NARRATIVE DESIGN - Where Does it Flatline in Your Book?

By Chris Stewart

In doing a clear out of books (always painful, but in a tiny house like mine, necessary), I came across Narrative Design by the fabulous Madison Smartt Bell. I studied with Madison at Goucher and still count him as mentor and friend (his wife, Elizabeth Spires, is a tremendous poet). They have both always been very supportive of me and their work has always inspired. So I took the appearance of this book as a kind of message to me from him, an answer to the question I'd been asking myself lately about the structure of a novel I'm almost finished writing. I'd even go so far as to say he was giving me instructions.

Tucked between its pages I found a handout given to students in Madison's English 315 class. I can't remember exactly What English 315 was, surely a fiction workshop. The handout is called "Four Coordinates" and he describes it as "a set of measurements for evaluating technique in a work already composed. Even as such, it is too limited. Your first object  in reading should be to determine the primary intended effect and decide whether or not it has been well realized. Then reason backwards to discover strengths and weaknesses in the text."

The Four Coordinates are: plot, character, form, and tone.

Because the handout was inside his book on structure, I'd like to revisit an exercise we did in class, related to form. It's one I love. If you're not visual, though, it will probably give you a headache. So I'll also share a perhaps, a kinder, gentler version you can try that might keep you from tearing your hair out and also help you with structure.

Form, he says, is of primary importance. Other elements are subordinate to form. It is the pattern, how you assemble the elements like point of view, tone, dialogue, action, character, inner monologue, etc.

For "form" Madison writes: "The simplest approach to form is to think visually - try to mentally transform the narrative into a visual graph so that you can look at it with the inner eye. It should then be evaluated for shapeliness and symmetry - like a work of visual art. Elements which ought to be formally organized can include point of view shifting, changes of narrator, plot structure of course, sometimes shifts of tone. Are the formal elements of the text pleasingly balanced? Is there a rhythm to their arrangement? If there are imbalances or breaks in the rhythm, are they mistakes or do they have a function?"

I can hear you now: "How the hell do I do that?" Then: "Why the hell would I do that?"

Valid questions. Because you're a writer. It's a tool to try. So try it.

Here's what worked for me:

First create a legend (like for a map - symbols that show mountains, rivers, etc.) that lists the elements -- like POV, tone, plot - with subcategories of conflict, obstacle, reversal, reveal, action, minor climaxes and their resolutions, the main climax - and anything else you can think of.

Pick a shape for each - make them up if you want. Use squiggly lines and spirals and dashes and asterisks).

Or choose specific symbols that describe a character - a musical note if the character is a musician, a star if they are an astrologer, a tree for a gardener . The symbol can convey their profession, or be a metaphor for who they are. The star for a character can be because they are a dreamer who likes to dream but not do anything about those dreams. Choose symbols for action as well - heart for love, an inverted V - like a mountainm - for obstacle, exclamation point for conflict.

Then, using one piece of paper for each chapter, draw in the symbols for what happens in that chapter, moving horizontally across the page as you progress.

Symbol placement rises when there's tension, when obstacles show up, with action and conflict , falls when there are resolutions (as when you have sub-conflicts and sub-climaxes). So if you drew a line between the symbols, it might look a little jagged, which is fine. You might also have jagged lines on the other side of the climactic moment as little things are resolved. Or not. There might be a giant drop. That's fine too.

You can then lay out the parts - the pieces of paper - in order to see the whole. Beware of places where the symbols seem to 'flatline' - there's no upward or downward movement for a while. Those need fixing.

Here's a challenge:

If you are exceptionally visual, pick one shape that stands for your book as a whole (this is more what Madison is thinking and describing in his book), and map the symbols on the shape itself. I tried that once and got a little dizzy, but for one brief, glorious moment, I got it. I saw the book as a picture. As a symbol. And it was cool. I wish I still had that image to share with you but, alas, it was not between the pages with the handout.

You could also draw Freytag's pyramid, divide it into acts by drawing vertical lines to separate it into strips for the various acts, (Author Salon says six acts), and perhaps use easy codes like P for protagonist, A for antagonist, C for conflict, FL for flashback, BST for back story etc. and map these up and down the pyramid (or Freitag triangle, if you prefer).

My kinder, gentler version (less visual, though)  is to do a chapter by chapter outline in list form or in Excel. Chapters listed across the top, then in each column, list the codes for what's happening: Character Development is CD. Conflict is C, Reveal is R, Antagonist interference is AI (you need to have an arc for your antagonist as well so you should also have a code for that - at least charting in what chapters the antagonist appears so you get a sense of the coverage). Make up codes for whatever elements you want to track.

Make sure the codes are adequately, regularly, if not evenly distributed. If you're juggling multiple narrators or times/periods, this can be a great way to see gaps in distribution. It'll also show you where there isn't enough action and if a character has been absent for a while.

Here's what that might look like:

The picture is a little hard to see (sorry - not always a techie genius). I have columns for each chapter and list codes for Inciting Incident, Character Introduction - Antagonist, Character Introduction - Protagonist, Description, Action, Back story, POV shift, and on, in each column.
I realize this whole idea of making design visual is beyond looking at the writer behind the curtain. It's cutting his/her brain open, but you had your share of magic and mystery and fun while writing it. Time for some dissection. Remember dissection in biology class? When you got to throw frog eyeballs at the girl or guy you liked? Good times.
But if you want the mystery, then go for the more free form symbol drawing previously suggested. Get your crayons or colored pencils or markers and even some butcher paper (if you have a lot of chapters, you'll need it) out and have fun with it. Just because you're a grown up doesn't mean you can't play around with crayons anymore.
Or get magazines and make a linear collage that tells the story in pictures. I often tell my students to pick out pictures of their characters, the town they live in, where they work, their character's love interest, the antagonist etc. and stick them up where they can be seen. When you need to stare into space to figure out what a character would say or do, you can stare at the picture and it will give you a more three dimensional sense of the person in your head. You can more easily imagine them speaking and moving.
The point is - get out from behind the story. Get in front of it and see what it looks like. Get some perspective. Engage a different part of your creative brain by drawing it out instead of writing it out. It's too easy to get lost in your words, fall in love with the story again, and think you're such an awesome writer, it must hold together, no point in doing this stupid exercise, you're going to have agents and editors beating down your door.
How's that working for you so far?
At the end of the section on design, Madison writes, "All these elements are to be arranged, to be used to create a sense of shapeliness, orderliness, balance, and integrity. Each must contribute to the reader's sense of the narrative as an integrated whole, for the moment when the narrative is apprehended as a whole is the moment when it is fully understood."
Think of it as climbing a mountain, reaching the top, and seeing the whole glorious path (world of the novel, journey) spread out before you. If you can figure out how to arrange the elements in just the right way by using some of these methods, think of the amazing view you'll give your reader.
(If you want to read the book, I highly suggest it. I've deviated a bit from its ideas into what I've tried and works for me. The book is much more detailed and gets into time as well. In subsequent chapters, there's a short story, and then Madison breaks it down using the methods he's set out earlier in the book. You'll learn a lot.)
Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts with her state arts council. She's a writing mentor, teacher, and provides editing and critique services. Join her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter or check out her website at www.therealwriter.com.


Author Salon Offending Writers Daily - the 24/7 Writers Conference Takes No Prisoners

With all due respect to other writer conferences, Writer's Edge has been obsessed with running a good story on a new and controversial website stepping like a giant onto the Internet known as Author Salon, especially ever since our staff writer, Chris Stewart, discovered it, and Author Salon itself sent us a press release.

According to Author Salon's Writers Who Benefit page, they're looking for writers with thick skins, writers who can take a tough love sloshing for the sake of developing a publishable manuscript. But is it all that tough or does it depend on the writer's attitude and receptivity? Author Salon says it does. Below, Connie Chenowith, one of the admins at Author Salon, talks to us about tough love, giving offense, getting published and other things.

WE: You gals and guys at Author Salon say you're out to offend writers. Are you succeeding?

AS: Most definitely. We've managed to offend about a half dozen so far and we're just getting started.  We believe that by the end of 2012 we will have angered hundreds.

WE: Do you have a goal in mind?  Any dream number you would like to achieve?

AS: Yes, ten thousand by 2020. It's a rallying cry around the office, so to speak.

WE: What is the point of trying to be a Tasmanian devil?  

AS: [Connie laughs] Actually, giving offense isn't intentional, it's just a matter of course with certain types of writers, the thin skinners. If you squirm angrily or feel attacked when a fellow writer or a professional tells you something about your writing or story you don't wish to hear, then you are certainly offended. If you react with rage and seek to smear or punish, then you have what we call Offended Writer Syndrome, or OWS for short. But our critique is based on specific rules and we keep it sane and polite. Critique from professionals can be firm, of course, but it's fair and well informed.  Not everyone can handle that.

WE: Has anyone had an attack of OWS since you're opened your doors?

AS: Oh, yes.  One went out with a vow to wreck havoc. Bring us down, so to speak. She assumed various pseudos and began rage posting, making us out to be a pack of moronic hateful lions roving the boards and looking for blood ... oh, and we also we sent her unprofessional mails loaded with typos and grammatical mistakes, you know, whatever she could think of, and so forth. Classic OWS, classic! [Connie laughs] How did Kipling put it?  If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools? ... Her first diatribe was posted directly on the site following a good critique she despised. One of the mods removed it and asked her to please refrain from posting inflammatory and inappropriate rants in a member's crit topic, then of course, deprived of that catharsis, she went on to greater ballistic achievements. And naturally, since we deleted her mouth from the forum, that turned into a theatrical howl on the evils of censorship. After all, the poor baby was only trying to give us good advice ... and then it went viral. Ahhhhh, it never ends.

WE: Wow, that's ... wow. It makes my head mushy. It's like watching a horror movie. I'd call it, THIN SKINNER, make it into a series. A psychotic thin skinner kidnaps editors and locks them in a basement, and they regain consciousness on a bed of sharp pencils.

AS: [Connie laughs] But we accept this kind of nonsense and move on because for every one case of OWS we have 50 writers working hard to hone their skills and projects. We have a very large percentage of talented writers with high concept projects, and the act of detailed and methodical critique makes them behave like picky editors, and that helps them grow also.

WE: So Author Salon is out to set writers up with publishers and agents?  How is that going so far? Well enough to justify the horrors of OWS?

AS: Yes, well enough! We're still  in beta test at this moment, but we already have three projects under development with a film production company in Los Angeles, a number of projects in various genres already requested by major agents and New York publishers, and we're planning a Literary Showcase Week soon. We'll display to a select group of editors and agents a number of high concept projects by good writers in all genres.

WE: But do really busy agents and editors have time to hunt around Author Salon for the gold?

AS: With the exception of young and hungry agents actively looking for clients, they don't for the most part, so we go to them.

WE: How so?

AS: We create the Literary Showcase pages and direct them to that, and we also keep them looped on projects via email. We do have several roaming the site.  As Author Salon grows and gains more rep, more will come.

WE: Alright then, Connie, thanks for this interview.  The Writer's Edge wishes you and Author Salon the best.  The site looks fantastic and some of the craft advice, like the six act novel structure, appears original.

AS:  Right, we're a think tank also. We're always mulling over the possibility of new tools to provide our writers. We love our writers.

WE: Thank you so much, Connie!

AS: Thank you. 

The Author Salon video: