Kicking away the blocks, by Ben Jeapes

Private Baldrick, included at last
As part of a Philosophy & Politics degree, I spent a compulsory term studying symbolic logic. This is about reducing an argument to – wait for it – symbols to determine whether or not it is logical. At this stage you are not worried about whether or not it is actually right. “The Moon is made of cheese; I am standing on the Moon; therefore I am standing on cheese” is entirely logical, and also wrong – but because you can easily establish that the logical structure is sound, you know it is worth progressing to the next stage of examining the premises on which it is based. What is logical is not always right, but what is right is always logical.

A key stage of the process is “discharging assumptions” at the end. For any argument, there have to be assumptions spelled out in advance: if THIS, then THAT. Don’t ask me over 30 years later to describe exactly how that’s done – I was shaky on it even then – but the gist of it is that you kick away the supporting blocks of your argument to see if it still stands up without them. If it does then you know you have a good piece of logic on your hands and you can now get on with determining the great imponderables of the universe.

Recently I was preaching on the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which I argued was the real end of the Old Testament (living under law) and the start of the New (living under grace). I remembered Private Baldrick’s little speech in Blackadder Goes Forth questioning how the First World War began: “these days there's a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along … ” I thought I would rework this, for a laugh, into how one testament went away and the other came along.

And so the sermon developed and was, though I say so myself, quite good. (You can hear it yourself … ) But there was one thing that just wasn’t working about it … and I eventually concluded it was Baldrick. Take him out, and the whole thing worked a lot better.

A few years ago I thought that a short story I had written could make the basis of a good novel. I promoted a secondary character to the lead, and extended his own story forwards and backwards and outwards. And I had a novel … which just didn’t work, until I actually stripped out everything relating to the original story. It left holes, which I had to fill with new, added plot, but the novel was much better as a result. It saw daylight as The Teen, the Witch & the Thief.

A useful lesson for writers is that inspiration is just that – inspiration. It is not something with a contractual obligation to be included in the final piece of work. Is something that once seemed such a great idea now actually holding your even better idea back? Kick it away and see what happens!

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.


  1. What you were doing in your symbolic logic module was pseudo code. Programmers use that to develop algorithms. Also used to build spreadsheet formula. I've often found myself doing the same thing when attempting to analyse a plot. If your plot makes any sense, you should be able to write it in one sentence... or in pseudo code.

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