TFT Exclusive Excerpt: Architecture of the Novel by Jane Vandenburgh
Last September, just in time for a new crop of MFA classes, author Jane Vandenburgh published her latest book Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook. Here, in a TFT exclusive excerpt, Vandenburgh discusses the concept of writing “in scene,” and how that can powerfully drive a novel to the places it should go.
In order to trick your story into showing itself to you, you need only show up where it is already enacting itself, then place yourself in scene. You choose any scene anywhere along the storyline. You enter anywhere the ground floor or basement door seems willing to swing open.
You enter, and as you do your writing self will be trying to write a good-enough sentence that works to dramatize this scene by showing exactly what’s going on in this specific time and place. You write this scene any way you need to in order to enter in a haptic, or bodily, way.
You need not expect that you know beforehand what these scenes contain. Their actions are the narrative reason for these scenes and may, only now—as you write them—start being revealed to you.
You write a sentence, then you write another one. To repeat: These don’t have to be good sentences, and it may be better if they aren’t. Good sentences—good writing of all kinds—slows a story down by making us self-conscious. Good writing often sounds as if it is trying to sound like literature, which is all well and good except that your story doesn’t care about literature.
Our basic strategy is to work imagistically and in an auditory way, listening, asking our own bodily senses to center us, to locate us within the scene. It is by working with sensory materials that we encourage the writing on the page to help itself forget that it is a construct of language.
As you relinquish yourself to scene it will seem to come alive before your eyes in a manner rivaled in our waking moments only by imax 3D. You enter it spatially, as you would a waking dream.
Which is exactly what happens when we do actually dream. Our rational selves are forgotten, and we’re carried along by sensation alone, rushed by the same narrative current that works always to solve itself. Dreams move as our stories do, in the direction of their inevitability, which is where they can, at last, unravel their own confusion.
This current, however, may feel dangerous, as if it’s something our waking selves can neither control nor contain. This narrative current gives us the feeling that these stories of ours do not, in fact, exactly belong to us, as they lie slightly outside the grasp of reason.
It feels like I’m being carried along by it, a student told me recently, like I’ve completely lost my foothold.
Exactly, I said. This means the story itself has taken charge.
The energy of our scenes seems to preexist, as if it supersedes us and almost wants to evaporate the selves we’ve been working all our lives to carefully construct.
No wonder we are afraid of it.
Allowing the story its own sense of direction is, however, exactly what we need to have happen. We keep the blueprints in the tube. This shows that we have stopped listening to ourselves in the act of writing and have started the sleepwalk trudge up the stairs toward the brink of that deep well where we fall off into sound and image and bodily sensation. Story places us exactly down in that tumbler of scene requiring only our witness.
So we try to sit down as bravely as we can, to enter our story’s scenes by any means we can manage. We rely on our own bodily sensations to bridge the two realities, to get there in a way that we begin to feel the three-dimensionality of the scene. We give the job of witness to an entity we’ll call the noticer.
The noticer has nothing more than the most rudimentary point of view, all your story initially requires. We’re not worrying about the architecture and complication of perspective at this juncture, as this is all provisional. Point of view becomes almost instantly complex as well as technical, lying outside the small and immediate rooms of story.
For now all we need is a noticer who’s located down within the scene, acting as our eyes and ears—someone positioned exactly where they must stand to give us this episode’s news.
The noticer, right now, needs to be either that most uncomplicated form of first person (the one with no name, no agenda, no interesting backstory) or the kind of intimate third person that feels as intimate as the first.
You ask this noticer to act like a sensate 3-D camera, able to see the scene but also witness hot, cold, wet, dry, as well as every meaningful action:
“Lookit,” the girl said. “I don’t know if she’s told you but somebody’s after her.”
“Someone aside from me, I mean . . . ”
The man picked up the lid on a plastic cake plate filled with baked meringues.
“Want one?” he asked.
“No thanks,” she said.
He bit into the baked white fluff, roughly the size of a baby’s fist. Tiny flakes fell around him like snow’s minor afterthought.
The actions in this scene seem meaningful. The drama of the moment seems to require them, in that the man behind the counter must do something to mark the time it takes him to figure out if the girl who has come into the bodega asking for Gigi can be trusted.
He does something, eating, that makes him seem harmless; he also offers the girl something, as if he’s a host, which lets her know he is no longer understanding her to be a threat. Because she understands that she’s been accepted, her vigilance relaxes. This we sense, instead of being told: She’s allowed a moment in which to have a thought. It is by the action of her thoughts—the girl is the noticer in this scene—that we understand how big the meringue is and what its texture is like. Her relief allows her a moment to think metaphorically.
How can an action be meaningful? By having consequences on down the storyline. The consequences of this incident or that event will either be obvious to us or hidden behind the domino race of cause and effect. We simply trust the story to remember that we will need to come to the all-important matter of consequence eventually. Here we’re trusting this man, suddenly, to become a friend or helper or confidant. It is by virtue of his actions that we understand him to be trustworthy.
But we try not to overthink all this. We don’t want to be too involved in either cause or effect or an action’s consequence right now, as the story’s narrative future is just a plot concern. Story cares only about the Now, defined by the chunk of narrative time we find in the scene at hand.
We also do not worry, while in a scene, about what’s led up to this scene. Background doesn’t concern us, because background—if it’s meaningful—will always find a way to pop up in your story’s present time.
You set your noticer loose to witness the scene, which you write in scene instead of summary of scene. Summary is another plot device, which we’ll later use to speed us along through those flat places where nothing meaningful is occurring.
Getting into the scene in the deep and intimate way I’m asking may feel like you’re entering a place to which you haven’t been invited—and aren’t even certain you’re allowed. To sneak into a story that doesn’t exactly belong to you (because, as we’ve seen, your story belongs, more accurately, to itself) will indeed feel risky—you really don’t know what you’re going to discover in any particular room in time.
But you do need to feel exactly this close to your story’s happenings to convincingly share these incidents and events with your reader. You yourself will need to participate in your scene’s active time to involve your readers, who will enter the scene via your haptic, or bodily, experience of it. The feeling will be one of having your feet planted on this specific ground, your lungs filling with the air of this particular locale.
There is honestly nothing more important to your story at this early stage than its ability to pull its writer into a scene that makes this writer seem a willing participant in it. You will simply need to live your story’s physical reality in exactly this visceral way for its scenes to do the work they need to do. They need to get us all to believe in them. The first person your story must convince is you.
A story’s only purpose, aside from the act of telling itself, is to participate in its own sense of reality. The technical term for this is verisimilitude.
You get into the habit of going to where you find these scenes, moving in this narrative direction with discipline and regularity. You try to write day in, day out, which works to keep the sights and sounds of a story’s scenes alive in the mind even when you’re able to pay them little direct attention. If you can learn to fall asleep while visualizing the actions of your scenes, you’ll find your storytelling mind will keep subliminally working as you dream.
And your story in its most raw form does feel like you are dreaming it into being. What’s happening is that your story’s episodes are laying claim to whatever narrative territories they need as they create their own geographical dimension, a very vivid sense of time and place. The dreaming mind does not actively differentiate between fact and fiction—it believes in itself in exactly the way a story will, feeling no palpable difference between what it sees and hears from what occurs in the cold, hard reality of the day-to-day.
So you try to get to this sleep/wake place as expediently as you can; you also try to write simply, elementally, of what you find there, letting your story show you what it holds, episode by episode, scene by scene. And you discipline yourself to stay free of the twists of narrative time that inevitably come along to entangle us. These time tricks need to occur later, after we’re more certainly planted in what we’ll increasingly feel to be our story’s physical architecture.
For now, we do everything we can to resist tucking memories down into scenes, as this is almost always a not-very-tricky way of importing backstory. Backstory—like so much else the story very quickly brings to mind—is a plot concern.
This is also why we must free ourselves from any need to work in chapters. Chapters present their own kinds of structural problem, in that they tend to number themselves, when the scenes and episodes do not actually know the order in which they will eventually fall. Chapters are actually another time-management tool we’re not yet ready for. Sometimes chapters can cement episodes into a kind of narrative time that will feel like an aggregate.
When starting out, you simply do yourself a huge favor by avoiding every organizational schema imposed from outside the story’s moments—and yes, I do mean all overlays—even including, for now, outlines.
Working in episodes allows your story the haste and simplicity it needs to evolve into its own sense of time and place. You want to allow your scenes to present their own incidents and events to you as directly as possible.
Your scenes want to dramatize themselves. They’ll want to contain at least two characters who are doing something aside from thinking. What these characters are doing is immaterial—it might be robbing a bank, talking to each other, or crossing a room to answer the door. These actions will need to feel like physical actions, something that can be placed before the witness of our senses. An action can be speaking out loud, saying words that can actually be heard and understood as dialogue.
You write a scene through to its conclusion, staying within the scene for as long as it takes to arrive at its own point. You write directly, treating narrative time in the most uncomplicated way by working, for now, in either the simple past or the simple present.
You remember to offer no opinions, no asides, no digressions or tangents, and allow no character to think long thoughts, since thinking great long thoughts almost always goes against a story’s need to get to its next piece of action, and is usually a way of trying to import background.
Background, if ignored, will almost always take care of itself.
Your characters’ thinking actually also tends to belong to plot, which will offer them pauses, rest stops, vestibules, and bedrooms later on along their journey, when our characters might have something to think about that’s more useful to the story.
You’ll make sure to set the characters down within your scene so that they understand themselves to be subject to its laws and rules. This means they operate according to the demands of the story’s own map of narrative time and space. If they must remember something, they’ll need to remember it realistically, not by lapsing into memory.
Memories are even trickier to write than thoughts, as they want to intrude and grow large and become their own little scenes and episodes (see embedded memory). These almost always belong to plot, and they place unnecessary weight in the truck bed of the narrative Now, which isn’t useful if we’re trying to encourage the story’s onrush.
When a memory presents itself as a strong and vivid scene, simply write it as a scene and worry about where it goes on the line of the story later.
You stay in scene because the scene always contains something your story needs to say. Your attention to these moments alerts us to the dramatic nature of the narrative situation: Something’s happening, and this matters to the story. Whatever is happening in this story, down in the building of Now, is happening because everything is just about to change.
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