The playing of music has a valuable principle that more authors might want to adopt. That is the way notes are built toward a resolution. The development can be as simple as playing a discordant chord before a major chord, and can be as complex as devising entire movements within a symphony. Governing all of the flows of the emerging notes is the idea that they are leading to a goal.

Writing has the same objective, no matter how many interesting asides and digressions a novel contains. What do you want from a scene, or a chapter, or a part? I read so many scenes whose objective seems to be capturing what really happened that day in high school, or happened to a friend that day. While the writing may be descriptive, or sharp-eyed, or funny, I can be left wondering: underlying this barrage of words, what is the point? Why did you take me here?

The confluence of story with what I’ll call “fictional reporting” becomes more evident when set pieces are lined up in a row. As an editor, I take notes at the end of every scene. What, in a sentence or two, happened? Part of the reason is so I have a diagram for future use. But the practice also allows me to see where the narrative becomes distracted.

Not all incidents have to be linear. The pleasure in reading is derived in part from the reader inferring from the writing what is meant. Yet when the narrative becomes unbalanced—too many disparate scenes, not enough plot progress—the reader can lose the thread. Again, looking at music it is easy to see why a bout of improvisation leads, after a certain number of measures, back to the song’s theme. If it didn’t, a jazz tune, say, would spiral into a number of disconnected ideas that trail off to . . . silence.

One other factor to consider when planning a book’s sequence is how impregnable words already written can be. That is, once you have a draft written, you naturally look for the goodness in what you’ve composed. You’re less inclined to make changes because, at the sentence-by-sentence level at which you’re reading, the flow seems to work.

You’re better off composing notes to outline basically what you mean to have happen in the next chapter. Before you write them, you’re better off reviewing the last chapter to make sure you know what you’re building from. Then bouts of discontinuous narrative will be bound by what can reasonably be expected to happen next.

Exercise: After you have written 50 pages, go back to the beginning of that section and read it through. Part of the problem is the fact that you’re not reviewing in long enough blocks to see the larger ebbs and flows. That way you can make a number of mid-course corrections—or decide on new directions.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.