Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.