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How Floyd Teaches Novel Writing

I teach an advanced online novel-writing course at the Gotham Writers' Workshop. It runs for ten weeks and it usually consists of 10 to 15 students from all over the world. Students post chapters each week, and we all read and discuss their work. There are also optional assignments in which I try to provide the students with useful tools for story construction. I also post a "lecture" each week. Each lecture is on a different aspect of novel writing and it prompts a week-long discussion in which the students work with the concept and figure out how it applies to their own and their classmates' work.

It's a great course, and I (as the teacher) always learn a great deal from it. For more information, check out the Gotham Writers' Workshop website:

Here is one of the lectures, which may give you an idea of my approach to teaching.


by Floyd Kemske

Now that we have looked at the concept of plot and at the concept of characters, it remains to look at how they interact.

I have contended that the protagonist is the victim of the initial event (the disturbance) and then makes the decisions that give rise to the troubles that happen on the way to the crisis. And then, of course, it is the protagonist who makes the decision, for good or ill, that resolves the crisis. So, in a way, you could say that the protagonist controls the story.

I want to test this idea by examining a novel famous for its deterministic fatalism. Anyone who reads Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy would agree that Tess is at the mercy of events. If you read TOTD the way it is supposed to be read, the story is so unrelenting in its accumulation of misfortunes that you can easily think of Tess as a hapless victim with no active role in what befalls her.

Here is the capsule description of the novel from The Reader's Encyclopedia, edited by William Rose Benet (New York, 1948):

Tess Durbeyfield, urged by her dissipated father Jack and the necessities of a poverty-stricken household, takes service with the wealthy Mrs. d'Urberville, a supposed connection. Here Alec, the son of the house, makes love to Tess and takes advantage of her against her will. After the death of her child, Tess hires herself out on a farm where she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a rector's son who wishes to be a farmer. The couple, after their marriage, relate the story of their past lives, and Angel, although he expects forgiveness for his own past, is horrified at his wife's story and goes abroad, refusing to live with her. After a time, Alec d'Urberville, who has become converted, persuades Tess to return to him in the belief that Angel will not come back and that she will be able to help her needy family. When Angel does return, but learning the situation, leaves again, she turns upon Alec and stabs him.
This summary hardly conveys the feeling of hopelessness and inevitable disaster that accompanies the reading of this book. Every time Tess stands up, she is knocked down -- again and again, until she is hanged at the end of the book. And it was surely Hardy's purpose to suggest that a human being can be entirely at the mercy of events and is powerless to avoid the fate mapped out for her in a cruel world.

And yet, even Tess, victim that she is, makes most of the decisions that cause her problems. It is true that, based on who she is, she cannot make her decisions differently, but that is Hardy's genius. He created a character who could make no other decisions than those that drive his plot.

Since an ordinary reading won't let us see Tess as an active decision-maker and plot driver, we must find a way to insulate ourselves from the effects of Hardy's storytelling genius. We can have this insulation by reviewing the story backward. (This strategy is similar to learning how to draw by turning your subject upside down, which actually works, by the way. This drawing lesson, which you likely never expected to get in a writing course, is a bonus!). We'll start with the stabbing of Alec d'Urberville.

The Resolution
Tess's stabbing of Alec is the novel's resolution. It is her crisis-resolving decision, which she describes afterward, when she overtakes Angel on the road out of Sandbourne:

"Angel," she said, "do you know what I have been running after you for? To tell you that I have killed him!" A pitiful white smile lit her face as she spoke.

"What!" said he, thinking from the strangeness of her manner that she was in some delirium.

"I have done it -- I don't know how," she continued. "Still, I owed it to you, and to myself, Angel. I feared long ago, when I struck him on the mouth with my glove, that I might do it some day for the trap he set for me in my simple youth, and his wrong to you through me. He has come between us and ruined us, and now he can never do it any more. I never loved him at all, Angel, as I loved you. You know it, don't you? You believe it? You didn't come back to me, and I was obliged to go back to him. Why did you go away -- why did you -- when I loved you so? I can't think why you did it. But I don't blame you; only, Angel, will you forgive me my sin against you, now I have killed him? I thought as I ran along that you would be sure to forgive me now I have done that. It came to me as a shining light that I should get you back that way. I could not bear the loss of you any longer -- you don't know how entirely I was unable to bear your not loving me! Say you do now, dear, dear husband; say you do, now I have killed him!"

It is not common, at least not in modern novels, for the crisis-resolving decision to happen off-stage and then be recounted in dialogue, but somehow it seems right for Hardy to do it this way. The novel offers no moral judgment on the murder. In fact, the novel (although it discusses moral principles at length) never makes any moral judgments about the behavior of its characters. (That Hardy subtitled a book about an adultress and murderess "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented" is probably a clue to what he wanted to say about the difference between real and social morality.)

The Crisis
The crisis resolved by the murder happened earlier in a meeting between Tess and Angel. The couple, despite the strength of their incorruptible love, had never consummated their marriage and had been separated for a long time. Angel, having returned to England from a disastrous trip to Brazil, scoured the region and finally found her at a lodging house in Sandbourne, where she revealed her situation:

"I waited and waited for you," she went on, her tones suddenly resuming their old fluty pathos. "But you did not come! And I wrote to you, and you did not come! He kept on saying you would never come any more, and that I was a foolish woman. He was very kind to me, and to mother, and to all of us after father's death. He--"

"I don't understand."

"He has won me back to him."

Clare looked at her keenly, then, gathering her meaning, flagged like one plague-stricken, and his glance sank; it fell on her hands, which, once rosy, were now white and more delicate.

She continued--

"He is upstairs. I hate him now, because he told me a lie -- that you would not come again; and you have come! These clothes are what he's put upon me: I didn't care what he did wi' me! But -- will you go away, Angel, please, and never come any more?"

They stood fixed, their baffled hearts looking out of their eyes with a joylessness pitiful to see. Both seemed to implore something to shelter them from reality.

Tess's goal throughout this book has been to make herself worthy of Angel. But now that Angel has found her living as d'Urberville's mistress, she sees that she is not worthy and that any hope she had of living with him as his wife is lost. So deeply did she love Angel that Tess's situation was untenable. She must either die or rid herself of Alec d'Urberville, and she had proved to herself several times in the past that she was incapable of suicide.

The Final Trouble: Alec d'Urberville
Alec d'Urberville had finally overcome Tess's resistance to his advances, which occupy the last third of the book. After her father died, he stepped in and provided for her destitute mother and siblings. He was the only thing between her family and homeless starvation. A woman like Tess could hardly have let their suffering continue when she could alleviate it by sacrificing herself, even to a monster like Alec d'Urberville.

The Third Trouble: Angel Clare
But d'Urberville had been only the last in a series of obstacles that stood between Tess and her goal of a happy life with Angel. And he could not have been such an obstacle had not Angel himself been one. Angel, a respectable middle-class parson's son, went against the wishes of his family to marry Tess, a humble dairy maid. But on their wedding night, when they were trading confessions, she told him she'd once been d'Urberville's mistress and had his baby (which died within a year). She could see in his face that he hadn't taken this news well:

"I suppose -- you are not going to live with me -- long, are you, Angel?" she asked, the sunk corners of her mouth betraying how purely mechanical were the means by which she retained that expression of chastened calm upon her face.

"I cannot" he said, "without despising myself, and what is worse, perhaps, despising you. I mean, of course, cannot live with you in the ordinary sense. At present, whatever I feel, I do not despise you. And, let me speak plainly, or you may not see all my difficulties. How can we live together while that man lives? -- he being your husband in nature, and not I. If he were dead it might be different... Besides, that's not all the difficulty; it lies in another consideration -- one bearing upon the future of other people than ourselves. Think of years to come, and children being born to us, and this past matter getting known -- for it must get known. There is not an uttermost part of the earth but somebody comes from it or goes to it from elsewhere. Well, think of wretches of our flesh and blood growing up under a taunt which they will gradually get to feel the full force of with their expanding years. What an awakening for them! What a prospect! Can you honestly say 'Remain' after contemplating this contingency? Don't you think we had better endure the ills we have than fly to others?"

This is as close as Angel ever came to explaining his reasons for abandoning her (which is what left her exposed and vulnerable to the advances of Alec d'Urberville). But Angel had no reasons for his decision. He simply could not get over her being damaged goods. Angel is a sympathetic character, but he must rank as one of the most clueless in all of literature. Even the most restrained of readers must conceive an overpowering and unfulfillable desire to shake him until his head rattles. Note how the remark "How can we live together while that man lives?" foreshadows the final resolution.

The Second Trouble: Tess Herself
Angel would not have been an obstacle to their happiness if Tess had never told him about her history with Alec d'Urberville. But on their wedding night, Angel insisted on confessing that he'd once had "eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger." He begged her forgiveness:

"Then we will dismiss it at once and for ever! -- too painful as it is for the occasion -- and talk of something lighter."

"O, Angel -- I am almost glad -- because now you can forgive me! I have not made my confession. I have a confession, too -- remember, I said so."

"Ah, to be sure! Now then for it, wicked little one."

"Perhaps, although you smile, it is as serious as yours, or more so."

"It can hardly be more serious, dearest."

"It cannot -- O no, it cannot!" She jumped up joyfully at the hope. "No, it cannot be more serious, certainly," she cried, "because 'tis just the same! I will tell you now."

In fact, Angel did forgive her, but he felt he could no longer live with her. To him, she was a different person after the confession. Tess loved Angel so much that she could not have withheld this bit of history from him, and she so believed in his love for her that she assumed he could live with it. She had several times attempted to tell him before they were married, but she was blocked each time by her love for him and her fear of losing him.

The First Trouble: Prince
Of course, Tess would have had nothing to confess if she'd never been involved with Alec d'Urberville. She had met him when she acceded to the wishes of her parents and took a position at the d'Urberville estate tending the pet chickens kept by Alec's mother. Tess had not wanted to seek the help of the d'Urbervilles, but she decided to when she accidentally killed the family's only horse, Prince. She had fallen asleep driving a wagon load of beehives to market in the middle of the night and collided with the mail coach.

The oppressive sense of the harm she had done led Tess to be more deferential than she might otherwise have been to the maternal wish; but she could not understand why her mother should find such satisfaction in contemplating an enterprise of, to her, such doubtful profit. Her mother might have made inquiries, and have discovered that this Mrs d'Urberville was a lady of unequalled virtues and charity. But Tess's pride made the part of poor relation one of particular distaste to her.

"I'd rather try to get work," she murmured.

"Durbeyfield, you can settle it," said his wife, turning to where he sat in the background. "If you say she ought to go, she will go."

"I don't like my children going and making themselves beholden to strange kin," murmured he. "I'm the head of the noblest branch o' the family, and I ought to live up to it."

His reasons for staying away were worse to Tess than her own objections to going. "Well, as I killed the horse, mother," she said mournfully, "I suppose I ought to do something. I don't mind going and seeing her, but you must leave it to me about asking for help. And don't go thinking about her making a match for me -- it is silly."

"Very well said, Tess!" observed her father sententiously.

The Disturbance: Fate
Tess never would have been driving the wagon load of beehives to market if her father, John Durbeyfield, had not been too drunk to do it. He should not have been drinking the evening before the beehives had to get to market, but he could not restrain himself from celebrating. Earlier in the day, he had learned that, as precarious as his present circumstances were, he was the scion of a family many centuries old and that his modest name was a corrupted form of the ancient name of d'Urberville. He learned this as a result of meeting a parson who is also an antiquary on the first page of the book:
"Then what might your meaning be in calling me 'Sir John' these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler?"

The parson rode a step or two nearer.

"It was only my whim," he said; and, after a moment's hesitation: "It was on account of a discovery I made some little time ago, whilst I was hunting up pedigrees for the new county history. I am Parson Tringham, the antiquary, of Stagfoot Lane. Don't you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d'Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d'Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?"

"Never heard it before, sir!"

"Well it's true. Throw up your chin a moment, so that I may catch the profile of your face better. Yes, that's the d'Urberville nose and chin--a little debased. Your ancestor was one of the twelve knights who assisted the Lord of Estremavilla in Normandy in his conquest of Glamorganshire. Branches of your family held manors over all this part of England; their names appear in the Pipe Rolls in the time of King Stephen. In the reign of King John one of them was rich enough to give a manor to the Knights Hospitallers; and in Edward the Second's time your forefather Brian was summoned to Westminster to attend the great Council there. You declined a little in Oliver Cromwell's time, but to no serious extent, and in Charles the Second's reign you were made Knights of the Royal Oak for your loyalty. Aye, there have been generations of Sir Johns among you, and if knighthood were hereditary, like a baronetcy, as it practically was in old times, when men were knighted from father to son, you would be Sir John now."

There you have it. A remark by a parson incited the vanity of Tess's shiftless father. His subsequent celebrating rendered him unable to take the beehives to market, so Tess had to do it. It was in the middle of the night, and Tess -- only a child, after all -- fell asleep so that her wagon collided with the mail coach and killed her horse. The family had to look for help, and Tess -- as the family's principal asset -- went to their supposed relatives, where she met Alec d'Urberville, a scoundrel who seduced her and got her pregnant. Her baby died and she went to a dairy seeking work. She met and fell in love with a respectable gentleman and married him. Blinded by her love, she shared her secret with him, but it so unhinged him that he decided they should live apart while he figured out what to do. But in his absence, she met Alec d'Urberville again, and he -- taking advantage of her family's straitened circumstances -- struck a sort of bargain with her to provide for her family if she would submit to him. When Angel returned, ready to live with her again, she could not go back to him because she was not worthy of him as long as she was being kept by Alec, who would not let her go. So she killed Alec, and chased down the road after Angel. The story ends (in case you haven't read it) with Angel and Tess spending several idyllic days together before the constables catch up to them. Tess is then tried and executed for murder.

Hardy was only too anxious for us to see Tess as someone powerless to control her fate. And yet, when we look at the story, we see that its events are usually traceable to her decisions. I don't know how Hardy wrote, but this examination reveals Tess of the d'Urbervilles as a story that could have grown either way. Hardy could have started with a girl's murder of a gentleman and then constructed a character who would have inevitably come to that result. Or he could have started with the character, applied a single misfortune, and followed her to her ultimate crisis and resolution.

I admit that I have told you how the story turns out, but I am not worried that I have spoiled it for those of you haven't read it yet. I've read it three times myself -- once backwards.

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