Talking About Story Pacing

Narratologists have come up with a variety of ways of talking about the pacing of a story. I recently tried reading Gerard Genette and it gave me brain ache. I thought, this is fascinating but I can’t absorb all this. I’ll come back to it.

But this week I’m reading a new book called Meander, Spiral Explode by Jane Alison, about patterns in story. I’m delighted to find that Alison has included, alongside her structural patterns, an analysis of pacing patterns. Here’s a reproduction of her handy chart which she made by combining the work of Gerard Genette and Seymour Chatman.

Story Time vs Text Time

Although this is a chart (and I’ve put the text inside cells to make for easier reading), think of it as a continuum with Gap at one end, Pause at the other. At first these terms sound like the same thing, but they’re opposites.

GAP

Where there is Gap there is no text — ‘the text goes mute’ — and we can leap over many years of story time. Eons, even. In film there might be a very slow fade, a change of hue, differently paced music. We know that a great stretch of time has just passed.

The narratee may find, after a Gap, that they need to fill in what has just happened. The reader must extrapolate. If the storyteller has done their job, the audience has been given enough information to do so.

An example I came across recently was the time jump in “Queenie”, a short story by Alice Munro. Munro is well-known for her ability to perform magic tricks with time, so of course she has the Gap in her toolbox. (The Gap is where the asterisk is below.)

As I had thought of myself being kind to Mr Vorguilla, or at least protecting him, so unexpectedly, a little while before.

*

I was at Teachers’ College when Queenie ran away again. I got the news in a letter from my father. He said that he did not know just how or when it happened.

There are certain parts of story which should be Gaps, when our writerly instinct might be Summary. One of those is ‘Getting From One Place To The Other’. Modern readers are well-versed in extrapolating the content of Gaps, and you can safely pull your characters out of one scene and plonk them in another. The reader will understand that there has been some travel in there somewhere. (Within reason.)

SUMMARY

I’ve encountered the term ‘narrative summary’. Same thing.

As beginning writers we tend to be afraid of Summary, thinking every event in a story has to be a scene, alive with the five senses, showcasing beautiful language. But knowing when to write scene vs. when to summarise is vital. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition by Renni Browne and Dave King talks about this.

Summarising is an especially vital skill for the short story writer. Alison points out that summary can be boring, but one trick is to splice up summary with well-chosen detail. Annie Proulx, who likes to write across three generations of family in a single short story, is a master of this technique.

When a writer creates a summary and splices it up with really minute detail, another thing happens — they have created an Overview Effect for the reader, whereby the reader sees the large and the tiny both at once, and feels a kind of literary vertigo.

SCENE

Around the middle of this continuum, the time it takes to read words on the page pretty much equals the time it takes to play out in the world of your story.

The word ‘scene’ comes from drama, where the pacing is driven, and rather limited, by how fast events can be performed before us by actors on a stage.

When it comes to the written forms of story, Jane Alison offers the transcription of a character’s diary entry as the purest example of ‘real time’, in which there is an exact match between the pacing of the story and the speed at which the narratee experiences the story. (When we read a letter in a novel, and when the character reads this letter in a novel, time matches up. Unless the character is a much faster or much slower reader, of course.)

Still, let’s plonk ‘epistolary material’ right in the middle of our imaginary continuum.

There are parts of a story which we really must turn into scenes, or risk leaving the reader feeling cheated. It’s a natural instinct for writers to want to protect our precious characters in the first draft, but readers really do need to see them come close to death.

That’s rarely pleasant, but if we turn these Battles into Gaps, perhaps because we’ve made the executive decision that there’s too much horribleness in the world already, we’d better line something else up as the Proxy Battle. Alice Munro makes for a good case study in this technique.

DILATION

Now here’s a word I haven’t associated with narrative pacing.  Dilation refers to the action or condition of becoming or being made wider, larger, or more open.

This is where a reader is forced to slow down.

If the printed words showing a story event take more time to read than the event would: dilation.

— Meander, Spiral, Explode

Imagine an app which allows you to watch YouTube videos at a fraction of the pace.  I sometimes watch tennis videos like this. This is dilation. […] Text time is greater than story time.

Jane Alison offers an example involving a man being shot by a bullet. The time it would take within the story for the man to be hit by the bullet is a microsecond. But the description of the thoughts that go through his mind take far longer for us to read than it would take for the character to die.

There’s a risk of dilating in the wrong place. Know what you’re going for on any given page — do you want the reader turning pages quickly? The following advice is from an article about writing page-turners, so bear that in mind, but Jordan Rosenfeld lists 8 Mundane Elements You Should Cut From Your Story. ‘Thoughts in the midst of an action’ is one of the eight elements:

The moment when characters are in the midst of big, dramatic action is precisely the worst time to slow down the energy and momentum of a scene to insert thoughts, especially long, drawn-out thoughts or epiphanies. Yet I see it all the time in my clients’ manuscripts.

Let me give you an example of the difference in what I mean.

With too much thought:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. This reminded him of one of the times he went volcano hunting with his father as a child. When the ground trembled, his father had simply scooped him up and dashed toward safety. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Revised, with a brief observation:

The hillside shook violently beneath him and began to crumble. Julia screamed and reached out to him. A huge crack appeared just feet from him. If he tried to run toward Julia, the earth would swallow him up. He was a child again, but without his father to rescue him. Julia screamed again and he lunged across the crack like a fool.

Hopefully you’ll have done the work of letting the reader know about your character’s past studying volcanoes with his father long before this moment, making it unnecessary to fill in backstory in a moment of action where tension needs to remain high.

— from Jane Friedman’s blog

 

PAUSE

When I first read about these terms, I thought each end of this continuum must be hypothetical. But no, writers do literally include the Pause in their work. It’s easy to imagine a Pause on film — it would be a freeze frame, like at the end of Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 400 Blows, Evil etc.

How does a writer make use of the Pause? A few blank pages? Nup.

Jane Alison offers an example in which the reader is told what is not happening rather than what is happening (after the character gets shot with the ‘dilated’ bullet). So that’s one way of freeze framing something in a written story. Tell the reader what’s NOT happening. The reader waits with suspense to find out what IS happening, all the while on Pause.

Perhaps this is a subcategory of Sideshadowing, in which the narrator offers an alternative to the real world story, by imagining/dreaming/hallucinating how things might have been different. Unlike a flash back or a flash forward, sideshadowing can function to emphasise the present moment. This is why I consider sideshadowing a Pause. All the while, the reader is kept dangling, waiting to see what will happen in the ‘real’ world of the story.