Posted November 14, 2017
The Architecture of Narrative
Excerpt from the introduction
Between 1997 and 2007 I worked as a manuscript assessor, reading and giving feedback on novels-in-progress. Being an omnivorous reader myself, and having turned my hand as a writer to several different genres and markets, I assessed across the narrative spectrum, from literary fiction to crime, from fantasy for children to fantasy for adults, from action thrillers to romance.
A manuscript assessor has to be able to identify problems in technique, outline those problems and offer solutions. Doing so for countless manuscripts helped me sharpen my understanding of genres and their conventions; and it taught me to spot the pitfalls that can snare all writers.
Within a short time I noticed that just about all the manuscripts I read stumbled over the same issues. Characters, whether they were protagonists or antagonists, were always passive. This meant that other characters had to work to bring plot to the protagonist, even when it was against the interests of these characters.
Moreover, conflict was a huge bugbear. It made writers feel so uncomfortable that, try as they might, they always arranged matters so that the characters could avoid it as much as possible. Some writers were ingenious in the ways they found to avoid conflict. At the same time it was obvious they understood conflict had to be there in some form.
Before long, I was formulating a way of looking at these issues, analysing them, and communicating them to the writers in terms of their novels-in-progress. My aim has always been to try to help writers see where to go next, while at the same time doing my utmost to respect their own imagination and the themes that preoccupy them.
I did my best to explain the difference between imagination and the principles of narrative, and how sometimes, perhaps often, imagination must bend its neck to the principles, just as most of us, as members of society, curb our impulses in order to live within the law. When any of us breaks the law, we are brought to book, which might mean a fine or imprisonment. When a writer disregards the principles of narrative, they lose the reader. That is, the reader stops reading and feels no incentive to resume.
In 2007 I moved away from manuscript assessing and became a writing mentor. I found this much more congenial as a way of helping writers improve their narratives. An assessment report can offer some help. But a writer can’t ask a report what this or that concept means. A writer can’t explain to a report what they are trying to do in their manuscript. My style of mentorship is based on discussion. Writers are able to question me on anything they don’t understand; describe what lights up their imagination; ask me what works and what doesn’t work; how to manage this narrative effect or that narrative effect. I’ve enjoyed long and exciting conversations with these people about their characters and the sticky situations they get into.
And so I came to write this book, partly as a response to my students’ requests, partly because it was time I consolidated my knowledge in this area in a single repository.