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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

story peaks

Yesterday I reached a (minor) milestone in the progress of the book by finally hammering out the sequence of story-events that I've been working on. These story-events constitute a mini-climax within the work as a whole--what is known as an "act turning-point" in storytelling jargon.

By writing in "acts" you show that you understand storytelling; by reading or watching a story composed in acts the audience feels confident in the powers of the writer, and also that the work is one thing--a unified whole.

For, interestingly and perhaps counterintuitively, it is exactly the decomposition of a thing into relatively autonomous parts that makes it a whole--a distinct thing. The human body, for example, is not just a mass of cells, and still less a stew of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is made up entirely of subunits which are relatively whole in their own right: organs. The heart, for example, is integral with the rest of the body but is also a distinct organ with its own clear functions and inner rules of operation. In the term coined by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, it is a holon: a part that is also a whole.

In a complex hierarchical system, in order for a higher-level whole to operate smoothly, all (or anyway most) of its component subwholes have to be running smoothly: doing their jobs without taxing the higher-level holons above them. When this is not happening, for whatever reason, there is a failure of efficiency and of health (a word that comes from the same source as whole), and the organism is diseased. If your pancreas is not running smoothly, you have some form of diabetes. If your thyroid is not running properly, you have some kind of metabolic disorder.

In a story, the acts are the highest-level "organs" making up the story as a whole: the equivalent of its brain, heart, and liver. And like these vital organs, acts too are complex things made up of subwholes of their own. In a movie script the next-lower subwhole is called a sequence, and a similar level exists for prose writing--often roughly at the level of the chapter in a novel. The next-lower subwhole below the sequence is the scene. Each scene too is composed of distinct subunits, which Robert McKee calls beats. These, according to him, are the elementary units of a story: the individual intentional actions that cause a story to move forward.

So, having now plotted out my act-climax in some detail (and having resolved many story and character issues to do so), I feel like someone who has scaled a mountain-peak. But it's just one peak in a range--and not the highest one. That still lies ahead of me. And the difficulty I've had in scaling this one gives me pause about tackling the big one.

But I'm committed now.

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