Posing and Opposing: A lesson from Debra Monroe

Debra Monroe was our guest speaker last night in 501 and she was great. Debra writes memoir and fiction and teaches writing at Texas State. She has 7 books to her name, one of which was recently released. She is reading from her new memoir, My Unsentimental Education at UNM this evening and is very entertaining so I recommend going. Her craft specialty is the subject of Narrative Momentum, a lesson she shared with us last night, which really blew me away and makes me so excited for revision (a miracle, right?).

My Unsentimental Education
My Unsentimental Education

Narrative Momentum is the author playing off the psychology (expectations, desires, etc.) of the reader. It’s the idea that the suspense isn’t driven by what will happen at the end, it’s driven by the tension felt throughout the story. That tension is achieved by having two opposing themes or elements, called poles. Debra said it is polarity that makes good form. Here are my notes from the lesson.

  • Polarity is having two opposing themes or poles:
    • Beginning image/theme-poses the story.
    • Ending image/theme-opposes.
  • Pose the question of the story and then oppose it in equal measures of detail, image, etc.
    • A=North Pole: Emotional conditions and related details (i.e. setting, secondary characters, images, etc.)
    • B=South Pole: Opposed emotional conditions and related details (i.e. setting, secondary characters, images, etc.)
  • Create in your audience the desire for equality and then withhold it
    • Start with too much of one thing and they will automatically want the opposite–it’s human nature to want what we don’t have. Suspense (or conflict/ tension) is created when we introduce a little of the opposite at a time.
  • Plot is a pattern of A and B with A showing heavier in the beginning and either ending with B after A and B battle it out or ending with some sort of A/B synthesis.
    Plot Pattern
    Plot Pattern
    • It isn’t about foreshadowing, it’s about foreplay. Play to the desire of the audience. They want B but suspense is built by not giving much of it at a time. You have to end with the opposing pole but keep in mind that resolution for the reader doesn’t exactly mean resolution for the character. It doesn’t have to end “happily ever after” to end with the opposite pole.
    • B should reveal A for what it really is in hindsight of the climax.
    • Every detail and character should be thematic work. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Secondary characters should fall on one side or the other of the 2 battling themes/forces of the primary character so that they are essentially supporting either A or B.

      Secondary characters should be in support of one side of the battle being waged in the primary character.
      Secondary characters should be in support of one side of the battle being waged in the primary character.
  • A and B can’t be good vs. evil. That’s not life, that’s genre. It has to be good+bad vs. bad+good. You can’t have a heavy weight vs. light weight–that isn’t a compelling fight. It has to be a close call. a tight contest, or the reader will be bored.
  • Even though the poles are opposite, they don’t have to be literally opposite. It isn’t necessarily love vs. hate. It could be love for someone else vs. the benefit of loving yourself, or hate vs. resignation, or movement vs. stillness. Think about the really classic, superbly crafted novels. What are the themes?
  • Never start out thinking of themes. Write what you’re writing and then analyze it for themes. They’re there–it’s natural to subconsciously have them in your writing. Revision is analyzing what you’ve written, identifying the themes, and refining them, shaping them, and emphasizing/supporting them where necessary.
    • When you know it needs development look at which side/force/pole needs representation and develop it.
  • One of my classmates asked how you can identify your theme and Debra said to find the details and lines you love, are in love with, and would never take out not matter what. That’s a theme.

Much of her lesson comes from a Kenneth Burk essay called Psychology and Form. I haven’t read it yet but I intend to straight away. This was a supremely valuable lecture for me. It immediately got me to thinking about my own WIP and what the themes are. As you may have read in my previous post about Works-In-Progress I know Triangle needs development but I’ve been stalled identifying where and how. Workshopping has been great for revealing the stories weaknesses but this lesson also gave me a lot to think about. As I identify the forces at play in the story I can identify places where each force needs greater representation and identification. I can also work on developing the supporting characters to clearly encourage either A or B.

  • The Oppositional forces in Triangle:
    • A= Frank’s ♥ for Belle, B= Belle’s ♥ for Frank
    • A= Frank’s loyalty to John, B= Frank’s loyalty and love for himself

Had you ever heard of Narrative Momentum before? What craft lessons really helped you with a WIP?

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