Monday 8 August 2011

Setting the Scene

Have you ever devoured a novel so fast you couldn’t put it down? You finish the novel, slightly dazed by the speed at which the author tumbled you along the character’s journey, and wonder how she did it. How did she keep you gripped from Page 1 all the way to the end?

Just as a builder will build a house, brick by brick, interweaving them for strength and cementing them together with neat little twists of his trowel, so an author will carefully build a novel, scene by scene, each scene interwoven with those on either side of it and cemented together with neat little twists of conflict.

Like the sturdy brick, scenes have a job to do: they must either advance the story or illuminate a character.

Sometimes, when you don’t enjoy a novel, it helps to go back and unpack each scene.

Louise Erdrich is one of my favourite authors.  Her voice, her language, her topics speak to me on a level that very few modern authors do. So I was sadly disappointed when I read her latest novel “Shadow Tag”…until I looked more closely at the conflict that drove a few of the scenes.

Here are the three scenes I analysed:

Scene 1: Page 67-72

Characters: Irene and Louise

Conflict: The overt conflict was the build-up to Louise’s confession that she is Irene’s half-sister (they shared the same father) The more subtle conflict was the contrast between the two women’s childhoods and how that affected who they are today. Louise’s mother married a good man, and Louise had a stable childhood in the city. She’s at ease with her sexuality and is in a stable, loving lesbian relationship. Irene’s childhood was shameful, with a womanising father and a promiscuous mother; she was cut off from her sense of Native American identity and sense of family by her parents’ actions; an alcoholic, and promiscuous, she’s in an unstable and destructive relationship with her artist husband Gil.

Scene 2: Page 73-75

Characters: Irene and her youngest child, Stoney

Conflict: How does shame and humiliation affect a child? Stoney’s actions in teasing a disabled child (in his childish innocence he didn’t realise the child was disabled) resulted in him being shamed and humiliated by the teacher. His intense desire to escape his shame and humiliation by becoming an animal on some level reflects Irene’s escape into alcoholism, which is how she deals with the shame and humiliation of her childhood (as a reservation Native American in a white world, and as the daughter of disreputable parents) as well as the shame and humiliation that she experiences as the model for Gil (her husband’s) disturbing paintings of her (which symbolise the humiliation of the Native American by the white settlers, note references to George Caitlin, the white 19th century artist who made his name using Native Americans models)

Scene 3: Page 143 – 145

Characters: Gil, Irene, their three children and two dogs

Conflict: To an outsider this scene – a family gambolling in the snow playing the game shadow tag – would be idyllic. The conflict lies in the falseness of the scene. The preceding scenes strip away the family dynamics to their essential dysfunction. The poignancy of the scene lies in the desire of all the family for this moment of family togetherness and simple happiness to be real. But the veneer of love and normality is too thin; it’s as elusive as the shadows they chase. Gil, his destructive genius controlled for once, ‘hides his shadow tightly’, but the scene ends where he leaps out from his hiding place to catch his laughing family and ‘his shadow sprang across the field’, highlighting how close to the surface the family’s final disintegration is.

By analysing these scenes, I realised that, in my first reading of the novel, I had seen only the ugliness of the characters Irene and Gil and not the conflict that motivated that darkness they reflect. Irene, in particular, represents the tragic loss of the Native American soul.  After this realisation, the story took on a whole new meaning for me.

The next time you read a book that you dislike, try to unpack it brick by brick. You don’t need to break it down to its foundations: take only a few scenes that you think may be critical.  Look at the characters; look at the conflict that drives the scene; and look at how the scene links back and forward to other scenes.

And, as you close the book, you may be surprised at what secrets the author has revealed to you as she carefully set each scene that tumbled you along page by page.


Ann Summerville said...

Good post. I read a book recently that had an information dump in the first 59 pages. As it was a book club read I kept going, but honestly the first 59 pages could have been left out. Normally, I would have put the book down but I'm glad I kept going.

Bish Denham said...

Recently I started a book that was all about telling me, the reader, they who/what/why/when/how of the characters. I rarely get frustrated, but I had to put it down and picked up a Terry Pratchett.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

ANN: Some books definitely are worth pushing through to the end.

BISH: On the other hand, some books just have to be abandoned...

LynNerdKelley said...

Judy, kudos to you for being able to break down those scenes and figure out what didn't work for you. I'm not sure that I'd be able to pinpoint what the problem is, but what a great way to learn and improve our writing.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

LYN: It was a surprisingly difficult exercise, but I was extremely please I did it because it changed how I saw the book - was a light bulb moment!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Judy, this is a great post. It really has me thinking. Thank you~ This is a good way to study other writer's work as well.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Judy .. that sounds like a labour of love - yet a learning one .. and also for us - being able to see and read what you've done .. thank you.

I've rushed through books - usually ones I'm not interested in as such .. just something to amuse ..

I will bear in mind what you've highlighted here .. great post - loved it ..

Thanks - Hilary

Judith Mercado said...

Judy, this was a wonderful post and it made me think about the few times I have done what you did, and it usually produced the same result, a deeper appreciation for the craft of a writer. I have now read twice this year Murkami's Kafka on the Shore. That was another example of a book that grew for me in the rereading. Another example was Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The kind of breezy read that does not require this kind of analysis is still a joy to read. Sometimes there are books that are both easy to read and deep, when analyzed in retrospect, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. What an honorable profession it is to be a storyteller. And there are so many different effective ways to tell a story, aren't there?

Judith Mercado said...

Sorry that was Murakami, not Murkami.

LynNerdKelley said...

I love those light bulb moments! Thanks for the follow, Judy.

Helen Ginger said...

Excellent, excellent points, Judy.

G. J. Jolly said...

Great idea. Then I won't feel that I've wasted the money on the book.

The last book I read that I had such a hard time putting down was The De Vince Code (sp?).