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.

Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu is well-known for his take on the freeze frame, which is not frozen but simply a camera focusing on one specific shot for an extended period.

Other Japanese film-makers have emulated this, including Hayao Miyazaki in his animated films. There’s an entire category of Internet GIFs (often called cinemagraphs) which are basically pillow shots. (I collect the ones and pin them on Pinterest.)

But how does a writer make use of the Pause in a written story? A few blank pages? Well, perhaps. That would be experimental (and also a waste of paper).

Jane Alison offers an example of a Pause on the page: Those times when the reader is told what is not happening rather than what is happening (after the character gets shot with the ‘dilated’ bullet).

Highlighting what’s not happening is one way of freeze framing something in a written story. 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.

How else might a writer achieve the Pause? By describing a photograph is another way. Technically, this is known as ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis was an old Greek pastime, and formed a genre in its own right.

The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.

Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. 

You might think modern readers have no time for it. Perhaps in genre fiction and children’s literature, that’s true. But literary writers sometimes make use of it. Alice Munro is a case in point:

He put his hand in a back pocket. “Here. Want to see a picture? Here.”

It was a photograph of three people, taken in a living room with closed floral curtains as a backdrop. An old man—not really old, maybe in his sixties—and a woman of about the same age were sitting on a couch. A very large younger woman was sitting in a wheelchair drawn up close to one end of the couch and a little in front of it. The old man was heavy and gray-haired, with eyes narrowed and mouth slightly open, as if he were asthmatic, but he was smiling as well as he could. The old woman was much smaller, with dyed brown hair and lipstick. She was wearing what used to be called a peasant blouse, with little red bows at the wrists and neck. She smiled determinedly, even a bit frantically, her lips stretched over perhaps bad teeth.

But it was the younger woman who monopolized the picture. Distinct and monstrous in a bright muumuu, her dark hair done up in a row of little curls along her forehead, cheeks sloping into her neck. And, in spite of all that bulge of flesh, an expression of some satisfaction and cunning.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Jane Alison offers the example from The Lover by Duras:

She goes on to a new block describing a photo of herself with her mother and brothers, a picture capturing her mother’s despair. These portraits aren’t decorative: like the missing image, they’re potent. Studying them, she find secrets, deep character traits revealed in eyes or mouth. Later she creates a long sequence of verbal portraits of women (I call it the “Catalogue of Women”). They portray, out of the blue, two expatriate women in Paris the narrator came to know decades later, as well as girls and women in Indochina, M’s friend Helene Lagonelle; the madwoman of Vinh Long; a beggar woman; and the “Lady of Savanna Khet,” whose scandalous affair ended in her lover’s suicide. These portraits seem detached from the drama: Duras lets them float in white space like postcards.

Why all this seemingly tangential material in a narrative about M and her lover? Why so much about photographs? And why does Duras keep switching between first person and third? […]

M turns herself to an object most often when speaking of herself as a writer. And she uses language that not only objectifies but makes legendary the girl and her world: they are the girl, the mother, the lover, “the famous pair of gold lame high heels.” This makes them singular worth regard. […] We’re with her looking at a picture, and she chooses what and how we see.

— Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode, pp 128-9.

Aside from literary fiction, popular songs can slow the pace of narrative right down to a pause. An example would be “The Box”, by Fad Gadget.

The camera pans across the room
And finally comes to rest upon an old picture frame
The photo shows a man in hat
A dog at heel
The man is fat
The dog is the same
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
A POV of man in carbon monoxide fumes are choking him
His face turns pink
And now we see him winding down
The window streaked excretion brown
We watch him sink
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
The shot a wide angle now
A man is banging on the door
Of a chrome elevator
Lights go out no air inside
Get no lift from this lost ride
On a cracked generator
Let me out…
Let me out…
Let me out…
I can’t stand the dark anymore
Now focus out
The lift goes down
Night creeps in
The screws go round
Blood runs cold
And now we stare up from our hole
Theme tune in, the credits roll
The story told
Let us out…
Let us out…
Let us out…
Someone gotta let me out!

The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

POKER FLAT BRET HARTE

If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.

This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat movie poster

But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.

Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.

Poker and Pop

This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.

Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.

STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.

There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.

Owl Eyes

Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.

I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood (South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.

Continue reading “The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte”

The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce

The Damned Thing Ambrose Bierce

Hard to remember now, but ‘damned’ used to be a full on swear word. A teacher at high school once pounced on me for using it (though by the 1990s I think she was being ridiculous). ‘Damned’ was certainly shocking 100 years earlier than that, in 1893, when Ambrose Bierce published his horror short story and called it “The Damned Thing”.

It’s out of copyright and you can read “The Damned Thing” at Project Gutenberg (3,233 words).

TYPES OF TERROR

Stephen King has spoken of three types of terror:

The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …”

— Stephen King

“The Damned Thing” belongs to the second category — the horror, describing the mutilated body. But by the end of the story, Bierce has moved into the realm of terror. The scariest thing of all is something we cannot see.

This is exactly the sort of terror/horror parodied by the podcast (and book) Welcome To Night Vale. From episode 2 of Night Vale (“Glow Cloud”):

Apparently the cloud glows in a variety of colors, perhaps changing from observer to observer, although all report a low whistling when it draws near.

episode 2 transcript

Continue reading “The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce”

What Is Remembered by Alice Munro

what is remembered

“What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro appears in the print edition of the February 19, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. It was also published in the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Looking back as an old lady, this short story focuses on several days across one young woman’s life in which she hooks up with a doctor she meets at her husband’s friend’s funeral. The memory of this event sustains her, imaginatively, for the rest of her life, and allows her to lead this parallel imagined life in which she remained single and more adventurous. In this way, “What Is Remembered” reminds me of Bridges Over Madison County.

I’m also reminded of a song by Nancy Sinatra.

Continue reading “What Is Remembered by Alice Munro”

Tobermory Short Story by Saki

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things. Continue reading “Tobermory Short Story by Saki”

Humour in the Nancy Cartoons by Olivia Jaimes

bushmiller_nancy_glasses

I really like Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour categories. Today I’m taking a closer look at why the new Nancy cartoons by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes work so well for so many. In short, why are these minimalist snapshots funny?

The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”

Vox

(I haven’t read How To Read Nancy, but I’d like to.)

How To Read Nancy

Some points from the book and from enthusiasts:

  • To dismiss ‘Nancy’ as a simple strip about a simple slot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely. ‘Nancy’ appears to be simple only at a simple glance.
  • Every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.
  • In comics, all action is composition.
  • In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.
  • Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.
  • There’s an emotional sort of flatness of the stories
  • The gags aren’t side-splittingly funny but they are always visually satisfying.

The following strip is considered classic Bushmiller at his peak:

Nancy Bushmiller at his peak

Notice how Nancy is a trickster, observing a situation then getting her own back, with extra on top. (Her opponent uses a water pistol; she is about to make use of an infinite stream of hose water.) The Battle is kept off the strip because we know exactly what’s going to happen.

Continue reading “Humour in the Nancy Cartoons by Olivia Jaimes”

Alice Munro, Queenie & Coercive Control

One remarkable thing about Alice Munro: her ability to see aspects of psychology which only drew public attention decades later. In “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” we have a beautiful character study of a philandering man and, his self-justification for wrong-doing and what has since been called sexual solipsism. In “Queenie” Munro paints a picture of what the authorities call ‘coercive control’, or what is known in pop-culture as ‘gaslighting’ (after the 1944 movie). Continue reading “Alice Munro, Queenie & Coercive Control”

City As Ocean Symbolism

a night scene with a city across a stretch of ocean

Today I make the case that the city, in storytelling, often gets the ocean treatment. The city equals the ocean.

This was first pointed out to me in The Anatomy of Story. You probably already know that mountains and cities are metaphorically linked. The ocean is a less well-known metaphor.

A more powerful natural metaphor for the city than the classic but predictable mountain is the ocean. With this metaphor, the writer usually begins on the rooftops, which are gabled so that the audience has the impression of floating on the waves. Then the story “dips” below the surface to pick up various strands, or characters, who live at different levels of this three-dimensional world and are typically unaware of the others “swimming” in this sea.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

The following music clip is an excellent example of what we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are swimming through water.

https://youtu.be/lan-Pjv99Xk

Mary Poppins — who floats down from the sky. (I’m talking about the original film adaptation.) In the house next door, a ship captain stands on the roof (deck of his ‘ship’), along with his first mate. From Mary, the children learn that you can float if you love to laugh the day away. Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops, which he calls the ‘sea of enchantment.’ With bursting energy, they prance on the waves (the gables) and defy gravity until the caption fires a shot from his cannon and the sweeps all disappear under the ocean’s surface until it is time to dance once more.

Broadchurch — the opening sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.

Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.

The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.

And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:

But ocean as city is not all doom and gloom. The ocean is good like that — storytellers can use it to both scary and happy effect.

The city as ocean is also the key metaphor when you want to portray the city in its most positive light, as a playground where individuals can live with freedom, style, and love.

You can often pick a film using the city as ocean metaphor because film-makers often rely on the eye of the camera, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Sponge-bob Squarepants uses the ocean as a playground. So does Ponyo, in places.

CITY AS OCEAN IN PICTURE BOOKS

Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.

Others have done similar:

scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins
scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins

The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)

These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.

Artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.

a fish comes in through a window. A girl almost kisses it.

I’ve written a separate post on Ocean Symbolism in Children’s Stories. For other symbolic archetypes in children’s literature, see this post. And for more on the country/city dichotomy, I offer you this post.

Don’t mistake the ocean for the beach, either. Consider them separate, as metaphors. (Naturally, they may be linked.)