There appears to be contradictory advice about structuring narrative, so it’s no wonder it’s confusing and can take a long time to figure out a style that suits an individual piece of writing. A cursory internet search comes up with many different approaches. There’s Chekhov’s gun, where Chekhov famously wrote that a rifle on the wall in act one should go off in act three. All elements of a story should work together to form a cohesive whole and anything that is unnecessary to the plot should be removed. This sounds sane, rational, and reasonable. But narrative, after all, is a construct. Something we writers create from the blank page.
There is something beautiful about the blank page—it speaks of endless possibilities, endless choices. The beauty of the blank page is mesmerising, the story as it exists in your head can exist with multiple points of ignition, high stakes and rewards for your characters all conveyed in fantastically well written prose. Limited only by your imagination, these ideas lack for nothing— except, maybe an audience, and actual substance. That is the supreme fascination and pitfall of the blank page. I love my imaginary works, so light and full of sky, but also deeply poignant and fascinating. I can stare at the blinking cursor on a screen for quite a while, daydreaming, thinking lovingly about all the ideas that are contained within. But once I dive in, a choice has been made and like the disappearing roadrunner in a Warner Bros. cartoon, once it shoots out of frame there is nothing left behind but a blooming trail of dust.
It seems we need to look wider than just the blank page. If we only speak about the page; does that allow for questions about the self we bring to that page? What are the questions that we, as writers, ask of ourselves? What do we ask of the text or narrative, and what are the questions or self that the reader brings to the text. Admittedly, the last point is not something we can influence, but it is something we can ask of ourselves as readers. In the end, regardless of what is happening in your writing, you can always bring questions to your reading.
Hemingway, that bull-loving, gun-toting whisky-sinking misogynist, had a problem with Chekhov’s gun and he expressed it in The Art of the Short Story thus: “If a broad comes into the story in the first paragraph, she must reappear later to justify her original presence. This is untrue, gentlemen. You may dispense with her just as in life.” Thanks, Hemingway. Eat a gun. Oh, #sorrynotsorry.
Hemingway does say with regards to detail which he is emphatic about (me less so), is the need for the writer to know what detail has been left out. That a story is stronger for something the author has written and then removed, like a ghost in the machine. Some people fake it. I myself find that this has been my process, how I have written and rewritten work, more in the vein of a palimpsest, obsessively building up a story and back-story for characters, but not wishing to limit possibilities. I want to know why I add or delete something about a character, a scene, or dialogue. I don’t think the approach matters, so longs as it works for the individual story. Perhaps because I grew up in the era of Choose Your Own Adventure books, I find I have multiple possible outcomes available for most of my characters and plots. That series was ubiquitous in the 80s and most kids read them even though they, the kids, probably had little to do with computers at the time; the idea of multiple storylines was already hard-grained into the psyche of a generation in certain parts of the globe.
Rachel Cusk, interviewed by the New Yorker in 2018 for her trilogy of books Outline, Transit, and Kudos, was asked about her more experimental tone in these works. Cusk commented that the problems of writing are the same ones we experience of living and therefore the problems of creativity are a problem of living. She noted that the language, the structure behind a piece, often goes uncommented on. She made the connection while driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, contemplating its ageing structure, that “feeling of realising that your consciousness, what appears to be your individuality, is actually resting on old, possibly decrepit structures.”
In art, as in life—with the imperative that climate change puts on all of us to re-examine our lives—all types of structures are being looked at. Narrative being only one. I think of Taika Waititi’s words at the Academy Awards last week, when he spoke of Indigenous peoples being the original storytellers and I’m thinking where those origin stories came from: the stars in the sky, the sand on the ground, the oceans or rivers or waterholes and the animals in the surrounding territories. Stories, songs, and oral communications; pictorial representations on hide and rock. The enduring nature of these creations convey the artisan skill involved in their making.
If you see yourself as a part of the environment, rather than separate from it, if your enduring relationships are to the creatures, the sand, water and the sky then it makes sense that the craft of story-making flows from this.
Back to Checkov’s gun and the significance attached by him to that gun on the wall: an audience, or reader, will individually have different points of reference for it. The gun must be fired because the gun is on the wall? Is the gun symbolic of further violence? Perhaps the gun is just a gun, perhaps it’s ornamental? I find myself railing against the either/or dichotomy, and like the kid in the taco commercial I find myself asking “Why not both?” Or neither. Apparently Hemingway agrees with me.
KA Rees writes poetry and short fiction. Her poems and stories can be found in all the suspect places.
Her short story, ‘Butterscotch,’ was shortlisted during our last competition and published in the resulting anthology, We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories.