NOT ALL FICTION IS FOUNDED on the falling dominos of cause and effect. Some stories concern being rather than doing, states rather than processes. Rather Eastern, really.
The writer’s problem is to make something essentially static, something that doesn’t change, seem to move and develop before the reader’s eyes. Otherwise the resulting story will be about as absorbing as watching a puddle.
The writer has to select or create some structure that’s appropriate to the material and that will act just as plot would, as an organizing principle to which he or she can refer questions of what to put in and what to leave out, what to develop and what to pass over, when to move and when to stand still.
The three strategies this Chapter discusses – mosaic, collage, and revelation – can all happily coexist with plot, and with one another. Particularly in long fiction, collage or mosaic may be used as an additional element or variation within an otherwise plotted story, as are the newreels in John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. or the extended character sketches in Faulkner’s The Town. (Then, they should be handled like exposition, which is also static and a potential distraction from the plotline: they should be kept brief and interjected only when the plot’s running strongly and will carry the reader through the interpolation.) Revelation, a mystery gradually disclosed, is part of the archetypal Story, we’ve been telling one another since we began to be people.
But in literary or experimental fiction, non-plot techniques are something the main organizing principle of the whole short story. The story may contain a few incidents, but these aren’t linked to one another in a cause/effect way. They’re not plot. And a short story, being compact, can better sustain lots of technical “special effects” than can a whole novel: imagine watching five hours’ worth of Laugh-In or MTV, or read about the first thirty pages of Finnegans Wake, and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
All these techniques manipulate a story’s surface, make it move, to compensate for the fact that the essential content doesn’t move or change. And coping with a complicated surface can be as difficult, for a reader, as trying to make out what’s being reflected in a choppy lake or trying to read by strobe light. Remember that, when you’re writing. Balance motion and stillness at least enough so that the reader can figure out what the situation is, who the people are, and why the story will be worth puzzling out.
The first strategy depends on selection and recurrence, as discussed in Chapter 8: Patterns, Mirrors, and Echoes. Things repeat, and that repetition can be seen as a kind of motion. Patterns of images, of symbols, of repeated situations and attitudes, have a cumulative impact. Detail adds to detail, each clarifying the adjacent details, like putting together a puzzle. Not until all the pieces are in place is the whole picture at last revealed.
Each piece is complete and has a shape of its own, but its fascination is in how it relates to all the other pieces, the picture slowly emerging that’s not contained in any one piece but is the sum of them all.
This strategy is like that of the Impressionists, who built up pictures out of coloured dots. If you don’t have any Seurat handy, look at a newspaper photo through a magnifying glass to see the clusters of tiny spots that, at the proper distance, resolves themselves into a face.
Let’s call this technique “mosaic structure.”
It comes in five major formats: mood piece, character study, slice-of-life, theme and variation, and allegory. All depend on the accumulation and arrangement of carefully selected detail. Although the individual pieces may be static, the energy comes from seeing how they relate and make a whole, and from guessing toward the final picture as each piece is added.
Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is primarily a mood piece. True, things happen in it – the house does fall down, and Usher’s sister doesn’t apparently rise from her crypt – but these events aren’t related in a linear, literal, cause-effect way. Horrible revelations don’t normally affect one’s architecture. There’s a strong element of surrealism and perhaps even loose allegory (of which, more in a minute) in this story, but the descriptions of people and setting serve less to characterize Roderick Usher, his sister, or the narrator than to create a mood of feverish foreboding which comes to crisis for dreamlike reasons, not literal ones.
A lot of horror fiction – “tales of terror” and of “lurking dread” – and atmospheric gothic fiction are structured more to build and sustain a particular mood than to develop plot. At the other end of the spectrum, inspirational and religious fiction does the same thing in terms of uplift and reassurance that all’s well with the world. A mood has to be a strong one, to sustain even a whole short story, with minimal or no help from plots.
Mood pieces tend to be closed and rather claustrophobic worlds in which the major objects become luminous, significant to each of the major characters. There’s much opportunity for symbolism. This often takes the form of some object standing, either for the whole spectrum of attitudes being considered, or for one particular element in that spectrum. Roderick Usher’s house is more than a house – it’s a kind of emanation of his personality, a larger skin his spirit inhabits. When the spirit fails and Roderick dies, the house falls down as one’s body collapses at death. It’s perfectly reasonable, given what the house has come to represent by the end of the story. An inner fact or process is made literal – the basis of most surrealism.
It’s important, in a mood piece, to pick a strong mood and to choose appropriate characters, settings, and objects to represent and reinforce it. Using mirroring characters, each demonstrating some facet of the story’s central attitude or situation, is a common technique. Another is making the landscape and physical surroundings appear nearly alive, so that they can seem imbued with menace or hope, haunted for either good or ill, to project the inner state or mood onto the world at large. When you feel gloomy, the whole world looks drab; when you’re anxious, the world seems bright-edged, sudden, and threatening, as though it were about to pounce. A phone’s ringing can blast like a fire alarm.
This kind of projection, sometimes called “the pathetic fallacy,” serves to make a story’s mood seem part of reality itself, not just a personal and idiosyncratic quirk of the protagonist. It’s no accident that the house of Usher is located on the precarious edge of a menacing and oily-looking tarn.
Moods are fragile things. If you strike one wrong note, the mood will collapse and dump the reader back into hard-headed rationality. Don’t let into your story any character, situation, or object that doesn’t contribute to and share the chosen mood. In gothic romance, nobody has an itch or visits the orthodontist. In horror fiction, nobody Has a Nice Day. Except for the briefest of comic relief that ends up reinforcing the mood (the orthodontist has fangs; the Nice Day is a sinister mask for Something Else), keep to your mood from first to last.
A character sketch employs much the same strategy as a mood piece, except that the subject involved isn’t a feeling, but all the important facets of a given person in his or her particular context. So the strategy is often to present a series of situations that bring out the character’s possibilities and essential attitudes – all the relevant parts of who that person is. Each of these situations may be fragmentary – not a complete scene in the usual sense of the word – because its purpose isn’t to develop a plot but to let the character demonstrate his or her basic nature.
That’s the overall strategy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield shows who he is through a journey that involves successive meetings with adults and finally with his sympathetic sister.
Relationships are confined to those which add further detail to the developing picture of the character. If his dead father is important, then there may be recollections or even flashbacks of that relationship; if her interest in architecture is the guiding force in her life, the story might be structured in terms of her visits to different buildings, showing what a school, a church, the theatre mean to her and therefore precisely who she is in that particular context. If she cares more for architecture than for people, each building might be empty, or filled with strangers the story shows her ignoring or misunderstanding.
Each piece of the story should be either a new facet of the character’s being or an effective repetition and development of one already shown.
My story “A Sense of Family” was much more a character sketch, showing the nature and possibilities of its protagonist, than it was a plotted story, since all Val’s actions end up short-circuited and frustrated. She never does collect the money she’s owed or get to her brother’s wedding. If plot were the only interest, the story would probably be a letdown to most readers. But the gradual revelation that what keeps Val from relating to people in more effective personal ways is her very strength, her ability to live on her own terms without compromise but also without anger or love, provides a fuller and more ironic picture than the plot alone could communicate.
Character sketches can be structured from the outside in, developing first the most external and commonplace of the character’s doing and relationships, then dealing with ones successively closer to eventually show the one thing at the centre. Alternatively, they can be structured broadly, mixing the important with the more trivial so that a pattern can emerge. Or they can be a species of collage built around strong contrasts and perhaps the gradual revelation of unexpected or unusual traits.
Although a single character or a cluster of characters – say, a family – may be at the centre of a slice-of-life story, the story’s main concern is not to explore their personalities. Rather, it’s to use them as ways to demonstrate their social context. They tend to be representative characters, chosen because they demonstrate a given social situation so well rather than primarily because they’re so interesting as people.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a portrait of the Okies displaced westward by the dust bowl disaster of the thirties. It’s the Okies as a group who are important, rather than the Joads in particular. They’re significant as a typical family who, through their travels and trials, show what Steinbeck conceived to be the main facets of that social upheaval as a whole.
That they’re typical, though, doesn’t mean they’re not highly individualized. Ma Joad, in particular, is as memorable a character as ever was written. Rather, they’re a way of making concrete and immediate the human dimension of economic and social disaster.
Similarly, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, Heller’s Catch-22, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and much of the short fiction of Cheever and Roth, are attempts to reveal a certain way of living – a time, a place, a social context – as demonstrated by the experiences of a given set of characters. The characters and the plot elements (if any) are less important for their drama than for their representative qualities, persuading the reader that the small reveals the large and that each character and event has a significance beyond the merely individual.
The danger with slice-of-life stories is that, in the absence of a plot to keep things moving, the small incidents of individual lives intended to demonstrate a larger social reality will just seem trivial and boring. A friend of mine describes slice-of-life, not altogether jokingly, as stories where a woman in carpet slippers goes out to buy a loaf of bread and then comes home again. It’s crucial, in such stories, that the events chosen be vivid and interesting in themselves and be arranged and presented in such a way that the reader can’t help noticing they mirror a reality larger than the merely personal.
Melodrama can come to your rescue here, as I did for Steinbeck and Dickens. Virtually a whole state uprooted, dust storms, cruelty and hope, strong family relationships put to the ultimate test, violent events of many kinds, prevent The Grapes of Wrath from ever seeming mundane, boring, or everyday. Similarly, Oliver Twist’s colourful details of life in London’s underworld of child exploitation and the vividness of individual characters like Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Nancy compensate for Dickens’ exceedingly improbably plot weakened, at most crucial points, by the extensive use of coincidence.
Slice-of-life has a tendency to yawn. Don’t let it.
Theme and Variation
Moby Dick is an exploration of humanity’s relation to the infinite and the eternal. Hamlet has been characterized by Lawrence Olivier as being about indecision. A Christmas Carol is about the cost of a selfish alienation from humanity.
In some stories, a single essential concept appears in a variety of forms and is demonstrated in successive situations. While plot can and often does help organize that demonstration, a strong enough theme can sustain a story by itself.
The subject being examined and revealed isn’t a character or a setting or a mood. It’s a cluster of related ideas.
Faulkner’s The Bear illustrates the method. This novelette presents a spectrum of attitudes concerning Nature, maturity, and manhood in the context of a boy’s experiences when he is taken hunting by assorted adult kinfolk. As is the case with the conch and the Beast in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, each character is defined by his relationship with the story’s main totem, the bear, and the ideas of wildness which the bear gradually, through successive and layered detail, comes to represent. And that spectrum of gradually developed and revealed attitudes – each of them static and unchanging, except the boy’s – constitute the story’s structure.
As with the other kinds of mosaic, careful selection of scene, character, and detail are crucial. What doesn’t fit the theme doesn’t belong.
Faulkner’s story doesn’t include anybody who thinks bear hunting is a waste of time, anybody interested in electronics or gourmet cooking or European politics. The setting is the timeless forest, though civilization and urbanization have begun to have an impact on both place and people. Everything in the story contributes to the central theme and the recurring limited spectrum of attitudes, developed piece by piece as the boy interacts with various characters. Things that don’t relate to that spectrum are deliberately excluded. But the range of characters is so rich, the almost mystical rapport with Nature so intense, that the other things aren’t missed. They’re not part of this story’s presentation of a particular way of seeing the world and humankind’s place in it.
If you intend your story to be taken as a credible, albeit heavily edited and arranged, version of everyday reality, it will be important that characters not make obvious speeches spelling out the theme to one another. If everybody in your story is suffering through some phase of divorce, the story’s implicit subject will show itself, just by what’s included and what’s kept out. The larger picture will form, from the individual parts chosen.
To the degree that your story is surrealistic, it’s shading into the next category, allegory, and the appropriate caveats discussed there will apply.
Theme stories are difficult to carry off without plot, because the story’s essential subject, being abstract, intangible, and often highly intellectual (as well as static), is hard to make immediate and involving for a reader.
Again, melodrama to the rescue.
Vivid, exaggerated happenings can hold the eye and the interest while the meaning penetrates more subtly. And credibility can be maintain using some of the techniques discussed in Chapter 7.
Remember Moby Dick is also an adventure story; Hamlet has duels and murders galore, as well as a semitragic love story; A Christmas Carol has ghosts, a sudden trans formation, and judicious tear-jerking; The Bear has the excitements and tensions of the hunt, a first hunt seen through the eyes of a boy. Even without plot, melodrama can compensate and help bring theme to effective life.
But the extremes of melodrama aren’t the only answer. There’s also the sold middle-ground of human imperfection and everyday experience: drama.
As theme stories shade toward plot, toward a pattern of meaningful cause and effect, a story’s essential conflict will often be cast in terms of opposite forces contrasting and colliding. Polarities. Not just simplistic, unmixed Good against absolute Evil, but more subtle shadings of two essential principles each with some claim to validity. One partial Good, as it were, contrasted with another partial Good – individuality and self-fulfillment against responsibility to family or community, for instance, or the conflicting demands, on a parent, of helping two very different children.
The closer such polarities are, the finer the distinction that can be made between what a given story presents as better or worse modes of action or being, and the emotional cost of each. For instance, in the overall field of Charity, can you imagine two conflicting ways of helping people – both well intentioned, but one basically arrogant and humiliating, the other more compassionate but perhaps less effective? Can you imagine two genuine loves – one of which dominates the loved one, the other of which liberates but ends in the lovers’ separating?
Some of the most profound stories aren’t about absolute right and wrong, the melodramatic extremes, but about forces nearly alike, both credibly strong, valid, and humanly imperfect, distinguished by one crucial difference. Does it begin to sound at all like the control and the experimental group and the one variable, discussed in Chapter 8? Because that’s what it is, only on a grander scale.
It’s been said that no one knowingly does Wrong: people always think they have a Good reason for what they do. Those who make wrong choices generally aren’t monsters, freaks, or details – they’re only people, sharing the flaws we all possess. Thus, battles between blatant Good and obvious Evil often aren’t the most persuasive or involving ones – it’s the battles between rival Goods that lead to the special insights and the really hard choices that are the basis of drama.
If your theme story is going to be developed at least in part in terms of plot, you may want to identify for yourself the story’s essential dynamic, the polarity working itself out through the principal characters, and then strengthen it and eliminate clutter. That will clarify not only the terms of the characters’ choices, but the value placed on those choices in your story’s special world, among the alternatives you show to be possible and available.
If you do, you may find that you’ve constructed, not just drama, but literature.
Like a theme story, allegory has a subtext, a pattern of meaning beyond what’s evident on the surface. Just more so. Allegory involves creating a fairly thoroughgoing pattern of symbolism in which all major events and characters in a story have a meaning beyond themselves and those meanings can be put together to make some sort of overall sense.
In its simplest forms, allegory can be a fable like that of the dog in the manger or the fox for some reality of human experience – that some people who can’t use a thing nevertheless are reluctant to let others enjoy it; that some people rationalize their disappointment at being unable to get something by claiming the thing is no good anyway.
Lord of the Flies, in large measure, a fable of this sort. Each of the major characters represents one particular facet of human possibility as Golding conceives it. The characters are stranded on an island to limit them to their own resources. They’re schoolboys (some are choirboys) to underline that they’re as close to innocence as human beings are apt to get. And all are male, I assume, to keep any question of sex from muddling the experiment, since it’s not part of what Golding wants to examine.
They’re boys. But boys plus. Simon, for example, is a fully realized individual. But he also stands for and demonstrates the mystical and hopeful tendencies in all people. He’s the only mystic on the island, just as Piggy is the only intellectual. Jack the only natural hunter, Roger the only sadist, and so on.
Other fables are more complex, and whole groups of characters stand for some concept or idea beyond their role purely as characters. Consider the pigs in Orwell’s fable, Animal Farm – capitalists and totalitarians. Consider the great lion, Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories.
This kind of structural symbolism lends itself to social satire, political polemics, fantasy, and religious fiction. There are innumerable examples of each. Some are plotted; some derive their energy from the tension between symbol and reality, the character and what the character stands for, the gradual revelation of larger meanings.
Allegory can also be the basis of surreal and absurdist fiction, in which the literal meaning (characters living in trashcans or turning overnight into insects) isn’t at all realistic, but, through its bizarre unlikeness, strikingly portrays some equivalent real situation.
Hardly anybody lives in trashcans; but people live in slums, and we speak of “throwaway children,” those who are unwanted by society. And isn’t living in a trashcan a reasonable equivalent or image for either of those real situations? And which of us, at some time, hasn’t felt completely alien within our family, as though we were of some entirely different species – say, an insect? As with Roderick Usher’s anthropomorphic house, the surreal elements, if well chosen, can become a metaphor (e.g., referring to time from being the farthest from the Sun) demonstrating a core truth by exaggerating and making literal its essential emotional dynamic.
There are two main dangers with this kind of fiction. One is that the message, the larger meaning, will take over, making the characters seem like lifeless puppets and the story, however organized, a mechanical thing determined by forces imposed from outside – a political stance, a religious or social ideology. The fiction has a blatant ulterior motive. In extreme cases, the events and people of the story, as presented, make no surface sense at all. Only what they stand for is of any significance; and that’s not enough to make the story readable or coherent.
The second difficulty is establishing the system of symbols itself. The pattern must make sense, rather than seeming an arbitrary authorial whim (umbrella = ambition; galoshes = passionate love; fish = space travel). The symbols chosen must be appropriate both to what they represent and to one another. The connections should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical (e.g. referring to time from being the farthest from the Sun) one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol; but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represents cutting free, cutting loose, in the story’s beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten, later on.
In practice, this makes characterization and plotting doubly hard, since each element of the story carries an added weight of meaning and invites interpretation, as though it were a code to be broken rather than a story to be enjoyed.
Both difficulties, combined with allegory’s tendency to become preachy and polemic and its requirement that the reader put in extra work discerning the second level of meaning, have diminished its popularity over the centuries. Strict allegory, in which virtually every word must support a double meaning and fit into a coherent interpretation, has produced few examples since the Middle Ages. But loose allegory, in which only major events and characters must fit the chosen ideological pattern, still appears with fair frequency and is a staple of experimental, literary fiction, and fantasy.
Collage is closely related to mosaic. But it doesn’t tend to yield an overall picture. Its component parts remain parts, individual and isolated.
Imagine a picture that’s composed of a few newspaper clippings, a pair of scissors and a plastic doll’s head glued to the canvas, some big blurs of red pain, and some mustard-coloured corduroy cut into oblong shapes with threads dangling out. That’s collage.
The energy comes either from various kinds of violent, extreme contrast – surprising juxtapositions (things not ordinarily related, side by side: for instance, a department store dummy with a hinged door in its torso that reveals a photo of a fetus in a jar), or disjunctions (things normally related which are separated or distorted, like the features of a person in a Picasso painting) – or a great deal of intricate detail within the parts (like a Rube Goldberg drawing of an incredibly and ridiculously complicated machine for getting you up in the morning, including a chicken pecking grain, a rising balloon hitting a nail, a chute down with marbles scamper, a dog trying to catch a cat, and so forth).
Because any collage is a diverse collection of disparate elements, it’s hard to characterize the form except in the most general fashion. Each work is unlike all others. The classic examples is probably Don Quixote by Cervantes, consisting of more-or-less random adventures and confrontations, built on the contrast between the way the Don see the world and the way his more hard-headed companion Sancho perceives it. Another classic is Sterne’s unit Tristram Shandy, with its blank pages, marbled pages, disquisitions on the deeper meanings of a falling hat, and so on. Some modern examples would be Heller’s Catch-22, and much of Vonnegut’s fiction, including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five.
There are collage components in Dos Passo’s U.S.A., with its “Camera Eye,” newsreels and profiles interspersed with the various plots. Another contemporary and very unsettling example is Jerzy Kosinsky’s The Painted Bird, a succession of awful people and experiences a child encounters while wandering around rural Poland during the Second World War. (Or maybe it’s a slice-of-life or a theme story, or maybe a bit of all, combined. Collage is such a catchall that few stories are pure collage. They tend to shade into other forms, if only to gain some semblance of structure.)
The Rube Goldberg school of intricate detail is demonstrated by Peake’s Gormenghast books, with their bizarre explorations of architecture, weird characters, long, meandering discussions of the habits of owls, and endlessly convoluted plots. Herbert’s Dune also comes close, with its scraps from future histories, royal journals, sayings of philosophers past, present, and future, and multiple alien cultures, in spite of a strong and melodramatic central plot. Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, with its myths and folk song tape, is another science fiction work which is much more a collage than a plotted work.
The diversity and endless invention of this kind of grab-bag fiction can create an impression of great exuberance – that there’s a place for shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages, kings, and even a kitchen sink or two. And according to the poet Blake, “Exuberance is Beauty.”
The tricky things in collage are holding it together within a single frame, giving it even the appearance of unity, and knowing when it ought to be over.
The strengths of collage are the startling quality of its fragmentary images, the sudden jumps and quick cuts, the diversity of the elements it assembles and uses.
Collage may seem random, but should never actually be so. The connections between and among the flashing scenes and images should come clear if one reads hard enough. But it’s definitely not a form for a beginner.
More About Contrast and Juxtaposition
Strong contrasts and startling resemblances are a major structural principle in collage. But they also have more general applications.
Then/now pairings, mirroring events and characters, and the Rule of Three have already been discussed in earlier Chapters, in terms of how they can be used in plotted fiction. They can also become the main strategies of works with little or no plot. Such stories depend on the energy of like/unlike pairings, on the same principle that red is redder against a bright green background, or that a cardinal seems especially vivid pecking in the snow.
Often this technique will be combined with revelation, which I’ll discuss in a minute, to show that things aren’t as they seem – unmasking hypocrisy, shattering illusions people have about themselves or others, or showing perhaps that apparently dissimilar people are more like either than they’d guessed or would like to admit. A bookish minister working among convicts with serene detachment who discovers in himself a capacity for cruelty or a love of the power he has over his flock, might be the basis of a contrast story.
I discussed earlier the story “Good Country People.” The plot, though minimal, is effective – a traveling Bible salesman steals a woman’s artificial leg on pretext of seducing her. But the antagonist is what he is all the way through until the end, because he’s a hypocrite. And the protagonist always had an inflated sense of her own cynicism and insight into people; again, she and we don’t discover her real naivete until she meets someone far more cynical and shrewd than she is.
In other words, the story is a process of revelation of static things, rather than something actually happening, short of the theft that provides the story’s resolution. It’s a contrast between false cynicism and the real thing, two attitudes, two states of being – and that’s the dynamic of the story far more than its plot is.
Another story, Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” has a similar pattern. Brown has faith in the goodness of his neighbours in colonial New England and the center of that faith is his love for his wife. He meets the devil, who tempts Brown with the claim that commerce with the devil is quite commonplace. The devil asserts that not only have Brown’s ancestors been “associates” of his, but all the respectable townspeople, Brown’s friends and neighbours, are corrupt as well. He invites (tempts?) Brown to spy on a witches’ sabbat, where Brown sees arriving the respectable townspeople in whom he had such faith. He is even given reason to suspect that his wife has participated in the satanic celebration. He runs away in horror and the experience poisons his whole life thereafter: he doesn’t trust anybody, including his wife, not to be of the devil’s party, believing himself the lone holdout, the one righteous man in his community. The devil didn’t convert Brown – or did he?
Contrast – seeming and being. That’s what drives this classic story.
Both “Young Goodman Brown” and “Good Country People” demonstrate another technique, that of revelation. It’s the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery – and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something, that’s been true for some time, the story’s motion is in the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. Except for the secret, the mystery, the story would be quite static.
An investigation is the basis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which a man goes deeper and deeper into the jungle to discover the final evil embodied by the unspeakable Kurtz, and of that novel’s modern-day counterpart, the movie Apocalypse Now.
Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.
Much gothic fiction is founded on such a central mystery – Jane Eyre has Rochester’s insane first wife in the attic all the while Rochester is romancing Jane; the story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Likewise Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her.
Most of the central part of Lord of the Flies is the developing answer to the question, “What is the Beast?” Most of the drama of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is the reader’s realizing, along with the strikingly unfortunate Fortunato, just why the narrator is carrying that trowel and showing his hated enemy through the family vaults.
Some long fiction has mystery and revelation as a subordinate element, but very often they stand alone as a novel’s main motion.
The important thing to realize is that revelation is seen, by the reader, as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight. Plot elements can develop and reinforce that revelation, and show how it matters to the story’s world, giving it added importance and force, but they’re not absolutely needed to make it work.
In The Empire Strikes Back, the duel is far less important and has far less impact than does Vader’s revelation of paternity.
If you choose to use revelation either as a substitute for plot or as a subordinate element within a plotted story, these are the things you should watch out for:
- The secret must be something worth knowing. It must have a direct impact on the immediate situation. It has no matter, and matter intensely, within the story’s context. Were Jane Eyre not a lonely girl in love with Rochester and on the point of marrying him, whether or not he had an insane wife upstairs would make little difference to her – or to the reader. Simon’s decision not only to investigate the Beast but to tell the other boys what he’s found out costs him his life. The revelation matters.
- The build-up should give the secret a context and demonstrate part of its meaning, as well as providing clues. That Kurtz participated in unnameable savage rituals, if presented as a fact in a book’s first few pages, would have virtually no impact. The story’s journey develops the differences between savagery and civilized attitudes through the interaction between the civilized narrator/investigator and the increasingly disturbing tribespeople and debased Europeans he encounters. It establishes the “line” so that when we find out Kurtz has crossed over that line, the revelation has meaning.
- The secret should be a simple thing, recognized the instant it’s met, its impact not blunted by somebody explaining. The developing context should be arranged so that all expect the fact itself has been made clear before the climatic revelation. Vader says, “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.” Luke says, “He told me enough. He told me you killed him.” Vader says, “No. I am your father,” and the thing’s done, the secret is out. It doesn’t need qualifying or explaining to have its full impact. That’s because the needed groundwork had been laid.
- The secret can and should be hinted at, as part of the needed preparation; but it should never be telegraphed or disclosed even as a possibility until the actual moment of unveiling. Don’t make it one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning, and the revelation consists of disclosing which of the alternatives it is: that falls flat. Instead, as discussed in Chapter 7 in regard to valid tricks, you may want to hint at something different but related, or something considered as bad (or good) that proves to be only a pale reflection of the actuality. Misdirect the reader’s attention and assumptions, but come through with something satisfying that’s a genuine surprise.
Most stories founded on revelation have a double plot structure. The story moves both forward and back (sometimes, but not often, by means of flashback). The unraveling of the secret, perhaps against opposition, is paralleled by the move backward from the beginning to the source of the mystery itself. So the story begins at the literal middle, the point at which the investigation is set going. Like an archeological expedition unearthing successively more ancient settlements the farther down they dig, the story progresses by going back. Both motions should complement one another, so that the moment of revelation is also the moment of the deepest penetration into the past, the point at which the past’s implications on the present become fully known.
If your story is founded on some static reality, some buried truth strong enough to speak for itself and have immediate emotional impact on the story’s characters and situations when it’s finally revealed, then the techniques of revelation may be all that you need.
STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
To the degree that it’s not plot, any experimental structure will call attention to itself and often seem visibly artificial. So it has to be managed carefully or the story, the human content, will become secondary to the style. The story may even disappear altogether, lost in the clever externals of its presentation.
One of the most damning things that can be said about a story is that it’s an amazing technical achievement. That’s admiration for craft, not enjoyment or appreciation. Whole books have been written whose text omits one or more letters of the alphabet. Undoubtedly that was a difficult achievement, one at least equal to making a scale model of the Empire State Building out of hundreds of thousands of toothpicks.
But is that really what you want to do?
Do you want your reader to marvel at all the work that went into your invention or be impressed with how clever and unusual the technique is, or do you want to share some vision of what it means to be human and alive in the world?
Like quick cuts and computer imaging in movies, non-plot techniques are gadgety. Such gadgets can end up being yawn-making, uninvolving tricks as soon as the novelty wears off, if they’re all the story has to offer.
Compare two Disney projects, Bambi and the recent Tron. Each was an immense technical achievement at the time it was made. Bambi is a classic, a perennial children’s favourite; Tron disappeared to the Netherlands of video rental almost as soon as it was released. The difference was in the ability of each movie’s content, apart from the gadgetry of cartooning or computer graphics wizardry, to reach and move its audience.
Craft and invention shouldn’t. I believe, become ends in themselves. They should serve the story, the human vision conveyed in words. Unless they do that, any story becomes a dry technical exercise, without heart.
As with world-building, manipulating the surfaces of stories is often more fun to do than to watch. Remember that the job of a writer is less to perform than to communicate. Don’t get so caught up in technique that the style becomes more important than the substance. Subordinate. And simplify.
Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. And, as with other matters of technique like viewpoint shifts or changes of locale, clue the reader in on the method, the structural rules of your story, right away in as direct and clear a manner as you can manage. Then follow the pattern you’ve set, whether that pattern uses plot occasionally or not at all.
Finally, it’s not the form but the content which will determine whether your story will reach and move its readers, whether it will be good fiction or just another quirky experiment that appears without trace.
Style is important. But it’s not everything.
Now, quit reading. Go write.
©Dodgsons KingsWay Sanctuary, 1973.