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On Crafting a Novel

The biggest thing I’ve realized about writing recently: There is an original source of tension for the protagonist of the novel, and the novel will seem to fall off or become unwieldy/will go off the rails when you are no longer writing scenes that delve into that original source of tension, but rather create brand new sources of tension (sometimes a brand new source each chapter). The book becomes bland when you are writing scenes that don’t fully tap into that original knot/tension. In addition, not tapping into the original source of tension makes it feel abandoned or forgotten or like the author doesn’t know what he or she is doing. There is no one thread.

By “original source of tension,” I mean a knotted portion of the character. The knot has to be tight. The very thing that saves the character’s life also destroys the character’s life. Saving and destruction are the same thing in the knot. Ex: Walt’s choice to cook meth in Breaking Bad is to save his family; it also destroys his family. At the intro of Sex and the City, the bus Carrie has been waiting for that advertises her new book is the same bus that hits a puddle and ruins her expensive outfit (she is both her savior and her ruin in a cute way). In The Sopranos, family is the thing to be protected and the thing to kill simultaneously (it is both shelter from the storm and the storm itself, to use Thomas Shelby’s words in Peaky Blinders, which is also about a gang).

You can give teams/characters and plots and meanings to the saving and destruction and play around with which side is actually doing the saving and which side is actually doing the destroying (sometimes the destroyer saves, and sometimes the savior destroys), which winds the knot ever tighter. But you cannot create a brand new knot every chapter. The characters and plot will not be consistent. The book will feel unwieldy or bland.

The reason the knot works is because it most accurately represents a purified version of life. The thing that rips from us a “barbaric yawp” is when saving and destruction go hand-in-hand. The thing that saves is the thing that destroys; that is why we cannot fully reject it and cannot fully accept it. It makes our minds go round and round, until we cry out. If all of life happened in one instant, it would create this barbaric yawp, this ache.

If you can create the knot in the character and get it as tight as possible, you can approach the barbaric yawp/ache. When you forget the knot, when you veer away from the original tension, you begin to abandon the barbaric yawp, which means there is less purified truth in your book. It also means there’s not one thread to follow, and you don’t know what you’re doing.

Something I learned in grad school in reference to talk therapy in psychoanalytic theory: “How do you know you have found something that works/is therapeutic? There’s an effect.” How do you know when a book works? There’s a barbaric yawp/inescapable ache that is achieved. It means there’s a thread, the knot has been wound tight, and the thing that saves also destroys.

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