I read a startling comment the other day.
Once upon a time publishers wouldn’t accept a manuscript unless the story was told in chronological order.
I thought about all the novels I’ve read that would never have been published if held to that standard.
So what do readers prefer?
Porter Abbott, a professor emeritus in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara was quoted in Atlanta Magazine:
“At around 3 years old, our brains begin to compartmentalize sensory information from the world around us into the components of an ongoing narrative, with each of us at the center. We view our lives as a series of actions, causes, and effects that together form an ongoing story.”
Okay, so we prefer linear storytelling. But Abbot goes on to address the way stories are organically told.
“Disrupting the presentation of a story and deranging the order in which we are fed information is ancient,” Abbott says.
And guess what? Maybe it’s the disruption that makes us feel something. Abbot continues:
“And it’s part of the pleasure of narrative.”
There it is. The pleasure of narrative lies in the emotional ride that only a well-manipulated story can produce. A story that is crafted to achieve the best use of what Abbot pointed out was the “tripod” of storytelling:
Suspense, Curiosity and Surprise
Now isn’t that what we want as writers? So how to get there when we start with a linear story?
Cut and paste the good parts where they create suspense in the beginning, maintain the curiosity throughout the middle and surprise the reader in the end.
But that means shifting things around and keeping the story in pieces instead of attacking it as a “Let’s sit down and write to the end” kind of project. It’s a change in the way we hold the idea of writing a novel.
It’s not a new idea. Lots of writers wrote novels in pieces and then put them together when they felt they were done.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on lined index cards.
Nabokov was interviewed in The Paris Review about his method:
“The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done…”
Hillary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, writes about using cards: “I keep them on the board, in any order, until one day I see a sequence, a logic, begin to emerge. Then I re-pin them, very approximately, very roughly, in the order in which I think the narrative will shape.”
Of course it’s important to play out the linear story because it helps to see all the events that make the story a true narrative. Breaking it up and using the most powerful moments to engage the reader creates secrets, twists and turns and events that make a “breadcrumb” trail.
The writer can leave out answers and only give clues. A linear story can’t do that so you can guess which one gives the reader a much more exciting and suspenseful read.
Even though Professor Abbot said disrupting the presentation of a story is part of the pleasure of the narrative he did add this question:
“When do you go too far?” I will leave the answer of that up to you.
Christina for PenPaperWrite
Join us at www.facebook.com/penpaperwrite and if you are interested in learning how to how to use scene cards and storyboards for yourself we have another 60 Scenes® Writing Method Workshop* in Atlanta, GA on May 19th. Got to www.60scenes.com to register now. Only 15 spaces available for each workshop.
*NOTE: The price of the Workshop increases May 1st. If you register before then, you will pay the old price of $125 for the full day. After May 1st the workshop will be $195.