APennySpitfire-frontcoverI’ve been working on what for me is a longer than average short story, and realised that I’ve been using a technique that whilst present in many of the shorter ones is more obviously so when the story is longer.

This is what I think of as the ‘patchwork quilt’ approach to story writing. It’s a structural issue: stories written like this are made up of a series of vignettes, or tableaux – short and hopefully, sharp scenes – that might stand alone, but which are stitched together by a notional, rather than an actual narrative thread.

Like a series of still photographs taken throughout a day rather than a movie footage of it they leave the joining up to the imagination of the reader. The movement of the story is in a series of steps, rather than a slide.

I know that academics, Roland Barthes among them, have written about this phenomenon, the selection of some from all possible events in a sequence, and to a certain extent all stories have this quality. It happens with sentences in paragraphs, and at the level of words in sentences too. With some stories though, the imagined white space between the elements shown, where everything else that must have happened resides, is much more obvious. B.S.Johnson’s story written on cards, to be shuffled before reading, must be the ultimate example.

My story is not being written on cards, but it certainly is constructed of stand alone vignettes, and in fact, part of the later editing process was about putting those vignettes into order. It was while I was doing this that a thought struck me about the function, in the wider story, of each piece. Stories, to my way of thinking, are about contexts. Whatever we imagine, see if you prefer, whether it is a still or a moving image, we imagine it in the light of what we have already experienced. As I seem to say over and over again, to remind myself perhaps, what follows is prejudiced by what has gone before, but also revises our response to it.

In the story I’m working on there seemed to be two distinct types of scene. The first might be described as an ‘input’ type. The second as a ‘reactive’. And of course, to muddy the theoretical waters, some scenes – and perhaps the better for it – had elements of both, though one always seemed to dominate.

The inputs add something new to a story. The reactives refer to something that has already been introduced. Not surprisingly perhaps the former will tend to cluster towards the beginning, the later towards the ending, though with a degree of intermingling too. There is an implication, I suspect, that these phases of input and reaction must inevitably lead to one final moment in which a greater reaction is presented.

But this might not, in fact, be the case. The ending of a story might indeed be the ultimate reaction to what has gone before, but it could be also the presentation of some entirely new element, not referred to previously, but which will be seen, and reacted to, nevertheless, in the light, or shadow, of the story so far….TalkingtoOwls