Friday, 27 February 2009

Ian McEwan and Story-Telling: When Holding Back Informaion Leads You on

The New Yorker this week has a fascinating—if a little long—profile of British writer Ian McEwan. We learn he’s a great walker, a man who has become increasingly fascinated by science as he has grown older, a person with lower middle class roots who rose in a meritocracy.

We also learn a great writing lesson from this master story teller: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.”

Yes: so simply stated, but so very true. As I struggle with my next fiction project, that aperçu seems extremely helpful. It is not what happens in a story, after all, but how you tell it. The difference between one-damn-thing-after-another and a work of art is the way the writer first makes us care what happens and then leads us along so we discover the story.

At the moment I don’t know how I’m going to tell River Music, which has as main characters three generations of women—a pianist, an engineer and a harpsichordist. The current tactic is to write three story lines and then figure out how to interweave them later. I've written quite a bit about the pianist, who is the mother and grandmother of the other two and who was born in 1928. I've also blocked out a meeting between her and her grandaughter in December 2009. Aside from that I don't know where all this is going. But apparently neither does McEwan when he starts out.

And that's a bit of helpful--and encouraging--information too.

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