen in the first chapter. They’d give me the benefit of the doubt for about that long. I reckoned if I got Will to Lyra in the first twenty pages or so, the readers would stay with me.

So that’s what happens. As soon as Lyra appears, the readers know where they are, and where the sympathy of the story lies. Lyra has been their eyes and ears and mind all the way through the first book: what, they are longing to know, does she make of this boy from our world? Will she like him? Will she trust him? How will they get on?

Well, Lyra has a way of finding things out. She has her alethiometer, her truth-telling golden compass, which she has learned how to read by manipulating the hands that point to symbols around the edge. So as soon as Will is asleep, this happens:

Lyra carefully set the hands of the alethiometer, and relaxed her mind into the shape of a question. The needle began to sweep around the dial in a series of pauses and swings almost too fast to watch.

She had asked: What is he? A friend or an enemy?

The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer.

When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once. This boy could find food and show her how to reach Oxford, and those were powers that were useful, but he might still have been untrustworthy or cowardly. A murderer was a worthy companion. She felt as safe with him as she’d felt with Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear.

And so ends the first chapter of The Subtle Knife. I thought the story was safe at that point; I thought the readers would stay with it. And so they did.

I won’t go through the opening of the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, but I will say just a word about the end. This is a very long story, which took me seven years to write but a lifetime to get ready to write, and one of the very first things I knew about it was the setting and the mood of the final few paragraphs. I didn’t know what would lead up to it—the 1300 pages in between the first sentence and the final page were a total mystery to me—but the feeling of that final page was crystal clear. It had the sort of intensity you feel when you wake up from a very moving dream. It’s almost impossible to tell people about your dreams, because when you begin to relate them they sound so absurd or so banal; but you know the sort of dream you have once a decade, perhaps, a dream so beautiful and so moving you never forget it as long as you live. My feeling about the final pages was like that. There was a garden, and it was midnight, and Lyra was alone. Or alone with her dæmon.

So that’s where it was all leading up to. And just as the first word of the story was Lyra, so is the last.

When you write a book you can decide these things; I mean it’s up to you how you open and close a story. All the responsibility is yours, and you can take all the credit. But when that story is adapted for another medium, for the stage or the screen, someone else comes in and starts deciding things, and telling the story in a different way.

I’ll just say a brief word about the stage adaptation of His Dark Materials, because I think it’s been adapted very well, and because it has a strong bearing on this opening business. The adaptation was made by the playwright Nicholas Wright and was directed by Nicholas Hytner, and it had a very successful run last winter. It is now pretty well sold out for the whole of this run, so they must be doing something right. Actually, I think they are doing a lot of things right.

And this illustrates how a lot of things all have a bearing on each other, and determine how you have to tell a story.

In the first place, they wanted to make the story into two full-length plays, which would play separately on some nights, but twice a week they’d do both plays in one day. That’s six hours on the stage. In the second place, the actress paying Lyra is obviously central: she has to be there onstage a great deal of the time. It’s her story. In the third place, there are laws about the employment of child actors, saying how many hours they’re allowed to work, and so on.

So it was clear from very early on that Lyra, and Will too, although they’re about twelve years old in the story, would have to be played by adults. There are artistic advantages in this as well as legal ones: the characters have to grow and develop through a number of complex and difficult emotional adventures, and there are some things that only a trained actor, with the physical stamina of an adult, can manage to convey.

But it does involve a suspension of disbelief. All theatre does anyway, of course, but would this be too much?

And here I come back to the subject I began with, the opening business, because Nicholas Wright solved it all with one brilliant stroke—and he did it by looking at the ending. The story ends with Lyra and Will, who have fallen in love, saying goodbye in the Oxford Botanic Garden, because they must part for ever. But they make a promise to each other. There’s an Oxford with a Botanic Garden in Lyra’s world, as there is in Will’s, and they agree that for the rest of their lives they’ll come to the Botanic Garden on midsummer’s day and sit on the bench, each in their different world, and be together, although they’re far apart.

So Nicholas Wright opens the play with a twenty-year old Lyra and Will sitting and talking under a tree, apparently to each other, but—as we soon see—not together at all, but in different worlds. Young adult actors playing young adults. And of course they reminisce; and as they do, they slip into their childhood selves and begin to tell their story … and we’re convinced. The whole play is, technically, a flashback. But we accept the adults playing children because we’ve already seen them as adults, and we know what they’re doing—and also, by the way, because they’re very fine actors.

Incidentally, Nick Wright made one vast improvement on my story. I had the two of them meeting every year at midday; he makes it midnight. Much better. Moonlight, a nightingale, no-one else around: much more romantic. I wish I’d thought of that. But when we get to the end of the play and find ourselves at the place where we began, and knowing now what long journey has brought these two young people to this place and this time, it does work very well.

And perhaps there’s something there for anyone who’s not sure how to begin a story. If ‘once upon a time’ doesn’t help, try starting at the end: you know the other formula that we associate with fairy tales. ‘And they lived happily ever after’ is seldom, as we all know, true. Perhaps it would be interesting to start there and see what happens to that happiness.

And actually that’s a very good way to start a story. If everybody’s kind and everything goes right and everyone is happy, there is very little to tell. Much better to have something going wrong—some little thing—some tiny flaw, hardly suspected, hardly visible … A moment of temptation, a hint of weakness, just a shade of too much satisfaction with being handsome and clever and rich … and off we go.

But that’s another story.