Follow That Thread!
by Victoria Weisfeld
“Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table . . . I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea how to begin a piece of writing.” These first words from John McPhee’s essay on narrative structure, published in the January 14, 2013, issue of The New Yorker resonate with every writer who’s faced the bleak whiteness of a blank computer screen.
McPhee’s piece is about writing narrative non-fiction. Long-form non-fiction—the sort we see in high-quality magazines—bears striking similarities to fiction itself. It tells a story, it has a satisfying arc, it nails interesting characters, there’s theme and incident and power in the telling. John McPhee is a master of the form. His Coming into the Country was part of my preparation for writing a short story set in Alaska. And his long essays on places and people and happenings in New Jersey, where I live, add a richness to my home ground.
Almost as if he expects us fiction-writers to follow behind him, listening to his exploration of structure with our differently tuned ears, he says, “A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”
Where does your story line, your narrative thread, begin? It might not begin as far back as David Copperfield’s opening chapter, “I Am Born,” but its rightful beginning might be as the story’s forces are gathering and rumbling like distant thunderheads.
Or does it begin with the illuminating stroke that is the story’s precipitating event? I often start writing in the moment when the precipitating action is under way, a spot my writing coach calls “pot already boiling.” This is different from what I like to read. I enjoy easing into the action with “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” like Dickens sets the stage for A Tale of Two Cities, which he follows up with an tremendously out-of-fashion discourse on roadway hazards encountered by the Dover mail. But, in writing, I plunge in. My first suspense novel opens with the heroine trying to escape from a stranger who she thinks is pursuing her and means to hurt her. He is, and he does. The one I’m working on now starts with the hero at a testimonial dinner, biding his time until he can slip away to visit his mistress. In paragraph two, he arrives at her apartment and finds her sprawled on a maroon velvet sofa, dead from a gunshot wound. Pot already boiling.
Or does it start at the very end so that the whole work is an extended reminiscence? This approach is perfectly captured by the title Elizabeth George uses for her harrowing novel about impoverished London immigrants: What Came Before He Shot Her. Right in the title, she gives you the punch line.
With respect to the essay that led McPhee to stare at the leaves, he says, “I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, descriptions, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.” When we sit down to write or plan our next novel, we are in much the same position. We have the germ of an idea, possible plot points, a couple of characters who may be new or familiar, some loosely thought-out scenes. How do we assemble them? If we’re mystery writers, we also will eventually have to work in clues, red herrings, suspects, and more than a dram of well researched plausibility. We have enough “components,” as McPhee called them, to drive us crazy.
The easiest and most-often-chosen path for a story is strict chronology with a little backstory artfully thrown in to answer the question “what just happened?” Mysteries offer perfect opportunities for marshalling the evidence of the past: “At last Aunt Janet’s long-ago remark began to make sense . . .” Now there is context for Aunt Janet’s prescient observation. Dropping in backstory bits are little backward loops in our narrative thread that don’t divert it from its essential forward motion.
Sometime, though, we want a different, we hope more effective structure to highlight our themes, or even to create the more intense drama. McPhee describes a number of alternative paths. A key initial scene might be followed by a long flashback to the beginning that makes its way back to the first scene—“now I understand!”—passes it, and continues on to the end. An initial scene may be followed by a giant leap forward in time, and the unraveling of those future events finally illuminate the beginning.
More complex looping structures reinforce and build the resonance of the writer’s theme over time. This last approach might be adapted to the story of a woman who keeps meeting the same wrong kind of man, caught in a destructive emotional groove that keeps replaying in her life—Groundhog Day without the happy ending.
By visualizing your narrative thread as a continuous forward unreeling, despite such loops, scenes that don’t contribute become more apparent. In the structure you’re creating, you’ve lost the thread. People who write by tightly plotting their stories before they start out—essentially storyboarding them—probably find it easier to identify superfluous scenes and keep what stays in the best order. More organic writers, like me, need to examine retrospectively whether the thread of our story has frayed or become hopelessly tangled.
If starting and sequencing the elements in your writing are hard, so is making sure you end where you should. Originally, my suspense novel ended in a happy, romantic place. Moonlight, hand-holding, uncertainty. I liked it. But it wasn’t strong enough. Eventually I added a new last chapter that put my character firmly in charge of her own fate, the undisputed hero in her own story.
Adding a bit is sometimes necessary; subtracting can be just as necessary, but harder. McPhee advises, “If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that.” (Fiction writers should perhaps substitute “scene” for “page.”) He says you may find “you were finished before you thought you were.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Vicki Weisfeld writes mysteries and suspense and has several published short stories to her credit, including two published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She’s currently in search of an agent for a completed suspense novel featuring an American travel writer whose assignments—and her own overactive curiosity—regularly lead her into trouble. She has a journalism degree from the University of Michigan, currently lives in Princeton, N.J., and is a member of Sisters in Crime. She works out her writing frustrations by dancing flamenco and simmers down with yoga. What she’s reading, writing, and thinking about, including news items that beg to be woven into stories, can be found on her website: http://www.vweisfeld.com.