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Notes on Narrative

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 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 desirePoint 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?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?Or, to give another example, isn't it always jarring when an author has his uneducated characters use big words?

2) Plot and Sub-Plot

a) Plot

Plot is surprisingly complicated, and Glover taught me that — when thinking about it — you need to break it down into smaller issues. I find it helpful in the planning stages to draw each line of plot as an arch on a piece of scrap paper. Put an A at one end and a B at the other. A is to be a question; B is its answer. Generally this question should relate to the concrete desire of the protagonist — Will he get what he wants? B can then be sketched as a yes or a no. In a horror movie, A to B goes like this: the character is single-minded in her desire to stay alive. The question is, will she?

Now, Yes or No doesn't limit an author's tone, nor need it determine the extent to which a story is resolved. There can be a Yes that defies expectation, and ends your story in a surprisingly cheerless way. (The character's ultimate achievement of his desire yields disappointing results.) There, too, can be a happy No, an unhappy Yes. (Despite that he failed to get what he'd wanted, Bill's story all worked out for the best.) Think of this as the But-construction — e.g., Bill wants to marry Sue; in the end, Bill gets to marry Sue, but along the way he has discovered that he is gay, and thus he'll end up locked in a loveless marriage.

In any case, figuring out how the question will be answered is one way that an author finds the general direction of her book.

After establishing the narrative's guiding question, the author begins to fill the space between A and B with scenes — it may be helpful to think of these as "events," or even "steps" that lead to the end. Sometimes a writer begins with a few, full-blown pictures in her head, and/or characters. Then, as she adds her events and characters together, she comes up with the plot of the novel. She begins, for example, to fill in little balloons with notes about the events, and in addition she details what would follow logically from those events. Specifically, she puts the events in order along her A to B arch, assembling a rough sequence that brings her story to a climax.

Think of it this way: as the short-story writer Abbott (see above) says, if the beginning of a story has dramatic tension worth a nickel, it's good strategy to have the end worth a dollar.

The author, as she progresses, will likely keep refining her planned progression of scenes, changing her diagrammatic outline as she learns more about her characters, and adds thematic and imagistic considerations and principles (see below).

To sum up, plot and point of view are inextricably bound — especially considering that the character's desire is the engine of the plot. The key to thinking about plot is to conceive of the novel in terms of dramatic action:

1) Intention (Desire, and the "question" of whether that desire is achieved);
2) Resistance to the character's attainment of what he desires (Conflict);
3) Climax, which is the final resolution or clarification of the narrative's A to B question.

Remember, one needs to develop a steady conflict, to create an obstacle that pushes against the realization of the character's concrete desire.Remember, one needs to develop a steady conflict, to create an obstacle that pushes against the realization of the character's concrete desire. This is the drama, the crux of any story.

Also, each scene is a step toward the climax, and so will need to have its own internal dramatic structure, as well: a smaller version of the larger dramatic structure. What does this mean? Remember that the main character goes into each scene/event wanting something, probably something that will help him attain his concrete goal; and he will likely find something in the scene that will resist him.

You can think of every scene as a win-lose situation, wherein the writer decides if the character will achieve his goal for this scene, which itself should relate to his overarching goal for his life (and the book). How this happens is a decision of tone — comedic or tragic, say — as well as a question of structure (i.e., how will this effect the character's overall quest?). The writer decides how near or how far the character is from success — macro success weighed against micro success — in each scene.

Then, finally, the writer needs to figure out the sequence of the scenes/events/steps, and in a way that allows each one to lead logically — or, as Glover says, "causally" — into the next. Let's examine this further.

In each scene, the writer sets up a situation, which brings a conflict, as well as either a small victory or a loss at the close of that particular scene. In addition, at all times, the writer needs to remain in the shoes of her primary character; she needs, in other words, to "feel" what the character wants to do next — the key here is to remember that ordinary human motivation is the fundamental factor that moves people from one event to another. A writer must keep asking herself: given what's happened to my character in the last scene (and even a mere second ago in this one), what does he do next? As the writer does this, she should always keep in mind what it is that her character wants eventually — as in, what is the ultimate goal that is driving her narrative's drama? (This can be as elemental as: "In which direction does the character move his feet next?")

The writer needs always to test her sequence of events on this "what-would-he-do-next" course of reasoning. Doing this should give her a fairly solid outline — though, of course, as author, she'll probably be in the process of writing the actual novel at the same time that she figures out the book's structure, in the form of these successive attempts to outline the plot. Tinkering with the structure is a big part of re-writing.Tinkering with the structure is a big part of re-writing.

b) Sub-Plot

Now, in a long-form narrative, you should probably construct an appropriate subplot, too. A subplot is a distinguishing characteristic of the novel; the short story, for example, does not need sub-plots. But what is a sub-plot? The sub-plot, described at its simplest, is a secondary plot that squirts through the novel beside the main plot (which is discussed above). Sometimes the sub-plot can expand to about the same amount of text as the main plot; at this point it performs the role of a parallel plot (see Anna Karenina).

Before she embarks on inventing a subplot, an author should to know at least some of the ways in which her main plot will be structured, because the subplot must bear a particular relationship to the main plot: it should be either congruent or antithetical to it. In Anna Karenina, for example, the plot and parallel plot are opposites (and there is a third, smaller plot — the Oblonsky sub-plot — that is congruent to the two main plots). To examine this further, in that great book's foremost plot, Anna leaves her husband and has a passionate affair with a man she never really comes to know — a ruinous affair that leads to her death. In the parallel (or major sub-) plot, another character, Levin, finally wins the woman he loves, and together with her, as they labor through the tribulations of a bourgeois relationship, he develops a fulfilling marriage, in which each partner really comes to understand and need the other, etc. The thing to remember is this: If the subplot bears the proper relation to the main plot, the novel achieves a resonating or echoing effect that will enrich it. What Tolstoy is doing here is writing a disquisition on romantic love, seen from many angles. To my mind, this resonance of subplot is the key to what we might call the "aliveness" of a novel.

Further, such subplot-supplied resonance is one of the ways to give a novel its sense of being about a teeming world, even though most often novels are only about a small group of people. W. B. Yeats calls the effect of subplotting "the emotion of multitudes."

Yeats writes that "much as a shadow upon the wall copies one's body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear's shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world." (Yeats adds that Ibsen, without the use of subplots, has figured a way to "get multitude" by use of "the wild duck in the attic, or the crown at the bottom of the fountain: vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion." See the discussion of "Word/image repetition" below.)

Generally, subplots involve a second set of characters, each of whom has a connection to the main set of characters in some way: family members, friends, etc. In my first novel, Chang and Eng, the plot was the twin protagonists' lives when they were adults, and the sub-plot was the same two characters' lives when they were children.

In any case, a novel's action often alternates between the plot and the subplot. Each sub-plot can take up more or less text, according to the writer's conception of the story.Each sub-plot can take up more or less text, according to the writer's conception of the story. And again, a novel can support more than one subplot. A writer may — and might find it beneficial to — have the characters from her subplot come into contact with those from her main plot. For examples of effective use of sub-plot, read Dickens, read Wuthering Heights, Kingsey Amis's Lucky Jim, read — please read — Anna Karenina.

3) Theme

Theme, as Glover points out, is a general, useable statement of the author's belief about the world and human nature. A theme incorporates a statement of human desire, and a statement about how the world works. (In novels, the world works generally to thwart or interfere with that desire.) "Man vs. nature" is not a greatly useable thematic statement, because it is not fully fleshed out.

How does one arrive at a useful theme? That’s the hard part. One needs to ask oneself over and again: What does this material illustrate to me about what I believe to be the way the world works? The key here is that you have to arrive at some sincere belief of your own — it doesn't have to be right or politically correct or even something you believe when you’re done writing the book. It just has to be something you believe – and have thought hard about — during composition. You then enunciate your theme in the text of your novel and repeat it — not verbatim but in various forms and from different points of view. That is the hardest thing about theme. It needs to be subtle. The general human desire of the theme should be connected up clearly with the specific concrete desire of the main character(s). In this way, the novel with its desire, question, plot and subplot will all reflect the same pattern of ideas or theme.

All the same, here's an old axiom: for a novelist, there is more to be got out of half an idea than out of a whole one.All the same, here's an old axiom: for a novelist, there is more to be got out of half an idea than out of a whole one. (If you have too clear an idea, you may try to see your created world in simple terms, in arguments of right and wrong).

Theme is the trickiest thing to think about, because it can lead to theme-mongering, or preaching. The beauty of fiction lies not in argument but "in the unconscious self-revelation of people, in the sight of them floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about, with no visible shore, in their own lives. In art you become familiar with due process," Saul Bellow writes in Ravelstein. "You can't simply write people off or send them to hell." The mistake, as James Wood puts it, is to assume you are too smart for storybooks. Don't, in other words, use fiction to win an argument or to advance a political idea. That's what essays are for.

Milan Kundera writes: "The spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity, the understanding that nothing is as simple as good vs. bad, as the way it should be vs. the way it shouldn't be. The raison d'etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. Every work of literature says to the reader: 'Things are not as simple as you think.' That is the novel's eternal truth, but it gets harder to hear amid the din of the essay, of the political statement. In the spirit of our time, it would be either Anna or her husband Karenin who is right [whereas Tolstoy had it that neither is right nor wrong]….It is the misomusist — the hater of the idea of Art as an end in itself — who takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the ‘merely' aesthetic."

If debate team captains become novelists they leave behind complexity, subtlety, literary style, and literary thought.

Finally, Virginia Woolf: "Don't be too proud of anything: your country, your sex, your social class. To write fiction you must be above all prejudices."

4) Image/Word Repetition

The coolest thing about Glover’s lessons was that they gave expression to things I knew — vaguely, gropingly — but had never put words to, and therefore never got full, constructive use from. Perhaps the final lesson I got from Glover was this: Objects in a story are free of values, but the manner in which they are conveyed is not.Objects in a story are free of values, but the manner in which they are conveyed is not. The ways in which a writer describes an object are often dependant on the character's perception. With that in mind, a writer can manipulate the images in her text, giving them weight (i.e. constructing and controlling their meaning); and, through the repetition of important ones, she can create motifs. How, and why?

a) With images, as it is with characters, it is advantageous to give each one a significant history (a history that relates it in some passionate way to a central character of the book and to the book's theme). An example of this is The Sound and the Fury, in which the image of mud-stained underwear holds meaning for Benjy, and is meant to be a symbol of the way Faulkner thinks that promiscuous sex can destroy a family;

b) By association and juxtaposition — in other words, the weaving of different images together over time in the narrative;

c) By ramification — that is, by splitting off associated images and repeating them throughout the work. If the writer does this correctly, she'll have a second resonating structure within the book to go along with the similar effect that's created by pitting a subplot against a plot. One writer who does this very well is Margaret Atwood — look at Cat's Eye.

How does all of this work, in practice?

Since we’ve been talking about Glover, let's look at his novel The Life and Times of Captain N. The book is built on three parallel plots: the lives of Oskar, Hendrick and Mary. The concrete desire of each character is simply to return to his home — thus the plots are entwined thematically, and the book gains its resonance from their similarities and differences. For each plot, the question is, of course: Will they make it home? The answer for Oskar is no; he'll go to Canada instead, and he will be happy there. The answer for Hendrick is no, but he'll try to build a facsimile of home, an imitation of his old life, which is the project that kills him. The answer to the question that drives Mary's plot is that she ends up being adaptable: she makes a new home among the Native Americans of the Eastern US (but then she loses that home, too). Now, the theme of the book, such as it is, may be summed up as follows: "Contact with the Other (race, language, sex) creates a what might be called a "state of unfamiliarity," where the rules by which we identify ourselves become confused — that's why it's a state in which we feel freedom as well as a sense of loss. (I'm not saying I agree with Glover's theme. What matters, however, is that Glover believes it).

Glover is positing that the natural human reaction is to want to retreat to the familiar (represented by the concrete image of "home"), and that there is also part of us that yearns for the state of unfamiliarity — yearns to experience difference and "otherness," to experience the attendant feeling of freedom. This theme of the book is bodied forth in a cluster of repeated phrases and image-concepts. The words: "border," "margins," "frontier," "translation," and a raft of images that correspond to these words are repeated throughout the book — as motifs. But the main image of the book is the Native American Whirlwind Mask, which is meant to be a physical representation of the split between the one and the other. Everyone in the novel ends up with this split superimposed on his or her face. And then Glover changes the image, adding complicating consequences or outgrowths: whirlwinds, masks, faces, etc.

Post Script:

It occurs to me, at the end of these notes, that I haven't talked enough about character, which is really the fundament of story-telling. Nor have I really gotten into prose style, the way in which a writer leaves her stamp on a story. ("The one sole morality of writing," according to Pound.) Or even my thoughts on the best way to begin a story — the area where most writers trip themselves up. So...

How to start a story?

The first thing to remember is: story equals trouble for the focal character — no trouble, no story.The first thing to remember is: story equals trouble for the focal character — no trouble, no story. This was a lesson Lee Abbott — who is solely a writer of fiction’s quicksilver genus, the short story — drove home effectively.

Think of your focal character's life before your story begins as a boulder perched unsteadily on a hilltop.

Now, to start the story: Begin with the start of the conflict that will make up the action of the story.

Let's go back to the boulder (your character). The trouble in its case is, say, a bird that comes along to knock it off the hill, setting it rolling. A perfect place to begin the story is the moment of impact. The motion of that boulder is the trouble; a narrative should not start before the boulder gets knocked from its perch. Of course, this rule — like all of these rules — can be broken, and should be. If there's good reason to do so. Just ask yourselves WHY you're breaking them before you do. If you can come up with a compelling reason — such as starting a story about an unfamiliar world by doing a lot of scene-setting, so that the reader can acclimate himself to the odd, created world before the action begins — then go for it.

That's it — the end of my lesson. Thanks, Powells, for the time. I really appreciate it.

P.S. If you want to read Glover’s own essays about his aesthetic principles, see his valuable pieces in Canada's The New Quarterly, issue #87.

÷ ÷ ÷

Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng, the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he teaches writing at New York University.

Books mentioned in this post

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Darin Strauss is the author of Half a Life

7 Responses to "Notes on Narrative"

    danielle trussoni July 12th, 2008 at 7:12 pm


    thanks so much for your post. i've been reading all week and admire you're work/insights tremendously.

    Danielle Trussoni

    Christopher Meeks July 13th, 2008 at 11:26 am

    I'm deeply impressed with Mr. Strauss's article on narrative. I teach the subject, too, at USC, and I'm pleased and dumbfounded I found such a delicious article here. If I may, I'd love to hand out this article this year to my grad students.

    Brockman July 14th, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Mr. Meeks,

    Please do so with our blessing!

    Mary Akers July 16th, 2008 at 5:32 am

    Wonderful, useful, encouraging notes. Thank you!

    Donald Capone July 16th, 2008 at 8:59 am


    Great article. I'm looking forward to reading your new novel.


    Dan Thoms July 16th, 2008 at 10:55 am

    As a non-writer I am curious whether serious (good?) writers follow such a "structured" approach to novel development or use a more intuitive "mind-produced" path fitting the interesting description provided by Mr. Strauss. Nevertheless, thanks very much for the "non-aphoristic rules" -- from a naive reader

    Kari Clayton July 24th, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Mr Strauss,
    I can't thank you enough for offering what, for me, has amounted to a "master's class" in fiction writing. I've been struggling with a project I'm working on, and your comments--so insightful and clear!--have been just what I needed to get back to work. I am indebted to you, and will continue to use your notes as I move forward with my writing.

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