The Logic of Narrative

In nonfiction, the guiding principle of following chronology can take you a long way. But what happens when your book does not follow a time line? Where are all those reams of research and data dumped? The easy answer is: by topic. But what constitutes a topic, exactly?

The first consideration is what type of book you’re writing. Let’s take the subject of retirement planning. If you are writing a just-the-facts book about different aspects of retirement, the topics fall under certain umbrellas. You would expect a chapter on IRAs would group the various types of those instruments: 401K, Roth, etc. If, on the other hand, you are advocating a way to retire, your plan must appear early in the book. That way you can gear any discussion of IRAs through the prism of the great approach you have.

The next broad imperative is presenting the topics in an order that is ranked according to importance to your reader. Depreciation, for instance, affects only a limited number of retirees and its effect overall is limited. So that belongs in a later chapter. The family home, by contrast, is most people’s largest investment, and its sale to gain retirement income deserves a more prominent place. If you are promoting a retirement strategy, those topics most affected by your plan should come first. That’s where it truly makes a difference. If you are advocating reverse mortgages, say, that house is paramount to the book.

A further concern for an advocacy book is how abstract the topic is. Say, you organize topics around the quick pace of technological change today. That does have an impact on seniors, with their limited incomes, but it’s also so broad that it can become a grab bag. A quick-strike fortune of an experienced worker in automobile interiors could happen in today’s world, but that same tide also has produced the Fitbit, a watch for exercising. These are two completely different subjects: entrepreneurship and exercise. You’re better off creating two chapters featuring those topics, with the pace of change inserted into both.

On a lower level, you should keep on eye out for topics that pop up in different chapters. For example, if you have a 92-year-old marathoner in one chapter, and a 102-year-old diving champ in another, they may be illustrating different points, but really, aren’t we talking about exercise? 

Exercise: To a large extent, you can determine order by a simple rule of thumb. How much material do you have on each topic? If you have tons of quotations on the virtues of continuing to work, to age 70 and beyond, it’s probably an early chapter. If you have less material on prudent vacation planning, that will become a shorter chapter, and you’re better off sticking the shorter ones toward the back.

“Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order.” 
—Tom Stoppard

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Inflamed Beyond Reason

Keeping a plot from being predictable is one of a novelist’s most important jobs. The more fiendish among the fraternity scheme to produce an unending series of twists. The more logical allocate clues on a revolving basis to suspects. Yet if plotting isn’t your strength, you can use character attributes to keep the reader off balance.

I’m not talking about an untrustworthy narrator, which is a complicated narrative task all on its own. I mean character flaws. If a character has one, you can use it in a progressive fashion, building it to unreasonable heights. A villain can harp on it, count on it to produce the aim he wishes.

If you need possible ideas, you can start with the seven deadly sins. The leader among them, pride, has plenty of useful variants. A common modern trait, for instance, is the inability to back down. With the imperatives of Christian morality overthrown on a widespread basis, everyone has a right to insist on her opinion. The mounting of hubris based on such stubbornness can produce an irrevocable line that cannot be recrossed, even early in the novel.

One of the most effective flaws, ever since the days of Othello, has been jealousy. In the modern era, when women are no longer confined to the hearth, the opportunities for this trait have grown. A woman often partners with a man on an office project, for example, or on company travel. A man can develop a bond with a female colleague so close that it rivals marriage. So a villain who drops an evil word into the ear of a spouse has plenty of means to taint what is aboveboard. That poisoned character can be enraged beyond the point of reason—entailing an unpredictable fallout.

No matter which flaw is chosen, it gives the author an opportunity to focus on a target. Rather than having to build a succession of plot events, he need only decide such issues as: what would tip off the behavior, what could a villain do to lead him astray step by step, when does the character realize the folly of his ways, etc. Perhaps this is not the most organic way to characterization, but really, doesn’t every author set out parameters for the roles she wants for her players? Why not make yours useful?

Exercise: A character flaw works best when it impacts other people. You can have plenty of internal wrangling, but a reader gasps only when the flaw is displayed in public. So in addition to devising how the flaw will affect the character, consider which other key characters the flaw is going to impact most. You may find, even with two of them, that sketches for a dozen scenes pop immediately to mind.

“Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Back and Forth

Balance was the keyword in my last post, and I’m going to explore the subject again from a different angle. That is the balance between background work and a plot. The line between past and present is always fluid in a novel, because an author frequently needs to reveal a character’s past in order to better inform why he is acting the way he is. This logic extends to larger dimensions as well, such as underlying premises for the plot. So how do you know when you’re visiting the past too much?

To answer that question, I’ll first make a remark about the different types of momentum generated by past and present. A past story already happened. By and large, it does not make the reader look forward in anticipation. The present, on the contrary, is driving toward what will happen. It generates more momentum because the reader does not know how things will play out.

Judged in those terms, the calculation becomes easier. What takes place in the background stories, and what takes place in the present? What I often find is that the back stories, filled with lore, of whatever degree you like, are more exciting. Only in the past can the equivalent of Excalibur be ripped from the stone. The forward-pushing plot, by contrast, can seem dull by comparison. Oh, the river’s too wide? Come on, let’s look for a ford.

Part of the problem is due to how compressed the two types of narrative are. A background story is told in summary fashion, delivered in a tight package that highlights only the good parts. The present is looser, filled with such structural elements as dialogue, in order that the writing is not too tight, keeping the reader at a distance. But let’s flip the coin and consider the narrative summary’s drawback. To achieve its compression, it has to be told from more of a distance. The intimacy of following a character closely is surrendered so that the past is not competing directly with the present.

The reason balance is so vital is because you don’t want a novel too filled with inert, compacted material. Inert because it already happened and compact by the nature of the telling. You need the plot to carry such loads forward. Moreover, you need lots of plot, because each time the reader stops for a back story, the forward momentum has to be geared up all over again.

Exercise: Review the manuscript chapter by chapter. Draw up two lists, side by side: past and present. Summarize in a sentence or two what happens in each chapter. When you’re done, look to see where the juicy stuff is. If there are too many on the past side, you should consider transforming some of them into events that occur in the present.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
—Virginia Woolf

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Balancing Act

An author cannot be blamed for writing to her strengths. Some excel at drawing thumbnail portraits of characters. Others understand the value of gossip to pull a reader into a story. Some assiduously hunt down interesting details of a hot new subject. Yet the pursuit of what makes your engine rev can also mask a less attractive goal: avoiding what you don’t do well.

For many authors, that weakness is plotting. Thinking up interesting stories, with enough complications and twists to involve a full handful of leading characters, is hard work. The inevitable conflicts you have to write, particularly of the weapon-wielding sort, can feel hackneyed, like a TV script gone wrong. You’re more comfortable, for instance, writing about all the cool stuff people don’t know about fracking. 

Why is plot so essential? One reason is that it provides through-lines, from beginning to end, that hold a novel together. They also allow it to build the drama step by step. That is not true of a character sketch, or incidental gossip, or terrific research. All of these are disparate elements that have no staying power. Indeed, they tend to pull the book in centrifugal directions: a bunch of scattered pieces without a mold.

Regarded in plot terms, they are low-level elements, useful for setting up a subject but not for carrying through on it. I’m interested in rural law enforcement near the Standing Rock protest, for example, but only up to a limited point. If I can’t follow one crazy-ass sheriff who has a vendetta against one Sioux leader, I’m going to lose interest. By page 200, if I’m still reading commentary on how natural gas drillers have added tremendous economic pressure to get the pipeline finished, I’ll be falling asleep in my chair. 

There is a reason they call it storytelling. It consists of setting out your chosen group of players on a stage with certain furniture, and letting them pursue their competing aims. Keep employing your strengths, but balance them with a tale that keeps adding pressure. A building plot can carry lesser elements, but (unless you’re exceptionally gifted with character building) it doesn’t work the other way around. What you’ll find, as you get later in the book, is that the interpersonal conflicts assume their rightful place: front stage center.

Exercise: If you have finished the manuscript, divide it in four quarters—four acts. Your first act should contain most of the setup material, such as research. In each successive quarter, write down how many pages are devoted to incidental setup material and how much to fights among the characters. That ratio should be reversed at least by the third quarter—or your readers will be nodding off.

“It’s my responsibility to find the research. It’s my responsibility to digest it and do the best that I can with it. But at a certain point that responsibility will become an interpretation.”
—Oliver Stone

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Fill and Rake

If you choose the omniscient narrative voice, you run the risk of storytelling that seems distant and remote. Too often you the author are reporting from on high  rather than a character closely describing the scene. How do you shift the telling to become the point of view of a chosen character?

The craft of getting inside a character’s head employs multiple techniques. One that I find really helps authors is similar to a battering ram. You keep inserting thoughts for the character to an absurd degree. Every time something is said or done, you insert the character’s reaction.

Let’s take a scene featuring a lot of dialogue. You read over the scene with the idea: the character is going to have a thought about everything that is said. Every single time another character says something, you're going to break the dialogue and insert a thought. Of course, to actually do that would slow down the story tremendously. But it puts you in the right frame of mind. So, as you're going through, think to yourself: he said that? What would I think? Write it down. Write down at least a dozen responses per scene.

Why does this technique work? Because you then go back and edit the insertions. Let the material sit, maybe overnight, but a few hours' gap will do. Review the new material you wrote. Take out the thoughts that don't seem to add anything, or are redundant. If the narrative feels too slow, take out a few more. Then look at the ones you kept and pause at each one. Let yourself relax in your chair and think: is that the most telling thing I could put in there? You'll end up with maybe five really interesting thoughts.

Reader identification can be instilled by repeated attention. If you keep signaling that a particular character has a stronger point of view, the reader will start to follow the character more closely. Even better, because you are drilling yourself to insert thoughts, you yourself start to understand the character better. That leads to more free-flowing thoughts, coming right out of the chute the first time you write a scene. You’ve battered your way inside.

Exercise: A further step in this technique is regularly reviewing all of the character’s thoughts. You merely skim the surrounding scene, focusing on what she’s thinking. If you are writing merely topical, skin-deep responses to the action in the scene, you’ll notice it. Then you can think to yourself: how can I go deeper and provide more long-range thoughts that reflect the way I think about things in real life?

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


You’re Allowed to Meander

When you try to write regularly, you will find that you have times when you cannot summon the will to be creative. There are many stratagems for getting the ball rolling, including this perhaps unexpected advice: don’t go forward, go sideways. Although your initial inclination is to start where you left off the day before, you don’t have to. Writing isn’t a to-do task, to be completed by Friday at five o’clock. Besides, breaking out of the linear mode can be good for you. You should feel free to go where your spirit moves you.

These off-track writing forays can take many forms. A common one stems from a vague thought that has been nagging you for a while. A thought flickers in your head—“You really should write a description of her”—then flits away again. You don’t follow it because you’re immersed in the scene you’re writing. Well, today is the day to pursue it. You’re stuck anyway. Go write down that description. Better yet, you may find that writing it down gets you going on another idea you wanted to include for that character.

Another idea is to write out something that’s easy for you. For instance, you know that you’re planning for Eddie and Sue to have a fight a few chapters down the road. Try writing out the dialogue, making sure the fight keeps escalating. Dialogue is easy to write. You may find out when you finally reach the future chapter that your dialogue doesn’t really work anymore, but that’s okay. Part of choosing what’s right in your book is ruling out what’s wrong. The key point is that you made strides forward on that mopey day.

Another writing assignment that commonly is put off for later is a background segment on a character. A narrative summary, covering a person’s past in one sweep, is also an easier task for a writer. You don’t have to focus so hard on the details. For instance, you know that Valerie needs a back story in order to explain why she keeps her kitchen knives exactly arrayed in her three wooden blocks side by side, so use your off day to explore those reasons. Again, this background piece may not make the final cut. But everything you write about your fictional world is helping you to realize it more vividly.

Exercise: Forget about that half-written page you’re working on, where the way forward seems as likely as a half-formed tron creature slogging through sludge. Instead, turn to your notes for one of your main characters. Have you managed to include all of the notes so far? Let the interplay between what you wrote in the notes and what you know you’ve written in the actual manuscript bob back and forth in your mind. You’re letting yourself dwell inside your book.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” 
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Filling in the Background

What happened to a character before the novel starts determines to a large extent what the character will do during the course of the novel. This observation applies not only to a character’s personality traits but also possibly to the novel’s ending, when all is revealed. Because life is compressed and heightened in order to fit within a book’s structure, the old dictum “You cannot escape your past” can be a shrieking cry that governs how the story is told.

Background appears in many guises. A back story can be as short as a paragraph or a half page and as long as a chapter or even a part (as in Part 2, etc.). In some books, the novel’s structure alternates continually between present and past. When a novel is arranged this way, however, the back stories are not supporting units—in the background—but co-equal with the present-day stories. For our purposes here, we’ll limit the discussion to back stories that are dropped into a chronological narrative in a roughly linear fashion over time.

In whatever form it appears, the background of a major character is an essential component of a novel. Since the future is ruled largely by the past, readers want to know the demons that drive a character. A woman in her twenties who fought in Iraq is different from one who attended Smith College. A women who grew up in a family of seven sisters is different from an only child in a broken home.

The details of a past lifetime can be parsed much more finely. We all have private triumphs and tragedies that define how we view the world. So you must provide your characters with those details that make them not only stand apart in the present, but which pull at them from the past. You won’t know what they are, however, if you don’t explore what happened before page 1.

Exercise: Open a new file called “Stories about _____ (whatever character).” Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think about what constitutes the dominant traits of that character. Make a list of 4-5 traits. Now ask yourself, “How did he get that way?” Think of events in the past that could have made him unfeeling, for instance. Did he regularly suffer verbal abuse from his mother and/or father? Was he picked on in elementary school? Did a climactic event, such as the death of someone close at an early age, affect him? Then write a story about it. Go as long as you like—you can always prune it back later to fit in the chapter where you want to drop that background story. Then write back stories for those other traits.

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
― William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Art of Persuasion

Journalists follow a few basic principles. The first line must grab the reader’s attention right away, or she’ll skip over it and read the next article. As hard as that first sentence may be to write, what follows is equally as difficult. The writer must keep presenting material that the reader regards as factually correct.

In this Orwellian age of relative truths, what the reader should believe is harder to define, but the underlying principle remains the same. As a writer, no matter how learned you are, any reader starting the book feels that your opinion is only as good as his opinion. You must marshal other forces on your side that support your case(s).

That’s why journalism is hard. A reporter must go out and find the facts, whether that consists of research, inside information, or different opinions of people who know more about the subject than the reader. That task is onerous enough when you’re writing an article. What happens when you’re facing an entire book?

This is when you have to get out of your armchair. Fervent belief does not necessarily mean laziness, but it is a severe impediment all the same. You have to find other authors, and they must be qualified enough for the reader to regard them as experts on that chosen topic. You must find examples of people suffering from an affliction or succeeding using a method.

Perhaps a useful starting point is asking yourself this question. If I were writing only for the experts in the field that I admire, what would I say? That is the sort of rigor another type of writer, a college professor, has to endure. You have to convince your colleagues because they will weigh in if the book is published, and possibly destroy your credibility.

If it sounds like I am setting the bar high, you’re right. If you think your arguments have merit, then prove it. What you don’t want is, at the end, finding your book in the ebook trash bin, read by a few hundred and left unregarded. If you want to matter, start by building a bigger army than the other guys.

Exercise: If you have already written the manuscript, or part of it, review each paragraph’s topic sentence. If it represents a new point you are making, write it down on a list. Now read other books, articles, clinical studies, etc., on the same subject. When you see a quotation that backs up a point you made on your list, copy it and use the quoted material in the paragraph as expert testimony backing up your point.

“Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.