Saturday, May 7, 2011

The dark tunnel

One of the things I find hardest to achieve when I’m writing a story is developing an effective structure, one that supports both movement/action and character. It’s hard enough to do in a short story but particularly daunting in a novel.
I guess one of the reasons I find it so difficult is because I like reading and writing in emotional rather than chronological time. I’m sure this indicates I favour character insight and development over plot or, to be more accurate, internal over external plot. Of course, in reality this means that I need to find ways (other than just resorting to simple flashback) to work with both.
Exploring time, history, memory, and different realities and perspectives, is one of the main reasons I’m driven to write, but learning how to transition from one time or reality to another, as well as finding ways to balance them, is something I find very difficult.
It’s not that I have anything against starting at the beginning, moving to the middle and finishing at the end, it’s just that I often have no real idea what the beginning, middle or end of something is, either in ‘real’ life or when I’m drafting and redrafting a story. It seems to me there are endless possible beginnings and endings even when we are simply (orally) recounting something from our lived experience: we emphasise, leave out, gloss over, skip forward and backward in time, surmise, exaggerate, interpret – often this is done almost, or even completely, unconsciously.
Given how easy it is to reconstruct experience into ‘story’ orally in everyday situations, you’d think it would be much easier than it is to sit down and consciously construct a narrative with a character, a particular point of view and voice, and then to layer their feelings, experiences and actions in a way that is coherent and meaningful for the reader, rather than only for the writer and character.
Recently, while doing some background research on dream interpretation, I came across what seemed to me to be a classic/traditional story structure. Andrew Samuels (1999, pp 232-3) mentioned that Jung believed dreams have a typical structure: exposition; development; culmination; solution. Noticing and understanding how specific dreams conformed to or deviated from this structure was/is part of the art of interpretation (or of finding meaning).
Jung’s typical dream structure made me remember another possible (short) story structure, that of Alice Adams (quoted in Lamott 1995, p 62): action; background; development; climax; ending – ABDCE. Fascinating that this structure is so similar to Jung’s one on dreams.
I read a quote somewhere (attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, I think) that said writing is like crawling through a dark tunnel on your hands and knees with a crayon in your mouth.
I’m not sure if he was talking about short stories or not but that pretty much sums up how it feels trying to write and structure a novel.


  1. Thanks for the research...I'm always looking for ways other than linear to structure short stories.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kate, I'll keep researching structure and post whatever I find.