Have you ever walked into a Medieval cathedral? Architecturally speaking, they are engineering marvels. Heavy stone buttresses support soaring vault arches of many types: barrel, groin, rib, fan.
Cathedrals have many parts, each offering a different experience of the divine. There is the narthex in which to grow quiet and prepare. There is the nave in which to sit and kneel in common with others. There is the choir from which celestial music emanates. There are the altar and the communion rail. Around the cathedral’s perimeter are little alcoves where one may venerate the Madonna or saints. There is a baptismal font and a little curtained booth, partitioned inside with a tiny window between the halves, where one may confess sins and be forgiven. Various notables may be entombed around the place. In some cathedrals you may walk the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, a darkly gruesome but ultimately redemptive story told in serial fashion.
When you enter such a Cathedral, though, what is the first thing that you feel? Is it admiration of the way in which the load of the roof is distributed down to the ground? Is it pleasure in the acoustics? Do you intently study the map available in a wooden stand near the entrance, planning your tour around the interior? If you are like most people, those are not the first things that you experience. If you are like most people, the first thing that you experience is one gigantic and simple emotion. You raise your eyes upward and feel…
That is the way that the Church and its architects wanted you to feel. The whole design of the cathedral is meant to give one the experience of faith, to grasp God’s cosmology, to reflect the tenants of Christianity and teach it precepts. Above all, it is an emotional experience. There are lots of little rooms inside the building in which to have more focused experiences, but the overall intent is for you to be blasted by awe.
When we talk about writing novels, why do we talk first and primarily about the buttresses and vaulted arches of the story? Why do we rush to decorate the radiant chapels and alcoves, hurry the choir into song, zip to the baptismal font and scurry to the confessional booth before any sins have even been committed?
I have nothing against plot. There is nothing wrong with scene structure. Sparkling style, protagonist back story and arc are all fine. And yet we labor to quickly put those elements into place, thinking that that if we get them just right then our readers will get religion. But a cathedral by itself is not faith, it only contains it. Faith is not a building but a feeling. By the same token, for readers a novel is not the plot but the feelings that the novel evokes, which in aggregate produce (we hope) an experience of awe.
Therefore, in creating a novel I recommend giving thought early on not just to its architecture but also to its effect. [Read more…]