Friday, March 18, 2011

Creative Writing Course - Module 4

Module 4 of my creative writing course with the Sydney Writers' Centre was about structure. We learnt about the basic 3-act structure (plot point 1, plot point 2, climax, resolution) and we learnt about picaresque structure.

The main thing about act structure is a building throughout the story, and the main character grows throughout. As part of structure, we learnt about catharsis, complications, and eucatastrophe.

Picaresque structure was very different - it is just a sequence of episodes, without the main character growing or changing except for perhaps the character's social or financial position.

Our assignment was to outline the structure of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here's my attempt (and the structure of a story is never completely right or wrong):

Plot Point 1:
When Jem and Scout tell Dill about the mystery of Boo Radley - this plants the obsession and the bravado in the children to bring Boo out.
- Atticus getting selected to defend Tom Robinson causes:
- Scout's confrontation with her cousin
- confrontation at Calpurnia's church
- confrontation at gaol
- confrontation with Mrs Dubose
- Boo
- trying to deliver the letter through the window
- the midnight visit to try to see Boo
- the possessions being left in the tree

Plot Point 2:
Tom Robinson is found guilty.
Scout and Jem are attacked in the dark.
The saviour turns out to be Boo Radley, who is a very benign and scared person, and not a crazy axe murderer. The attacker is determined to be Bob Ewell, who died in the scuffle with Boo. Jem's arm is broken, but we know he'll be fine.

Our tutor made the following comments to all of us taking the course:
The differences in your readings of the book just reinforce for me that no two readers read the same book – we all interpret with our own mindset and experiences.  This is a great thing!  But it means we have to remember that as writers we can only control how our readers respond to the book up to a certain point – beyond that, their own experience takes over and influences how they read.
I  believe that the main story is the Tom Robinson plot, as it drives the action which creates the climax.
In scriptwriting (which I used to do for a living), the Tom Robinson plot would be called the A story, Dill and the kids/Boo Radley the B story and the other things that happen to Scout, which are about her changing her perspective on her own community, including her father, the C story. But this book, like all great novels, is too complex to tie down so neatly!
For me, the first plot point is Atticus taking on the case of Tom Robinson.  It’s true that Dill’s arrival is extremely important in Scout’s life, but it doesn’t directly affect the climax or outcome of the book, and therefore I wouldn’t put it as a plot point.  If Dill hadn’t arrived, Atticus would still have taken on the case, Cunningham would still have attacked Scout in revenge, etc.  Scout’s relationship with Boo Radley was already beginning without Dill, so he would still have been there to save her.
The second plot point is the court case, as some of you have identified.  But it is not the verdict which is the plot point.  It is Atticus’ decision to question the truthfulness and honour of the girl, which is directly contrary to the Southern code.  This decision leads directly to the climax – whereas the verdict doesn’t affect the climax one way or the other.  If Tom Robinson had been found innocent, Ewell would still have attacked Jem and Scout – possibly with even more vigour.
These two plot points show us that the main theme of the book relates to racism and prejudice, as many of you identified – and this is supported by the sub-plots, which are about the foolishness of making judgments about people based on little evidence, whether that is the townspeople’s ideas about Boo Radley, or Dill’s stories about himself or, most importantly, Scout’s assumptions about her father. 
As for complications, all the ones you have listed are valid.  It’s quite a complex book, and many of these complications relate to the sub-plots, which combine to form an overall sub-plot about Scout growing up and learning about life.  Note that in the climax and resolution, Harper Lee brings the plot and the sub-plots together beautifully so that we are satisfied on each level that she has worked on (racism plot, relationship with Atticus, relationship with Boo Radley, relationship with town, etc).
The climax is the attack on Scout.  When you are trying to identify the climax of your story, you are looking for two things – the most exciting moment, where the fate of the main character(s) hangs in the balance, and the thing which makes the resolution either possible or inevitable.  Although the verdict was the ‘important’ event, it doesn’t tie all the themes together in the way the attack does.
The resolution is the last scene, where we, as well as Scout, get to meet Boo Radley and have our curiosity satisfied, as well as feel that justice has been done to both Ewell and Boo – and since this is a book about racism and prejudgement, it is important also that we feel justice was not done to Tom Robinson.
I don’t claim that this is the only reading of the book – but when I tease out what Harper Lee is doing structurally, this seems the most coherent way of looking at it to me.
One more module to go ... and I'm on my way to being a writer!

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