3rd June 2003: Structure

Structure, for me, is something very delicate that emerges either before or as I am writing. It’s not something I add later, and the very thought of adding it later fills me with horror. I’ve frequently found that it’s easier to write an entirely new chapter than to change one I’ve previously written, the kind of rewriting and drafts that so many people find so helpful are essentially useless to me, because everything that makes my writing worth having emerges from getting the words in the right order in the first place. I do characterization and incluing as I go along, and the kind of writing an additional piece in the middle I did yesterday requires a kind of simultaneous juggling and weightlifting act, and even then I can only do it if the space is there for it.

I do think about structure and tension and pacing, I think about them a lot, they’re part of the shape of the story, and I think about them in advance far more than I think about plot, if you have the tension right the plot will follow. Indeed, when I am starting a novel what I have of the shape of the whole thing could almost be written down as a piece of music or a coloured swirl, if there were a kind of notation that worked. A plot might be like a sideways S shape, with a complicated twist inside each curve, and that represents the structure and the tension without actual events, I might or might not have any idea of the events at any point of that shape, but I will know the shape. My shapes are usually really quite complex, and in more dimensions, but that’s the general idea.

For The Prize in the Game before I’d written any of it the structure was really clear, because there are four POV characters and the POV cycles in order all the way through, so that did things to structure and pacing that absolutely forced plot, and forced the shape into sections of four chapters each, absolutely inescapably, and then within that rigidity there was the Tain plot I was writing a variation of — Bricriu’s Feast and then the Tain — which has its own required shape, and that was stressed by the things I’d done. Oh, and there was also the stuff that wasn’t in the original stories but which I knew (because this was a prequel) had happened, like Conal and Emer, and like that Ferdia gave Elenn the dog — this last is totally invisible to anyone except me, but the dog Elenn has in chapter 31 of KP is the same dog Ferdia gives her in Prize. I didn’t know anything about the dog plot, but I knew the dog had to be in there somewhere, so there was a dog shaped question mark.

So I had those things in tension with each other, and what I knew was like a set of square box tops (the POV order/ chapter order) run through with a cat’s cradle in red that was the original plot shape and orange that was the things I knew were in there, and then with gold and dark blue and dark green and golden-green threads that were the characters moving it away from that, with two bits of utterly filled in tapestry which were the poems, which because they were solidly filled in affected the way all the threads could go. There was also the external constraint of what happened to the characters later meaning that there wasn’t as much character flex as normal. And then there were certain lines I knew would be there: “Often enough you do”, “She wished there had been time for her to weave a winding sheet herself” that sort of thing. And there was the dog, which was kind of like the shadow of a dog falling in among the colours, and when, part way through, I saw where the dog went, everything else became a lot clearer.

But looking at that, before any of it was written (or to be absolutely accurate, I sat down and did this consciously after the first four chapters, one in each POV, were written, which is when I thought about it — and that in itself did something for directing what came after) I could see the shape of it and adjust the level of tension and the pacing and the way the experience of reading it would be shaped — and I did that partly consciously and partly subconsciously, and mostly looking at a file marked “Plan” which is a tool for dealing with this stuff and reminding me of things.

Then as I wrote it, the tapestry filled in and constrained the unwritten parts more and more.

I actually think of this stuff as being like wyrd, and my role as being a lot like the fates, spinning and measuring and cutting the thread. There was a very weird moment writing the Sulien books when Urdo actually turned around and addressed me directly, as Fate, and the awful thing was that he trusted me. (Nor did I betray that trust. In the world I have control of, the kingdom held. That I know it didn’t really is a weird kind of meta-tragedy.)

There’s a really cool review of The Prize in the Game on Strange Horizons which actually managed to see what it was I was trying to do and how close I came to making it work.

Posted in Sulien World, Writing