Nov 16, 2016

How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women 5

This week's lesson focused on narrative experimentation. Author Suzanne Scanlon began by talking about using fragmentation  as a technique in fiction and how to make it work. When you're working with fragments, the narrative is harder to follow. Scanlon emphasised using some kind of limit like time to keep the narrative focused. She also said that characterisation and voice is especially important in this kind of narrative to hold reader interest. The advantage of the technique is that you can add layers of past and present and give depth to the character, but the challenge is maintaining the narrative flow and tension.  One of the examples she used was Marguerite Duras' The Lover, a book I loved. I didn't even realise that she was using fragments when I read it, I just enjoyed the flow of the words and the beautiful description, but it's a good example of how to do this well. Scanlan said that she loved how this technique lets the reader and writer work together to fill in the gaps, and that's something I enjoy as well. There's power in the white spaces, in what isn't told, I think. She also discussed using point of view, flashbacks, and sentence structure in fragmented narratives using Toni Morrisson's The Bluest Eye as an example, and also the power of an unreliable narrator, like in "Ma, a Memoir" by Lynn Freed. 

South African novelist Priya Dala talked about how her prose has been affected by Indian and African storytelling traditions and the importance of character-driven storytelling. She also brought up the concept of writing as communication, and how to best get your message across. Subtlety is important; no one likes to be preached to or talked down to. She has used the stream of consciousness structure in her work, and said that character is particularly important in that kind of storytelling, because it's the only thing the reader can hold on to. She also went into her process a bit. Dala used to be a psychologist, so she spends a lot of her time observing people and takes notes of how they act in certain situations, gestures, expressions, etc. When she starts to build the character she almost tries to become the character. She called this 'method writing,' like method acting. Another thing she said was important to her was that the character was at some kind of impasse in her life, a crucible point, because this leads to dilemmas and character choices, so plot, in other words. She also talked about avoiding stereotypical characters. 

Finally, Margot Livesey talked about flat characters and why they might actually be useful. The take home point was that a good flat character has the potential to rise to the occasion if the plot demands it, to become round. Another useful piece of advise she gave was that when you get stuck in your story and can't add a new character, you can almost always add a new aspect of your old character, go deeper into your characters. In the class discussions we talked about flat characters and character importance. The main characters tend to be fully rounded, but why would the bit players even need to be fully realised? Wouldn't that split the focus and lead to digressions?  

This week's writing assignment was a bit tricky: to take an old story and rewrite it using fragmentation. I dug up an old failed science fiction story and took it in a different direction using sentence fragments and the stream of consciousness technique. It turned out pretty good, or better than the original, at least. It was fun to resurrect a dead story like that. I only used about 25 % of the original work, and the story is very different now. I should probably do this more often...

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