Sunday, 24 July 2016

Writing levels: Global, Structural, and Language

Call me slow-witted if you like, but I’ve only recently realized that when we talk about writing we are really talking about three distinct, though interconnected, things. If you start reading this and quickly see that I am merely restating what greater minds have apprehended long ago, by all means stop!

First there is the Global level. When we say that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace or Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, we refer to the whole process, from the first glimmer of an idea to the last page of corrected proofs. But in particular we mean the creative act whereby Tolstoy and Austen invented imaginary people, places, institutions, and events. It doesn’t matter that there was a real Napoleonic War: the one in the book is Tolstoy’s Napoleonic War, whether or not he has faithfully modelled it on history. Writing, at this highest level, is thinking up a whole world of events, even if they are minute domestic occurrences, in such a way that they come together to make a story.

It’s an interesting fact that while a skeleton summary of the story reflects what the writer is essentially up to, the author simultaneously has in mind a vast catalogue of imaginary things that relate to it. ‘A boy and girl belonging to different families that are conducting a violent feud in their city fall in love, try to get together in another city, but are caught by their own stratagems and both die.’ An inadequate summary of Romeo and Juliet, but this is something like the essential idea in Shakespeare’s mind. At the same time, putting her invented world together, the author dreams up all kinds of facts about it and its inhabitants which may or may not form an important part of the finished work. She might have been able to tell you what school Mr Darcy went to or which Shakespeare play he liked best, but have decided that her story doesn’t need to mention these things. The creative process summons up a whole landscape, a potential history book.

Second comes the Structural level. Even if you are writing a true history you have to leave out the majority of events that you know about. You do not say what Winston Churchill had for breakfast every day; only on the one day when he choked on a fishbone in his kedgeree and missed a crucial meeting of the War Cabinet (I made this up). To give existence to the narrative you have invented you pick out the crucial episodes. You select people and their appearances, decide who is the protagonist, and so on. You angle your presentation of events. Are we going to see Agamemnon murdered or will a messenger come in and report it? Or will Clytemnestra enter covered in blood? Imagine Pride and Prejudice without the unexpected return of Darcy to Pemberley while Elizabeth is seeing over it! All this is obvious, I know. But my point is that this is writing—the central activity, the art of storytelling—and yet, no physical writing need happen (even if in practice it usually does).

Lastly we come to the level of Language. Obviously, you have to communicate the scenes and episodes to your audience. The story could be acted on the spot or even mimed, but we are writers, so we express it in language. And the boundary between Structure and Language is extremely fuzzy. The selection of actions naturally determines the words: I’m likely to use the word ‘messenger’ or ‘servant’ if I have the murder reported. But equally the choice of words has a backwash effect on the structure and atmosphere of the story. It’ll be different if the messenger comes in and says ‘O woe, howl, for the sanctuary is defiled’ or if he comes in and says ‘Hells bells, the old bastard’s bleeding all over the bloody atrium.’

But because the Language level is the level of physical writing, i.e. putting down one word and not another, this is the level that we often take as the ‘writing’, and we say ‘this book is beautifully written’. But do we only mean that the choice and arrangement of words is beautiful? I can think of books in which the Language is first-class but the narrative Structure is tedious. For me, Virginia Woolf’s novels fall into this category. On the other hand, there are thousands of books with a story line that keeps you on the edge of your seat, but written in dreary, turgid, clichéd, or slipshod prose. Messrs Archer and Brown spring to mind, but it’s unfair to single them out.

These three levels—or perhaps they are actually concentric circles—are, I think, useful tools for thinking about the activity of writing; in particular, when we are concerned with the morality and spirituality of what we write. The kinds of thing that we find controversial crop up at different levels, or take different forms at different levels. So-called Swearwords exist at the Language level. But to have people use Bad Language is a Structural decision, and to tell a story about people who use such language is a Global decision.  To take another topic, one Christian might devise a narrative that enshrines their beliefs, by having the story culminate in act of repentance and faith by the major villain. Another Christian might simply include, as part of the Structure, Christian characters who behave both well and badly as Christians do.


  1. A helpful analysis - thank you.

  2. Never thought of it that way at all. Very interesting. Thank you.