Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Art of the Long Form

Writing Wednesday

I once heard Clint Johnson say, "Generally, when we talk about writing, we look at the components of story piecemeal. But knowing the pieces doesn't mean that you know how to put them together to function as a whole."

 The fact that you can string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a coherent narrative doesn't necessarily mean that you can or should keep doing it for 300 - 400 pages. The fact that you can pen lyrical descriptions, whip out sparkling dialog, and present a good scene, doesn't necessarily mean that you can sustain a novel-length story.

No one assumes that if you can run a hundred yards you must also be able to run a marathon. But with writing, perhaps because we use words all the time, we generally assume that if you master basic fiction techniques, you can simply scale them up and produce a book.

Of course, people who put in the effort, have discipline, and persist can write a novel. And in the course of that work, they'll discover much of what we'll touch on today and consider in the coming weeks. My point is that there's more to the art of the long form narrative than the basic components of story.

To begin with, you need to have enough story to sustain the long form. Generally, that means a difficult story problem or problems. If your protagonist is hungry and then makes a sandwich, the story is over. (On the other hand, if your protagonist is hungry and has just crashed in the middle of the desert, you could fill a novel with the story of how he survives.)

You've also got to have a story that builds enough to keep the reader's attention. Clint Johnson also explained that people grow accustomed to constant stimulus so you must increase the stimulus over time just to maintain the reader's interest.

It's no accident that pop songs have a three act structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. This structure gives both repetition and variation.

You might be tempted to say that a novel is easy because its chapters are like a string a short stories. To be sure, there are some novels which fit that description. But what distinguishes long-form works, whether feature films, symphonies, or novels (to name a few), is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

In the coming weeks we'll look at topics like trajectory, tension and release, theme, motif, rhythm, repetition, and variation in an effort to develop a better understanding of the art of the long form.

Image: Simon Howden /

1 comment:

  1. "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Yes! Perfect description of a successful novel. I like to think of a novel as an atom. It's core is this centrifigal force of a plot (novel's structure) that is kept active by the myriad of electrons (story devices) that fly about it. The word atom comes from the Greek term that means, in a nutshell, something that cannot be divided because it exists as a whole. This image goes so nicely with your topic. I look forward to your conversation on the novel and story devices, story development!


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