This April, at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis, I was lucky enough to take part in a great panel on storytelling, plot, and teaching: A Thread Through The Labyrinth.
The panel went really well: for the rest of the conference, people came up to us to say how much they enjoyed it.
The premise of our talk was simple: many fiction writers feel they should understand plot better. We offered to help.
Joy Castro spoke about discovering story structures in fairy tales, Lauren Grodstein discussed how to weave a story from a character’s monologue, and Lynne Barrett presented exercises and techniques that help writers build up a better intuitions about plot. Each talk was great.
I spoke about repetition in fiction, using James Joyce’s story (or novella) The Dead as my example. But I finished the conference not completely sure how well my talk went across. In particular, I began to worry that I had omitted something really important. I felt like, in talking about The Dead, I had skipped a key step, and so my presentation wasn’t as useful as it could have been.
I omitted that technique for two reasons. The first was brevity: we each only had ten minutes to speak. The other, however, was the more uncomfortable one: it wasn’t my idea. I had read it in a book.
Worse, the technique came from a really well-known book on plot, Story, by Robert McKee, a book that everyone who wants to write good stories should probably look at.
On the other hand, this idea has been incredibly useful to me, both as a writer and as an editor. It’s wonderfully simple — it can be expressed in a sentence — and yet it feeds into all kinds of authorial decisions about point of view, pacing, characterisation, about where to start a story and where to end it. It might be the best insight of the whole of Story.
So I thought I would describe it here. This is not meant to be THE ONE MAGICAL ANSWER, but merely a good tool for fiction writers who are thinking about plot.
It’s simply this: Every scene must turn.
What does this mean? McKee, talking primarily about screenwriting, argues that while there are many styles of films, a useful rule is that, no matter the genre or mood, something particular must happen in each scene. He argues that, in a successful story, each scene concerns itself with a moral value or relevant life-question. The audience (or reader) can tell that something of importance is at stake.
This value can be anything, according to McKee: one scene might bring the character’s survival into question, when she is mugged on her way to an important dinner; a later scene might place the focus on honesty. For instance, the character arrives at the conference hotel exhausted and bedraggled, her nerves wrecked from the attempted robbery, and explains to a business rival what just happened. That rival, shocked, offers (in an act of unexpected kindness) to let the character clean up in her hotel suite. However, as the character is fixing her hair, she notices a secret document left on the nightstand. She reads it, seeing how she will be able to destroy her business rival: therefore, the value of honesty has changed from up, at the start of the scene, to down, at the end.
There has been a turn. Something of significance has changed.
McKee then suggests that a well-designed story, generally speaking, is made up of scenes that alternate these movements of up and down, with one scene ending in a positive turn (she survives the attempted mugging) and the next in a negative one (she reads the secret document). Such a swinging up-down motion will be satisfying to the audience / reader, allowing them to absorb greater and greater levels of tension as the story escalates and the stakes rise.
Here’s the next useful insight from this idea: if I’ve written a scene and it contains no clear, obvious turn, it’s likely that the scene is just exposition. It was written, unconsciously perhaps, so I could offer my reader some background information. If so, says McKee, it likely should be cut. Slip whatever interesting talk or internal musing you had written for that scene into a different scene, one where something is really happening.
This is also a useful rubric for working out what is a real part of your novel’s story, and what is, sadly, only backstory. In practice, when drafting a novel, it’s so easy to be writing what you think is real action, but is, in fact, just you working out the setting and backstory to that novel. You’re writing for your own benefit, not the reader’s, in order to figure out what the story really is.
This may even be an essential stage for most writers. First, you spin up a huge numbers of pages about your characters and their world. Then you delete those pages, and start the real novel at a more appropriate point, the moment just before the actual dramatic question, the thing the novel is about, first presents itself.
Important question: what is a scene? I think in prose fiction, we should probably make our “scenes” quite large, regardless of whether the actual location changes within them. It’s not worth trying to have too many big turns. Maybe in a movie, the audience wants constant changes, but in prose, too rigid an approach to scenes that turn can lead you to create bizarrely over-tense sequences, which readers reject in bemusement (I have done this more than once). Especially in a novel, we don’t need to be constantly ramping up the tension, because readers have a long way to go before the end.
In a novel, scenes can be long, and / or their turns can be minimal, and / or we can splice in half-scenes, reflections, and intermissions to slow things down, to widen the narrative’s reach, to clarify what the protagonist / reader has just discovered.
It’s much easier to see what a scene should be when reading someone else’s work. That’s where the theory really shines. Someone brings you their draft and warns you that it doesn’t “flow” right. You read through, find all the good stuff they’ve written, and perhaps you even number those good bits of writing, collecting in a list all the parts where the story really felt alive. Then you arrange each of those powerful parts in a linear sequence of alternating scenes, a jagged line of positive and negative swings for the protagonist.
This still sounds easy, right? Let’s make it a little more tricky. For us fiction writers, what this theory suggests is that point of view and plot need to work together. In other words, if I want to see my story as a succession of scenes that turn, the reader has to be able to see that, too. There’s no point imagining a series of turns in my own mind which the reader has no idea is happening.
This means that I, the writer, need some method of conveying to the reader, scene by scene, what is really at stake. Usually, in modern fiction, this means conveying in narration what the character is feeling and thinking, so that the reader can travel along. Perhaps I describe what the character is saying to herself as she makes up her mind to betray her rival in the hotel room. There are lots of options, but the point is that minimalism may not be our friend here. If it’s meant to be a big deal that the character would steal the secret document, the reader needs some way of knowing that.
And if I can present that “value” to the reader by showing alone, by the use of elegantly deployed dramatic details, well, that’s great. But if not, I should without hesitation ditch “show, don’t tell” and narrate, because the reader must know what significance a particular scene is supposed to hold. If the reader is unsure what the turn is supposed to be, the novel may well stop feeling like a story.
“The writing was good, and I liked the character,” your reader will say. “It just got slow.”
Now, what I’ve described here is just the basic technique.
What we actually see in great literature, such James Joyce’s The Dead, is not only that these works seem to deploy this every scene must turn rule, but that they also do incredibly complex and ingenious things with it.
In The Dead, the story does particularly brilliant things with repetition, making the turns of certain key scenes feel like magnifications of previous turns. Joyce also cleverly weaves in, via spliced in “micro-scenes” and hurried moments of reflection, motifs and dramatic elements that will rise up later in the story, subconsciously priming the reader for their appearance. Repetition makes the story’s intensity grow as it moves towards its magnificent finale.
The contents of this last paragraph — how the idea of “the turn” rule relates to The Dead — that was what I talked about in my talk at the AWP conference, demonstrating several of the amazing things going on in that story.
If you were present in the room, I hope it was fun to hear — and useful!