Writing is an affirmation of change – it celebrates it. It starts with our intent to capture a moment in which something is happening. This might sound simple, and rather obvious, at first. But consider the implications of the stressed verb above. Let’s say you’re taking photographs. The impact of that action results in you having a picture you did not previously have. And because you have that photograph now, you might move on to the next subject. Or you might revisit the same subject to correct the photograph you are not too happy with. Put simply, every action has a consequence (no matter how small), and these consequences become the new platform – the new beginning – of what is to come. What you captured in your photographs is both a moment in the subject’s existence, as well as the creation of new future possibilities – life in flux.
We might at first think of change in fiction in relation to story arcs. After all, they clearly present what Aristotle meant by a determinate structure, a cause-consequence chain which shows a change of fortune for the subjects of a narrative. And we do still use these. But more than focusing on theory, try to see all the story arcs at play around us. For example, the statement ‘I feel happy today’ implies that unhappiness is a possibility too. And in a more macro sense, the rise of a political figure, or the sudden appreciation for a celebrity, also offers the possibility of a tragic fall from grace. We once looked at tabloid news articles in one of my classes (they are very clearly narrative.) An article depicted photographs of a street fight which questioned a celebrity’s previously celebrated morality and character. One of my students then asked: “If everything we do leads to something else, and this can be read and interpreted, then what isn’t narrative?”
And that is precisely the question. Can we even understand anything outside of the governing structure of narrative – action, consequence and change? Are we ever free from a story arc? And how many of these arcs are we currently subjected to? This manner of thinking will change the way you see your role as a writer. You’re not only creating stories, or solving plotting puzzles to hook your readers. You are presenting life in the way we understand it. You are acknowledging its basic structure: change.
And this in turn complicates the basic story ordering of beginning, middle and end. If every narrative stems from – and is led by – a cause and consequence chain, then where does this chain start and end? And is there ever really one narrative arc for a character or main plot? Doesn’t what you do, for example, have an effect on someone or something else? My favourite Ali Smith novel, The Accidental, starts with the following passage set at 5.04am: “The beginning of things – when is it exactly?” This then leads to the question: “Because why do people always say the day starts now? Really it starts in the middle of the night at a fraction of a second past midnight.”
In other words, we inherently focus on a moment depicting change – ‘sunrise’ in the example above – because that leads to narrative, which in turn is how we understand the world. And it becomes even more interesting (following on my last post’s brief discussion on empathy) when we think of how all our interconnected lives are creating conditions for the narratives we then live by. We are never alone in creating art. And the photographs you took in the example above required framing too. They required choice. As you probably all know by now, every choice has a consequence… And so part of our job as writers is not only to attempt to present life accurately (that is, governed by motion and transformation), but also to re-evaluate the power that language has to change us and our relationships to others.
Gonzalo C. Garcia
Senior Teaching Fellow, University of Warwick Writing Programme
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a PhD graduate from Kent. His interests are neo-liberal reforms in Chile in relation to cultural authenticity, memory, nostalgia, and historical trauma. He worked on his first novel in Canterbury with Scarlett Thomas, alongside a theoretical thesis involving identity reconstructions in indigenous communities living in urban spaces.
He is currently living in Leamington Spa and is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the Warwick Writing Programme. He has just finished a novel called We Are The End, a book heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, the relationship between video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It launches in September with Galley Beggar Press.
Find out more about the University of Warwick Writing Programme