Week 79

I began the week with a fuller synopsis, but still no structure. Taking thematic binaries had helped produce the details of the story, but the sum of those parts amounted only to a development of theme, not a story. Theme is important, but it's only one strand of a story, as is character, plot, style, everything. "Story" on its own feels too reductive however, suggesting misplaced nostalgia for a storytelling era of days gone by. It's important of course, but it seems to me that the novel as a format, unlike say, film or screenplays, does its best to avoid and confound it.


Novels are deliberately baggy and easily distracted, but they need a sense of what ground they've covered and where they're heading to be remotely readable.

Hillary Mantel is a master of this - as is Henry James - an almost imperceptible shift in tension until you can't put the book down. And for every chapter on crop rotation in Anna Karenina (seriously Tolstoy, what?), you know he'll soon get back to Anna herself and the dastardly Vronsky. And maybe learn a bit about Russian agrarian policy while you're at it.

What makes it complicated is that stories don't come into the world intact and already fashioned, though many argue they do. Story can be structured a number of different ways, depending on how it's told, who's telling it, from what perspective and with what objective.

All that is hard to keep in your head at once. Every day it felt like I'd cracked it - that the story should start here, this is the twist, and this is how it should end.

Where did this story really begin? I had my ideas, but they caused problems, and sometimes exploring why a certain thing had to happen here made me realise the only thing governing it was my insistence. Gaps in the story existed because that's how they actually happened - and everyone knows real-life is often anathema to interest and meaning.

On top of that I was trying to twist two strands - present day and the past - like a plait, and getting very confused while I did it. How could one give way to the other? At times, I could tell, it frustrated the actual story, and I got bogged down writing scenes I knew weren't working and didn't fly - there was no narrative interest in them, that's why. The exercise looking at goal/consequences had shown me that.

When you've been working on something for so long, and have so many things you want to pack in, it's easy to not see the wood for the trees. Writers sometimes labour a point that is not obvious to anyone else: one told me how she'd been adamant that her story must begin at a certain point, but as soon as other students in her class read it, they all agreed the story really began in chapter 4.

Writing in first person adds another layer of complexity: how much do they know? Are they writing in retrospect, before they commit some deed that only becomes clear when you know the whole story (the eponymous, not to mention deceitful and calculating, hero in Sebastian Faulks' Engleby)? Or are they mid-way through, telling you the story so far then running with it as it meets them (Kathy H. in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Amir in The Kite Runner)? Or seemingly in the moment, like a spoken monologue that's being told as and when things happen (for example Sam Marsdyke in Ross Raisin's God's Own Country)?

All first person narratives are necessarily retrospective, but how far in the past are the events they are narrating, and how much about those events do they know? Their perspective is also necessarily limited, but how much do they deliberately leave out or add?

You can see how I might have got a bit lost.

So I listed the scenes, took out the gaps in time, and included all the things I suspected about my characters, but which hadn't yet made it into the story (their background). Then I listed them chronologically, not by narrative sequence, or when I thought they came in the story (that was getting me nowhere).

I looked at the list and considered, where does the story actually start? What prompts this person to start telling it?

There were four scenes I had in mind:

  • the chronological beginning, where the seeds for the story were sown;
  • the one I'd been using up until now, quite close to the end, in what would turn out to be the outcome of a crisis in the story;
  • one a little later, which had worked as a scene and really come alive, but I couldn't work out why;
  • one even nearer the end, which would make the first person that bit more desperate (the story could start with a bang and a mystery, but might sag in the middle as we catch up with everything they already know - she is not deliberately deceitful, unlike Faulks' Engleby).

I then took each of them, and plotted out what taking it as a starting point meant for the rest of the story. What was:

  1. the current situation
  2. the conceit that changed all that and set the story in motion
  3. the turning points that ratchet up the suspense
  4. the resulting crisis
  5. the climax
  6. ...and the resolution of it all.

It's amazing how changing the starting point has an impact on all those things. When I was done, I had effectively four different treatments of the same story. One stood out. All the elements of the story seemed to hang together, in perfect suspension. That's the one I'll be expanding on next week.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661