I know what makes a good narrative, Martin Amis once said: pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness. I don't have Amis's aphoristic gift; what follows is a much longer meditation on fiction writing, on how best to arrive at that commensurateness.
I know what you think of rules. And I know what happens when a writer follows rules disqualifyingly, or grindingly without hesitation. I think it's helpful, however, to have things made clear in this way. And so, though this will be a VERY long post for a blog, I thought I might as well end my week here by sharing all that I know about writing — every last bit of it. I thought a craft discussion might be helpful for aspiring writers; I know I could have used such a resource when I was starting out. (The bulk of what follows comes from the teachings of Lee K. Abbott and, especially, Douglas Glover: two of the best professors I ever had. Wonderful writers, too.)
All the same, you may find much of what follows to be nothing more than common sense. But think of it as a pleasant, country-weekend drive straight into the center of a fellow writer's professional advice.
(And if rules exist in large part to be flouted — and they do — you should do so only if you can make a compelling argument about why and when it's best to ignore them. Try to think of writing in strategic terms; each decision needs to make tactical sense. You can't win an argument about why it's best to break these rules, in any specific case, without knowing the rules in the first place.)
One of the most helpful lessons I got from Glover was to dissect the writing process into four major categories: 1) Point of view, 2) the surprisingly complex ideas of Plot and Subplot, 3) Theme, and 4) Image/word repetition and play:
1) Point of view
Point of view, really just a phrase for this mental modus operandi (also Glover’s term), is usually conveyed to the reader by revealing the character's main desire, her significant history, and also by the use of a consistent, relevant linguistic surface. Most often this person is the protagonist (See The Great Gatsby, however, for an example of a first-person story-teller who does not serve as a focal point of the story). Point of view, really just a term for this mental modus operandi, is usually conveyed to the reader by revealing the character's main desire , her significant history, and also by the use of a consistent, relevant linguistic surface. Sorry for the jargon. I'll explain, in order:
a) Desire as Engine
In order for a narrative to work, the primary character should have a concrete desire: a need that drives her story — and the story's writer should make this goal known to the reader pretty early in the narrative. Characters stretching their legs in some calm haven generally don't make for interesting protagonists.
If artfully rendered, a concrete desire may — as Glover taught me — stand for all human striving and aspiration.
One key to creating an effective point of view is that you should make sure — unless you have a really good reason not to do it — that your focal character is passionately engaged with her desire and her current situation. In other words, a story and its protagonist, says Henry James, must be "planted around the stout stake of emotion." What does this mean? That the character must feel some emotional connection to the outcome of her story. So: the reader needs to know what the events of the story mean for the character. Sounds obvious. But, in a first-person narrative, where is the narrator now (when she's recounting it to the reader) in relation to the events of the story? (This point is moot in a present-tense narrative, of course.) What effect did the story have on the character? These are the necessary questions.
Keep the character passionate in her desire, and the story will likely be engaging. (This is something that Lee K. Abbott specializes in.) Also, show the reader the particulars of character's desire as soon in the story as possible.
b) Significant History
Another important aspect of point of view is what Glover calls "significant history." (Sorry to keep harping on Glover, but the man systematizes writing methodologies better than anyone I know of, and with more precision.) This is background material that meaningfully relates to the character's desire and his current situation. History that does not relate directly or meaningfully to this desire often fails to push the narrative in productive ways; the revelation of too much unimportant "backstory" can make the narrative seem overly loose. Remember that a novel's account of its character's significant history can be kept brief, and a writer may find it advantageous to repeat variations of this history throughout the narrative. (This can be done via: references to some past event; expansions and/or alterations in the way that event is revealed to the reader; the discovery of some new detail, etc.) This gives the novel a rhythm and a sense of remembrance. Once the writer puts her character's desire and significant history in place, she'll have a fairly clear idea how this character will react as new situations arise; hence, the method of operating or functioning idea — the consequences, in other words, of the Point of View — will dictate the plot.
Further, in order to reveal information to the reader, you need to determine a hierarchy of important information. Or, put another way, you must show the reader what he needs to know, in time for him to enjoy and understand your story. For example, if your narrator is a single mother who has long been fighting cancer, and those details are the key in her particular story, you need, therefore, to let the reader know about them as soon as possible. This hierarchy of important information is often the key to a story's readability.
c) Linguistic Surface
The "Linguistic Surface" involves diction, syntax, and metaphorical language: your character needs to talk and think in terms that reflect his desire and his significant history. This is important most of all in first-person narratives, but even an author of a third-person story should think about this.
Early in the novel Precious, which is about a newspaperman, the protagonist describes a small building as "hiding like an overlooked misprint between jutting office towers." At another point, the character starts to receive thoughts in the form of newspaper headlines. Conversely, it would have seemed a faux pas on the author's part had the character instead begun to think in, say, sailing metaphors. Or, to give another example, isn't it always jarring when an author has his uneducated characters use big words?