“Scaffolding” in fiction writing

by jbloodwell

I’ve had the post below saved as a draft for a while, and was inspired to go back to it after reflecting, today, on the conclusion of a really wonderful session of the fiction workshop that I’ve been teaching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts over the last two or so years. (Shameless plug: another session of the workshop is starting April 6.)

I like to open each class with some discussion of an open-ended question. I do it because writing is such a solitary art form that a little time to compare notes, commiserate, and try to talk a little about how we do what we do (or what we’re trying to do) can be really important and really encouraging for writers, myself included. Also it’s a great way to ease into class before the students have to hear me lecture on plot, point of view, character, etc.

Some questions are better than others, and last night I came up with a good one: where does meaning—“theme,” that quality in a story of its being “about” something—come from? Do you start out thinking, “This story is going to be about human avarice and greed,” or “I’m going to write a novel about fathers and sons”? Or do you just write, and do something like hope a meaning develops? Or look for meaning only later, when you’ve thrown a few thousand (or more) words on the page?

It was a great discussion, and if there was any consensus it’s that your work will usually surprise you: that fathers-and-sons novel you had planned out so nicely will prove to have little to do with either fathers or sons, and that story where you just thought it would be fun to write about rodeo clowns might prove to have unexpected depths beneath the surface.

In any event, it got me thinking about an experience I had last spring and summer with a pair of stories, about which I started to write a blog post that I never finished. I’ve completed the thought and wanted to throw it out there in case it’s of any use or interest to anyone else in thinking about where not only meaning comes from, but where anything in a story comes from: the act/art of composition and the mystery of it.

Old, saved blog post:

Recently I’ve noticed a distinct feature of the way that I write stories. The composition phase, for me, is one of being intuitive and even a little wild. Stuff comes to mind and I put it in the story. My feeling is: why not? I can always take it out later.

A case in point is a story I recently finished about a man who has escaped from a cult and is trying to put his life back together. He’s written about his experiences as a therapeutic exercise, and those pages have multiplied until he has a 700-page novel on his hands. In the middle of this, I saw fit to include a long passage about a pair of rowdy bars where two sets of patrons erupt into an all-out brawl about once per season. I couldn’t have explained why it was there, but I wrote it in, revised it, and polished it because it “felt” right.

Only later, as I showed the story to some people and got their feedback, did I face the fact that it had nothing to do with anything else in the story. Some pretty lines had grown up around it, but otherwise it just did not belong. Kill your darlings, right?

Well, sort of. I ended up taking that part of the story and building another story around it. That story ended up ballooning to around 40 pages—way more space than the story itself merited. I went looking for things to cut and—guess what?—these down-at-heel biker bars and their cantankerous clientele did not make the cut.

I feel a little bad for that passage, now a two-time loser. But the fact that it’s been cut twice has drawn my notice to the way that things like these scenes and these characters can function in a story as it is created from the beginning to the end. I mentioned lines growing around this stuff, as if it were a fence post that a tree shapes itself around. Pretty lines, of course, aren’t the reason for a story’s being, but I think the same thing happens on a broader level: the story shapes itself around these doomed bits of plot and character, and you get to see something different and interesting about your characters and your story.

I’ve taken to calling this idea “scaffolding” in my internal thinking about stories, because it’s a structure that supports the thing you’re building, encases it, and gives you some parameters to work in. Eventually, you’ll dismantle it. Until then, though, it’s a crucial support, this temporary structure that helps illuminate the permanent structure it encases.

I remember working with this idea years ago, in graduate school, in a doomed story where I jumped back and forth between time (now and five years earlier) and place (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia). Just to keep it all straight in my head, I used headings: “Philadelphia, 2002” and “Pittsburgh, 2007.” Eventually, I figured, it would all make more sense organically and I’d be able to drop the explanatory headers. (It didn’t. I dropped the Philadelphia half and then it did, in fact, make much more sense.)

In a pretty major way, I’d say “scaffolding” stands in for a lot of the thought behind the ways that I teach and talk about fiction, and certainly the way I think about it when I’m at the computer: you’re not going to get it right the first time; make it easier for yourself in the second, third, fourth drafts; make your thinking visible and give yourself everything you need to pick up tomorrow where you left off today.

Recently I said to someone that my teaching could be boiled down to a six-sided die that would include advice like “Write a longer draft where you include lots more details—you can always cut later” and “Develop this into more of a scene.” (Actually, a coin might be the more appropriate tool: I’m not sure I can think of four more pieces of advice I typically dole out.)

I feel bad for these bikers, getting into the same drunken brawl again and again, but I’m also grateful to them, and I can’t rule out starting a story with them again just to see what grows around them.

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