Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Timeless Way of Building

The simple rule of rugs

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Turkish rug

All of the good [Turkish rugs] follow this rule: wherever there are two areas of color, side by side, there is a hairline of a different third color, between them. This rule is so simple to state. And yet the rugs which follow this rule have a brilliance, a dance of color. And the ones which do not follow it are somehow flat.

Of course this is not the only rule which makes a rug great—but this one rule, simple, banal, almost as it seems, will triple the brilliance and beauty of a rug. A person who knows this rule may be able to make a beautiful rug. A person who does not will almost certainly not be able to…

The depth, and spirituality, of the rug is not made less by the fact that this rule can be expressed, nor that it is so simple. What matters, simply, is that the rule is extremely deep, extremely powerful.

Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

“He sensed that something inside him had changed…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 25. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Act breaks are hard. They’re hard enough, in fact, that it’s tempting to think that we can do without them altogether, on the principle that the division of a story into three distinct acts is a convention of lazy or formulaic writing. Artists who attempt to structure their works in more complex or intuitive ways should be commended for it, especially if they can pull it off—although it’s important to note that even a movie like Cloud Atlas organizes its separate narrative strands in what looks, when you stand back, an awful lot like a conventional beginning, middle, and end. And there’s a good reason for this. The three-act structure is the most powerful storytelling tool ever developed, and when it’s properly deployed, you don’t even notice it: you’re only aware of being drawn along by a narrative that moves with its own inevitable momentum. In a good movie, in particular, the act breaks should be invisible; if they aren’t, it’s the sign of a script that has been assembled according to one of those mechanical plans, so beloved by aspiring screenwriters, that put the central dramatic question on page three and the inciting incident on page ten. That kind of structure doesn’t do anyone any favors.

In reality, the act breaks in a story are more like the stakes and string that the architect Christopher Alexander describes in his wonderful book The Timeless Way of Building. Before you start construction on a house, you go out to the site and lay down its outlines with some twine and a few bits of wood. You adjust their position, a foot here, a foot there, until the layout looks more or less right. The result isn’t a house, or even a true plan, but it’s an essential first step. And the act breaks in a story are the stakes that you use to guide yourself as you begin to plot the story in greater detail. Whenever I begin any substantial writing project, I generally have a sense of what the two or three major turning points of the narrative will be, even before I’ve fleshed out the plot or characters. Even if you don’t outline to the extent that I do, it’s useful to at least have those big moments in mind. If nothing else, it’s a way of keeping yourself sane: I’ve often found myself lost in the shapeless middle section of a novel, but take comfort in the fact that there’s some good stuff just around the corner. And laying down the stakes for a few important moments helps you navigate the rough patches on the way to your next destination.

So where should the stakes go? They should go, well, where the stakes are greatest—at points in which the narrative has been fundamentally changed by some new crisis or development that is organic to the shape of the story itself. In The Icon Thief, the nature of my first big act break was clear from the beginning. The story so far had been structured around a heist in which Ilya, my thief, would steal the painting Study for Étant Donnés. At the end of Part I, he obtains the painting, but finds himself betrayed and on the run, with the picture still in tow. I don’t know whether this development took anyone by surprise—looking over it again now, I have a hunch that it telegraphs itself a bit too clearly—but that’s less important than the conflict it establishes, which will play out over the rest of the novel. Ilya has defined himself as a thief who is working, in some small way, against the system that abandoned him. When he discovers that, in fact, he’s been a part of that system all along, it shifts the terms of the story and transforms him from a skilled professional into a man driven by self-preservation and, ultimately, revenge. Which is the kind of meaningful change required to propel the characters, and the reader, into the long second half of the novel.

And much of the impact of this moment is, for lack of a better word, typographical. At the end of Chapter 25, the reader sees Ilya on the run, racing for his life through a darkened field with everything he believed in ruins—and then turns to a blank page, followed by the stark pair of epigraphs for Part II. The fact that the reader has to turn the page to see that a new section is beginning is an accident of layout: later, in Part III, and for both major act breaks in City of Exiles, the new section appears on the facing page of the previous one, which means that the reader can tell, out of the corner of his or her eye, that a new phase in the story is beginning. That’s fine, but I’m still tickled by the way the reader needs to turn a page here to see that we’ve reached the end of the novel’s first movement. As I said above, in a movie, this transition should be invisible, but there’s something weirdly satisfying, at least for me, when a novel manages to gather all of its narrative threads together in one moment of crisis as its first section visibly ends. Of course, picking up the action again in the second half presents problems of its own. But that’s a topic for another day…

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2012 at 9:40 am

Putting down stakes

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So you’ve decided to outline your novel. What next? Chances are that you’ll want to build it around some kind of narrative structure. A shapeless succession of scenes in which no visible progress is made will rarely result in a satisfying book. (Even shapelessness itself, when pursued as a conscious narrative strategy, has its own kind of structure and logic.) All novels begin in one place and end up somewhere else, if only because we have no choice but to experience them one page at a time. But what should it look like in the middle?

Fortunately, or not, a writer has a bewildering number of structural options at his or her disposal. There’s the plot pyramid, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and even those slightly insane screenwriting manuals that put the central dramatic question on page 3, the inciting incident on page 10, and so on. All these methods have their merits—although I’m skeptical of that last one—and they’ve all served various writers well. Personally, I tend to favor the three-act structure, which is why even my short stories tend to fall naturally into three parts. But the structure you choose is far less important than the fact that you have a structure in the first place.

The reason for choosing and sticking with a structure, like most of my advice on writing, is less aesthetic than functional. As I said yesterday, you’re more likely to finish a novel if you have an outline, and your outline is more likely to be useful if it follows some kind of established pattern, at least at first. In the process of writing, of course, that structure is bound to be revised beyond all recognition. The transitions will be gradual, even invisible, but the overall shape will be there. More importantly, the story will flow naturally from the point of view of a reader experiencing it one sentence at a time. After all, we don’t experience a house by studying its blueprints; we move from room to room. But without a good plan, the house will often seem uncomfortable or crazy.

One of my heroes, the architect Christopher Alexander, describes the process of designing a house in ways that I think are relevant here. Instead of starting with a standard blueprint, he recommends going to the site and laying out a plan on the ground itself, using stakes and string. Then, as he writes in The Timeless Way of Building:

It is very likely—almost certain—that you will modify the building as you have so far conceived it. The stakes are so vivid that you will almost certainly begin to see all kinds of subtlety, which you could not imagine before, now that the stakes and rooms are actual, right out there on the ground.

Modify the position of the stakes, a foot here, a foot there, until they are as perfectly placed as you can imagine; and until the layout of the rooms seems just exactly right.

The outline of a novel is pretty much like those stakes in the ground. Are they a house? No. But they’re an indispensable first step. And while you could theoretically lay out a house any way you liked, in practice, certain patterns are going to be more useful than others. In his masterpiece, A Pattern Language, Alexander describes over a thousand different patterns for architects—some as large as a city, others as small as a window seat. Writers, too, have their patterns, which have slowly emerged from thousands of years of storytelling. And if you follow a pattern that makes sense for you, you’re more likely to build a novel that can stand by itself.

(It’s important to remember, by the way, that the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey, and most of the other plot structures I’ve mentioned here were originally descriptive, not prescriptive. When Aristotle wrote the Poetics, he wasn’t necessarily trying to teach anyone how to write: he was describing a structure that he had empirically observed by watching successful tragedies. Most of the novelists whose books we still read didn’t think consciously in terms of exposition, rising action, and climax: they wrote a story, revised it until it read well, and usually ended up with a structure that looked more or less like that of other successful novels. That said, now that these structures have been defined and quantified, it’s much easier to write a novel, especially the first time around, with these patterns showing the way.)

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2011 at 5:51 am

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