About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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