Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tom French on Organizing Narrative


I'm kind of odd in that I actually enjoy organization. I love going through mynotes, searching through the stacks of reports, looking for the detail that willmake this section or that scene come alive. I particularly love making outlines;often, when I'm reading a book or watching a movie, I map the story out in myhead for fun. (Like I said, odd.) A few things I try to do, especially when I'mdealing with large amounts of material:

  • Index my notes. Then, if I have time, I cross-index. In "Angels & Demons,'' I indexed my interview notes, especially those with Sgt. Moore, the detective who led the investigation. Later, when I knew that Moore's born-again faith was going to be crucial to the story, I went back through that index and made a separate list of the best details/insights he'd shared with me on that subject, so I'd have it all at my fingertips when I wrote those sections.

  • Fight to hang onto the thing that drew me to the story in the first place. With "Angels & Demons,'' it was the faces of the Rogers women. Their pictures were in the paper many times, long before I decided to write about the case, and I just could not get those images out of my head. They haunted me. I wanted to know who those three women were, what their lives were like, what their loss meant to those who loved them. And I did my best to keep those questions in mind as I wrote this very complicated narrative.

  • Make a timeline. I'm big on timelines, even if I don't plan on writing the story in chronological order. It helps me tremendously to see how the events I'm describing unfolded in real time. Also, I look to the timeline to help me understand the flow of the story, the patterns, the rise and fall of the action, the key moments, the scenes that carry the action forward.

  • Push for theme. Throughout the process, I keep asking myself what the story is really about below the surface. And then I try to keep that idea in mind as I frame the piece and write it. This is especially important with a long story. "Angels & Demons'' had several themes, including faith, randomness vs. order, the way the real murder weapon in this case was the myth of Florida.

  • Pay special attention to photos. After I've catalogued all my notes and files, I often find something extra -- something critical you'd never find in a report -- when I pore over the available photographs. Not just the professional shots taken by someone at the newspaper, but the archivals taken by the subjects themselves. (I live for photo albums and yearbooks.) Again, I search for details and insights; I also look for photos around which I can build a scene, knowing that if I write that scene, there'll be a great shot to go with it on the page. (When I was writing ""Angels & Demons,'' I kept a picture of Michelle Rogers -- a snapshot taken in her last hours alive, as she was sitting her family's hotel room -- taped to my computer. I learned a great deal about Michelle from that picture: her strength, her elusiveness, the way she could look so much younger than her age. There were several crucial paragraphs in the opening chapter of the story that began with my staring at that one picture. Also, Michelle's face guided me through the complexity of the material, reminding me what was at stake in the story.)

  • Think cinematically. As I go through the material, I look for crucial scenes, establishing shots, defining moments, revealing turns, little human details the camera can zoom in on.

  • Make a diagram, charting the line of the story. I look for the simplest way to let it flow, the most natural path of unfolding. Usually, if I can't diagram it, that means I haven't figured out the structure yet.
  • Keep a greatest hits list. This is just a file where I catalogue the best of the best of my scenes, details, quotes, etc. -- all the things that absolutely have to find a way into the story.

  • Map it out. I make outlines even when I'm working on a daily; they take 10 minutes and can save hours. For longer projects, I make several. First I do an overall outline, breaking down the basic action that I think will occur in each chapter. Then, when I get ready to write a chapter, I do an overall outline for that chapter, breaking it into clearly defined sections. Then, when I write a section, I draw from my earlier organizational stuff -- the index, the timeline, the greatest hits -- and make a detailed outline for that specific section. I pay special attention to the openings and closings of each section, also to the focus and purpose of each section.

  • Shape with titles. I love thinking about titles -- which ones work, which ones don't -- and I'm always looking for an overall title, as well as titles for the various parts and chapters. It's a way of orienting your brain toward the essence of the story, also its structure and drive. Many titles are promises made to the reader; they say, if you stick with me until the end of the section, you'll find out what this means. Chapter four of ""Angels & Demons'' was called ""The Tin Man,'' and yet I didn't explain those words until the last few lines. Some might call this a ploy, but if you do it right, it won't feel that way to the reader.

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