I teach on a number of creative writing courses in Oxford, including the undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing. What follows are some notes for a seminar on the shapes of novels. They are set out as written -- apologies for the big blocks of text.
The references are:
Imogen Holst's An ABC of Music (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1963, ISBN 0-19-317103-1), chapter 29 Musical Shapes
Lev Kuleshov's Kuleshov on Film (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1974, ISBN 0-520-02659-4), p. 46-49 and p. 193
An ABC of Music Considering the form and shape of novels is, in many ways, a very difficult thing to do. Flicking through a book might give one a strong sense of the surface form but the actual forms and shapes that the work produces in readers' minds when it is read are much harder to describe. For a start, these are bound to be subjective. Having said that, most readers -- and creative writing students -- probably feel that some attempt at describing form and shape is a necessary and valid thing to do when discussing novels or trying to analyse how they work. In fact terms which help us to articulate our impressions of shape and form are probably already well-established parts of the vocabulary we use to talk about fiction. However, the form that a novel suggests in our heads isn't concrete. We can't look at it like a car, say, and then describe it using the appropriate technical words. Because nothing can be seen and because we can't project our thoughts about literary shape and form like an image on a laptop, we have to find, generally speaking, words that communicate the thoughts as if they were concrete entities. So, we use a lot of metaphors and similes. We borrow terms and phrases from the plastic arts particularly and from other abstract, intangible artforms, such as music or, perhaps film. In this part of the seminar I'd like to have a look at passages of musical and film theory which attempt to grapple with the problem of form and shape. I'm doing so because I've found it helpful to look at how the theory of form works in relation to other media as a way of understanding how one might describe literary form. Music and film seem particularly useful comparisons but one might equally look at the theory of painting, sculpture or poetry, according to ones interests.
The first paragraph of Imogen Holst's chapter on Musical Shapes says things that I've already mentioned, though in a very economical, well-expressed way. Note the reference to architecture -- in both literature and music one might well use terms usually associated with architecture to describe forms or the feelings that they produce ('light' and 'airy', for example). We might also talk about the 'architecture' of a scene or work. The idea that the 'sounds are only there while the performers are singing or playing' might not look as if it quite applies to fiction because whilst we can't ask a choir to repeat what they've just sung, we can always flick back and forth through a novel. And when it's read we still have it in our hands -- the whole of it, every word. And yet when we finish a book, flicking back and forth or re-reading passages can't really recapture the full sense of form and shape that we perceived when we read from cover to cover. To an extent, that experience is a one-off. Close the book after reading the last page and the text has finished its work, leaving us to explore what it has imparted. And what has been imparted will usually include a sense of the form of parts of the novel and some shapes and an overall shape. The second paragraph sums up why shapes are important in music -- and by analogy in fiction. Form and shape help to contain the words used. They direct the attention of both writer and reader. They help the writer to make sense of his/her ideas. They provide a way into those ideas for the reader. Writing novels is in fact often, perhaps always, about finding a way of shaping ones material. If you listen to novelists talk, they often say that writing a novel helped them to understand what they thought about its subject. That is, I presume, it gave them the opportunity of structuring their mass of loosely connected thoughts into a wide-ranging comprehensible form. Of course, this can be a found shape -- the epistolary form suggests a certain ready-made shape -- or one that evolves (or is revealed even to the writer only gradually as they write). One might call the latter an organic form. But the important thing is that there is some sort of form or shape to the novel to stop the ideas going all over the place, as it were! Having said that, Holst's reference to 'economy' being the most important thing in music isn't necessarily true of fiction, which seems an incredibly elastic medium. From baggy monsters to tightly-plotted Ian McEwan novellas. But both have to have structure and form to work. We probably all know the truth of this statement from our own struggles with form during our early writing experiences. What Holst says, though, in para three about an economical tune creating 'a satisfying shape that stands out in the listener's mind' is of course also true in fiction. What Holst says in para four about repetition is specific to music, folk songs in particular, but also has relevance to fiction. The way Holst describes the 'memorable shape' of the folk songs suggests the ways that simple stories -- fairy tales and folk tales, for example -- are constructed. And whilst these kinds of simple form might best be applied to short fiction rather than long, they might be useful when thinking about the shape of individual scenes or chapters. But then repetition can be a useful structuring device in fiction, whatever its length -- a building block, if you like. Repeated settings and situations can be used to produce a wide variety of effects in a long fiction. Not least because the repetition will never be quite the same in each instance but will necessarily reflect changes which have occurred as the narrative develops. A scene set in the living room of a couple's home as the furniture is being moved out during a divorce will carry an echo of the one when the newlyweds made love on the sofa in their new home... NB, though, one has to be careful not to make such repetitions too clunky! I particularly like Holst's idea that when 'the last two bars of the tune are an exact repetition of the first two bars...this links the end with the beginning in a particularly satisfying way.' This refers to the musical Tonic, of which Holst says earlier (p 12):
'The grouping of the notes in Ex. 19 helps to express the musical sense of the chant. Expressive singing is like expressive speaking : notes, like words, have to be PHRASED in order to make the meaning of the sentence clear. When the musical sentences in Exs. 18 and 19 are phrased, the arrival on their final C feels like a home-coming. Both tunes sound as if they 'belong' to C. This sense of ownership makes C the most important note in both Ex. 18 and Ex. 19. Every tune has its own most important note, which is called the TONIC.'
I find the idea of the Tonic very useful structurally. At its simplest a novel might begin with a character in a certain place and end in a similar way (but in fact a wholly new way due to the narrative development). Throughout the novel the character will play a key role -- the narrative being to an extent his/her story. The character won't necessarily be present all the time and when they are not present the narrative will have the sense of moving away from them but inevitably it will return to that character. Such an organising principle can give considerable elegance to a story, in my opinion. What Holst says in para five seems relevant to what we felt when looking at 253: we could determine a fair bit about the novel by looking at the print on the pages and analysing the architectural principles that the author used to construct the sequences but this only told us so much. It identified the features of the novel into which the spirit of the writer and his talents were poured. One could only get a sense of the ineffable structure -- the life-form -- of the novel by inhabiting it, reading, living it. What Holst says in the sixth para might not seem very relevant to fiction, although writers often do take 'the purpose for which [their work] has been ordered' into account. This is especially true of genre fiction but may also be true of 'serious' writers too. It's noticeable, when one works as a reviewer, that certain ways of structuring or thinking about novels seem to get transmitted from author to author -- or should that be editor to editor? So, alert writers will read their piers' work and will instinctively borrow forms and shapes that seem to work. This practice may not be as systematic in writing fiction as it is in music but it clearly goes on and is worth thinking about. Holst's assertion that 'Every composer thinks of the practical conditions of performance before he begins writing' in para seven could also be applied to writing fiction, in the sense that most writers probably give at least some consideration to what the experience of reading their work will be like. This will have some effect on the structure and the texture of the novel. It is likely that writers who want to be read will try to make the texture of their fiction penetrable. The convention of dividing works of fiction up into chunks of just a page or two is widespread now and presumably has to do with the assumed attention spans of readers and the practicalities of fitting reading into busy lives. What Holst says about borrowing words usually used to describe different media in paras eight and nine holds good for fiction -- another, in a sense, 'intangible art' looking for words to describe it. In describing fiction we use 'texture' and 'tone' but 'colour' not so much and 'timbre' hardly ever at all.
Kuleshov on Film I don't want to dwell for too long on Kuleshov I simply want to draw your attention to his use of the metaphor of a fence with sections in different colours and his 'Diagram of montage segments and intra-shot montage'. In many ways Kuleshov seems very dated now -- in contrast with Holst, who seems pretty timeless to me. Kuleshov is quite obviously a product of the post-revolutionary soviet society he was living and working in. The idea of him and his comrades announcing 'the fundamental source of cinematographic impact' to their fellow film makers is both endearing and, perhaps, a little disturbing. Having said that, his metaphor of the fence is a famous one and the influence of his ideas about montage on his pupils, such as Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, produced some of the most unforgettable film sequences of the twentieth century. The way the metaphor of the fence and the way the graph work are self-evident. They are both notably clear and easy to understand. They do their job very well. My intention in showing them to you is to suggest another couple of ways in which abstract structures can be described.