Composing a narrative - The Dungeon

München                                                                                                                                              (c) Koen Douterloigne
Over the last few months I have been quite preoccupied with describing my and our view of literary fiction, avant-garde literary fiction, its place in the modern world, peripateticism, etc. (see here, here, here, here, here). This has taken precedence over the actual presentation of stories because excerpts of Henry Whittlesey's work are available (e.g., here) and the most glaring weakness in our aesthetic was (and still remains) what we understand perypatetik literature (and art) to be.

As far as I can tell by reading and based on what I hear from friends, family and acquaintances, the prevailing view is that you show your work rather than tell or explain what it is about. This distinction between showing and telling, which has become a trite platitude since Wayne Booth's release of The Rhetoric of Fiction, is now heavily skewed toward showing. For whatever the merits or drawbacks of the two approaches to narrating, we consider it helpful to outline our framework in an age of excess information, immense diversity, complexity, and due to our multicultural approach (which should offer an unfamiliar angle). I personally would like to see this kind of exposition more often. If I can understand the author(s) ideas, worldviews, hypotheses, interests, and they arouse my interest, then I can read the given author's work and gain a deeper understanding of why she has adopted a given idiom or chosen a certain topic or portrayed this scene in depth while skimming over another; or what the logic is behind this mode of narration here and that one there.
Now that I have voiced some of my and our interests, I will make some concessions to contemporary trends. Over the last few months I have been working on a short story called The Dungeon, which is about a single woman who lives alone on a gravel road in the forest and gradually becomes acquainted with one of her neighbors. In part the story is meant to explore the states of neutrality and fun or balance and stimulus.

Whether arbitrarily or because I reached a dead end in the draft stage, I "finished" the story a couple weeks ago and have been analyzing it before I begin with the first round of editing (and adding). Besides the exploration described above I wrote the story without any particular theoretical agenda. I am certain that there are weaknesses as a result of this. Typical ones that I have found in the past are: lack of depth, superficially and schematically treated subjects, inartistic structure, failure to use language effectively, lack of diversity, drift toward mainstream/insufficient difference (A: "Why read this?" - B: "No reason."), weak definition of characters, poor staging, etc. Somewhere or other, my colleague Henry has mentioned his logic for taking a manuscript through something like 7 stages in order to resolve these issues and bring the work in line with our aesthetic.
If we take my story as an example of the inartistic structure of a first draft, you (and I) can see how this occurs in an outline. My story has the following (paragraph) structure:

a. Setting/Intro
b. Description of observed person in setting
c. Reason narrator is in setting; background; discourse (monologue) on related subject
d. Contextualization: narrator's position relative to those in monologue
e. Return to present in story - observation of man; subject of "knowing" introduced
f. Subject of "knowing" continued
g. Narrator's personal situation in space
h. Narrator's experiment; discourse (monologue) on encounters with people seen multiple times
i. Follow-up to experiment
j. Info about observed person; limits of knowing also in direct communication with subj./obj.
k. Plot twist
l. Consequences of plot twist; more plot; setting
m. Flashback related to event unfolding in plot
n. Narrator's reflection/consciousness in relation to plot events
o. Plot
p. Plot surprise; knowing?
q. Return to past
r. Narrated analysis on knowing; past-present reference
s. Knowing in context in relation to observed man; plot dev.
t. Event in plot; conversation/dialogue
u. Reflections on plot event; more on knowing
v. Reflections on self in past and present req. knowing
w. Plot development
x. Dialogue
y Plot dev. reflection of neobaroque

Not the greatest problem, but almost a harbinger of weakness must be the fact that coincidentally the number of paragraphs almost coincides with the number of letters in the Western alphabet. That is not the main issue though. The first thing that jumped out at me as I analyzed the paragraphs was the clumsy, chaotic and arbitrary structure of narration and discourse, particularly dialogue, which appears primarily in (t) and (x) while being virtually absent in the first half of the story. Another issue is that typical of pre-modern narratives (the greatest influence on our work comes from the baroque and romantic eras), there is a lot of staging at the beginning of the story, which is then followed by the unravelled skein of the two characters' life in the forest. This is too traditional. As I have mentioned before: If you want a form of story-telling that already exists, don't read modern versions of it; go find work from the period when it was being developed. Another concern that the outline above raises is that the subject of "knowing" is too prominent, especially relative to the states of neutrality and fun or balance and stimulus. Even if this is partly due to the discourse (i.e. telling) on "knowing" and the revealing (i.e. showing) of neutrality and fun, the outline forces me to reexamine this. The most glaring weaknesses, however, are the simplicity and lack of depth. Even if the paragraphs themselves contain more than a summary can reflect, the structure illuminates the need for expansion with more detail.

This examination just contains some of the structural problems that I notice immediately and only takes into account the weaknesses from one perspective. In the weeks ahead I will return to this subject of story self-analysis from other angles.

Text by Angelika Friedrich
Photos by Koen Douterloigne
June 2015

Further reading:

Friedrich, Angelika. Action research and perypatetik fiction (part one). May 2015.
Friedrich, Angelika. Action research and perypatetik fiction (part two). May 2015.
Friedrich, Angelika. Producing based on theory or theory based on production. April 2015.
Friedrich, Angelika. Defining literary fiction. March 2015.
Friedrich, Angelika. Will the worst, most monotonously written novel become one of the literary classics of our time? March 2015
Friedrich, Angelika. Defining literary fiction - a response to Nathan Bransford. Feb. 2015
Whittlesey, Henry. The vision in religion, finance, social work and the arts. May 2015.

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