“She had been presented with one setback after another…”
Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:
The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The divine mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.
One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.
It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”
My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.
And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…