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!