AWP2015: Time and Structure in the Novel

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMEditor’s Note: this was a fiction session, but we’re posting it because it does have overlap with some of the book-length nonfiction panels we saw.

“Time and Structure in the Novel” was both a popular and useful session. The foundational text for the session was Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction. It was mentioned in moderator Sarah Strickley’s opening statement, referenced repeatedly by all members of the panel, and strongly recommended as a book for writers to consult. As described by panel member Leah Stewart, Silber’s book identifies different ways that novelists can arrange time flow in their stories. The notion of “classic time”—in which time moves forward in discreet, linear steps—and “switchback time”—in which the narrative moves regularly back and forth between past and present—were cited most often by the panelists.

Another and original conceptual model for structuring one’s novel was suggested by panel member Dean Bakopoulos. Bakopoulos explained that he tells his students to think about their novels as escalators that move upward through 8 different stages. Doing so helps crystallize for a writer her story’s tensions. For instance, the writer must decide what exactly happens to the protagonist in those 8 stages. Bakopoulos received multiple questions from the audience about this concept and so he further explained that he tells his students that after the third stage on the escalator their characters should realize that they can’t go back; after the sixth stage they should realize they are being followed.

Panelist Michael Knight emphasized the concept of “forward lean.”   Time, he said, should create “pressure” on a narrative, pressure that pushes the story forward all the way to the end.   If the pressure is too much, perhaps the writer should relax time; if it’s not enough, the reader should attenuate time.   He also added that as the reader moves through a novel, her understanding of a character’s situation should grow increasingly complex. Stewart amended Knight’s comments by explaining that when the plot of a novel isn’t generating enough pressure on its own, a writer can generate pressure by changing the order in which the plot is laid out.   Another panelist followed up saying that the nature of a novel’s core question can be changed by how time is arranged. Depending on when certain events are presented, the core question for the novel might not be “Why are these events happening?” but “What is the result caused by the events?” This happened with one of her own novels when she decided to show a character abandoning a baby in the very first scene and then jumped ahead ten years to show the consequence of that action.

Meanwhile, several panelists found useful Ethan Canin’s notion that every story needs a “clothesline” that runs through it from beginning to end, and that the clothesline should be taut enough to “hang things on.”

A large chunk of the session was devoted to the authors describing novels that helped them find new ways of handling time in their own books. Bakopoulos recommended William Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow as an example of how a book can be engaging even though all of its core tensions are in the past.   Another panelist recommended Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum for its example of how to use leaps in time. Knight praised Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady because of how the author focuses attention on the most crucial episodes in a relationship and how James is able to more or less skip several years in between these episodes with no detriment to his story.   Stewart recommended The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg as an example of a novel with a “mosaic” structure; also Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill as an example of a novel made out of fragments.

-John Vanderslice

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Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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