Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week 2:  From Chapter 3: Outer and Inner Turning Points

Let's say, very unoriginally, that writing a novel is like running a marathon. (Disclaimer: I have never run a marathon. I wouldn't like to run a marathon. I'm not keen on driving 26 miles, let alone running 26 miles. But I digress.) You start your marathon (or novel) fresh-legged, the wind at your back, your carbo-loaded tank nice and full.

And then, you hit the dreaded wall. "The muddle in the middle," some call it.

In Donald Maass's words:
Middles are tough. Too many middles in manuscripts and published novels are routine, lackluster, just there, nothing special.
Maass has an opinion about why this happens. (I love his image of the weakly beating heart!):
Sagging middle scenes slump... because their purpose hasn't yet emerged. Authors, as they plow through the middle portion of their manuscripts, tend to write what they think ought to come next; furthermore, they write it in the first way it occurs to them to do so... The push to rack up pages, to meet self-imposed or actual deadlines, makes it easy to avoid tearing apart a scene to find its weakly beating heart and surgically open it.
So, what can one do to improve? Maass has the following prescription:
Look away from the page and look toward what is really happening. What change takes place? When does that change occur (at what precise second in the scene)? In that moment, how is the point of view character changed? The point of these questions is to find the scenes' turning points.
What are turning points? In Maass' definition, they are the times in each scene when 1) things change that everyone can understand; 2) the way in which the scene's point-of-view character also changes as a result. He labels them outer and inner turning points. As Maass always does, he uses published examples to demonstrate what he means. [In this chapter, the examples he uses are Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), and Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).] In conclusion, he asks
What about your scenes? Does every scene of travel, arrival, aftermath, investigation, meeting--all the business of getting your character from beginning to end--capture a sharply defined turning point and reveal its inner meaning? Are you sure? What if you were to do a scene draft of your novel? Suppose you broke down every discrete unit of the story, pinned down its turning point, and measured in words the change it brings to each point-of-view character? Would your story get stronger?
See why I love this guy? He's down-to-earth, and he challenges each of us to do better, and to spend time on scene-surgery. Writers always say that writing is essentially rewriting. If you have The Fire in Fiction as your novel's marathon coach, it will help immeasurably.

Next week: "Striding Forward, Falling Back."

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