Thursday 15 October 2020

Problem finding: voice & structure - by Rowena House

Back in July, I embraced ‘problem finding’ as a creative writing technique, or perhaps it’s better to describe it as a mindset, after discovering it courtesy of the ever-brilliant Emma Darwin, who in turn was discussing Richard Sennet’s ideas on the subject.

Here’s the link to July’s ABBA blog with more details about it if you’re interested:

And here’s the TL;DR version: problem finding harnesses the power of both rational thinking and our deeper layers of intuitive and subconscious mental processing by turning creative writing problems into clear, rational questions, and then letting the subconscious loose to find unexpected, original and (hopefully) meaningful answers.

In recent weeks, this method threw up the following question: why can’t I find the right voice for my protagonist (and therefore the voice for the whole work-in-progress) when I have a clear character arc in mind for him and a solid plan for a five-act structure?

At roughly 3.30 am last Friday, my subconscious decided to let me in on its conclusions.

Wake up, it said, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t only Tom’s story. Sure he’s your way into the story. He’s the character that lets you say this is my story, too, one I have a right to tell, but there are others speaking here, too.  

(Tom, my protagonist, was a real-life 17th century pamphleteer who knew about Fleet Street and the law courts and dirty London politics, just as I did as a journalist back in the day.)

The result of this (and many another) interrupted night was a reworked opening scene for the novel, one which I first wrote for Michael Loveday’s excellent Novella-in-Flash course a year ago and have been tinkering with off-and-on ever since.

Originally, when I began to novelize this story as part of a PhD, I rejected the novella opening because it wasn’t written from Tom’s point-of-view, and definitely wasn’t in his voice, and therefore had no place in his story.

In other words, it was a darling that had to be killed. And yet...

The scene was good. It introduced conflict between three key characters in a straightforward, comprehensible way; it used suspense to set up the entire plot; it had a definite turning point and a cliff-hanger ending weighted with jeopardy.

What’s not to like?

Reworking it from a different character’s point-of-view turned out to be the key.

The voice of this second character, Bromley, an older, cynical, judgemental man, already came through loud and clear in the dialogue. In the reworked version, his internal thoughts slipped into place like a bolt into a well-aligned hole. In turn, his thoughts opened up opportunities to layer in psychological insights and interpersonal conflicts that will (necessarily) have to develop throughout the plot. 

So, then, said my rational head, surveying this new opening on the one hand and the wreckage of months of single-protagonist plotting on the other, it looks like we’ve got a multi-protagonist story here. After all, you can’t tempt readers with Character A at the get-go, and then try to tell them it’s actually Character B’s story later on.

The implications of accepting this conclusion are huge, of course, and I haven’t made a final decision which way to go, not least because I won’t let two males dominate my story. Alizon and Elizabeth are BIG in Tom’s life and will stay big in the story, however many viewpoint characters there are. But if they get their own chapters as well as Bromley, then a fifth character, Altham, logically must have his space as well.

Are five point-of-view characters possible? Won’t that just be a mess?

Luckily, Linda Aronson has written a cracking film structure guide, The 21st Century Screenplay, which discusses plotting options with a proven track record when weaving multiple story lines together into a satisfying whole. [Thank you again, Lucy Van Smit, for pointing me in Linda’s direction.]

And wonderful Emma Darwin is there, as always, with sound advice about how to differentiate each strand through what she calls characterized narratives, i.e. creating a highly distinctive voice for each viewpoint character, a voice which reflects their class, education, religion, prejudices etc., and which conveys in the subtext the story’s message about subjective understanding and alternative interpretations of events.

[For information, I’m using Emma’s own PhD thesis as food for thought for mine, but her blog, This Itch of Writing, is a fantastic resource if you haven’t come across it yet.]

Now, it’s perfectly possible that my subconscious would have set to work on this twin problem of voice and structure without needing a specific ‘problem finding’ question to answer.

In fact, with hindsight (and as a result of writing this blog – yay, for iterative mental processing), I suspect that it was re-reading my notes about Emma comments on characterized narrative last month which triggered the initial unconscious doubts about sticking to a single viewpoint character. Certainly, with a story that concerns bias, dishonesty and delusion, and how these factors might have led to false narratives back in 1612, multiple distinctive voices would seem to be an ideal structural fit, allowing the reader to interpret events for themselves, rather than having a protagonist work it out for them.

Nevertheless, I do still think problem finding is a useful diagnostic tool. If nothing else, defining a problem and then allowing the subconscious time to ruminate on it lessens the (conscious) frustration of writer’s block, and clears the conscience when killing off darlings or resurrecting them as intuition dictates.

Have a creative (and safe) month, everyone.

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1 comment:

Rowena House said...

A week later, during yet another insomniac night, the idea of a multi-PoV structure is once again leaving me cold. I prefer to read single PoV narratives and it seems sane to write what you like to read. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd read this book at all at the moment, with so much going on in the world. Solidarity with other night wanderers.