How do you go about developing structure for a novel? Is it part of an initial plan, or does it evolve as you develop your material? Or maybe some combination of both?
—Kathleen Jesme, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota
Kath, I believe it was Annie Dillard who once said structure is everything in writing a book, and that certainly includes novels. Probably novels above all. I’ll be straightforward and say that structuring a novel is the largest task I’ve encountered as a writer. I’m sure it’s a big challenge for most novelists, but perhaps the route is more apparent for those who work in genre fiction. I’m guessing that if writers feel they are writing to a certain template, it’s simpler to outline how to proceed. Yet as someone who approaches any story—novel or novella or short story—as something that has one clear point of focus that’s backgrounded initially by fog—I have to assume that even for people who write strongly plot-driven fiction, there is still that uneasy beginning time before characters, situation, and voice begin to direct the action.
It’s probably useful to think of this whole idea from the standpoint of plot, and I’ve gone hunting in some of my old teaching materials to find quotes from other writers to offer some loose parameters.
John Cheever: I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me.
Isak Dinesen: I start with a tingle, a kind of feeling of the story I will write. Then come the characters, and they take over, they make the story. But all this ends by being a plot.
Lawrence Durrell: It’s like driving a few stakes in the ground; you haven’t got to the point in the construction yet, so you run ahead fifty yards, and you plant a stake in to show roughly the direction your road is going.
E.M. Forster: The sense of a solid mass ahead, a mountain round or over or through which the story must somehow go is, for the novels I’ve tried to write, essential.
Norman Mailer: Generally I don’t even have a plot. What happens is that my characters engage in an action, and out of that action little bits of plot sometimes adhere to the narrative.
John Mortimer: The plot and discipline essential to a crime novel save it from the terrible traps of being sensitive and stream-of consciousness and all of that stuff. You do need that discipline, I think, and plot!
Kurt Vonnegut: No modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.
Flannery O’Connor: In good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters.
James Thurber: I don’t believe the writer should know too much where he’s going.
Gabriel García Márquez: Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.
I think there’s both individual and general truth in all these statements, but I identify most with the one from García Márquez, particularly if you give me the role not of master carpenter, but struggling remodeler. At the sentence level, paragraph level, even the section level, I generally have felt pretty confident as a writer. It’s in assembling all the bigger parts in the most effective way and knowing what pieces have to be jettisoned that I’ve struggled most. I could give examples from all of my novels, but The Second Magician’s Tale is probably the most instructive, which is why this question is going in this part of the Interview. It’s also the book I’m most relieved to have seen into final form because of its early structural challenges, and the novel that allows me to answer yes to each part of your question.
When I first started writing The Second Magician’s Tale, I was working mostly from feeling and inspiration, which García Márquez has said is what is strong in the young writer and lessens for older ones so that they need to have mastered technique early in order to keep working effectively. I had a sense of the book that was quite powerful, and many of its reflections and scenes made the final cut. But the first version of the book veered too far from story and was often too intellectualized. I hadn’t yet isolated what was necessary. To illustrate this, I’ve just gone digging in the files to find the book’s original beginning. Here it is:
Let me clear up a thing or two. If you think I am writing this to help my husband with his dissertation, you are wrong. If you think I plan to tell about my life as the twelve year old mistress to Jack Kennedy, you are wrong again. My intentions lie in a different area, somewhere to the left of scholarship and to the right of a fantasy I would never had had. So you see already the limits beyond which I will not go.
Another thing—if you are like me at all, you worry over the first person in a story. Who is who? What is fiction? What is author? Well, this time I will solve the problem for you in advance. Except for a stray detail, a bit of personal history or set of mind, author and persona here are free of each other. It is just that simple.
The truth is I do not have a husband at all. Not any more. Julian, the husband I had, was lean, angular, often distressed, and we worried together for years how to save him—how to save us—from that ugly war, that brutal and thoughtless war of Vietnam, and we worried, too, that we cared less for what the war was than for the fact it existed at all, its steel and wheels and explosives aimed at him as surely as a knife leaning toward his heart.
And when it was over, when we had avoided it entirely and were free of that specter in our lives, one day, walking home past a factory with a gas leak, Julian was blown to bits by an explosion that shook the earth in the sky.
A mistress to Jack Kennedy?—as far as the distance is, I am closer to Jackie than that. God save you all from the whistle in your brain that is the sound of a person you love disintegrating, turning to debris.
It’s easy to feel the self consciousness of the writer in those early lines and also the moment when the story begins to find its stride. But here, for comparison, is the final, almost elegiac, beginning of The Second Magician’s Tale (it’s also excerpted in the title page on the website):
Do not imagine the house as they left it, the troupe Jonah in the Whale, for it was as empty of them then as if all the windows and doors had been thrown open and the wind had raced through in a clean sweep. Scouring. Erasing. Not a sound of gwoka drums as though Roland still summoned an island spirit to shadow his black skin. No marionettes leaning into each other where Ruth, their mistress, had placed them in a chair. No gauzy costume dropped in a corner by the beautiful Hera, or Maggie’s barre reflected in the mirror, or glints of broken glass shattered precisely by Olivia’s foot, or snakeskins packed in a box by Sammy. No hoop, set in motion by Leonard the Clown, still circling. Turning and circling.
It’s a very different beginning, and one that is all about the story and the important setting of Nell’s grief within the troupe where she and Julian worked together. Compared to the first beginning, it embraces more and it asserts more—that the writer will be telling a story that does not have an umbilical cord. Even so, I am almost startled to see how many of the original phrases and sentences are still part of the finished work. I’ve just found some of them on page eighteen of the book where Nell, having rejoined the troupe in their temporary home in Kansas, has begun to tell her story. To me, this is significant. The early impulse that inspirits a work really has to remain through any revision, any attempt at reconstruction. It’s what’s brought the writer to the page in the first place and it has to be honored as the thing that lets you write the book you want to write, not the book that is someone else’s idea of what you should write.
But back to the Cher-like redesign of The Second Magician’s Tale. I suspect my first main revision didn’t deal a lot with structure as I understand it now. It was in the days before personal computers, and I remember spending months going through the manuscript isolating all the different themes and their development, all the different appearances of one character or another, and just generally tracking the action of the story. I was trying to get a sense of what I’d written and where the story itself cohered and where it went off the tracks. It involved lots of charts (not astrology ones at that point) and lots of magic markers with coding in different ink colors, which may have diverted the graphically curious part of me more than it helped to give me direction.
I want to toss in two random thoughts here about structure. A long time ago, someone introduced me to the jazz of Ornette Coleman. At first, it seemed like total cacophony but then certain patterns seemed to emerge that were completely unplanned. I found that fascinating. It’s my guess that whether we seek some kind of underlying organizing principles or they simply emerge when enough data is out there, structure does tend to appear at some level no matter what we are doing. Even the person who’s gone mad is caught up in the patterns of ritual such as the effort to wash out that “damned spot” in Macbeth. Structure is always waiting.
Which leads to my other random thought on structure, one that I love from Paul Fussell: “A writer of effective prose has mastered a general principle governing all events which occur in time, whether athletic contests, seductions, or sentences. The principle is that the middle of the event is the least interesting part, the beginning the next most interesting, and the end the most interesting.” I encountered that sentence first maybe twenty years ago, and I locked in on it. Whenever I’m wrestling with how to put things together, I remember it.
But when I was still working on the earlier revisions of The Second Magician’s Tale, I didn’t have even that kind of clarity, though perhaps my sentences and paragraphs and small scenes reflected it. The big structure continued to elude me. My first revisions fell mostly into the territory of rewriting at the micro level. Later, I tried something more ambitious. I still felt some pull toward the idea of being structurally experimental that I’d heard praised when I was in school, though this seems ironic to me now since you have to have mastered something before you can experiment with it and I hadn’t. But my new big idea was to tell the same story twice, once from Nell’s vantage point, once from the point of view of different troupe members. Theoretically, it made sense, as stories are always different when told from different points of view. But it didn’t make sense in terms of writing a story that could have complexities yet be accessible to the reader. It interests me, though, that when I returned to The Second Magician’s Tale some years later—and with the suggestions of a couple of good readers, who are writer friends—I found that I could borrow from that idea and establish a more natural structure. It’s the one I wound up using in the final book, which has third person chapters that follow the troupe members and the story’s present-time and also frame the multiple-chapter sections in which Nell tells her story, past and present, in the first person, but with no repetition of scenes. Ultimately, it’s a pretty simple structure, but it took a long time to discover.
I see that this is the longest answer I’ve written to any of these questions. That in itself may be germane. This is the question all writers grapple with at some level. Some begin a novel with clear operating instructions—they may have an ability to see the complete structure whole. Others hope for the generating impulse of character and situation and language to create structure and attendant plot. Others can only find a structure that works when they have all the pieces ready to sort into the right puzzle construction. But the lovely thing is that, with the best writers, whatever their struggle to determine the right structure, in the end, it doesn’t show.