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17.06.2011 01:59    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing  Writing Craft  Writing Tips      Tags: philip gerard  outlining  

The novel is an organic event that requires prepared ground to do its work.

 

So let us define the problem solved by the cathedral: How do you build a large indoor lighted space? Answer: You create an architecture of light. Which is exactly what the novelist must do.

 

From the architect's point of view, the prosaic problem solved by the cathedral is most significantly not a problem of faith, ego, legacy, or even beauty-there is nothing either personal or sublime about it. It is a problem of architecture-of structure, not beauty; of craft, not art. But if it is solved with sound engineering, art and beauty are made possible.

 

For thousands of years, builders were obsessed with the problem of creating a large interior space. This sounds simple, but think about it again, and you'll understand the challenge of the novel.

 

It was easy enough to construct a gigantic roofless space-like the Roman Colosseum. Walls are easy. But how do you hold up the roof on the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame? How do you hold up the middle?

 

A corollary problem that distinguishes the cathedral from, say, a granary: The space must be lighted-something important, some sacred communication, must occur inside it. In an age before electric or even gas lamps, this was no small challenge. And if you are depending on load-bearing walls for support-walls that must be very thick indeed if you're building a tower to heaven-you have to figure out ways to cut large, high windows without making the whole shell so structurally weak it topples from the sheer weight of itself.

 

We rediscover that a whole series of innovations, from the Roman arch to the flying buttress, and including the cruciform of the cathedral itself, are all engineering inventions to help hold up the roof-the middle.

 

You've got to do some close figuring, some careful calculations, to arrive at the blueprint that makes possible mystery and beauty.

 

One useful place to begin is to encapsulate the thrust of your novel into a signature-as in music: defining the key, the pace, the range of tonal possibilities.

 

Think of Moby Dick: Madman goes hunting for a white whale. Anna Karenina: Beautiful woman marries the wrong man. Huckleberry Finn: Two guys float down the river on a raft, trying to escape to freedom.

 

The signature, expressed as one simple defining sentence, may sound trivial, but it can focus your effect.

 

It's your purpose, the driving line of the novel. Every other creative decision you make derives from that purpose.

 

Think of the signature as the cable the hauls the roller-coaster cars up the long, slow hill of suspense, around the hairpin turn of reversal, down the stomach-clenching fall. We don't care about that cable-we probably don't even realize it's there. But it makes the ride work. Without it, none of the thrills would be possible.

 

One way to write a novel is to outline it first. A lot of writers don't, but I maintain that once you have conceived a structural template, you have much more freedom within that to relax and allow the story to surprise you-since you're not struggling so hard to make sure it has dramatic coherence. In your outline, you have already established an overall coherence. The arc of the story hangs together. You've framed your cathedral.

 

The kind of outline I mean is basic and spare, and consists of six parts:

 

1. Working title (you can change this later: The Great Gatsby started out as The High-Bouncing Lover), which helps you focus on the main concern of your novel.

 

2. Signature (your roller-coaster cable: Poor boy, Gatsby, tries to win heart of rich girl, Daisy).

 

3. List of major characters (who: In Gatsby there are only three who matter to the story, four more who matter to the plot, and a handful of bit players).

 

4. List of major locales (where: In Gatsby, five locals serve all the action).

 

5. Numbered chapters, each containing a one-sentence description of the central event (Chapter 1: Nick meets Daisy, Jordan Baker and Tom).

 

The Architecture of Chapters: This takes two forms: the arrangement of chapters within the larger framework of the novel, and the progress of scenes within each chapter.

 

Dramatically, the "rule" of chapters is the rule of scenes in any fiction: Each one should have a clear reason for inclusion. It should not just provide more information, a more thorough resume of characters, or lush description of place. It may do all those things, but first it must have an indispensable role in moving the story along. [My italics-UW]

 

Unlike a short story, a novel chapter must be both complete and unfinished-that is, it must seem to be one discrete thing, a self-contained dramatic whole, and yet it must create enough new anticipation to make the reader carry his interest over to the start of the next chapter.

 

6. Your concept of the ending-not in exact terms, but a recognition of what the ending must address (does the poor boy win the rich girl?).

 

With practice you can construct such an outline in your head.

 

As you write, and as your understanding of your own story develops, almost everything will change. Locally-within chapters and scenes, moment by moment-you will be surprised and inspired, events will take remarkable, unexpected turns; new characters will arrive out of nowhere. That's as it should be. You should be writing for the same reason your reader is reading: to find out what happens next.

 

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