12 May 2013
Sequence in storytelling
The structure of a satisfying story is well known: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. That is the broad pattern, but the whole narrative is like a fractal. The beginning itself has a beginning, middle and end; likewise the middle and likewise the end. And if you increase the magnification you will see that everything conforms to a sequence. If this is broken at any point, the story becomes less satisfying.
Let us turn the magnification up to maximum and examine the smallest element of a story, the word. A word must be spelled or pronounced a certain way or it will not be drenustdoo … er, understood. Once the first letter of the first word has been laid down, the subsequent letters must obey the law of sequence or the story will go awry.
The second word is in thrall to the first; the third is even more constrained, because it must follow both the first and the second.
The first sentence has a beginning, middle and end. So do the first paragraph and the first chapter.
As element succeeds element each becomes more constrained, until, in a well constructed story, the final element is inevitable. It will hit the emotional sweet-spot and the reader or listener will be completely satisfied.
Although a born storyteller has an intuitive grasp of this idea, when he is building a complicated story his intuition can be inadequate. Elements of the tale vie with one another for precedence. If one element takes his fancy, he may introduce it too soon and thereby cause a structural problem that leads to writer’s block. Or it may not even belong in the narrative at all, causing an even more severe blockage, especially if he is enamoured of the way he has already presented it.
The law of sequence is ruthless. Any diversion causes reader dissatisfaction. It may appear to the storyteller that he is free to take the narrative in whatever direction he chooses, but this is a fallacy. I have said elsewhere on this blog that, in writing fiction, the subconscious is king, and it is the subconscious that is the final arbiter of sequence. The notion that certain characters take on a life of their own is also fallacious: what really happens is that the conscious mind is surprised by the manifestation of a form that was already present in the subconscious. Equally wrong is the illusion of freedom. The only freedom a storyteller enjoys is to disrupt the sequence and subject himself to the torture of writer’s block.
We can see now why the first line of a novel is so important, and why writers spend so long agonizing over and polishing it. Have a look at these. You will see that its first line contains the very germ of a book, however subtle and compressed it may be.
Correctly used, flashbacks have their proper place in the sequence, which is to provide information needed for subsequent development of the story. When incorrectly used, they annoy and may even exasperate the reader. One of the worst offenders in my reading experience is Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, of which a reviewer says: “Very enjoyable to read, but when I finished I was temped to rip out each chapter and arrange them in chronological order. Written in epistolary and non-sequential style, this novel can be as confusing at times as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” I felt just the same, but wrote the chapter-numbers down in chronological order, then re-read the book that way, whereupon I understood and appreciated it better.
If, as a writer, you find yourself blocked, go back to the start of your story and check that the sequence flows freely. And if, as a reader, you like the style of a book but become dissatisfied with the story, ask yourself whether the sequence is correct. A poor sequence may reveal further weaknesses in the author’s technique, such as an over-reliance on the conscious mind and/or a lack of sincerity. By such means you refine your critical faculties and earn your place in the ranks of the good and great readers, and if this little post helps you in that it will have been well worth its composition.