The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.

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We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

Weighing words to shade the focus

Our book group have now read to the end of part two of Anna Karenina, and we’re all deeply engaged in the novel.  Opinions are forming about the characters and their actions and we’re enjoying the descriptions of 1870s Russia.  There’s no doubt that Tolstoy tells a cracking story.

Between us, we’ve bought a good range of translations.  None of us read or speak 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (2)Russian, so it seemed to me that the closest we could get to Tolstoy’s voice was through comparing and contrasting the various versions at key points.  It’s raised interesting discussions about how translation and author-ship work, and something that we often take for granted, that is the significance of language choices in any text.

Take these three versions of the same description of Prince Stepan Arkayich Oblonsky.   In one, he has a ‘portly pampered body‘, in the next a ‘full, well tended body‘, in a third version his body is ‘stout and well-cared- for‘.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and I don’t have a preference for one over the other.  But I do think each suggests a slightly different character picture.  Perhaps you think that doesn’t really matter.

Well, lets try considering his wife, Dolly, at the moment she discovers her husband 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (3has been having an affair with their ex-governess, who is now pregnant.  Dolly confronts her husband with a revealing note she’s discovered in his pocket, and looks at him with an expression of:

a) ‘horror, despair and wrath’

b) ‘horror despair and indignation’

c) ‘terror, despair and wrath’

I’m not questioning the quality of the translation here.  I’m sure the dictionaries would allow each of these variations.  I’m looking at the difference in effect created by each of these three interpretations, and wondering about the impact such choices have upon our overall reading experience.

This isn’t the place to draw conclusions on the novel, that’s something we’ll be discussing 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullockin the group.  I’ve been thinking about the way I employ words though, and reminding myself that words are not just about explaining what I mean, the choices I make are my voice, and my language creates subtle shades of meaning within the text.

(Photograph, ‘Waterfall’ used with the permission of R.R. Bullock.)