Saturday, June 14, 2014

Does Your Novel Behave like a Story or like a Sestina?

Even if you’re unsure what a sestina is, you don’t want your novel resembling one. Novels must thrust forward, rather than circling around plot, theme, or character emotions.

What’s a sestina? A complex 39-line poem dating back to 12th century France. Since novels can be 390 pages, the two forms illuminate in distinctly different ways.

The sestina takes the last word of the first six lines (123456) and creates this pattern from those six words: 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531. The six words reappear one last time in the final three-line verse. By repeating and revisiting, the sestina reveals different conclusions about the same idea, which—ceases to be the same idea.

Though this might seem excessive, each recurrence changes the word’s context, even its meaning. If you’re curious about the sestina, check out what Elizabeth Bishop does with the simple words “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.”

The technique is not only terrific for poets but an excellent exercise for deepening a novel. You might quite usefully compose a sestina about dilemma, subplot, or backstory. But it’s no way to structure the book itself.

Here’s why. Lauren Groff liked Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” but said of the protagonist’s arc: “If I never found the novel an ‘opera of bracing suspense,’ it may be because I was so worn down by O’Rourke’s incessant circling around his self-hatred and fear and inability to make a substantive effort, that when change does in fact come to him, it feels a bit limp and clammy.”

Novels generally trace the journey from weakness or difficulty to strength and power. Progress won’t be steady. There’ll be set-backs, wrong turns, resurrection of self-destructive habits, and worship of false truths.

This doesn’t mean you get to repeat as sestinas do. How can you avoid that?

~ A scene goal outline.
Check how often the protagonist progresses or retraces.

~ Physical/emotional balance.
The more characters ruminate, worry, and plan, then the more static your novel will feel.

~ Motivated dialogue.
Do conversations actually advance plot, or exist only to break up the narration?

~ A character arc.
Do events cause the character to grow, or is success sudden and inexplicable?

Tip: Life often seems to go in circles, but readers don’t want novels imitating that.

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