The Turn in the Road: Finding story in event
Quite often, inexperienced novelists narrate events very efficiently without knowing what story they are telling. Your book has no plot, I might tell them. But so much happens! the novelist might respond. Well yes, if what happens is: one thing after another; action sparking reaction sparking action; he said she said he said she said; morning night morning night; to and fro and to and fro; chapter chapter chapter; breakfast lunch and dinner and breakfast; well then yes, many things happen. But oh give us strength: do tell us why. Do give us somewhere to travel to; something to travel from. We can't just wander on, turning pages, for want of something better to do. We have plenty better to do - plenty better books to read, too.
Such books appear to be linear - as straightforward as a road from one dull town to another - but actually what they often are is circular, so that at the end one finds oneself right back in the same dull town where one began. When editing such a manuscript, I search for the glimmer of some greater secret peeking out from the side of the road. Some jewel casually dropped by the footpath into the grass verges, as the author plodded down the road, step by step, counting her words. Often what glints and catches the eye is something of which the protagonist is blithely unaware - perhaps some insight of which even the author is only just slightly aware - the reason why she is plodding, and what she hopes for, from her plod.
What one needs to do at such times is to allow the protagonist to know herself or himself better: to share in this glimmering knowledge of him or herself that the reader might have spotted. Realisation of Purpose can enter a book like a shaft of light and turn event to plot in a moment. Once a character understands his or her own journey, he or she can act with purpose; make a decision which can become the pivot on which the book turns. Suddenly, instead of a linear narrative what we have are corners and stops; breaks and changes of pace; turning-points. Yes, turning-points: and here is ours - now we realise my blog's purpose; on this pivot will we turn today.
My proposition is that turning-points in fiction don't, contrary to common sense, rely on Momentous Events, but on Our Seeing That Events Are Momentous. On Knowledge or Insight. So, an important event might coincide with a book's turning-point. But it just as often might take a while for a protagonist to notice that an Event is Momentous. And only then, with knowledge, will the plot turn. Once insight pierces through, once we stop to listen, then an author, a character, can take control and inspire change.
Writers should not bury a protagonist's self-realisation, or important decisions; or fail to describe a plan hatched. Such purpose needs to be excavated and examined in the light. (And yes, sometimes too a character's self-knowledge can be held back, playfully, so that we readers can revel in seeing plot before the players, or feel trepidation whilst we wait for the plot to punch the protagonists in the head.)
Of course, we usually only see the turning-points in our own lives - the points at which change gathered pace - many months or years later. Afterwards, we can start to mark the Momentous Days - celebrate the various anniversaries. The Day We... The First Time I... Similarly, an author can often only see where the turning-points in a book occur once she or he has reached the end of the novel; perhaps it will take an editor to point them out. And then they can shore up those watershed moments and highlight them for the readers' attention.
An editor can also offer an author an insight into when a book should begin; when it should end. How many times have I lopped off the first few pages or chapters of a book - or several weeks off a timeline? Or, edited a single scene so that the author arrives on stage as late as possible, and leaves as quickly as possible? In this way an editor can help a writer to control and mould story from event without contriving it.
The same questions we ask of our lives: when did this all begin? When did it begin to end? can often only be answered later. Yes, sometimes we are aware of Turning-Points as we arrive at them. At those times we grasp hold of the moment tightly and try to commit it to memory. But, more often, we see the Momentous Events - the breaks and the turns - later, when we stop and try to make sense of it all. When we start to tell our story.