Dionne Brand and Controlling Ideas
This Margin Notes mini-masterclass is all about CONTROLLING IDEAS. This passage (longer than my usual excerpts) from Dionne Brand’s novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, shows us one way to structure our writing when our story has two “controlling ideas” that are equally important to the narrative. This structure Brand uses may very well come from her poetry background. Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:
Margin Notes on Brand
There are two central (and equally important) threads in Brand’s excellent novel: the idea that Marie Ursule’s act of defiance, coordinating the mass suicide of slaves, haunts her descendants for generations (only her young daughter is spared the suicide plot), and the idea of physical or bodily violations. Instead of calling them “themes,” I’m calling them “controlling ideas.” I like this phrase because it reminds me as I write that such central ideas should in fact shape the narrative at every turn.
So how do you, if you have more than one controlling idea in your story, structure these ideas for the reader? Here are the two challenges I’ve found at times (and you may have found the same when trying to structure other elements of story, like character traits or if your character has two very different streams of interiority going on at once):
1. It can be difficult to write with clarity, cohesiveness, and finesse when you are trying to organize two different and separate ideas in the same narrative space without it feeling cluttered.
2. Even if you write with incredible dexterity and manage to portray two very different controlling ideas in the same narrative space, you are risking one of the ideas going unnoticed (or at least less noticed) by the reader. As each controlling idea competes for the same space, one (or worse, both) may lose focus in the mind of the reader.
What I love about Brand’s organization of the two ideas is how simple it is. The opening line, which is compelling and mysterious and full of predicament, is repeated so that each of the ideas she wants to depict pivots or launches off this line.
As you can see in the highlighted passage below, the structure simply goes as follows:
1. Opening (pivotal) line;
2. A long passage, almost like a verse of poetry, that focuses on nothing but Marie Ursule’s focused preparation for her act of defiance;
3. Opening line repeats (more or less);
4. A second long passage that focuses on nothing but the state of her disintegrating body. This second passage is as long as the first, which is appropriate since both ideas are equal in importance. (Note that I didn’t include the entire second passage in order to keep the excerpt length reasonable.)
So why repeat the opening line? Why didn’t Brand just switch her focus and start describing Marie Ursule’s physical condition? In part because she switches from the past (“she had gathered”, etc.) to the morning in question. But also: without that repeated line, the switch would have jarred the reader. i.e., Reader: “Wait. What? Why didn’t you tell me about her physical condition? Now I have to re-arrange my whole understanding of what I just read.” By repeating the line, our minds return not only to the moment she awoke that morning, but also to the start of every morning she awoke to collect woorara.
Margin Notes on At the Full and Change of the Moon (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):
Here’s the Recipe Card for you to try writing a section of your story using Brand’s structure.
Will you try this structure in your story? What effect do you think it might have on your readers? Leave a comment below.
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