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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 06, 2007

have a plan

Yesterday I had my weekly lunch with Mom--ham-and-cheese sandwiches at her dining-table while looking out at the milky-green water of Cove Cliff. We talk about many things: psychology, astrology, family, and of course writing (the supposed topic of the lunch symposium). Yesterday we touched on the topic of structure as an important part of creative writing.

We agree on its importance, but many people are skeptical. "Structure" sounds so dry, so...uncreative. Architects and engineers concern themselves with structure: they're making things that have to stand up in the physical world. But creative writers, channeling the Muse, spew free and original ideas on the page, going where their creative spirits take them, discovering images and writing them down...right?

Maybe for a very short piece such an approach could produce something readable. But a longer work, like a bridge or a convention center, has to stand up under its own strength. It's sustaining itself not against gravity and wind-shear, but against the wandering attention of the reader. Why should a reader stick with you?

In his Poetics, Aristotle determined that the most important element of a tragedy (the highest form of poetry, in his view) was plot, or "what happens". (More exactly, plot is "what happens" plus the arrangement or order of what happens.) It forms the structure of a story. Note that plotting has nothing directly to do with writing at all. You could devise a plot using pictures or some other symbolic system. Words are convenient for this, but not necessary.

Plotting is a selection and ordering of events. A good storyteller is someone who does this in a way that is compelling and that generates strong emotional responses in the audience. In theory it could be done entirely in one's head, without the use of words or any other symbols at all--just the arrangement of mental images, like a dream. Committing the story to words is a purely secondary task, as well as a secondary talent. As Robert McKee points out, many people have literary ability--the ability to write good prose. Few have story ability--the ability to imagine and arrange events in an interesting and meaningful way.

Speaking for myself, I find that my writing is easiest and best when I'm describing an event that has actually happened. When I write a scene that has happened in actual life (or in a dream), the characters, setting, and specific actions and dialogue are all taken care of. They've already happened, and I just need to select from among the details and choose how to describe them. There is much more in any real-life scene than could ever be described, so I have a cornucopia of choice. The choices I make put my stamp on the scene: I give it a particular meaning by choosing as I do.

In a simple real-life story, the relationship of the scenes to each other is also more or less a given. You start at the beginning and go on to the end. The structure and content of the scenes has been given you by life; now you really do just have to write it down.

But for fictional works, the writer has to come up with all the material that is supplied by life in the case of a nonfiction story. You have to think up the characters, the setting, and the specific actions and dialogue for each scene, as well as a sequence of scenes that lead to an interesting punch at the end. (In real life, this "interesting punch" already exists--and is presumably the reason you've chosen to tell the story in the first place.)

That's a lot of creative work--and it's creative work of different types.

For the past several months I've been reworking the detailed structure of my story. It's time-consuming and creatively difficult. But before my very eyes I see it leading to a better result. I'm organizing the content of a sequence of chapters, and doing this by way of bullet-points in Word. In the past I've used index cards for this purpose, but I'm experimenting with this even more convenient method (although I do miss the physicalness of the index cards, the heft of a growing deck of scenes that are gradually cohering into a story). I scan down my growing list of bullets, playing out scenes or steps in my mind, like a movie. When I hit a gap, or a step that doesn't feel like a strong, logical result of the previous step, I go back to my notes and start imagining.

"How would this character respond?" I ask myself. Well, that depends--what exactly is this character trying to achieve here? And why? The questions open up backward into the motivational world behind the story. They force me to examine the inner workings of my story-world, to confront the areas that are as yet unimagined, uncreated.

The goal is to create a fictional world that feels as close as possible to my real world: a place in which actual events in an actual world already exist, and my task as a writer is simply to find the words to describe them. In my experience this makes a story much more fun both to write and to read. I'm not fussing around trying to figure out how to describe a guy's fedora at the same time I'm trying to figure out who he is and what he wants in life. If you really figure out who he is and what he wants, you might also discover whether he really even wears a fedora.

Robert McKee says it, J. K. Rowling says it to would-be writer kids, Strunk and White say it in The Elements of Style, and now Paul Vitols says it: before you write, have a plan. Diving in and hoping for the best means harder work and a poorer result.

And who needs that?


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1 Comments:

  • I have read numerous J.K. Rowling interviews, and this is something that always comes up: she meticulously plans.

    And if all these people say it's a good thing then it probably is.

    By Anonymous Victor, at January 12, 2008 7:38 AM  

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