Monday, May 27, 2019

More Considerations: Form in Fiction

I recently read a book about narrative form. Wait, don’t stop reading! The book is Meander, Spiral, Explode, by Jane Alison, an author and writing teacher. Her premise is fairly simple: the traditional story arc is a limited way to imagine the creation of fiction. Why not use other patterns, those found in nature and all around? Why not meander through the text, exploring side alleys. Or maintain a bit more focus, with a plot that spins in a spiral around a central point. Or construct a narrative in which “a powerful center holds the fictional world…tightly in its gravitational force." In other words, an explosion. Alison takes us through a variety of patterns, with examples from literary history and with an eagerness for discovery and creation. For a good summary of the book’s argument, read this.


I marked many passages while reading Alison’s explorations, but one stood above all others:

“The point now: Sebald’s Emigrants was the first book to show me a way beyond the casual arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative: motion less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense. This motion involved pattern, arising (I later learned) ‘from the spatial interweavings of images and phrases independent of any time-sequence of narrative action’ (Joseph Frank, ‘The Idea of Spatial Form’).”
Aside from the text mentions, what she’s talking about is that sense of figuring things out, that exercise of filling in white space with what your conscious (and subconscious) is absorbing as you read a story. Plot and character clues, yes, but also the building of elements such as repeated imagery, or the deepening of meaning when a phrase is repeated or used at pivotal moments. Stuff like that. Think about when you’re reading a mystery and something suddenly becomes apparent. A lightbulb moment. That feeling, only it’s about the entirety of the thing you’re reading.

And it occurs to me that this has been a preoccupation of mine from the first moment I began to write. My autobiographical first novel, about the experience of being adopted and finding my biological family, was written from the POV of three different women, each with their own story stemming from that event—the adoption—and how it shaped their lives. Alison might call that a radial, or explosion. The second novel I wrote was called ”Good Sunday” and although I did imagine a structure for it, roughly related to the Catholic Church’s Stations of the Cross (don’t ask—I was young!), this novel takes place over the course of the day and really is probably a meander, as it unifies the story and characters through a series of seemingly random events and imagery. In my third finished (and first published) novel, The Qualities of Wood, my initial impulse was to write a book that seemed like a mystery—with a dead body and cast of possible suspects—but surprise!—the real mystery would be the slow revelation of character, which would sneak up almost imperceptibly as the main character thinks she’s actually solving something else. (A note: as it turns out, readers of mystery, by and large, are not thrilled with a book that pretends to be a mystery but actually isn’t).

And I’ve yammered on and on this year about my most recent book, Bellflower, which is certainly my most obvious experimentation with form. I won’t say more since I’ve already said plenty, but you can read about its form here.
I think anything I write moving forward will start with a consideration of form. If you had asked me where those past projects began, I might have said things like setting, or character, or—in the case of yet another unpublished, untitled novel I wrote after TQOW—an idea. Form is something I deal with as a writing teacher, when I point out the traditional arc structure, show examples of novels that effectively employ it, and then, those that effectively don’t. All of teaching (and learning) about writing seems to follow another type of pattern: Here is what has been written already. Here are some “rules.” Here are things that follow the rules and are wonderful. Here are things that don’t, things that were a deviation and a surprise and yet, are equally or even more wonderful. What’s better than stumbling upon a new, unpredicted path? Writers have always pushed against constraints; form experimentation is nothing new. But flexing your creative muscles with new types of training is always a good idea and form is a good place to start.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka