3.26.2020

Adding on Layers

Many novels start off as family explorations, often of a revered elderly relative whose life fascinates the author. The life events emerge first, of the as-told-to variety or the author’s imagining of what the event must have been like. Because such remembrances can be inspired in part out of a love for an immigrant’s native land, the author can also draw upon their own visits to the mother country.

Writing in this fashion can result in a narrative that is very distant in tone. The author need merely open a novel on their bookshelf to realize that their own stories are nowhere near as vivid. How can a book meant as an homage turn into a riveting tale? You probably have seen books or the like in which transparent plastic sheets are laid upon each other to create a multicolored map or diagram. That same process can be applied to writing.

The first step I always advise is: insert dialogue. The chief problem for any neophyte author is focus. How do you plant the reader in one place, at one time, talking to characters captured at that one moment? Dialogue is easy to write, and it has the added benefit of moving only at the speed of the spoken word. A conversation takes up a finite amount of time.

Second, where is the event taking place? This step is fraught with more imprecision, because it depends on how much effort the author is willing to invest in ferreting out telling details of the setting. A bar is a bar is a bar, anywhere in the world, unless you define how that one bar is different. This is an area where the old editorial adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” applies in spades. I can’t tell you how many fruitless notes I’ve written to enjoin authors to provide distinctive details. Don’t be lazy on this score. Where, really, do you have to get to that is more important than capturing the ambiance of your grandfather’s Dublin tavern? Myself, I would want to take a trip to Dublin.

The final step is the hardest, because it requires a degree of concentration that defines the art of novel writing. That is illuminating a handful of characters who are doing the talking in that one place. You can start by writing several pages apiece about what each character is like. That will give them at least some definition. Then look at the timing of the scene. How old are they? How old are their children or significant others? How are those relationships doing at that one point in time? So, when your grandmother asks for that one big favor that will change her life, how receptive is the character she is talking to?

Exercise: The task of creating satisfying characters can spin on forever. No novel is ever truly finished for that very reason. A good practice is to draw up notes before every scene for each major character in the scene. Where are they in terms of what has already happened in the book? Where are they in their life cycle? When you nail down these commonsense points, you’re well on your way.

“Nothing is more consuming, or more illogical, than the desire for remembrance.”
—Ellen Glasgow

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


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