Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions - what we do - that we are happy or the reverse... All human happiness and misery take the form of action.
- The Poetics, Aristotle
A series of essays I write on creative practice explore technique and muse and approaches that block or contribute to successful writing and personal productivity. Our frustrations as writers (or any artist in creative practice) arise in cycles, often anchored to the same problem, situation, or struggle we have wrestled with in the past. Recent reader email and blog comments have queried me about suggestions on better linking the inspiration for a story to planning the structure that will best translate the idea to the page.
A post first published February 19, 2014 is my jumping off point ("Habits of Creative Practice 3") to explore this idea further. What do I mean by technique and the tools we employ to build narrative?
Technique is...any selection, structure, or distortion, any form or rhythm imposed upon the world of action; by means of which, it should be added, our apprehension of the world of action is enriched or renewed. In this sense, everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot say that a writer has no technique, for being a writer, he cannot. We can speak of good technique and bad technique, or adequate and inadequate, of technique which serves the novel's purpose, or disserves.
- Technique as Discovery, Mark Schorer
So we have our idea. We know the thing that we want to put down in print. We've thought long and hard on this idea that keeps us up at night. Now what? We need an architecture. Structure influences narrative style. What ways and means of storytelling best serve our idea? Does the topic belong in an essay? Narrative nonfiction? Short story or novel? We map out the twin foundations of our book: character and plot. Importantly, now is the time to set aside worry we lack the skills required for the task. We read, right? Constantly and widely? We've absorbed more than we know.
Not enough can be said for the developmental power for the writer of reading and observation. Reading well, and deeply, is the writer's avenue into understanding and developing technique, learning elements of craft that serve storytelling in unique ways. Reading the works of others is the best way to observe the subtle relationship between story and structure. What does the writer shade in, and what does he or she leave out for the reader to intuit? The best experience as a reader is one in which the writer has deliberately opened a door on speculation and contemplation. Created a dialogue with the reader that leaves a slice of mystery in our hands, an idea or truth to interpret that defines the tale in keeping with our own intellect or experience. Often the hardest aspect of good technique is refraining from overselling an idea because the anxious writer is anxious the reader not miss his or her point. If the technique is solid however, the foundation of the story will be sufficiently grounded. There will be no doubt in the reader's mind where the architecture of the story is leading. That said, it is the unexpected - the views opened to the reader from within the story, born from thoughtful construction of plot and character - that comprise our pleasure in good writing.
Observation and deep reading nourish our sense of character development, build our library of root behaviors and histories gathered from the world, including our own interior landscape. We find characters and establish their authenticity from what is reflected around us. Snippets of observed conversation spark a theme, bits of history polarize character interaction, human privacies and anonymous dramas nuance story tone and detail. A writer needs to both observe the world and study storytelling to build narratives readers will relate to, come to own in uniquely personal ways. We love a book because it resonates for us, not because it is a technical marvel, or an example of perfect history. We fall in love with a story because it shares our secret perceptions or questions the world in a meaningful way. Writers define these truths by marrying observation and effective techniques of revelation and contradiction.
How then do we accomplish this, build our repertoire of story-building tools? One tip that works well for me begins with notebooks of observation, immersion in life around me. I leave the solitude of my study and drop in on life. Grocery aisles, vacation beaches, airports, bank lines. What are people wearing, reading, eating, arguing about? Connect with the landscape of humanity in all its richness and humor, its pathos and chaos. As I tune in to the dramas around me, the story I want to tell begins to form. The characters step on stage. Second tip: begin to read widely around the topic of your idea. Are there plays on this idea, previous classics, new authors, essays, paintings, music? By immersing myself in the selected theme or subject, I learn what I need to know, and see ways in which different narrative approaches might better filter the story. Perhaps I find I love the first person style for telling this story best. Or maybe it comes together as an ensemble of voices. Reading widely helps me understand the strengths in differing narrative styles and offers exposure to new ways of craft. Writers are continually re-inventing the medium in new and innovative ways. Borrowing from what works is a strong beginning.
At this very moment I am immersed in reading for my new novel and I've been out in the world gathering details and notes. I'm reading to find my way into that bell-tone of a first paragraph, laying down that first line. This dance between idea and framing is expressed by this lovely passage from John Fowles in his work "Notes on an Unfinished Novel"-
The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN]...started four or five months ago with a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still half-asleep... Indeed, mythopoeic "stills" (they seem always to be static) float into my mind often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether their early hauntings are the door into a new world.
So I ignored the image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze it and hypothesize it. It was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to us today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay - as I happen to live near one, so near I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach to the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her.
How will you tell your story?