Switching Up

The narrative approach to writing a novel varies according to how much a character influences the interpretation of events. On one end of the spectrum lies the action-oriented tale, in which too much introspection gets in the way of the unfolding plot. On the other is the character-driven book, in which action is the occasional byproduct of thoughts. (I’ll leave aside experimental approaches in this discussion.)

A spectrum means that a book can lie anywhere along the arc from one pole to the other. That means no one except the most steely-eyed critic can tell what proportion of each a book contains. A number of critics pooh-pooh commercial novels, but the good ones have extremely well-drawn characters leading the charge. Just read any novel by Stephen King, among many others, and tell me characters don’t matter to them.

Because narrative approach is so variable, less experienced writers can be forgiven for not knowing what side of the line they’re on. Does this scene feature  more action or character interpretation of the action? Many scenes seem to have both. So that leads to other thorny questions like: should I have dialogue in an introspective scene? When is a past memory so filtered by a character’s view of it that the narrative no longer shows the event but tells about it?

When faced with such imponderable subjects, the author’s approach may vary according to mood and circumstance. If the scene contains an act of violence, and you become angry while writing it—damn right there’s a pool of blood!—the tone may be more action-oriented than the preceding quiet scene. It may be that the approach varies because writing a novel takes most people such a long time. How you were writing about the characters six months ago may not be how you’re writing about them now.

When you review the draft after completing it, you may despair about the swings in the narrative. How do the good writers achieve such consistency in tone? One guideline that may prove helpful is asking yourself: what is the tide in my book building toward? If you want the book to remain fairly flat, the choice is easy. That points toward a character-driven novel. If you want, however, a dramatic turning point that changes the protagonist’s life forever, that poses a tougher question. The gauge then becomes: how much do external forces create the change?

If those forces involve murder or the like, and you write a number of action scenes that portray it, that’s not a character-driven novel. If the murder occurs amid a fugue of internal thoughts, the thoughts are getting in the way of the action. You just need to remain true to the tone you set earlier.

Exercise: Review the book scene by scene. At the end of each one, make a rough decision: internally told or externally focused. By the time you get to the halfway point in the book, you’ll be able to determine how you want to pursue the second half.

“I'd buy myself a cabin on the beach, I'd put some glue in my navel, and I'd stick a flag in there. Then I'd wait to see which way the wind was blowing.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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