It seems to me that the most important thing about a story is the least visible – the structure. A well-written story should draw the reader along invisibly – pulling them into the tale without obvious device or technique.
Of course, it IS done through device and technique – just not overtly. One of the ways this is done is through proper pacing; a rise and fall of tension, in systematic waves, building finally to an explosive denouement that resolves the diverse plot threads of the tale. This means putting the major excitement at the end – and avoiding the temptation to build up to it via a succession of melodramatic ‘Perils of Penelope’.
The trick is to build the story through the way characters systematically react to events – to show how their character develops as a consequence of the narrative experiences. One of my favourite stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a model of how to do it – partly because Tolkien takes Bilbo on the classic ‘hero journey’ of self-discovery. The major battle, at the very end, resolves all the loose ends of the narrative plot and simultaneously completes Bilbo’s character evolution. From the narrative sense, the return journey to Hobbiton can be dealt with in just a few pages even though it’s as long as the journey out, because it’s not important to the key story.
A less experienced writer might be tempted to narrate the return journey as well – and, indeed, Tolkien did in an early casting of the plot, envisaging the Battle of Five Armies near the Misty Mountains as Bilbo returned with the treasure. But it would have been a less compelling story, structurally – and he then decided to go with the more integrated tale we know and love.
Another of my favourites is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Every ‘road trip’ Kerouac’s hero (and alter-ego) Sal Paradise takes is a further step towards resolving why Paradise has to be on the road at all – his quest for self-discovery, all at helter-skelter pace, building to the final journey in which all the experiences he was seeking come together in a final outburst of hedonism.
Both these books – and, of course, many other classics we know and love – offer models of how it’s done. Lessons we can draw from today.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013