You know the trick of stealing a square of chocolate, invisibly, from a bar? Which is a tasty way of explaining how I recently cut nearly 10% of a novel, without changing a single thing about story - plot, character-in-action, dialogue, description - which actually mattered. The effect was like taking off a veil and earmuffs and plunging back into the story: everything was exactly the same, just infinitely more vivid. So, what got cut? Or, rather, what particular things got interrogated fiercely about how necessary they were, or weren't?
More speech tags than you need, where you could just used physical action and proper layout to keep the reader straight. Which isn't to say that a well-placed he said in the middle of a line of dialogue, though not necessary in strict fact, doesn't sometimes shape the rhythm better. It may also provide just the right pause-of-thinking for the significance - the drama of character-in-action - to flower in the reader's consciousness. Your decision.
More varieties of thought tag than you need. These are all part of what Janet Burroway, following John Gardner, calls "filtering", and though I don't think that's the best name for it, it is an absolutely crucial concept, so do follow that link to the best explanation I know, by Leslie Leigh, and then come back here. And once you understand what filtering is, what might you do about it? We, the computer generation should be thankful: I did, one by one, a search for seemed, wondered, realised, remembered and thought - you'll have your own particular equivalents - and considered each one carefully. Yes, about 70% of them went, like filleting out the veins of fat in a piece of meat. But 30% of them stayed. Why?
Explaining the mechanical links. Get in late and get out early, say the thriller writers. Bus journeys, bullock-cart-harnessing, arrivals, routes ... You'd be surprised how un-bothered readers are by how your MC got home from the far side of Hong Kong (or Mars) at three in the morning: or, indeed, by how she got there in the first place. (Although you probably need to know, because we'll intuit if it's simply impossible, even if we don't stop to work it out.) More broadly, fiction is narrative, not just a series of juxtaposed scenes. You don't always want to end on the Eastenders' ringing doof-doof-doof (the writer's equivalent being *-*-*) after the last dramatic line of the scene. We don't need to get characters on and off an open stage, as Shakespeare does, but the stage blackout, the film-maker's jump-cut, can become a cheap high. Besides, sometimes part of making the story and setting and characters-in-action fully alive is to get us moving through their world: the hammered tin on that bullock harness is sharp, and in the really cold weather your fingers freeze to it. Don't assume, in other words, that helicoptering us straight into the crisis moment and out again is the best way to keep us involved.
Explaining what's about to happen. I love a bit of foreshadowing, as my post on the opening of Dick Francis's Straight shows: as a reader I want to sense the storyteller's hand. It's all about explicitly making the promise, as Pixar's Andrew Stanton puts it, that this story will be worth my time. But it needs rationing, and handling: is your Tell that the picnic was (will be, for the reader) a disaster, before you Show us, actually a fantastic promise of excitements to come, as Dick Francis's is? Or is it a bit of scaffolding you should take down: throat-clearing or note-making of your own to get yourself into the scene? Or is it simply a plot-spoiler?
Explaining what is happening. As real-life characters-in-action we think - make sense, remember, understand, analyse, worry, look ahead - while also acting, but that doesn't mean that it should necessarily go in the narrative. If your narrator or your viewpoint character mentally comments/explains/worries about everything as we go along, it can enfeeble the forward drive of character-in-action. On the other hand, understanding is part of what makes us then act, and fiction is not drama: it's the pre-eminent way for humans to get under the skin and inside the head of other people. So don't, please, shy away from entering your character's consciousness and conveying their thinking to the reader, nor from letting your storyteller explain things sometimes. Just think hard about when you should, and how to do it. We're talking psychic distance again, in other words.
Explaining what has happened. Just as my poetry student realised what so many poets know - that all her draft poems were improved by having the last two lines cut - so with stories. You can have a highly dramatic scene, but how much of the mental and emotional fall-out, run-out, follow through, should we have? How much does the MC need to work out - or do we need to see being worked out? Thinking really does matter, especially the sudden, epiphanic, reversally-type understanding that will drive the next part of the plot. But, as with thinking/understanding mid-scene, if every time we've survived a crisis we then have its origins and implications for the future thought through and explained - handed to the reader on a plate - it has an enfeebling effect on the narrative drive. In other words, if plotting is all about playing Fortunately-Unfortunately, then don't, every time, make it a game of Fortunately-Unfortunately-ButSorted.
And you know what I realised as I was working? All these points can be grouped together as "too much explaining": explaining slightly more than the typical reader needs. So, when you do your Search, and say, "Does the story need this?" what you're really saying is "Does the reader need this?" In need I would include not simply mere plot-mechanics, but also emotional, affective needs to live in the story, and the need for the sound and rhythms of the words to work on us as much as the sense. In my case, I found I do about 10% more explaining than I - as my own representative reader - actually need. Pass me the paring knife...
I've blogged before about how critiquing works best if there's a good fit between critiquer and critiquee, but it still amazes me how many aspiring writers think that positive comments - even those on their own work - are useless.
The praise on the outside of a praise sandwich is far more than mere sugar to make the filling more palatable - though side-stepping natural, human defensive deafness or resistance is one of its functions. Yes, a vague "this is wonderful" is no more useful a critique than a vague "this is shit", though it hurts less. And yes, if you've got 20 sums right, and 5 wrong and so only got a B+, concentrating on what's wrong with the wrong ones is probably the way to an A- next time. Mind you, it's concentrating on how many you got right - holding on to the fact that you're worth it - which is most likely to give you the energy that it's worth putting in the work.
But there's something far more important at stake. No creative worker ever knows quite how something will come out, or why it comes out how it comes out. And, by definition, none of us can know how our work will seem to someone else. So discussing what does work in someone's piece is just as valuable, much of the time, as discussing what doesn't work: a mirror should show you both how gorgeous your dress is (no need to change it) and the thread hanging down from the hem ("Mu-um!"). Without that mirror, the artist may genuinely not see either thing. Positive critques aren't "blowing smoke up your skirt" or "bullshit" or whatever pejorative term you fancy: they're feedback about the reader's experience of your work.
Why wouldn't you want feedback on what works and ideas as to why, so you can do it again? Working on a piece of writing is just as much (actually, far, far more) about trying to affect the reader in the way you want to affect them, as it is about trying not affect the reader in wrong way. So a feeder-back who only tells you negative things - even if those things are quite useful - is only telling you half the story. So why do they do it?
1) You've asked people not to "waste time" on telling you what works. Yes, lots of fluffy comments about how lovely it is don't get you much further, and yes, when I've had a rejection, being told "But they said it's really well written" doesn't comfort me much because of course it's well written: that's my job! But reading practical, specific details of what works (as well as what doesn't) for that reader in your writing is never a waste of time.
2) They genuinely can only identify and explain negative aspects of your work - which probably means anyone's work including their own. This is all to do with how they're wired (parents and teachers have a lot to answer for), but still, they're only 50% useful, as opposed to the 100% useful that other readers might be. By all means make use of what they say, but (as when listening to anyone's story of their break-up or sacking) remember that it's always only half the story.
3) They're being deliberately nasty in withholding positive things that they could usefully say, but choose not to. In which case, their motives for giving feedback are clearly selfish, or actively malicious and they're not a person you want in your life - specially not your writing life.
4) They have a macho delusion - again, probably about themselves as much as others - that positive things are fluffy nonsense, and if there's no pain, there's no gain.
But can any of us actually swear that we know precisely what we do well and how well we do it? The more developed a writer is, the more they're aware that they can't read their writing as others do, and only with feedback can they be sure they're working on the reader as they wish to. So one could argue - I am arguing - that it's a form of arrogance in itself, to say that precise, positive feedback is useless: such writers are so sure that they know their strengths that they don't need them pointed out. But they're wrong, because no writer can know all their strengths.
And what's more, all teachers know that the weakest students of all are the ones who haven't yet learnt that they're bad. So, if that pain in the bum on your favourite forum is busy declaring that they don't need positive feedback, or busy declaring, as they put the boot in, that you're fluffy and un-serious for objecting to their offensive comments, you can safely assume that a) they don't know how writing works and b) they don't know how people work. In which case, their feedback isn't worth two seconds of your time.
A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right from the beginning, like a skyscraper lift-shaft, built round the crane, and round which all else is built, and Scrivener makes that easy. But it also makes the write-it-all-out-and-decide-later method easy.
So what's going on? The question of when (and if) you put a chapter break is really one about what chapters are for, in a novel. There is a rhythm and shape to our experience of a novel - as I was exploring here - and chapters are central to it. And to some extent most of these also apply to the bigger breaks into parts, and the smaller breaks - asterisked, or just double-line-spaced - within a chapter. So these are some of the ways that a break might help to shape that experience: some reasons for whether and where to put one:
1) the reader needs a break - a reason to turn the light off or stop and get up. If Poe's definition of a short story is one that the reader can read "as a sitting", then a long story - a novel - must be one which is too long to be read at a sitting. Though you could always take the book with you, to the bathroom ...
2) the reader needs a break, a pause, to absorb what's gone before, before they get embroiled in what's about to happen. This could either be what I've taken to calling a Quiet Pause - a moment of reflection and understanding of what the stuff you've just read might mean for what you'll read next. Or it could be a Loud Pause, where the scary implications of the last scene have a moment to flower into full Triffid-hood in your imagination.
3) the writer wants the reader to have sense that time passes or we change setting. It uses the reader's experience of reading-time, in a tiny way, to evoke a sense of time passing in the events in the story.
4) the writer wants to change point-of-view. Since I'm a great believer in and advocate of the moving point of view, you won't get me to agree that this is a good reason - if it's the only reason - to break a chapter. But I do recognise that not everyone is confident in handling a moving point of view, and if you want to play safe by your more narrow-minded editors and teachers, and do it this way, I wouldn't dream of stopping you.
5) the reader doesn't need a break - the last thing they want is a break - but the narrator is whisking them away nonetheless, to show them something else and so prolong agony of waiting to find out What Happened Next ... This is harder to make use of if you have an internal, character-narrator, since the reader's more likely to feel cheated by the character deliberately witholding what happened next, rather than the tension coming about quite naturally from the need to catch up with the action in what stage directions call "another part of the field". It also, on the whole, doesn't work to break a chapter and then have the action pick up again at exactly the same point and place: readers feel that as an artificial cranking-up of the tension - again, a bit of a cheat.
6) it's the end of the scene. Some novels (specially novels by those for whom film is the primary narrative form) essentially have one scene per chapter, like a train made of carriages. The chapter break is the draughty moment between the really big, real-time, full-show big moments of change and, that's also how the train bends round corners and curves up hills.
7) this moment has big significance: it's where the EastEnders drum-roll might come in. Like enjambment in poetry, the last few lines of a chapter gain extra importance as they linger in the air while we turn the page, and because of that, experienced readers tend to read a Loud Pause in even if the actual action isn't all that dramatic. The risk for the writer is that you get addicted to the drama of the drum-roll, and habitually jerk us away to the next scene, and the novel loses its sense of continuous narrative and becomes a collection of abrupt chunks. The quieter, more fluent narrative move out of one stage of the story to the next are harder to write, but sometimes much more effective because they take the reader where you want them to go. And anyway, we're not scriptwriters.
8) the writer needs to show the bigger architecture of the story: not so much "This is where the story pauses" as "This is where the story enters a new phase." This is just about the only time when having a chapter-break in the middle of a scene might make sense, and even be rather effective in exploiting the more experienced reader's awareness: if you want to mark, very clearly that this was the big moment of change.
And that's it. I can't think of any more reasons to put a break into a narrative, but maybe you can - and if so, do please put them in the comments.
Posted at 01:46 PM in Academic Creative Writing, Books and reading, Craft, Drama & Theatre, Genres, Point of view & narrators, Short Stories, Technique, THE DAY TRIP, THE MAP TABLE, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)
It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether a book is historical fiction also depends on whether you're asking as the writer, the reader or the seller of it. So I can't give you fixed answers (no change there, then): we're slithering about in very elemental ideas of space and time and people, here. (And there's a whole other post, some day, in the question of when historical fiction becomes creative life writing.) But here are some ways to think about the issues.
Fiction that uses History because it's distant from us
The Historical Novels Review, for understandable reasons, has tackled this issue, and Sarah Johnson's definition of Historical Fiction is a novel set fifty years ago or more, which the writer is writing from research, not direct knowledge. The Historical Novel Society, on the other hand, has an or where the HNR, implicitly, has an and: "... written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events."
I do think this is the only fundamental, inescapable definition: that it is a novel written about Then, as a world separate and different from Now. Of course, there is a sense in which all novels are historical: they're written "as if" these events are past. But I think there must be some sense of the writer setting out to exploring a time which is long gone, and therefore has a real sense of Otherness about it. Even if your project is to explore the eternal human things, the point is only made if everything else about your characters' lives is different from ours: contingent and particular to their time.
Fiction that explores History as a process
One of the earliest critics of the genre, György Lukács, argues that it's "unarguable" that an historical novel must include real historical events and at least one real historical character (although he agrees with Rose Tremain that the main character must be fictional). I think that's very odd, but it's his Marxist conviction that what matters in human understanding is the processes by which society changes. It's also, arguably, a very "traditional male" view: that what counts as historical is the stuff that makes it on to the record - i.e. men's stuff. (The Commentary part of my PhD thesis explores all this further, and if you really want to, you can download it here.)
Historians study change change from one particular state to the next, so they can form general principles about how these things work. Fiction, on the other hand, "resists generalising", as Jane Smiley puts it in Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Novel. That makes trying to use fiction to explain your history book stuff a dangerous game. In real life we are less aware of the big changes that Historians will notice later, and more aware of the continuities of life in our own small compass. But this is also, perhaps, the place where the novel set in a recent time can work as an historical novel: when the project of the novel is to pinpoint a very clear moment, with the big, slow process of history as the flow of time only implied.
But if fiction is rooted in the particular and the individual, the moment we live in includes our experience of it being part of the flow of historical time: our sense of Then is part of our Now. That's why I don't actually think I write historical fiction at all: I write fiction about history, and I'm not alone in that. The parallel narrative is a dead giveaway, of course, but characters coping in a place and time of acute change is another. Just don't make them unconvincingly clairvoyant about the future.
Fiction that uses History as a setting for genre
The classic story-pleasures can be given extra flavour by being imported into another time and place. Historical Crime and Thriller does well at all ends of the literary-commercial spectrum. Historical Adventure is an easy sell because we all know that adventure was far more adventurous in an unwired, indeed unmapped, world. Historical Romance is the one that people are sniffiest about. There is a sense in too many readers, writers and reviewers that if it's swords, sandals and broken bones it's historical fiction, but if it's sewing, slippers and broken hearts it isn't, it's romantic fiction. Which wouldn't matter if people weren't so snobbish about romance as a genre, though in reality every genre has exactly the same ratio of rubbish (and un-historical rubbish at that) to good stuff. On the other hand I am - apparently - unquestionably an historical novelist, despite the fact that at the heart of most of my stories are characters falling in and out of love and bed and wedlock. Maybe it was the death by being shot through the liver at the siege of Badajoz, in The Mathematics of Love, which got me in.
On the other hand, under the broad umbrella of Women's Fiction, Historical Drama is very welcome indeed, as it's so rich in possibilities for one of fiction's most honourable functions: that of giving voice to the voiceless. And, as ever, once you get into literary fiction, all the boundaries of genre and plot begin to melt and run: Wolf Hall is discussed as fiction by many who would never say they read historical fiction, and it's also on some History degree reading lists, not because it's "true" in the historian's sense, but as an example of how all narrative needs to think of itself as an act of storytelling.
Fiction that uses a period of History as a character
For the writer, it's often the smell of a place and time that first hooks us, and then we look for a character and story to embody it. But a couple of years ago I heard a bookseller saying that the Second World War had only just "become historical fiction". In other words it was an era that, for the readers of fiction, had only now acquired its own personality, as a particular country has a personality that visitors seek. I assume this is because few are still alive who lived through 1939-46 as an adult. Readers' sense of the period is mediated through (grand)parents, school, non-fiction, documentaries, gift shops, music, re-enactments. That's what readies readers to buy our stories which are one step away from those "facts": a whole story which never actually happened.
The thing is, to sell a book you have to convey what the book will give the reader. The analogies between space and time always crop up when you're talking about this stuff. The past is a foreign country, as L P Hartley says: they do things differently there. Readers have to have acquired some sense of what that country is, before they will want to travel in it. "This book is set in a period which means nothing to you but I promise it's really interesting", is always going to be a tougher sell (believe me, I've tried) than "This book is set in Tudor/the WW1 Trenches/Napoleonic times", or one of the other periods which we're fed by school and films and national myth.
On the other hand, where you can draw on readers' existing tastes, but push beyond their edges, there's lots of potential. A Secret Alchemy's Wars of the Roses setting is every bit as glamorous and violent as Tudor times, but less well-trodden territory: that was part of what drew me to the period, and it did the same for readers.
One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable definitions, which is most useful to you, in persuading your reader that what you're saying is true?
And then there's the idea of the working hypothesis. To work an idea out to the point of discovering if it's true or not, and whether it's useful or not, you have to act (for now) as if it is true. Whether you want to study single-cell animals, or create a dance work, you have to anchor some of your thinking - take some things as givens - so that you can imagine and observe and understand outwards from those anchorages. You must make a reasonable assumption about how a certain kind of animal behaves under certain conditions, so as to decide how to measure that behaviour. You have to decide how many dancers you'll use, before your ideas of space and bodies and budgets can start to develop.
In other words, when you work creatively, you must treat some things as if they're true, knowing perfectly well that they're not the only possible truth, and might not turn out to be true at all. So it's just as well that creative people are, by definition, very good at behaving, for now, as if things were true. But it's part of the paradoxical nature of the writer - the way we are both/and, not either/or - that sometimes we have to decide to stick with a definition and an assumption, and sometimes abandon them and make some new ones.
So how do you chose between stick and twist? When, in other words, do you stop suspending disbelief? Even when two writers are caught at the same point of decision, they may decide differently, and may not ever be sure if that was the "right" decision, even though it made all the difference. They can't now know what would have happened if they'd gone down that other road through the yellow wood. So, here is a handful of working definitions and hypotheses, with a suggestion of why they might help you to develop creatively.
I am a writer, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. You need to define yourself as a writer, at least for now, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
This is a story on a scale which makes sense, because you can't actually know whether it's the right proportions for itself and the right length for your readership till you get there.
My overall way of writing this story will work - because you need to commit to a form, a voice, a structure, if they're going to develop coherently. Trying to fine-re-tune every line or scene, to suit every different scrap of feedback, or information about "what sells" or "what wins prizes", or evidence of what other writers do well, is disastrous for now, when your overall idea of the "how" needs to be calling the shots.
My grammar, vocabulary and syntax are up to the job of a crazy - first draft - because it's more important at this stage to let your overall sense of storytelling run.
I shall be able to get help with them later - so you don't need to fret about them now if that blocks the creative channels of your writing-mind. Which doesn't mean you might not start looking about you for a good writer's circle or forum, of course.
My writing is worth being wasteful. Creative work is inherently wasteful. If you focus on "being efficient" in the crude sense of time spent and acceptable finished article produced, instead of focusing on the best way to get the story out of yourself and onto the page and revised and polished, you're not being efficient, you're just being penny wise and pound foolish.
My narrator is X. You need to know, in order to write any words, which consciousness is conditioning what gets narrated and how: is the narrator you, a version of you, an external narrator who isn't you, (a) character(s) in the novel, a character looking back on the events of the novel?
This part of this scene should be in Y's point of view - because you need to decide what consciousness the setting and events are told through, at this moment of plot and story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) starts in the right place - because you have to start it somewhere, in order to start it at all. Even if you're a writing-out-of-order writer, it's worth having some kind of sense of what the reader will first know about your characters and their story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) will end where I can sort-of see it ending. Some writers (all right: this writer) have to know where a story will end - in the emotional sense, or the physical sense, or both - before we know where it should start, and before we can have faith that we'll be able to make the decisions as we work through the as-yet unknown middle.
My reader is intelligent. If I Show (evoke) this place/emotional turmoil/action, the reader will do the Telling (explaining, interpreting) for themselves.
My reader will be concentrating. I don't need to shove everything that matter under their nose with a large label saying This Is Important.
My reader will trust me. If I don't explain what happens in the gap of this jump-cut, they'll still believe in what happens next.
My reader will be patient with me. If I bother to narrate something whose reason for being in the story isn't immediately obvious, they will construct their own working hypothesis that it is a necessary part of their experience, and keep reading.
My reader has their ears and other senses open - as well as their eyes and mind, so I can work with sound, rhythm and lyrical writing.
This is what I need to find out for the story I'm imagining - because your imagination can't work and grow a story without being fed with real-world stuff.
This is what I don't need to find out, to tell my story - because it will only be inert data. If readers want facts, they can go and read a book about facts.
I'm only not a good enough writer yet. It's unrealistic to expect yourself never to have deep doubt - or even the three-in-the-morning horrors - about yourself and your work. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon your original working definition of yourself as a writer. You just might need to change the working hypothesis about what kind of writer you are, and where best to put your effort and talents.
I will be published, or find enough of the right readers by another route, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. We're back where we started: you need to feel that you will be read, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
Of course, the opposite of all of these is also true. Any of these, hung on to for too long, becomes a drag, not an anchor. These are the not-working hypotheses, the un-helpful definitions, the equivalent of the person who refuses to see the evidence of their partner's infidelity, or their job's destructiveness, or the fact that their lack of talent at something precludes a professional career in it. So hanging in the space at the end of each of those working hypotheses and definitions are some further things to think about:
I've been plotting a novel recently, and one of the things I've done to help myself see if my story really was embodied in my plot (click here for the difference between plot and story), was to write a long, blueprint-like synopsis. And about three-quarters of the sentences in it were two-parters, hinging on a "but". Whatever action or situation was set up in the first half of the sentence was confounded, confused, contradicted or compromised by what was in the second half. What's more, if you look at the blurb on just about any novel or life-writing, it's doing exactly that. Look for the "but"s, and if, instead, you see a "then" or an "and", there will still be clear friction between the two halves of the sentence. Either way, the blurb sets up an unstable situation, and so we know that something can't help but happen.
At which point I realised that plotting is, essentially, a game familiar to me from my Drama days: Fortunately-Unfortunately.
Fortunately, Friendly Bear was vegetarian. Unfortunately, Nervous Rabbit didn't know that.
Fortunately, Li-Chan won the lottery. Unfortunately, she was dying of cancer.
Fortunately, Yousuf was a skillful fisherman and an excellent cook. Unfortunately, he didn't know that squid sent Anna into anaphylactic shock.
Fortunately, Jane Bennet was invited to London. Unfortunately, it would have been improper for her to tell Charles Bingley that she was on her way. Fortunately, it was proper to tell his sister. Unfortunately, Caroline Bingley was a scheming bitch.
The thing is, change is the motor of storytelling: a story starts with a character, who lives in one way and trundling along one track, but is then (see what I did there?) given a strong enough reason to change tracks and do something else. So what keeps readers reading is realising that the track and the life can't stay the same - that they are about to change - that they are changing - but what into? - and where will the track lead? - and how will the person cope with their new kind of living? - and then what will they collide with ...
So a compelling story ("the journey you make") needs to be embodied in a plot ("the route you take") in which events keep on not letting the main character stay in the track they thought they were on: scene after scene, chapter after chapter, "this" is followed by "but". As the thriller writers says, jeopardy must increase - the stakes must be raised - so as the story builds, steadily bigger fortunatelies are followed by steadily more potentially disastrous unfortunatelies, until we reach the crisis point where the ultimate Unfortunately looks likely to win over the ultimate Fortunately.
Not, of course, that you have to plan all - or any - of your Fortunatelies and Unfortunatelies, from the start. If you're a writer who tends to pants forward, and then plan backwards - i.e. retrospectively - or not at all, you can just set up a Fortunately, and then think what Unfortunately it's open to, and get that rolling. Then, staring at that unfortunately, you think what Fortunately might grow out of it, or come along (convincingly, of course) from elsewhere.
In John Yorke's entirely brilliant book Into The Woods, about structure in storytelling, he has a fantastic example from Eastenders of how a scene is built from something trundling along in the expected way and then - bing! - the unexpected happens, and even though it must be retrospectively convincing, everything is now different. And he quotes one colleague saying that he couldn't work out how to write for Eastenders until he realised that he needed to write each scene as if the end-of-episode drums of the theme were going to come in at the end of that scene.
It sounds a bit crude - it IS a bit crude - but then storytelling is, at bottom, a crude business of stopping your readers getting bored, because if they do they might kick you out of your place by the fire, or even out of the lord's hall and into the dragon-haunted dark. And the EastEnders writer makes the point brilliantly because the drums say both "Wow! that was a surprise!" and then, crucially, "So NOW what's going to happen?"
In other words, the point about bodies on page one, hooks, inciting incidents, villains, conflicts, midpoints, cliffhangers, characters-in-interaction, crises, and all the other things that we talk about when we talk about how story structure works, isn't really that they contain surprises: surprise is just a fleeting jolt of emotion. What really matters is that when a surprise has jolted us, we no longer know what will happen next. We'd better keep reading...
The first commentary on any creative writing that I had to write - or read - was the 30,000 word commentary I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing. I didn't find it easy. The next I tangled with were the 300 word commentaries that my Open University students have to write for their course. They don't - most of them - find it easy either. Most writers take some kind of notice of what happened along the road of writing a piece, if only to try to abate the agony a bit next time; some even keep a parallel journal of the whole process. But turning that notice-taking into a formal, organised exposition is a different thing altogether.
Writing's a mixture of conscious and unconscious creative thinking - intuition and craft - and it feels very unnatural to analyse it any kind of systematic way, and until you have to pass a course, you probably never have. But writing a commentary isn't just the thing that makes a writing course academic; it does feed your development - your learning - as a writer. So even if you don't, at the moment, have to write one in order to pass a course, it might be worth thinking about how it might be useful to you. And if you're interested in writing professionally in any way in the future, then conscious, technical awareness is essential for learning to write what's wanted, to length and deadline. What's more, you might well find yourself talking about how how you wrote your novel on a festival platform or in an interview. It's good to have had some practice.
So, what do you do? Check the course requirements, of course, but I'll bet that somewhere in the rubric will be at least one of the following terms, so have a think about what that means they're asking for:
I would say that these are the basics that should be in pretty much any commentary:
So far, so good. But the context in which you're writing is very much part of your reflection. So these wider reflections are also important, though in a short commentary you may have to choose between writing more about fewer points, or less about more points:
It really helps if, as you work on the creative piece, you keep a journal, or at least a few notes about your experience of writing it: just enough to remind you when you come to the commentary. In particular, look up and use the right term if you're noting a technical point. And if you're doing this for a grade, don't forget that points mean prizes. If in a 300 word commentary you can make 20-25 solid, well-expressed, properly evidenced points, and do so in a way which is also makes a graceful, mini-essay in itself, yay for you. But that's extremely difficult to do, and you should never sacrifice the quality and substance of the main dish, just so it's more elegantly presented. So what gets a commentary a good 18/20 from a teacher like me?
And that's it. One way to sum up what you're doing is to think of "aims and outcomes, choices and changes". Honestly, it's not as difficult as it seems, and I've seen, year after year, just how much the necessary act of writing commentaries has drawn my students on to learn further and faster than they ever would just on their work and my feedback alone. And yes, you can refer to This Itch of Writing: just make sure you reference it properly.* Good luck!
* You should do the reference in whatever form your course requires, but it will probably include the title of the blog, the title of the post, the author, the date the post was published, the full URL, and the date you accessed it.
Running down the road, the briefcase slipped from Anna's hand and burst open on the pavement.
After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete.
Having been firmly closed and locked, Alice's visit to the pub was fruitless.
Elaborately frilled and tucked, John tossed the quilt onto the bed.
Blue, orange and pink, the dog ate the latest designs.
As a former Mayor of London, I thought it would be great to interview Ken Livingstone.
Over 4000 years old, the Queen enjoyed her walk around the ruins
Once recognized, a writer or editor can easily fix the dangler.
Have you spotted what's going on with these sentences? It isn't the briefcase that ran down the road, and it isn't the British Team Officials who fell in the practice and suffered concussion. It's not Alice's visit to the pub which is locked, John isn't elaborately frilled and tucked, and the dog isn't blue, orange and pink. Ken Livingstone is the only former Mayor of London, (so he must be interviewing himself), the Queen is not 4000 years old, and it's not only recognised writers who can fix danglers.
And that last one's the giveaway. All of these sentences are suffering from what are are called "dangling modifiers". Most of them involve participles (the -ed or -ing form of a verb) but some are adjectives or other descriptive clauses. The result varies from the merely confused and confusing, to the downright comical, and all of them would get you into trouble from a grammar stickler or word-nerd.
The trouble starts when the writer feels the need to vary a sentence's structure away from the fundamental English syntax of subject + main verb + object: The archaeologist stared at the idol. Normally, this "main clause" is followed by "modifiers" - any extra things you want to say about it - in what's sometimes called a dependent clause, because it depends on having a main clause to hang on to: The archaeologist stared at the idol, which was twenty foot high and made entirely of granite.
But you might want to shift things round, so we get the modifying stuff first as an introductory chunk, and then the main part of the sentence. Fine - variety's a good thing. But there's an important and basic rule that when you have an introductory chunk before the main clause of a sentence then that introductory bit must be modifying the grammatical subject of the main clause. So you need to be careful, because you can so easily get nonsense: Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, the archaeologist stared at the idol. That's an archaeologist even Harrison Ford might be scared of. Unpicking it, we can see that Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, is about the idol, but the subject of the main clause the archaeologist stared at the idol is the archaeologist.
So why are these idiotic constructions so common? You might be trying to vary the construction of your sentences because reading aloud, say, has shown up that they're all a bit samey. Or you might be trying to "front-load" them: to get the exciting bit in at the start. This is something that journalists are actually taught to do, but it's a dangerous game if you don't know what you're doing. If the only interesting bit in a dull story about the Queen is the fact that the ruins are very old, the temptation is to front-load the sentence - but look what happened! Many of us might spot that idiocy and re-jig, but this one is subtler:
After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete
is a genuine BBC example from the Sochi Olympics. It's got in a muddle because the journalist has front-loaded the sentence with the most dramatic thing: the fall and the concussion. In strict fact, the most important bit is She may not compete, and After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, she may not compete would make perfect sense, because the main clause of the sentence is she may not compete, and the modifier falling etc., is about her.
But, in trying to fit in the third part of the story - that it's the team officials who have decided this - the writer has walked into a trap, because the subject + main verb of the sentence has changed to team officials say . So the introductory falling... suffering now apply to them. Must be tough, being a team official!
Someone - I wish I could remember who, but it was a distinguished journalist, maybe even Alistair Cooke - said that you can sum up the entire 20th Century history of the fourth estate in the shift from sentences like Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs, a local pimp and father of three, towards front-loaded sentences such as The murder of local pimp and father of three Joe Bloggs is being investigated by Inspector Lestrade. Which is all very well, even if it does lead to sentences with a great lump of stuff between subject (the murder) and main verb (is being investigated) the beginning, and then a clunky, passive-voiced main clause. But in your determination to get the drama in at the beginning, it's all to easy to realise too late that you've said - and printed - something like this: A local pimp and father of three, Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs. But if you do say that, Mr Lestrade will be whizzing a libel suit your way before you can say "robert maxwell".
It's a simple, but huge, decision you have to make about your novel or creative non-fiction, right at the beginning: will your main narrative tense be past tense, or present tense? And what, if anything, will you use the other one for? It is always possible to change your mind later, but doing so is somewhere between a flaming nuisance and a nightmare, so it's well worth thinking hard about the pros and cons of both.
Ages ago I blogged my first thoughts about past vs. present tense, and I haven't changed very much of my mind, but that was before I was pointed towards David Jauss's brilliant essay, "Remembrance of Things Present" in his marvellous book, On Writing Fiction: rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft. His reasoning is so cogent that I've based these thoughts on his much more fully-developed exploration, and I can't recommend the book highly enough.
But the fact that the essay argues against the "conventional wisdom" that present tense is "better", tells you a lot about what's been going on in the literary-creative-writing world, and so before I break down the pros and cons of both I want to have a think about that. After several centuries - even millenia - when stories were told in past tense, as something which has already happened (even if they're fiction, and never happened at all), in some quarters present tense seems to have become the norm.
Present tense has always been available, and been used, from the first prose fictions to the modernists, as an occasional technique for specific effects. But now a generation of writers who've grown up with film, and the influence of scriptwriting-teaching on prose-narrative-teaching, are using present tense as their default. The thing is, though, that film can't narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action. The only way to convey that this "now" happened before or after the main "now" of the story is to inform you of that fact (fuzzy edges, a date, an implication or statement, a voiceover), and then switch to images of what happens/ed.
There's no equivalent in film of "I had been walking along the path for an hour when I realised I was lost; now I have been walking for three hours more, freezing to death, and I shall be so late for supper that when I get home my wife will have put my dinner into the dog." To show the eight different tenses in that perfectly ordinary sentence, in a movie, you'd have to edit together a whole slew of present moments, and pray the viewers read the relationship between those events both in time and certainty (his wife might have eaten his dinner herself) as you want them to.
So, if you subscribe to the new orthodoxy of present tense narrative (as opposed to making a decision that for this part of this story, it's the best strategy) then you're missing out on one of prose narrative's most valuable - and unique - strengths: the fact that the narrator is an entity independent of the physical action in time and space. Narrative time is independent of real time, and textual time is separate again. But present tense narratives can't exploit that nearly as fluently. For example, there's a horrible lurch, in so many present-tense narratives I've read, as the writer has to pause the moment-by-moment engine of the present moment, and lob in a lump of backstory or explanation. (And if you've been force-fed the lunatic idea that sentences involving "was" should be cut, then replacing "was" with "am" and "is" and "are" won't make the slightest difference. See this post for why not.)
Present tense isn't so very limiting in combination with an external, knowledgeable narrator, telling the story in third person. I read Andrew Miller's Pure recently, and loved it. The handling of action, time and space are fluent and flexible, getting away from the now-now-now-now-now of goldfish tense which (as I said in my first post about this stuff) so often makes me feel as if I'm being tapped on the head with a teaspoon, page after page. But I was left wondering what using present tense actually added to effect of the narrative, given that the overall effect was unobtrusive. Did it make the story stronger, that the reader's trapped in the permanent "now": that, as Jauss puts it, "the narrative proceeds at the pace of the physical action"? Maybe: the story's set at the point where Paris is about to explode into the Revolution, and the reader knows the characters are teetering on the edge of the abyss of the unknown. But the psychic distance is restricted to the level often called "close third person" with main character the only consciousness through which we experience everything. It doesn't test the limits of present tense much, in other words.
Present tense with an internal, character-narrator is much more problematic, as Jauss explores. A trick which is supposed to be "more immediate" in conveying the character's experience as an actor in the story involves the same character, in their role as narrator, standing outside the "now" experience of the action. And it does so just when we need a sense that their whole consciousness is taken up with experience of the moment. The character-narrator can't easily be both be in the action, and be outside it enough to narrate. Not only is the present moment limited, but it's also in some important way divided. If the character is our representative in the story, then our experience can't be of real immersion.
So, even when present tense works, in a story you enjoy, what such a setup can't easily do is express the layeredness of human experience: the fact that these events are built on the past, and will be built on by the future. That's is particularly ironic in novels like Pure, since the plot concerns the clearing of a cemetery, but there's an even bigger irony: the storytelling effect of the characters having no sense of the future depends entirely on the reader having lots of sense of it. If one of the things which we acquire as we get older is the maturity to be alive to the context of our experience - to its place in the larger narrative of our lives time and space - as well as the immediacy of it, then only a past tense narrative truly embodies and integrates context as well as moment.
Past tense - the advantages
Past tense - the drawbacks
Present tense - the advantages
Present tense - the drawbacks
Then, of course, there's the narrative which works with both past and present tense, either switching between separate chunks, or in one continuous thread, as with the different structures of Then-and-Now in the three threads of A Secret Alchemy. The logical way is to use present tense for the most recent sections, and past tense for those further back in time. But the reverse might work even better: the disoriented feel of present tense can make it perfect for memories, while the more solidly-anchored past tense can make it perfect for the more sophisticated relationship to time that a main narrative needs.
So if this post also sounds as if it's arguing in favour of past tense, then it's largely because I think you lose more by defaulting to present tense than you do by defaulting to past tense. Past tense needs reinstating as an essential way of writing; just as with showing and telling, or first-and-third-person, if you're to become any kind of a craftsman with your art, you must have both in your technical armoury.
An edited version of this post first appeared at Women Writers, Women's Books.