Over my many years of teaching creative writing I’ve written a great deal for students about the art of narrative writing, and specific techniques. I love doing this kind of work as by reading closely and thinking a passage through, I’m also teaching myself as a writer. By working from a close reading of a published work, I can start to see how it’s been put together, and what other writers might learn from it.
In my writing workshops, I continue with this practice, providing mini- essays on a topic. I decide on specific topics spontaneously, waiting for the workshop to be underway, then prepare them in response to what the writers in that particular workshop need, or specifically ask for. There’s no requirement to read them, they’re there as a resource. Here’s one example of a micro-lesson from my most recent workshop, on the topic of dramatisation and reflection.
Dramatisation (with a ‘z’ if in US English) in narrative fiction or nonfiction is where the scene is presented in ‘real’ time, with action described, dialogue and speech quoted directly, to create the sense that the event is happening there and then.
What I’m calling reflection is where the narrative focuses more on the character or narrator, and makes meaning from the dramatised action, through thoughts, memories, etc.
This example below is from a work of narrative nonfiction, but the lesson works just as well with fiction. The aim is to show how a writer might move between or link these two key modes.
Susan Faludi’s memoir-biography is about her father, a man she discovers she barely knows when he writes to her aged in his sixties, to say he has completed his sex reassignment surgery, and is now Stephánie and is once again living in Hungary—a country he fled as a young Jewish man during the war, the only survivor of his small family.
Over the course of the book, Faludi moves back and forth in time between her contemporary research, and her visits to him from her home in America, what she uncovers of his war-time and post-war past, and his later years as the distant and then violent father whom she remembers. Her aim is to understand him through all the many versions of himself that he lived, and what brought him to becoming Stephánie.
The first paragraph dramatises the run: they’re in ‘doing’ mode. The second paragraph offers the reflection: she’s thinking, pondering, making meaning from the run.
‘At the final climb…we began jogging side by side. Minutes into the ascent, he picked up his pace. I sped up. He ran faster. So did I. He pulled ahead again, then I did. We both gasped for breath. I looked over at him but he didn’t return my gaze. His skin was scarlet, shiny with sweat. He stared straight ahead, intent on an invisible finish line. All the way up the hill, the fierce out manoeuvring maintained. When the pavement flattened, I ached to ease the pace. My stomach was heaving and my vision had blurred. My father broke into a furious stride. I tried to match it. It was, after all, the early ’70s; “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” played on the mental sound track of my morning jogs. But neither my ardour for women’s lib nor my youth nor all my training could compete with his determination.
Something about my father became palpable in that moment, but what? Was I witnessing raw aggression or a performance of it? Was he competing with his daughter or outracing someone, or something else? These weren’t questions I’d have formulated that morning. At the time, I was trying not to retch…’Susan Faludi, In The Darkroom, London: William Collins, 2013, p13
The quoted passage is from a few pages which describe a run that Susan and her father take together one morning when she’s a teenager. The run is the main event in the scene, but it’s also an opportunity to expand on other aspects of their family life and his character.
Normally, fourteen-year-old Susan runs on her own as part of her varsity track team training, but on this occasion her father appears just as she’s leaving the house. She has no desire to be with him. She has already
‘sensed a subtle atmospheric change, like the drop in barometric pressure as a cold front approaches or the prodromal thrumming before migraine… the arrival of my father.’In the darkroom, 12
In terms of technique, there are two parts to this extract
There’s the first denotative and descriptive paragraph about the run: where they are going, the sensations they’re each experiencing bodily, all of it communicating a striving, a tension between them:
‘…He pulled ahead again, then I did. We both gasped for breath.’ She tries to catch his attention, but can’t: ‘he didn’t return my gaze.’
The path changes, she hopes for some relief but he won’t give it to her:
‘When the pavement flattened, I ached to ease the pace. My stomach was heaving and my vision had blurred. My father broke into a furious stride. I tried to match it.’
Then there’s a swift shift, and she reminds us of the feminism at the time, that she knew the Helen Reddy song, that it meant something to her. This first section is the event, it’s the dramatised incident that the writer is using to illustrate not just that morning, but their relationship and her father’s character.
In the second paragraph, Faludi leaves the past, and speaks as the contemporary narrator who is asking questions of that incident and of him, back then. This second paragraph is reflective. It shows the writer’s mind at work – not in an unspecified way, but arising from her thinking about a specific incident (the run) and how it exemplified their relationship, and showed her something important about her father. It is speculative and not conclusive. Faludi articulates questions that she cannot answer right now, but which the memoir will continue to explore:
‘Was I witnessing raw aggression or a performance of it? Was he competing with his daughter or outracing someone, or something else? These weren’t questions I’d have formulated that morning.’
This second paragraph infers links between the visceral run scene and the broader themes of the book, guiding the reader towards the memoir’s focus. The run scene covers about three pages, including digressions. Faludi isn’t hurrying through it to get to the ‘punchline’ where she asks the questions. She lets the scene breathe, makes it interesting in and of itself. Only when we’ve fully inhabited the scene does she bring forward the important questions, which by now we recognise as our questions of him too.
What we see in Faludi’s conversation with us, is not a neat conclusion, but a speculation that encourages us as readers to also work with these same questions, to read on, to uncover meaning —which is ultimately the deepest pleasure of reading.
What can writers learn from this?
Look at where you’re dramatising a situation, event, or incident: ask yourself if you’re fully inhabiting the scene, giving it enough words. Or are you flitting from one incident to another, when perhaps giving more depth and focus to just one of the incidents would be more powerful?
The second learning for the memoir and CFN writers, could be to look at where you’re speaking directly as the writer, in the now, showing your mind at work. In the words of Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz:
‘Reflection offers the writers’ thoughts about what is happening and what it means.’Writing True: the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p 52.