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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Morning notes: Alexander the Great, A History of Technology.

Yesterday I finished chapter 17: 41 pages. That was my most difficult chapter yet, probably due more to my psychological issues than to its content. I found myself going down more than the usual number of research byways, partly because I hadn't researched much of this chapter's content yet, having deferred it to deal with more pressing things.

Today: chapter 18. I usually feel some resistance to starting a new chapter, even opening a Notes document for it. So I already set up Notes documents and draft-chapter blanks for all the remaining chapters of Part 2. I opened "18 - Notes" and found what I'd put in there back in March: the text from my short outline, followed by the text from my detailed outline. Sipping my grapefruit juice, I read through the outline text, short then detailed.

It seemed to me that quite a bit is supposed to happen in this chapter; that was one of the reasons I felt anxious about approaching it. There is significant action--and backstory--for both ex-soldier Marcus and young astrologer Alexander. I made Marcus the protagonist of the chapter. I wondered how I would deal with the issue of point of view in chapters that contained more than one of my main characters--that is, one of the four characters whom I narrate from a limited-omniscient point of view. If both Marcus and Alexander are in a scene, whose point of view do I choose?

I felt that this might be a difficult problem because if I let one character "trump" another in terms of point of view, then I'm creating a hierarchy of principal characters--which I don't want to do.

I decided to use the criterion of which character experiences the biggest "gap" in a chapter. I take this term from Robert McKee. The gap is the divide between expectation and result. A character sets out to do something, achieve something, and the world does not cooperate. It happens on large scales and small. It happens in our own lives; that's how we recognize it in a story. On a small scale, it can be something as simple as reaching for the keys to unlock your car, only to find that you don't have them. Gap: what do you do?

In everyday life, this might not be much of a problem. When it happened to me four years ago, I was able to phone Toyota, and they sent someone to get me into my car. I had to wait about 45 minutes. I was at my mother's place, so it was not inconvenient for me.

But in the hands of a storyteller, this gap can become a very serious inconvenience indeed. What if you're not in the city, but in the country? How about deep in the country? What if your child has just been bitten by a rattlesnake? Now what do you do?

A small gap has become big: life-changing, maybe. If we were following this in a story, our attention would elevate: it's not clear what the character can do about this; there are no good answers available. But the character will do something; he or she must. What?

The decision the character makes will reveal something of who he or she is. Does the character just collapse and blubber apologies to the poisoned child? Scream for help? Try to hotwire the car? Pick the child up and start running? Start sucking out poison? Cut off the kid's foot? What? What?

According to Robert McKee, to witness how characters deal with these gaps is the reason we read or watch stories. I agree. The storyteller's job is, above all, creating and managing these gaps. They are the storyteller's true working material, his building-blocks.

I realized that this criterion was the right one to decide which of two or more protagonists should carry a scene (or actually a chapter, since I keep the same point of view throughout a chapter). This way, I can narrate from the point of view of the character who's got the biggest problem right now--much better than narrating from the point of view of someone watching that character have his or her problem. It might not be dead simple deciding who has the biggest problem, biggest gap, in any one chapter, but I knew I could sort this out. And I can always change my mind.

So Marcus it is for chapter 18. And I only just now remembered why, since Alexander seems to experience bigger gaps. Yes, I remember.

So I started reading, I started typing notes, thoughts about what could happen. I started imagining ways I could combine the disparate events of the outline into one flow of action. That's another problem that I think makes a story more interesting--but maybe that can be another post.


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