Sunday, October 14, 2007

Narrative Choices

Over the past weeks I've been taking part in a fiction experiment which raises questions about authorship and narrative.

In the summer I was asked by Manchester Literature Festival if I would write an interactive blog story in the run-up to the festival. They had conceived it partly as a way of involving the public in the festival beforehand and partly as a narrative experiment in its own right. Well, my instant reaction was negative: the idea of literature as just a game or pure entertainment has always been anathema to me, and as a writer I've always been pretty possessive - maybe precious! - about my individual vision. But the more I thought about it, and the issues it raised, the more intrigued I became.

These were the terms of the commission: the story would appear once a week for six weeks and should be in the form of a blog. Each episode would be around only 500 words (I never once got it down to that) and the whole should thus be around 3,000 words. It should be set in Manchester and take place in real time - as blogs do - and therefore respond to events happening in the real world, both locally and internationally. It should be light in tone and, importantly, should be a comment on contemporary urban life. The actual story was entirely up to me. Most important of all, the story would be interactive: at the end of each instalment readers would be able to vote on three choices to affect events in the following instalment. It was made clear that there was no expectation - quite the opposite - that a conventionally integral story could emerge from this process. As the writer I secretly hoped I'd manage to make this happen, but knew it would be difficult: I tend to think of good short stories as integral by nature, seamless as eggs, but this would be fragmented by serialization as well as voters' input, and drawn out over six weeks of real time with five week-long longueurs, or at least real-time pauses, in the action. And why, come to think of it, should the idea of the integral short story not be challenged? In any event, this was never meant to be a conventionally-shaped and neat short story. It was to be something different, and an experiment (and also a bit of fun).

So what would I write? Every story for me is a mystery when I embark on it - I write to find things out, and the writing process is in fact like finding your way through a wood, the end hidden by the trees, the path towards it never clear and choices constantly having to be made. I began thus to see that this project was going to be the writing process writ large, and so I decided to start with an actual mystery - a mystery caller leaving an unclear message while the narrator/blogger was out - as well as a soap-opera-rich cast of characters to allow the narrative to develop in numerous alternative ways.

Well, then I panicked. Mind you, I always panic when I'm writing. But here was my panic writ large. What if I couldn't resolve the mystery? Don't mystery writers always know the end; isn't that how they plant clues? (And if I couldn't, I couldn't just scrap the story as I can when I'm writing privately.) And also, what if people thought therefore that I did know the ending, and that therefore the voters were being cheated? And did I? I was worried about having too little control, but also I was worried about having too much control. Naturally enough, two or three possible resolutions had occurred to me, so in a way I did know it, didn't I? But then again, what if, because of voters' choices, none of those endings, or any other I could think of, was possible after all?

Catherine Heffernan (who calls it a novel, and thus presumably had expectations of novelistic characteristics I could never achieve within the parameters) finds that the ending I did come up with was tacked on, unprepared for. Others however said that when they read the ending they thought 'Of course!' and have suggested that I had had it in mind all along. The fact is that both views are to some extent right.

When, in the first episode, I had the narrator comment that her dad always says the family is 'stamped English like a stick of rock through and through', that did reverberate for me very strongly - prejudice (including racism) is one of my biggest preoccupations in writing - and I knew right away that it could be a core issue in the story, but for this particular exercise the options had to remain open: I couldn't and shouldn't develop it at the expense of other options. In the event, it became the clincher, and I now find it hard, like others, to think that there had ever been any real choice, but that the internal logic of the story - that seed which had been planted at the beginning - had led towards it all along. Last night, at a MLF reading, Cathy Bolton, who commissioned this project, asked readers Maggie O'Farrell and Anne Enright (presumably with this project in mind) whether they planned out their novels or wrote 'blind', and Anne Enright described the latter process beautifully: she said that she wrote to find things out, but at the end she always finds she knew it all along; it's just that she didn't know what she knew. Normally, when you find it out you go back and adjust the beginning: you make more resonant those 'seeds' so that the ending becomes even more fitting and inevitable, however surprising, and you wipe all those false trails - as, clearly, I couldn't do here.

But what about the choices the readers made? How far did they affect the story and its internal logic? In the beginning I was cautious and offered what I thought of as superficial choices, a venue and a choice of companion, but in fact they were far more radically influential than I had imagined. For the second episode, the voters could choose whether the narrator went to meet her mystery caller in Manchester's slick wild clubland, a rumbustious working-class Salford pub or Central Library - each with very different possibilities as to the identity of the mystery caller. I was pretty sure they'd choose one of the first two - the narrative possibilities seemed so much richer and human - and started to imagine those scenarios, and then to my shock the voters chose Central Library. I found myself stumped. I had to go to the library and sit there, just to get inspired. And I did! I discovered the strange whispering-gallery echo effect which gave me ideas for both the plot and theme. And I talked to the librarian from the family history research department - which in the end led to the resolution of the mystery. What is interesting about this is that the choice I was least likely to make myself turned out to be narratively useful and, as all writers know really, in spite of the fact that stories have an internal logic, there are nevertheless many directions a story can go - leading to different meanings, but equally valid on a wider level.

Later, however, when I might have appeared to be offering a far more radical choice - a choice of action for the protagonist - voters plumped for the compromise option, which however was also the option with the greatest dramatic conflict and had the function of complicating the plot. So it's hard not to feel now that, in one way or another, there was in this instance no real choice, that the logic of the path the story had already taken was taking over both me and the voters.

None of this, in my view, is much different really from the usual process of writing fiction: sometimes you get stuck, sometimes the story takes over; often if you are stuck real life suddenly signals where you should go next. As far as I'm concerned writing is a weird mixture of intuition and logic, the conscious and the unconscious, of inspiration and a muscular wrestling with plot and facts, and sometimes a magical-seeming serendipity. When in episode 2 I had two characters arguing whether peaceful demonstrations are politically mistaken I had no idea that the events in Burma were about to occur, and I had people ringing up to say they didn't know I was psychic.

And that's how writing feels sometimes to me, like mediumship, like a listening and receiving. It's often only afterwards that you can see the pattern, and then work on a piece more logically and knock it into better shape. The fact that I couldn't do this last on this occasion means that there are of course loose ends, untied threads, and undeveloped elements. However, the fact that these things are still there on show is, I think, something of a demonstration of the narrative process.

Although I have to say this: I thought that by the time I had completed it I would be much clearer about the narrative process. In fact I'm now surer than ever that the narrative process is a (happily) mysterious thing.
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