House of Words
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” …Lewis Carroll.
When I was a kid, aside from wanting to be a writer, part of me wanted to be an architect. To design and build houses – and castles – from the ground up. To focus on the 3-D aesthetic of what goes where and how it all fits together. As I grew up, I realized that you don’t have to build houses to focus on the elements of construction. And so today, I want to talk about literary structure, about how, as writers, we are architects with words.
First, let me clarify: I am not talking about plot. Personally, I tend to be a little lukewarm about plot. But I love structure.
And at heart, structure is largely a matter of knowing – and keeping – a story’s time.
Long ago, one chilly Paleolithic evening, our storytelling ancestors sat around the hearth and talked about their day tracking woolly rhinos and dodging cave bears. And when there was a lull in the tale someone would invariably say, “What happened next?”
Such an A-to-B-to-C progression is, after all, how we live, and literature – even at its most fantastic – tends to mirror life. It is this familiarity, no matter how tenuous, which draws the reader in and lets them (us) say, “Yes! I can relate to that person/dormouse/dragon. They have elevenses before tea just like I do.”
This is the natural flow of time, the requisite of history books, biographies, and Dickensian tomes beginning with “I was born.” Chronology. Day follows day, week follows week, year, year, in a logical progression. Just as you build a house floor to wall to roof, so you build a tale beginning to middle to end. This is the skeleton upon which we drape characters and plots, themes and lofty metaphors. Spanning an hour or a century, a linear sense of time serves as the most simple – reliable – framework for a story.
So, your foundation runs deep, load-bearing walls are in place, no holes in your roof. You have a solid structure; now, within reason, you can do most anything with it. As long as the ornamentation suits the tale, go for it. Add a tower for lofty perspective or a priest’s hole full of subplot and tangential intrigue. Paint the walls with psychedelic murals or line them with yard after yard of leather-bound books. These are the details of character and text that make fiction more than a string of events. Though remember: adding gingerbread to an intimate tale for the hell of it tends to read as just showing off. You want to enhance, not distract.
You can even start having fun with time, an increasing used conceit of contemporary fiction. One of my favorite plays is Harold Pinter’s classic, “Betrayal,” which spins out across the stage from end to beginning, from good-bye to hello, last awkward look first fervid touch. And yet, as much as Pinter manipulated the presentation of events, his frame’s always solid.
Or you have something like William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” in which, without strict regard for chronological order, the Compson brothers (and Dilsey, the family cook) explore not only their relationships with each other, but also their personal relationships with time. In the end, Time takes on a character all its own, defining the Compsons as profoundly as any human connection they might have.
Leaving typical notions of chronology even further by the wayside is Julio Cortazar’s interactive lyric novel, “Hopscotch.” Escheresque in its complexity, Cortazar so fractured his temporal world that he provided reading instructions for the book – a sort of temporal GPS, if you will, lest you get lost. (If you haven’t read it, give it a shot; it’s a treat on many levels.) But even Cortazar doesn’t abandon a temporal framework entirely. It is still there, the underlying – if extreme – blueprint to his work.
One last thought, strictly from an editor’s perspective. Flaws and deviations from sound structure are often easy to see and usually easy to fix. If you find yourself getting lost along your way, step back and see where you went down the wrong hallway, opened the wrong door, and backtrack to the basics.
Granted, not everyone has architectural sensibilities. If you can’t see something yourself, go to someone who can. That’s what editors are for.
OK. I’ve rambled quite enough.