The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it. 

The Challenge: 

Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach. 

So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters. 

The Story:

One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect. 

Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story. 

Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first. 

The Solution:

Canticle
‘s first chapter opens like with this:

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert” (3). 

This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.

But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear. 


As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against. 

Arc 1. Intent: Solve the mystery of the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away. 
           Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict 
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith. 
           Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent. 
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night. 
            Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work. 
            Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict 
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim 
            Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence. 
            Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
            Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
            Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
            Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
           Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit      
           Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
            Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
            Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
            Obstacle: fear!
            Paragraphs 53 – 56 

A few things I immediately noticed.

First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another. 


This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing. 

This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words: 

“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one  but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17). 

This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?

We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening. 


Finally:

It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.

All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling. 



What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?

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Let’s take a look today at how to handle capital-D Drama. As with many things in fiction, drama requires a particular balance, and we’re going to examine a scene from How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a young adult near future science fiction novel that I highly recommend. To look at this, we’ll be dissecting a specific scene, and it does include some minor spoilers. 

The Challenge:

It’s hard, when I get to that moment I’ve been building toward, where everything has come to a head and something has to happen. How do you handle scenes of high emotion without melodrama but still with impact? Seems my pendulum always swings back and forth between the extremes of giving up drama and giving up impact. 

For some answers, I turned to a novel I’d read years ago. 

The Story:

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about an American girl living in Britain when things really hit the fan–they’re invaded and conquered by a mysterious, unnamed enemy. It’s a young adult romance and adventure novel that is both emotionally impactful and full of suspense. There are few novels I recommend as easily as this one, even to people who don’t often read. It reads quick and leaves a mark. It balances blot and character masterfully. And the prose is beautiful in a simple, streamlined way. 

For my purposes, I analyzed a scene toward the middle, at the end of a chapter of descriptive summary, little more than a list of chores in this fairly transitional moment of the story. Read the short scene below: 

One night we were driving home through the usual checkpoints and Piper and I were asleep and Joe, who sometimes came with us to stay with his parents in the village, suddenly took it into his head to stand up and get show-offy, and I guess thinking war was some kind of open discussion forum where everyone was really interested in your opinion, started shouting a whole bunch of obscenities at one of the checkpoint guards and when Major McEvoy told him to sit down in a really icy army tone of voice he ignored him and kept shouting stuff about Johnny Foreigner being an Effing Bastard and worse. 

And then in almost a lazy kind of way the checkpoint guy who’d been looking at him raised his gun and pulled the trigger and there was a loud crack and part of Joe’s face exploded and there was blood everywhere and he fell over out of the truck into the road. 

Piper watched the whole thing without moving a muscle but the shock of it made me retch and I had to turn away over the side of the truck. Someone else was screaming and when I turned back the whole world seemed to have slowed down and grown quiet and from inside the silence I watched the guard go right back to chatting with his friend and saw Major McEvoy’s head roll back for a moment and his eyes close and a look of despair crumple up his face and in that split second I wondered whether he was really that attached to the kid and then it was with horror that I looked down and saw that Joe was still alive, gurgling and trying to move the arm that wasn’t caught under his body and when I looked back at Major M I realized he was doing what he felt was his duty as a member of the armed forces defending a British national and still in slow motion he was climbing out of the truck and his plan must have been to get Joe to his feet somehow and then to safety when I heard about a hundred shots from a machine gun and the momentum of the blasts hurled Major M backward across the road away from Joe with blood welling up in holes all over him and this time you could see Joe’s condition was 100% dead and with brains splattered everywhere and our driver didn’t wait around to see what might happen next but just stepped on the gas and as we drove away I thought I felt tears on my face but when I put my hand up to wipe them it turned out to be blood and nobody made a single sound but just sat there shell-shocked and all I could think about was poor Major M lying there in the dust through I guess he was much too dead to notice. 

There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War. 

And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling (103 – 105). 


The Solution: 

At five paragraphs and about two pages, this is a decidedly short scene (although not too short for the book’s average), but it does a deceptive amount of work to both control the drama and heighten the impact. It’s doing a good bit of complex work to maintain this delicate balance, and I’ll try to pick that apart here. 

First a brief outline of the scene, as I see it: 

Paragraph 1. (Setup). Scene conflict begins, exposition is given with a humorous tone. 
Paragraph 2. (Escalation). One shot. A distant description of the bloody scene. 
Paragraph 3. (Reaction & Further Escalation). A wide range of reactions from a number of different people. A little more humor. Much longer sentences. 
Paragraph 4. (Deflation). A very muted response and a clean getaway that also connects the loss of life to the wider world. 
Paragraph 5. (Effect). A single, punchy line on how the protagonist has been changed by this scene. 

So how does this scene attempt to control drama, minimize melodrama? There are a number of ways that this is being done. Paragraph 1, for instance, seems only to exist for this function. It’s using humor to deflate the tension, exposition to slow the pace, summary (mimicking the rest of the chapter, which was fairly low-key) that creates a level of distance, and it even uses a linguistic trick to add to the drudgery (“usual checkpoint”). It’s routine. It’s a chore–just like the rest of the chapter, this will be every-day. That, of course, is not how it pans out. 

Paragraph 2 uses a similar linguistic trick when it describes the shot as “lazy”–the laziness of it reduces the melodrama. In Paragraph 3, a return to humor seems to aid the reduction of melodrama (100% dead). We also get a number of characters who fail to react in any active way to this shot–Piper watches “without moving a muscle,” the guard goes “right back to chatting with his friend,” and the driver who did nothing but “not wait around.” These muted reactions serve as a counter balance to the descriptions of gore and to the narrator’s response. Paragraph 4 continues the muted response, allowing it to spread to the rest of the car. Meanwhile, Paragraph 5 does little to manage the drama–how does the scene’s final line have such a strong impact? 

While Paragraph 1 is the touchstone paragraph for controlling melodrama, Paragraph 3 is its counterpart, a keystone in developing impact. It does this in a large number of ways. Firstly, we have the more dramatic character reactions: the narrator, who retches, and Major M, who reacts with nothing short of anguish, not to mention Joe himself, twitching on the ground. There is also the natural drama of further escalation of the conflict (going from Joe, a minor nobody, dying to the death of Major M, who we’ve come to know and who was a central figure of this chapter, and the imagery usage (like tears that transformed into blood). Beyond those things, there is also the massive and sudden stretching of sentence length (so long it’s almost beyond comprehension) using polysyndeton (lots of “ands”) that makes each sentence feel like a constant barrage of horrors. 

The other paragraphs build upon this one, adding minor touches of drama to increase the impact. In Paragraph 2, drama comes from the conflict escalation and the use of face-explosion imagery. In Paragraph 4, emotions are driven home by revealing the delayed anger of the driver (This is a War) and focusing on who is hurt (Major M’s wife). Finally, in Paragraph 5, the tragic punch line, a single, lonely line, a structure that serves to emphasize how alone the narrator feels, further hitting home the imagery of falling. 

Finally:

It’s the delicate balance of this passage that makes it work so well. Just look, for instance, at the “sandwich” created by the first paragraph, which only works to reduce melodrama, and the fifth paragraph, which only works to increase impact. And the sparseness of Paragraph 2 contrasts with the extravagance of Paragraph 3 to create a similar sense of balance.

Ultimately, what I take from this scene is that, while there are consistent strategies worth knowing for reducing melodrama and increasing impact, the brilliance of this scene comes from structure–how those methods are designed to balance each other. 

Is there anything you’d add? Are there any scenes that you’ve read that should have been melodramatic but ended up deeply moving you without going over the edge? I’d love to hear about this or anything else you have to say.