Monday, June 8, 2009

Breadth and Depth in Stories

I've been short of bandwidth since I got back from Yosemite, for a couple of reasons - one of which is pure exhaustion due to travel and ripping out my lawn. The other reason is that I've been turned back into an edit of my novel manuscript. This edit is a bit more extensive than I'd hoped (I can't imagine anyone getting to the end of the story and going "you know, I really hope this isn't done and there's a lot more work to do"). But it has some interesting aspects, one of which I thought I'd share.

There's a sequence in the midst of the story when my main character gets caught and dragged for quite a long distance across town by an irresistible force, to a place where someone is waiting for her. For some reason, this has been one of the trickiest parts of the book to get right.

If the book were a simple fairy tale, then it might be appropriate for me to use the structure I tried in my first draft of this sequence. Once caught, my main character was dragged along through different kinds of scenery, and encountered successively more complex "gifts" left by the person who was waiting for her. The three-part encounter that we see in Jack and the Beanstalk or The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a perfectly workable model for a story of that kind of simplicity. For a book of the complexity of mine? Ummm, no.

In my second draft of the sequence, I tried to give it a bit more complexity. At this point in the story, two people are fighting over my main character: one whom she's just left, and the other who is waiting for her. So I got rid of the "gifts" and had her getting attacked by the person she's left, who is trying to prevent her from reaching the shelter prepared by the person waiting on the other side. Better. But in the end, though the conflict is more appropriate to the story context, it's still too shallow. It still too closely resembles the fairy tale sequence: character gets dragged through scenery, gets attacked a couple of times, and finally reaches safety. In other words, a bunch of stuff happens, one thing after another, and you don't really learn much more about any of the characters involved, or the world, or the story itself.

Okay, so now I'm rewriting it again. I've maintained one aspect of the draft two model, which is that my main character is being targeted by the person she's left, and being dragged toward someone waiting. But I've ditched the fairytale structure of one thing after another, in favor of having her get more involved in the world itself. Instead of passing by meaningless scenery, she meets some people who try to help her - and as they help her, she learns things. These people help to reveal the scenery with their actions and appearance (they required a bit of research, too). They also give her someone to care about besides herself. They give her an additional perspective on the position she's in, caught between two very powerful people (whom they know about). And by choosing their identities carefully, I've also allowed them to hint at a piece of the novel's backstory that gets revealed later. Now, that's starting to have the kind of complexity that is typical in other areas of this novel - and that means it fits.

What a relief. It's been something of a brain drain - but an interesting process.