Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Long Form: Trajectory

Writing Wednesday

Ever since Albert Einstein became the modern icon of brainiacs, we assume that Newton has been superseded and can be safely put out to pasture with other outdated scientific figureheads. (Besides, Einstein is a much better fit than Newton in the modern crazy hair department.)

Because it seems so obvious, and because so much of the modern world is founded upon it, we forget that Newton's theory of universal gravity was as mind-blowing in its day as relativity is in ours. Among the many things for which we have Newton to thank, ballistics--or the science of dropping ordinance on your enemies--ranks near the top.

Trajectory is the heart of ballistics. Using Newton's laws of motion, we can predict the path a projectile launched with a certain force and in a given direction will follow and thus determine where it will land.

Trajectory is also the heart of the art of the long form. Your reader is like a projection and the story is the arc that will bring them to a certain emotional and conceptual place. As long as your reader believes the story is taking them somewhere interesting, they'll stay with the story. As an author, therefore, you must know the end from the beginning, and like Michelangelo who revealed the statue hidden in the block of marble by removing the waste, you must clear away anything that that could pull your readers out of the trajectory of the novel.

This means that you must, at some level, understand the trajectory. It doesn't matter whether you come to that understanding before you draft because you are an architect and have planned everything, or after many drafts because you are a gardener.

We'll take up the question of what makes a good trajectory in the coming weeks. For now, unless you're Samuel Beckett, the key point is that a long form work must go somewhere. From the moment the inciting incident launches your reader into the story, they must be on a trajectory that will bring them to the climax just as surely as the shell fired from the canon will hit the enemy fort.

Image: Simon Howden /