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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, January 14, 2008

tunneling from both ends

Still at it. That is, still working my way through the difficulties of my story.

I have spent a huge amount of time (even by my own slow standards) fiddling with this part. But experience has taught me that there's no use in pushing on with a piece of writing if you're not clear on what you're doing. That is tantamount to trying to fix a problem using the wrong tools.

From the point of view of this blog, one difficulty is in how to describe this slow, searching process--how to make it seem interesting, or at least comprehensible.

An image that springs to mind is that of building a tunnel. Often tunnels are built by digging from opposite sides of the mountain and trying to meet in the middle. This is no doubt done in order to halve the construction time by putting two full excavation crews to work at once.

In a similar way, I build story by digging from "both ends": that is, by imagining the result or end-state I want to reach, and also by imagining the motives and actions of the characters en route to that end-state. Changes to the end-state mean making changes to those motives and actions. Changes of motive and action lead to different end-states.

"End-state" means not just the ending of the story as a whole, but also the end of each segment: each chapter, each scene. In a work that has been planned, outlined, each of these will have its story purpose, and therefore the end-state that needs to be reached. But getting characters to go there can be difficult.

Why? After all, the characters just do what I tell them, don't they? Why not just send them to the destination and get the whole thing written quickly?

It's about believability. Stories in which characters move smoothly as though on rails to obviously contrived end-states smack of author convenience, the evidence of which is a feeling of bending the rules of reality every which way to get there. I've talked about these things before. These are those scenes in which the hero's fetters are done up poorly, enabling him to wriggle free; or the building has large ventilation-ducts suitable for crawling through; and so on. There's a sense of "let's just get through this part so we can get to the exciting stuff ahead".

Contrivances like these ruin my enjoyment of a story. I don't mind a few--every story needs some help at times to keep going--but as they pile up, I sense writer laziness and a work written in the belief that credibility doesn't matter, or, worse, that the audience is too dumb to notice or care.

If your hero is tied up, and you need him out of his bonds, how do you get him out? If you resort to the old "luckily, they weren't tied up very well" trick, then you're lazy in my opinion. You don't care about your story very much.

How might I handle it? If I don't have any creative way of untying those knots, I might simply have the hero struggle with them, and not succeed in untying them. In story terms, that's what's known as a barrier: the hero tries something, and it doesn't work. A rule of thumb in storytelling is: always make things tougher for the hero than he expects. (It's OK to surprise him on the upside sometimes--especially when he's expecting things to be very difficult.) Now, whatever he does next, he has to do it tied up. He'll have to get creative with a future opportunity.

Or I might try to avoid having him tied up. Why create problems for oneself? Don't use the old "tying up" formula: use something else. Maybe he escapes--and, sprinting free, triggers an old leg-hold trap in the woods, and is caught that way...

If I decided he had to be tied up after all, then I would have to examine the details of his situation: tied up how? Where? By whom? I'd have to visit the character(s) doing the tying up: how motivated are they? How knowledgeable? What materials do they have? How much time? What is their attitude to what they're doing? By looking at how the bad guy approaches the task, I'm digging my tunnel from the front: how would I do the job, if I were he?

In doing this, I might hit on an idea for how the hero will escape. Once I have this, I need to start designing my scene so as to make this work. That's digging my tunnel from the back.

I find I need to shift from front to back, back to front, again and again, working through a story problem in steps. Maybe my idea is to have the bad guy leave behind a tool that the hero will use. That too is a story convenience, of course--unless the hero makes it happen. Hero might see bad guy set down the tool for a moment, then hit on the strategy of trying to "make" him forget it. Now the escape task shifts to a new arena: how the hero tries to manipulate the bad guy's attention, even as he is being tied up. A story subproblem opens up, with its own features--another little tunnel within the tunnel.

A story is not complete until every one of those problems and subproblems has been solved to my skeptical satisfaction. I need to believe that every single character is always acting in some way that I myself might act in the same circumstances. This requires imaginative effort, and not being satisfied with easy answers--things I've seen before.

It's hard. But when you do the work, it really pays off. If you want to create a really good story, set yourself and your characters tough problems, then think hard about how to solve them. If you keep at it, the answers do come.

Just as in civil engineering, in writing this method of tunneling from both ends speeds things up tremendously--even if it doesn't feel fast.


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