Wednesday 15 July 2020

What versus How: chicken & egg or plotting duet? - by Rowena House

The other day, while re-reading notes from a 2017 Arvon week on writing non-fiction, an idea for the structure of my fictional work-in-progress suddenly jumped off the page.

Why not start with Act III, where the conflict is at its most direct and life-threatening for the protagonist, and reveal the build-up of Acts I and II during the final climactic days of the story?

Up till then I’d been wedded to a linear, chronological narrative so this was radical stuff. But, like many writers, I’ve learned to trust flashes of inspiration; they’re not necessarily the answer to a creative problem, but usually they flag up something important, like signals from the subconscious warning of trouble ahead.

Now, it turns out that the ramifications of such a major structural shift are far wider than I’d anticipated (more about that in a bit) but what helped most in terms of understanding my own writing process was a second eureka moment.

This second epiphany came courtesy of Emma Darwin’s PhD thesis which I’ve downloaded from the British Library to flesh out her excellent introductory guide and aide memoire, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction.

In her thesis, she quotes David Lodge’s introduction to After Bakhtin: Essays in Fiction & Criticism published back in 1990. In it he says creative decisions about structure and voice are taken “prior to, or at a deeper level than, the articulation of the text in a sequence of sentences”.

Emma Darwin links this to “problem finding” as discussed by Richard Sennet in his 2008 book The Craftsman: “Formulating a rational question is one method of problem finding, since the answer may be supplied from the deeper level by intuition.”

Thus, being aware of the need to find problems is a way to combine rational thinking about a story with the intuitive creative process which taps into our deeper levels of consciousness.

As a story planning technique, problem finding is therefore neither plotting nor pantsing but a fusion of both.

Which sounds pretty damn useful to me.

To test out this intriguing approach, I decided to apply problem finding to my Arvon-inspired, intuitive structural ‘solution’ and see where it led.

The first step was to turn the issue at hand into rational questions. So here goes...

1st rational question: if my subconscious is offering me a solution to a problem which I hadn’t even begun to think about consciously, what is the problem?

Answer: a linear narrative will take too long to get to the central conflict.

2nd rational question: OK, accepting that for the moment, is starting at the final act necessarily the best solution to this problem?

Answer: I haven’t a clue.

3rd rational question: Can I find out?

Answer: sure thing. Back in a bit…

Now, it’ll take quite a while to work through the plot implications of reworking the action of the story into a series of revelations, plus flashbacks, within a tight timeframe.

Perhaps more importantly, however, exploring these two structural options is highlighting major questions about the core of the story itself.

For example, for my Story Grid (thank you, Shawn Coyne) Voyage and Return is pencilled in as the internal plot/genre. The Voyage is my protagonist’s journey of discovery and his Return the consequences of what he’s learnt.

I had imagined keeping the reader close to his lived experience of this journey, learning ‘truths’ alongside him. This would be Plot A.

The external genre, an Historical Why-dunnit, was in some respects meant to be a feeder plot to the primary story, providing the specific historical context for a timeless psychological journey.

In other words, the real story would be in the subtext, rather than the obvious historic events.

But what if a revelatory, unfolding plot could deliver this story in a more compelling, dramatic way than a slower, linear journey? Should the psychological narrative be the main story after all?

Certainly, whydunnits are mystery plots and therefore natural habitats for revelations and unfolding, unravelling stories. And my 17th century mystery is rich in political machinations, desires and betrayals, especially among characters other than the protagonist.

 And aren’t desires, machinations and betrayals more fun that tortured inner journeys?

What if [scary rational thought] my subconscious knows a lot more about storytelling than ‘I’ do, and is wildly signally at me to stop being so bloody pretentious?

Which makes sense really. *every other writer rolls their eyes at this point and mutters, Just get on with the damn thing* [Which I would do had I the time and headspace as per the last ABBA blog.]

Anyhow, whatever the outcome of the structural debate, this episode has resolved a perennial chicken-and-egg dilemma: which comes first, content or structure, the What or the How of the story?

Neither, it turns out, not for this work-in-progress at any rate. The What and the How are a duet. Definitely. 100%. I just need to find out what song they’re singing.

Twitter: @HouseRowena
Facebook: Rowena House Author 


Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting. I had in mind a structure very similar to the one your subconscious has suggested to you for a book I wrote some years ago. It was to start quite close to the climactic point, and the rest of the story was to be told in flashbacks. I wrote the book, but the publisher really didn't like the flashbacks.

I think I still prefer my original structure. But I'm not sure if I'm right or not. Maybe it would have been too confusing for young readers - or maybe the idea was okay, but I didn't write it well enough. And the second way did have advantages; it allowed me to be more expansive in writing about the lead-up to the main event.

But as to your general point - generally speaking, I trust those flashes of intuition. They generally work far better for me than any amount of theorising. Then again - maybe you have to do the theorising to provide fertile ground for the intuition!

Abbeybufo said...

Your story structure would be very close to following Aristotle's 3 unities of time, place and action (as per the Poetics) - with what occurs 'on stage' happening in 'real' time and events leading up to it told as explanations (or to a degree, flashbacks). So not a mad idea at all and, as often the case, the Ancient Greeks were there before us!

Rowena House said...

Thanks, Sue & Abbey. I don't like flashbacks on the whole so I was surprised the new structure appealed. Not convinced but will write a detailed synopsis to test it out.

And good old Aristotle. Amazing how embedded his ideas are in our craft.

Ally Sherrick said...

Did you read 'The Poison Bed' by Elizabeth Fremantle? I think she handles the inner life v. the (literal) unravelling of a thrilling plot (which also happens to be set during the 17th century) very well : ) Food for thought if you haven't read it yet??

Rowena House said...

Oh, sounds good. Will get ordering, Ally.

Rowena House said...

Just wanted to add my thanks to Lucy Van Smit who recommended Linda Aronson's 21st Century Screenwriting in response to the structural issues I raised in this post. Excellent suggestions about how to make logical thinking about Act Turning Points work with subconscious (lateral) creative processes. Only a third of the way into it & already energised and happily focused.

Rowena House said...

Two years later (!) I've come to a different conclusion. Rather than imposing a structure on the story as the author, consciously entertaining a reader, which led me up all sorts of convoluted paths, I've gone back to the basics of character-plot dynamics, letting my two protagonists' desires and personalities dictate how the story unfolds. I didn't know enough about them two years ago to 'trust' them with the story, so I tried plotting it apart from them. Now, plot seems less a what/how connundrum and more a question of who/how/why. It's taken time, research and experimentation to reach a decision, and it might not be as radical or imaginative a solution as it could be, but for now that's the story I'm going to write.