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Breaking Boundaries: The Avant-Garde in Creative Writing

Breaking Boundaries: The Avant-Garde in Creative Writing

Avant-garde refers to artistic movements that are innovative, experimental, and nonconformist in nature. This term has been used to describe various creative works that were considered unconventional or even shocking in their time, such as James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique in Ulysses or William Faulkner's disjointed narrative structure in The Sound and the Fury. Avant-garde writing often involves playing with language, structure, and syntax, pushing boundaries of what is acceptable.

Etymologically, the term 'avant-garde' comes from the French, meaning 'advance guard' or 'vanguard'. It was originally used to describe military units at the forefront of an advancing army and was later appropriated by artists who aimed to be at the forefront of artistic progress.

In creative writing, the avant-garde approach can be a way to break away from traditional forms and constraints and embrace the possibilities of language and expression. However, it is important to keep in mind that creativity should not be used for the sake of novelty alone and that the best avant-garde works are those that are both innovative and meaningful.

Exploring Avant-Garde Literature Through Examples

Avant-garde literature has a rich history of challenging readers and redefining the boundaries of fiction. Let's explore some key examples that embody the avant-garde spirit.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce

James Joyce's Ulysses is often hailed as a masterpiece of avant-garde writing. Published in 1922, the novel employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative style that was groundbreaking for its time. Joyce’s work dives deep into the inner thoughts of its characters, presenting their consciousness in a fluid, unstructured form. This approach challenges the traditional linear narrative, creating a complex and immersive reading experience.

Example: Stream-of-Consciousness Technique

In Ulysses, Joyce frequently delves into the protagonist Leopold Bloom's thoughts in a way that mimics natural human thought processes:

"Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."

This passage demonstrates how Joyce's technique blurs the line between narrative and thought, creating a seamless flow of consciousness.

2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, is another cornerstone of avant-garde literature. The novel is known for its disjointed narrative structure and its use of multiple perspectives to tell the story of the Compson family. Faulkner’s innovative use of time and perspective challenges the reader to piece together the story from the fragmented viewpoints of the characters.

Example: Nonlinear Narrative

Faulkner’s narrative is divided into four sections, each told from a different character's perspective, often jumping back and forth in time:

"I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it."

This passage reflects Faulkner's complex treatment of time, memory, and perception, requiring readers to engage with the text to understand the full picture actively.

3. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Published in 1959, William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch is a classic example of avant-garde literature. It uses a non-linear narrative structure and unconventional language to explore themes of addiction and control. Burroughs's novel defies traditional storytelling methods, presenting a fragmented and hallucinatory vision of reality.

Example: Cut-Up Technique

Burroughs famously used the cut-up technique in his writing, physically cutting and rearranging text to create new and unexpected narratives:

"The rotting moose from the Pacific Northwest tourniquets on jazz crouch while the populace stockpiles crutches. The Junky's Christmas delivered inside Santa’s hat like a dirty fix."

This technique results in a chaotic and surreal reading experience, reflecting the disordered world of the novel's characters.

4. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, published in 2000, is a more contemporary example of avant-garde writing. The novel is a labyrinthine tale that blends traditional narrative with academic commentary, typographical experimentation, and multiple layers of storytelling.

Example: Typographical Experimentation

Danielewski plays with the physical layout of the text to enhance the novel's themes and atmosphere. For example:

"text begins to spiral and fragment across the pages, forcing the reader to physically turn the book and navigate the disjointed layout."

This visual manipulation of text challenges the reader's perception and engagement with the story, making the act of reading a part of the narrative experience.

Why Bother with Subplots?

Wouldn't it be simpler to write the central plot, and that’s it? Why overcomplicate? A good subplot can:

  • Deepen characterization
  • Make the plot more satisfying or complex
  • Add nuance
  • Genre-blend or place a story within a certain sub-genre
  • Set up great twists for your main plot
  • Tie in foreshadowing for other future events
  • Activate your themes
  • Enhance world-building and so much more.

Subplots are an excellent craft tool in your arsenal and can often be used to plug larger plot holes, too. Many craft books for writers, like Save the Cat!, mention things like the A story, the B story, or the C story. B and C are your parallel subplots or secondary subplots, but they must come back and serve the A plot.

Types of Subplots

There are many types of subplots authors commonly use. Here are a few:

Romantic Subplot

A romance subplot is common in many genres: crime, fantasy, contemporary, literary, and more. Maybe you aren’t writing a Capital-R romance novel, but you have a love interest and they slowly fall in love as they solve the novel's main plot. Voilà: a subplot.

You can consider mapping romance plot beats onto your story to see how they might run alongside your main plot. This will also help character development by providing internal and interpersonal obstacles alongside the external elements of the main story.

Character-Specific Subplots

Perhaps your protagonist falls in with an unlikely group of rogues, and they must work together to solve a specific problem (your main plot). As the story progresses, the hero gradually learns more about these other characters and the secrets they keep. These would be examples of character-led subplots; some of those reveals will feed into the primary storyline.

A Non-Linear Subplot

It’s quite common for books to use flashbacks to help develop backstories, but these will often still have their own self-contained beginning, middle, and endpoints. For instance, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows uses well-timed flashbacks to drip out backstories.

A Mirror Subplot

A mirror subplot is another term for a parallel subplot, essentially. This sub-storyline might have a conflict that mirrors the primary problem but is different in other ways. I find this useful for antagonist arcs: maybe your hero and villain face similar obstacles but react very differently and function as foils to each other. One might triumph over the conflict, and the other might be destroyed by the same challenge. How narratively satisfying.

A Frame Subplot

Lastly, perhaps you have a frame at the beginning or end that tells another story or shows how the main story has reached the reader. Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice has the frame of the actual interview, for example. To function as more than just bookends, this should function as a subplot, too. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley has an interrupted frame throughout the story, which functions closer to a non-linear subplot.

Tips for Balancing Subplots

Here are some quick practical tips to keep in mind:

  1. Map out your subplots: What’s the beginning, middle, and end of each one?

  2. Color code: List your subplots and assign them a color. When editing, check which scenes are touching on which subplots and ensure they appear as often as needed. If one disappears for most of the book, weave it into those missing areas, if required, or recognize it’s a subplot that wraps up at a specific point.

  3. Be honest: Is it a subplot or a tangent? If a subplot could be completely deleted without losing anything to the main plot, it must either be better embedded into the story or removed entirely. Maybe it can be saved for another book!

  4. Streamline: If you worry you have too many subplots, see if there’s a way to combine, simplify, or streamline. Can your romance subplot also add more complications, for example?

Now that you know what types of subplots are most common, why they might be useful, and how to identify or use them for your story, I hope that helps you feel more confident in weaving them into your narrative.

Avant-Garde Writing

Avant-garde writing, known for its innovative and experimental nature, pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling through techniques like stream-of-consciousness and non-linear narratives. 

Embrace the avant-garde spirit and let your creativity break boundaries, making your stories richer and more engaging.

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