Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A novel is more than an Idea



I think it's funny when people (who aren't writers) say 'I've got an idea for a novel.' I always want to say - 'Okay - now you need about fifty more and then you can think about getting started'... 

I shared this with my friend, Helen, recently when we were discussing ‘ideas’ for stories and it’s led me to think about the structure of writing in more detail. Ideas create the plot, but once you've got your fifty ideas that work together with unexpected twists and turns, it's still not sorted. There is a lot more going on in a novel.

To me, a novel is like a jigsaw – one of those really complex 3D ones that comes without a picture on the box! A novel is also like a piece of music – it has counterpoint – several different lines that move along simultaneously, crossing over each other and then crossing back, coming together and rising to hit that  essential climax towards the end. In fact, there are lots of similarities with music. 

(Microsoft clip art)

I studied music analysis at university and was fascinated by how individual composers put together a symphony or concerto. We took music apart, bit by bit, to see how it worked. It has helped me with my writing. Anyone who has studied Schenker will know what I mean by background, foreground and middleground, but a writer will easily grasp these concepts too. It’s about structure and what is fundamental to the work, (the key points that need to lodge in the reader’s mind for the story to make sense). It is also about texture, layering, resolutions, which strands to bring to the fore at any one point, which strands to keep simmering away in the background. Pace is another quality that music and writing share; speed and intensity used to heighten sections of jeopardy and high drama.

Sentences, the building blocks of writing, have their own rhythm – you can have clunky sentences and well-paced ones. The words can suddenly stop. Start again. They can draw attention to themselves or be smooth and flowing.

The section below is from Engleby by Sebastian Faulks who I think is one of our first-rate living writers. I think he uses rhythm well and it is an essential part of his writing style:

        ‘Don’t patronize me if you read this thirty years on, will you? Don’t think of me as old-fashioned, wearing silly clothes or some nonsense like that. Don’t talk crap about ‘the seventies’, will you, as we now do about ‘the forties’. I breathe air like you. I feel food in my bowel and a lingering taste of tea in my mouth. I’m alive, as you are…’

Writing in any genre, it's useful to be aware of all the parameters that are involved in making a story work. It's so much more than an idea.