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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 13, 2005

spontaneity and structure

The sky is bright; the lightest of rain falls, raindrops smacking plushy leaves discretely, barely audible. I ran in it an hour and a half ago. A dusty rich smell came off the asphalt: hot dry ground awakened by the memory of water. It reminded me of being in Colorado, and the strong dusty smell that rose in the mountains when a thundershower wet the ground.

Another good writing day: 5 pages. I'm at page 27 of chapter 15-16. My notes are paying off, acting like stepping-stones that allow me to pick my way through the scene. These are the obligatory topics and points, but the writer pours himself into each character in turn. What would I be thinking here? How would I respond? There is tension between running the scene as a free-for-all and following a plan. Experience tells me that sticking close to a plan yields the best results.

While it might appear that the time of actually drafting the prose of the narrative is the "creative" part of the work, in fact creativity enters it and undergirds it at every step. Following an outline might seem bloodless to some, but that outline itself came from somewhere--it is also a product of creativity. Spontaneity and structure are worked in at every stage. I think of a documentary I saw on the making of samurai swords in Japan. The steel was heated and tempered (plunged in water to cool quickly); then it was heated, doubled, and annealed (left to air-cool); then heated, doubled, and tempered again; then annealed again; and so on. The resulting blade was a laminate of thousands of layers of alternately tempered and annealed steel. Tempering makes steel hard; annealing makes it flexible. A samurai sword was a thousand-layer cake of hardness and flexibility.

In the same way, spontaneity and structure need to be brought together in a novel. I define storytelling as the art of arranging lifelike surprises in a narrative. The surprise events are the products of creativity, spontaneous ideas popping into the creator's head. But what makes them surprising in the narrative is structure. The structure leads us along, creating expectations in the minds of the characters and of the reader. Then...surprise! The unexpected happens. The story twists in a new direction--just like life.

Creating spontaneous-feeling, lifelike effects is, in my experience, usually hard, patient work. Warren and I found that on The Odyssey: the scenes where we did the most grunt-work and plodding came out best.

Thus, even though I don't particularly like grunt-work and plodding, I do it. The result is better.


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