Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Horizontal and Vertical Axes of storytelling

One of my students today mentioned a problem she sees in her writing. She was narrating a passage where her character visits a park for a walk. She (the author) put in a sense of movement, both by the character against the landscape (the character walked up the path) and the landscape against the character (the breeze blew in her hair) which is sound writing policy. But then the character stopped while the author described a piece of lichen. This is the problem the student/author highlighted - her writing has too many 'stop and observe the lichen' moments. 

This led me to think about a principle of storytelling, maintaining the balance between the horizontal and vertical axis.

Imagine a matrix in the shape of a crossroad. The left-right horizontal axis and the up-down vertical axis. 

The horizontal axis contains some of the following storytelling elements

·         - Incident and event
·         - Character action in reaction to incident and event
·         - Plot development
·         - Background information (exposition)
·         - Narrative structure (within scenes and their sequels, also the meta-structure of the whole narrative of the short story/novel/film)
·         - Pace
·         - Build-up of physical excitement and tension
·         - Plot turning points
·         - Breather scenes
·         - Act and story climaxes
·         - Denouement
·         - Character development

The vertical axis includes the following storytelling elements

·         - Personal meaning and resonance
·         - connection
·         - Questions of/to character interiority, e.g: – why did he/she react that way, where does that reaction come from, what was its genesis - a moment in their past? How does/will that moment and its fallout affect her?
·         - Subtext
·         - Emotional backstory
·         - Psychological backstory
·         - Metaphorical significance
·         - Symbolism and motif
·         - Denouement
·         - Character development

(Yes, a story’s denouement and its character development appear on both axes.)

Now back to the ‘lichen’ moments. I have a recommendation for writers who find themselves discovering such moments in their stories.
  • Stop
  • Take stock. 
  • Why/how is this significant? Is it, or how can it be metaphoric of a situation or (interior) struggle the character is having?  

The writer’s mind is a powerful device that often throws ball bearings under our wheels, slowing us down when we want to keep plugging away along the horizontal axis.  In our desire to find out what should happen next it gives us reminders that (in a story of layered depth) we can only know that by knowing the characters and their story from the inside out.

Writing isn’t a matter of taking inventory, or reading a map with all the steps written out in advance. It’s emotional and psychological graft, reaching out in the dark. Or as Trisha puts it in her post exploring emotional time as opposed to chronological time  – quoting Kurt Vonnegut -  ‘writing is like crawling through a dark tunnel on your hands and knees with a crayon in your mouth.’   

In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (noted in my post below) there is a moment when the adult character discovers a Mickey Mouse watch she’d dropped in the garden when a child. The author imbues that watch with metaphoric power, to the point it becomes a motif. At first glance it is a small moment, and I’ve always wondered at what point in the gestation of the story Mickey Mouse with his hands spread (forever) at ten-minutes-to-two appeared.

So when you come to a lichen moment – stop. Why are you dallying here? What can such moments in description reveal about the deeper story. You can find meaning in the seemingly mundane. The mundane or the ordinary is the best place to find meaning, as it lessens the risk of the author going for ever larger scope, which is the road to melodrama.

A wise writer would do well to bear in mind both the horizontal and the vertical axis. To what degree depends on you and your needs and expectations as an author and a human being, and also on the genre/context/audience expectations of your story.

Is there somewhere a guarantee that all such ‘Stop and observe the lichen’ moments carry metaphorical depth – no, there isn’t. But many do. And if you hasten to go past or around them, to get going or keep going on the horizontal axis, you run the risk of not only passing the lichen by without a second glance, but doing the same to the deeper aspects of your story.

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