Friday, July 6, 2018

Fueled from Within or Without--How Does Your Narrator Move the Story Along?

As I often do when I need a jump start into a new book I'm writing, I signed up for an online class this summer.  My class is good, with writers of varied skills and experiences, all exploring new narrators, characters, plots, and other ideas for their next manuscript.  

Our instructor assigned us a well-reviewed contemporary novel to read and analyze during the course:  Chemistry by Weike Wang.  It's generated a lively discussion, because, well, the narrator isn't lively at all.

In Chemistry, which is written in the appealingly conversational style of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? the narrator is admittedly lost.  Her PhD program in chemistry is stalled out, she can't answer her boyfriend's proposal of marriage, and she doesn't know if she wants to move from Boston to Ohio.  The story is more about her lack of reactions to each event, punctuated by small bursts of anger (breaking five beakers in the lab) at her indecision and life's unfairness, than any actions she takes to drive the story forward.

To me, good book structure is based on two types of fuel.  One is what happens from without--the events that cause a reaction in your narrator.  The other is what happens within--realizations and decisions that are based on her reactions to these events.  Within story structure, ideally there is a variety of these two fuels.  

I use the W storyboard template to test them.  Usually points 1 and 3 on the classic W storyboard are externally generated (view my video here, for more about this).  The fuel comes from without.  Something happens to the narrator that changes the game.  Because of this external game-changer, the narrator has to react, make decisions.  Or maybe he doesn't; he just hangs in there for dear life for a while.  But eventually, the events should lead to fuel #2, the moment of "I can't take this anymore," where the narrator acts in his own behalf and makes a change.  That's fuel from within.  Usually points 2 and 4 on the storyboard use this kind of fuel.

Strong story structure goes back and forth in these main turning points--some fueled from without, some from within.  You can also chart movement within each chapter, see the type of fuel you're using, make sure it's varied.

A book that offers nothing but external fuel (things happening to someone) can get tedious after a while.  We don't see growth and change happening internally, decisions being made, will be exerted.  The narrator remains a victim, which is essentially boring.  The other extreme is also a deadend, in my opinion--all comes from within, and we aren't witness to the cause and effect that creates authentic change.  When both are employed, you have a lovely balance, a rhythm, a believable person in charge of the story.

I'm midbook in Chemistry now, and although the writing style still delights my mind, my heart is cold to this narrator.  I'd stop reading if I didn't have to read it.  Things are happening, but the narrator has no reaction except angst and stagnation.  No decisions are being made on any front.  My reactions range from mild annoyance to irritation to boredom.  The book got high praise from reviewers but it's not my kind of story because nobody is driving this train.

If a narrator stops driving the story, by the logic of cause (something happening) creating an effect (a reaction) creating another cause (the action she or he takes in response), is the story moving at all?  That's a question to ask yourself for your weekly writing exercise.  If you want to take it further, break down your story by external and internal fuel.  What kind do you use, where?  Is there variation, or do you depend wholly on one or the other?