The ripple effect: connecting private lives and public dramas Reply

Lucy Tyler introduces her concept of ‘the ripple effect’ – the connections writers make between their characters’ private lives and bigger national and global issues.

The Ripple Effect – Activity

Choose a domestic plot thread, a national plot thread, and an international plot thread from the
following categories. Write down your three plot threads. Try to construct a ‘great’ narrative from
them. This exercise will give you experience working on wider social and historical contexts in your
own fiction and pairing the contexts with the primary, domestic plot of your story. Good luck!

Domestic Plots

• A man is living with lung cancer.
• A man’s made unemployed, and he obsesses over turning the whole house into a factory.
• A child is expelled from school.
• A woman home-schools her children.
• A family realise they are all to blame for their daughter’s eating disorder.
• A son is arrested for a protest and the father’s a policeman.

National Plots (UK)

• NHS criticised for long waiting lists and poor services.
• Worst levels of unemployment in the UK.
• Youth alienation and Riots.
• Declining standards in education.
• Proliferation of Beauty and Fashion shows in the UK.
• University tuition fees are rising.

International Plots

• A new strain of bird-flu develops that is resistant to all medicines.
• There is a global economic crisis – the American economy collapses and people roam the streets looking for food.
• A global youth movement starts terrorist attacks
• A mass Christian movement begins burning books that aren’t religious texts
• Miss-world is deemed world president.
• There is a global tax on knowledge (everything you learn you have to pay for)

Video transcript follows below:

Yesterday, I set out to write the great American novel. So far, the protagonist has contemplated buying new walking boots.

But what makes a novel great? Often, a ‘great novel’ is a story that chronicles the experiences of many by focusing on characters living through historical or social changes. In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, for instance, Celie, the protagonist, is living in a society still progressing out of slavery. Not only does Walker tell us Celie’s story, but she intends Celie’s story to tell us something about what it was like to be an American of colour in rural Georgia in the 1930s. A novel becomes a great novel if the isolated experiences of the protagonist show us a bigger picture.

So how can I write my great American novel? Well, my character needs new walking boots. Maybe. He’s not decided yet. But if he does decide to buy new walking boots, I’m going to have to find a way to make his decision meaningful in other, bigger, ways. My protagonist’s decision to buy new walking boots should be related to wider social or historical events – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Black Monday. Maybe my character’s buying walking boots because he’s part of the disaster recovery response. Maybe my character’s walking boot purchase can show something about what it’s like to be an American in the twenty-first century.

I call this the ripple effect, where a character’s domestic choices overlap with wider national and international events. After all, since we don’t know this guy, it’s the ripple effect that makes us care about him and his stupid boots. If you’d like to try out using the ripple effect, have a look at my exercise below.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail image uses a photograph by Gianluigi Perrella. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here:

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