WIR #10: Structuring Your Novel

Structuring Your NovelMeredith, Robert C., and John D. Fitzgerald. Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. Copyright © 1972, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald.

John D. Fitzgerald at Wikipedia:

I've taken my time with this one, but not deliberately so.

Chapter 3, titled "How to Develop a Plot or Story Line," addresses a very familiar issue for writers, but does so in a way I've not seen in any other book on writing. Some writers speak of putting an emphasis on plot; others of putting an emphasis on characters; still others talk of characters giving rise to plot; yet others of plot giving rise to characters; and there are other variations on these themes, as well. Personally, I rather like the definitions given in this book. I think they make good sense and that they encompass all the variations mentioned.

This book states flatly that a novel has either a plot or a story line. Regarding a novel with plot the authors say:

In a novel with a plot the emphasis is on events (things that happen), and the protagonist emerges from the novel with his character relatively unchanged from what it was in the beginning.

A classic example of this is the modern detective story. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels are of this sort. Character is involved in the story, yes, but in the Stephanie Plum novels, while the reader enjoys learning more about Stephanie and while that aspect adds to the books' entertainment value, in the end, Stephanie does not change at the end of each of those books. The emphasis of each story is on Stephanie's efforts as a bounty hunter; it's more about what happens, than it is about why. The answer to the question Why? does get answered, but that is not the thrust of these stories.

Regarding a novel with a story line the authors say:

In a novel with a story line the emphasis is on character, and the protagonist always emerges from the novel with his character different from the way it was in the beginning of the novel because of character development or character disintegration.

Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea is a good example of a novel with a story line. Ged, the main character, starts off brash and bold, wanting to prove himself the better of a character named Jasper at the wizarding school on the isle of Roke. As events unfold, Ged learns the price of a thing he did earlier in the novel and the story finishes with Ged a different person, having learned an important lesson. I think many fantasy novels tend to be novels with a plot rather than a story line, if you adhere to these definitions. All of Rowling's Harry Potter novels have plots (the books' emphases is not character change, but the events surrounding the battle with Valdemort); Tolkien's The Hobbit is a novel with a plot (Bilbo returns home essentially the same, but having experienced an adventure and wealthier for it), as is his Lord of the Rings, which is a quest-mileu novel (LOTR is as much about the events leading up to the destruction of the One Ring as it is about showing the readers the world of Middle Earth).

There can be novels with plots or story lines in any genre, and any story can have elements of both; the distinguishing factor, however, is one of emphasis and how a story ends is what marks a novel as one or the other.

I also quite enjoyed Chapter 4, titled "How to Select the Right Viewpoint." There were real gems in this book's discussion of this subject, as its approach was different from other books. Most fascinating, I thought, was the discussion of the viewpoints used in Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I've not read Flaubert's novel, but I now would like to. Madame Bovary, the authors tell us, is one of the few novels narrated in both first and third persons. Something about this chapter, however, triggered in my imagination just how creatively viewpoint could be used — perhaps it was their discussion of Flaubert. In fact, that alone has, for me, given rise to thoughts about a new story idea. Unfortunately, it's an idea that, I'm sure, is best left untouched for the moment — save to write down what little I know of it; not because the idea is still undeveloped (although that is true), but because it would involve a complex form of storytelling in which I am as yet inexperienced.

Chapter 9, "How to Characterize," is one of the most insightful in the book. The authors outline 16 different ways to reveal the character of fictional people, going into wonderful detail and providing many examples from the books referenced earlier. For item #5, for example, "Character tags help to characterize," the authors list five different types of tags: physical (a boy being small for his age, as an example), appearance (this has more to do with how a character presents themselves than physical appearance, obviously; appearance is usually determined by a character's clothes), mannerisms (a character who frequently grins, for example, and does so deliberately, even in circumstances where it would seem out of place), habits (mannerisms differ from habits in that they are more self-conscious, so an example of a habit might be a character who has the annoying habit of clacking their teeth together when they eat, but they are quite unaware that they do this, or a character who smokes after eating), and, finally, favorite expressions (we all have favorite expressions — "Good God!" or "That's freakin' awesome!" or some such thing; these are often used to characterize minor players in a novel). These tags are repeated often so as to better distinguish one fictional person from another. This is definitely a chapter worth in-depth study.

Chapter 13, "How To Employ Craftsmanship: Part II," which is largely about revision, also contains an extensive section on avoiding clichés in any form, clichéd plots or story lines, clichéd scenes, clichéd characters, clichéd language, etc. This book is a veritable treasure trove (had to strike out the cliché LOL) a suitcase so packed with relevant, useful, practical advice that the frayed straps wrapped around it to hold it closed are threatening to break apart. (Okay, that might've been over-written, but you get my point.)

I quite enjoyed this book. It uses several novels to illustrate all the points made, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (novel with a story line), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (novel with a story line), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (novel with a story line), Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (novel with a plot), John Lecarré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (novel with a plot). To some extent, the authors also use John Steinbeck's The Pearl and The Grapes of Wrath, but the focus on these novels in the exercises at the end of each chapter. And, actually, there are two sets of exercises. The first set (and their purpose) is discussed in the paragraph below. The second set asks the reader to read The Pearl and The Grapes of Wrath and to view them in light of the lessons contained in each chapter.

The first set of exercises is meant to help the would-be novelist to develop a novel with a plot or story line (their choice) and, as they say at the end of chapter three, they are also "designed practically to force the would-be novelist to finish a novel once it is begun." They are meant to help the would-be novelist to develop their story's conflict inexorably forward to the point where "the causally related events become irreversible." Some might read this book and think that these exercises portray the writing of a novel as a paint-by-numbers proposition, but they do not. They are designed to get the writer to think thoroughly about the story they want to write so that things flow causally and logically from one story complication to the next.

One "fault" with this book is that if you haven't read any of the books they use to illustrate their lessons, then those books will be "spoiled" for you, as many things about them are revealed, including their endings. (Also, while having read those books beforehand will aid the reader's understanding of the lessons in this book, I don't believe it is necessary. In fact, I think that's exactly why Steinbeck's The Pearl and The Grapes of Wrath are used for the exercises. You read about how these lessons apply to the other novels while reading and learning firsthand how they apply to Steinbeck's books.) However — and this, I think, is an incredibly salient point — this book, with its breakdown and analysis of crafting a story, cannot help but force you to learn to read as a writer, and with that new tool in hand a subsequent reading of Madame Bovary, From Here to Eternity, Tom Jones, or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold can only enhance your appreciation of those stories. They are all considered such excellent novels written by very talented novelists and have been so well-received and used as examples in so many books on writing that I've no doubt that they still can be thoroughly enjoyed despite any spoilers encountered in Fitzgerald and Meredith's book.

3 comment(s):

monstro said...
February 04, 2010 2:40 PM

This is a very interesting post, even for someone who's not in the writing craft. The distinction between story line and plot, for instance, is one of the many things I had never thought about.
Thanks for sharing this! :)

g d townshende said...
February 04, 2010 9:44 PM

Thanks. :D This was, by far, one of the most instructive books I've read on the craft of writing a novel. I've a feeling that I will be rereading it sometime soon.

Regarding the novel with a plot vs novel with a story line distinction, I found that particularly helpful. A distinction such as this helps one to better understand what sort of books one enjoys reading most (plot or story line?) and, therefore, what sort of books one would likely be more comfortable writing.

g d townshende said...
February 04, 2010 9:49 PM

Another thing: that distinction also helps one to understand why some authors approach writing a novel as a story that grows out of character, and why others approach it from the perspective of characters arising from plot. It shows that these are really two sides of the same coin, the difference being one of where the emphasis lies. Detective stories, being the perfect example of a story with a plot, provide the best example of why a novel can be approached from either direction, and why each approach necessarily results in a different sort of ending.

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