The Architecture of Narrative

The Architecture of Narrative, Sydney Smith. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014. (Reviewed by Gary Gautier)

Sydney Smith’s The Architecture of Narrative has much to offer within its limited scope. An experienced manuscript assessor and writing mentor, Smith focuses this short guidebook on plot and structure, packing in an abundance of tips for beginning and intermediate writers who will most benefit from learning the established tricks of the trade. In such a guidebook, there is an unavoidable drift toward template-driven writing, and Smith notes in her introduction that she hopes to convey a skill in “using the general principles effectively” and not in “being formulaic” (3).

When she gets to the nuts and bolts chapters, Smith does not always escape that drift toward templates, but her awareness of that risk for the most part keeps her on the razor’s edge where one can make specific recommendations about how to write well without trapping writers into preset conventions. Smith’s formalist focus on compositional elements, visible in a table of contents that includes “character drivers,” “character inhibitors,” “plot triggers,” and the like, is just right for the target audience, and she often develops them with excellent concrete tips. For example, “You can make a villain likable by making him good at what he does. He may be a car mechanic, a computer programmer or hacker … We respect experts, or people who are good at what they do” (64). Or “If a character is obstructed by a character flaw, we must first see the flaw in action” (150). At times like these, Smith’s years of analyzing character show, and she gets at the psychology as well as the formal details of the scenario.

The very thing that makes the formalist approach to elements and genres useful – that it allows practitioners to keep their hands on something concrete and test it out – can also make it reductive. Smith’s distinctions, for example, between “a protagonist” and “a hero” (46), or between “a romance” and “a love story” (48), although internally consistent, are probably too rigid to apply across a fluid range of narratives. Likewise, “plot thumbscrews” is a great device for writers to internalize, but Smith’s application – that “Pride and Prejudice contains three plot thumbscrews” (118) or that “a novella will have only one” (119) – seems to foreclose interpretation and place limits that weaken rather than strengthen the fine writing strategies she offers.

To demonstrate her “general principles,” Smith hones in on two sample narratives, Pride and Prejudice and The Bourne Identity, which are analyzed throughout the book against the screen of tools and mechanisms Smith puts forth for the reader. On the one hand, this nicely allows concrete demonstration of her points. On the other, she sometimes goes too far, gets bogged down in those narratives, perhaps too eager to show through a kind of reverse engineering how extended sequences in the two subject narratives match up to her templates (e.g., the “thumbscrew” sequence on The Bourne Identity, pp, 119-132).

The structure of Smith’s own book also has its strengths and weaknesses. The general structure, as expressed in the table of contents, with its formalist isolation of elements and techniques, is perfectly suited to Smith’s audience of those in the midst of the writing process. She ends many segments with a “Question(s) for the writer” section. These questions, useful (“What actions of your protagonist reveal their character?”) if simplistic (“Who is your protagonist’s main antagonist?”), have potential but are underworked. I might have preferred more concrete and nuanced exercises, where Smith would give the reader a scenario and then asks the reader to develop by using the tools of particular chapter. But we do not get exercises at that level of detail.  We do get an appendix on “A Plot Map” and “The Escalation Graph” – excellent concepts that might have come across more forcefully with visual graphics, especially of the plot map – but the book otherwise ends without much of a general conclusion.

Despite its flaws, The Architecture of Narrative remains a well-framed discussion for a target audience of beginner to intermediate narrative writers, who will find here a voice of experience and a small but solid encyclopedia of good tips. Probably the best indicator of the book’s worth is the number of times I had to smile and shake my head as Smith had pinpointed another one of my own recurring evasions with regard to “conflict” or “motive.” I had to read with a grain of salt here and there, but I feel myself to be a better writer for having read Smith’s book. Definitely well worth the short read that it is.

Tristram Shandy’s Faux Postmodernism

From time to time, my literati friends put forth Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) as if it were a postmodernist novel 200 years ahead of its time. This is understandable, considering all the reflexivity and discontinuities built into the structure of the text. But on the core issue of human identity, Sterne is no postmodernist.

Human identity, to the postmodern, is essentially fragmented, incoherent, all colliding and discordant surfaces without any stabilizing interior or deep anchor. Sterne may superficially anticipate these postmodern preferences, insofar as human identity in Shandy, more so than in contemporaries in the period from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen, is whimsically determined by each character’s hobbyhorse. Sterne, however, is a man of sentiment, and his sentimental world view is at odds with postmodernism’s intellectually austere view of human identity. In Sterne’s case, the sentimental side wins. Although human identity in Shandy may seem random, even infinitely displaced by hobbyhorsical identity, this arbitrariness is underwritten in the text by a sense of private identity. (And insofar as private identity is perhaps more “private” in Sterne than in other writers of his age, he may anticipate Freud more than he anticipates postmodernism per se.)  It may be true that once we get Uncle Toby’s “military apparatus out of the way . . . the world can have no idea how he will act,” but Tristram suggests that the reader has a clearer vision than “the world”: “You have seen enough of my Uncle Toby” to know his “singleness of heart . . . plainness and simplicity” (italics mine).  For those who would appropriate Sterne for postmodernism, it may be tempting to see no stable identity behind the hobbyhorse.  (Compare to my snippets on Gertrude Stein or Robbe-Grillet.) A careful reading, however, suggests that there is private human identity, and that it is urgent that we recognize it as such, despite appearances, for this private identity is the real locus of the sympathetic passions at the heart of the 18th-century Cult of Sensibility, of which we might call Sterne a charter member.

Thinking of Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

With that ironic jab at the wives of the landed gentry, Austen frames the world of Pride and Prejudice. Everything you need to know about Austen is right there in the first sentence: a style characterized by irony and wit, not a vicious satirical attack such as a Marxist might give, but more like Alexander Pope, the witty sting of an insider far from any revolutionary agenda; the focus on courtship and on the travails of female coming-of-age among the Georgian gentry, on the “private” rather than the “public” relations of a well-defined and somewhat gossipy community of 3 or 4 families out in the countryside; the sharp eye for self-deception and for getting at the pulp of human nature, not by subjecting protagonists to extraordinary situations but by subjecting their everyday social relations to an extraordinary microscope. (Using another favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, to come at the flip side of Austen’s impeccable style, one might conclude that Emily Bronte shared her sister Charlotte’s complaint that Austen’s world was utterly lacking in passion … a complaint that may have been exacerbated when an early editor of Jane Eyre suggested to Charlotte that she write with “more restraint, like Miss Austen.”)