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: http://www.writingclasses.com/home/NV.html.
Here is one of the lectures, which may give you an idea of my approach to teaching.
HOW PLOT AND CHARACTER WORK TOGETHER or BACKWARD THROUGH TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES
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.
"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.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.)
"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--"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
The Third Trouble: Angel Clare
"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.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
"Then we will dismiss it at once and for ever! -- too painful as it is for the occasion -- and talk of something lighter."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
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.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?"Summary
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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