Part 3: Structure and Editing with a review of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, published Sept 2000, Penguin.
We have looked at the basics for a novel and the character. Now we have an idea and we have got to know our main character, and hopefully a few other characters that will appear in the story. Next we need to think about how we will structure our novel and, beyond that, redrafting and editing.
A story is the linear order of events; the plot is the order of how those events are related. A scene helps move the plot forward, builds characterisation and can help the narrative arc development. A chapter helps create the structure. In creating the structure of the novel some writers will plot the chapters and/or scenes on post-it notes.
I chart my structure and chapters on a sheet of paper. This helps me get going with the individual scenes that go into each chapter. I find it hard to just start writing and let the story appear. I need to do some plotting first. For me to write without a structure in place would be like creating leaves on a tree without having branches or a trunk. I need to think about the even-ness of tension in my story too. Where are the moments of drama and excitement? Are they evenly spaced?
There are many books discussing 3 or 5 act structures in novels-the famous hero’s journey being a formulaic structure. www.thewritersjourney.com However, I’m thinking first about why am I writing this story and what is the question it asks, or theme it discusses?
My answers: because I feel it is a story that needs telling. Its themes are love, loss and survival, and it asks how does the human spirit survive and continue to find joy in life while living through harrowing events.
This brings me to The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s compelling book about his time as a chemist both before and after the second world war. He has written more extensively about his time in Auschwitz in ‘If This is a Man’ and only briefly touches on it in this book. The structure is an interesting one. Levi uses the chemist’s periodic table – a different element for each chapter. There is some discussion of the element e.g. iron and the strength of a friend, but the book is mostly an autobiographical account of a period in his life when he was a chemist. His prose is beautiful and I liked the structure in the main. However, I felt at times there were some random stories put in that didn’t make sense to me, and I found myself skipping over parts. He brings out clearly the sense of hopelessness and inevitability he feels as a Jew living in the run up to the outbreak of war. There is a sadness in the book but it is a moving read.
I am left with a sense of urgency to get writing now. My first few scenes are critiqued in class and sections re-written by others. This is challenging and rewarding. I hear how others would write my story and some sound better to me. But then I get to thinking about my voice and how I want this book to sound and I revisit their comments with a more observational eye.
I’m tasked with putting more emotion into my words. I need to convey more than information with my writing – I need to think about the feeling. I set out again to re-draft knowing that writing is re-writing. I converse daily now with Tatiana, I’m getting to know her and her world and how she wants her story to be told.
I look forward to telling it and will continue to update on this blog…..thanks for reading!