Under the bugle-beaded bonnet
A quick snack on the run

Building the bridge

I've been thinking about structure a lot, lately, and one thing that keeps coming to mind is a story I wrote ages ago, which didn't really work for all sorts of reasons, mostly to do with my novelist's tendency to keep trying to squeeze not just a quart - that's easy - but a gallon into a pint pot, and partly to do with the fact that historical short fiction's a tricky beast at the best of times. It covered a long stretch of years, which is never easy in a short story, and as a way of placing and anchoring the big architecture of the story (see how the metaphor's coming along already?) I used the building of a bridge in her home town, pier by pier, arch by arch, until it reached the far bank at the end of the story. It sounds static, though, and the thing about prose is that it only really exists - can be experienced - in time: it's dynamic in the true sense. As if my unconscious recognised this, at one point in the writing I had an absolutely clear vision of the piers of the bridge being a giant's legs, planting themselves in the river bed, splashes and little whirlpools and all, as he walked to the other side. What I was doing in writing the story, I realised, and what the story was doing for the reader, was like those time-lapse film clips: I was actually building the bridge to the other side. When you're about to start a novel you know quite a lot about the bank you're standing on, because you need to write it. And that other side is so clearly there too, as an entity. But it's dim and un-specific: you'll only see real old crones and delinquent children, smell the bakery and the cess-pit, see the brightly-painted chapel and the big grey castle when you get there.

And the more I think about it, the better the metaphor gets. I thought it appealed to me because I plan my novels in big chapters from the start - ten or twelve, perhaps - so the chapters are obviously my piers: the main stages of the story. But it can be incredibly useful when you're looking at a novel which already exists - yours, or someone else's - to say, 'Okay, what are the piers of this story?' It's not because everything needs to be reducible to the Seven Basic Plots, but because without that underlying sense that all the small things are part of a bigger shape - growth, change, the shape of a life, the nature of dying - a novel is just one damn thing after another.

Another reason it's helpful is because if you think of a bridge as being made up not of a series of arches, but a series of piers, then each pier is the roots of two half-arches, and those arches reach out to join hands with the half-arches rooted on the neighbouring piers. (Have a look here if you're having trouble imagining it). And half the time, what's going wrong with a novel is that perfectly good bits of solid architecture don't join up properly. And here, quite without meaning to, we're in company with the scriptwriters and their story arcs. The join is, of course, the keystone: without it, firmly wedged in, the arch collapses, so it's not that it's not important. But maybe we should think more often not of the top of the arc, which is the high point/crisis/moment of change, but the roots of the arc: the piers. Get those right - solid enough, rooted enough, the distance between them suitable for your materials - and the arcs/arches will reach out quite naturally to join. Some writers build some piers and arches in mid stream as seems best, and only join them all up at the end. Others, like the builders in the link above, build a rough scaffolding, and only start to put in the dressed stone when it's right. But even with modern materials and cranes it's a physical impossibility to build an arch till you've got at least one pier to root it on.

Of course, it's not enough to think of the piers either, because the arches are built of bricks, or stones, or riveted steel - lots of small, single units, at any rate. And much of writing a novel is about putting one damn brick after another, over and over again, and not forgetting that the bridge has a width, too, as well as a length, and a road over the top. Pier by pier, stone by stone the writer builds their way across the river to the far bank. Mind you, when it comes to readers, most people crossing a bridge don't think about the piers: how aware of them do you want your readers to be? I've walked over bridges where the road actually rises and falls over each arch, and others where each pier supports a little widening of the bridge, a passing-place or balcony, as it were, from which you can lean out (careful!) and see the arches either side of you, and the river below. Lampposts are regular, too, and of course if it's a suspension bridge (are we taking this metaphor too far, do you think?) then you're acutely aware of the two towers high above your head, and the cables from which the whole river-crossing enterprise, literally, depends.

Well, maybe that's as far as we can take it. Much of the time I just carry that image of a giant, planting his great footsteps, one after the other, making for the other side.