How to Control Narrative Drive: Looking at Speeds
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In this video I talk about pacing and speeds in your fiction.
This is a new topic that I just started thinking about in new terms based on a book by Jane Allison called Meander, Spiral, Explode. Basically what she’s talking about in this book is different structures of fiction and the idea that the normal kind of waveform ethic builds up, gets to a climax, and then drops off is dated. It isn’t the only way that we can construct a narrative! That may or may not be useful for some of you, but what I think is really useful that she talks about is the variation of speeds that we can get into as we’re writing scenes in fiction
What she talks about with these speeds is a series of options that go from the fastest to the slowest. The fastest would be just where you have a gap in your fiction that’s between one section and the next. Or one scene and the next. There’s no text that shows here and then a lot of story time goes past. You could think about this as a chapter break or a section break where you just have one scene and then the next and no connective tissue or no sentences or paragraphs that bring the reader through to the next point in the plot.
The next speed that you could look at is summary. Here’s where things are moving fast, where a little text connects to a lot of story time. This would be an example like:
“That fall we did a lot of leaf raking, and I fell in love with our backyard and garden.”
Or “Later that day we met up over by the bridge and got into an argument.”
So, where just a sentence really brings us through a lot of time. These are the sort of summary that we can use to really move the narrative along without showing.
A lot of the work I do with my clients involves coaching them in writing that fits in between Allison terms summary and what she refers to as scene.
Writing In Scene (Scene Pace):
We see the action of the characters’ lives in real time. We’re seeing it in scene. Frank Conroy calls this “full dramatization.” Realize that this is an ability that writers can work towards. It means: to depict what the characters are doing in a way that the reader sees the characters in space and time, sees them doing things, and the reader is able to co-create that movie in their mind.
That’s a lot of what we work on: creating that dramatization where the text time is the same as story time. Things are really happening on the page. That’s a lot of the work that I’ve been doing with the folks in my workshop and with my clients and build to in my assignments for Stanford Continuing Studies or Harvard Extension.
Often I’ll see a beginning writer come in writing a lot of his or her story at summary pace. He’s rushing—often because he’s nervous or worried he’ll bore the reader. This fear actually kills more stories than I’ve ever seen it same. It’s not necessarily that a month goes by in a sentence, but it’s the kind of thing where a lot of action goes by for a character in a sentence or a couple of sentences. Maybe a scene that could play out over two or three pages, or even be a whole chapter, plays out in just a couple of sentences or a paragraph.
This is where it feels like the writer is speeding through the draft in a way that doesn’t allow the reader to really connect with what’s going on. So I work with those writers to try to get them to slow down, to create the narrative on the page, to dramatize. That’s a lot of the the push and pull that we do—is really getting the writer to slow down.
Even Slower Paces: Dilation or Pause:
What Jane Allison says about going beyond scene pace, slowing even further, brings a writer to something she calls Dilation or Pause. In dilation, this is where a lot of text takes up just a little bit of story time. You could connect this to something like slow motion replay that you watch on tv if you’re seeing a sports game. They’ve slowed it down so that it takes a long time to see what happened quickly. You could connect this with that feeling of great tension and anticipation where something is happening in your life and it’s almost like things start to slow down because it’s so important and so exciting.
You see this in action movies or thrillers where the character is so aware of what’s going on, you could think about a Jack Reacher fight scene where things are happening really quickly but because he’s so good at fighting and really in that moment, he’s able to see the punches coming and navigate them. So Dilation is a way you can show real tension or action or raise the stakes for your character by having things slow down.
Beyond that is where things have paused. Effectively the story time has stopped and text is going on. The characters are frozen in motion. Maybe this happens while a character is stuck in thought or where time is passing in a character’s experience, but the world around that person is frozen. Allison uses some examples from the Tobias Wolf story “Bullet in the Brain,” which I’m a real fan of.
You’ll get a an opportunity to download these pages in a pdf in the email that connects to this video or you can just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to share these pages with you. Basically Allison uses the examples from the Tobias Wolf story to show how these different modes of pacing, or speeds, can play out in fiction.
Summing it Up:
What I think is really important is for you as a writer to learn to use these different speeds to move through your narrative. In places where you want to jump ahead, use summary so everything isn’t in scene. Then you’re also able to dramatize a scene on the page (show it) by having the story time slow down enough to be the same as the time on the page. Or you can even go more slowly so that things really dilate.
I like these ideas because a lot of the work that I do revolves around slowing down to get into scene time. I really like working with writers to develop the ability to go even slower than that, to have a variety of tools to use in pacing your fiction.
There’s a lot that you can do with these, and I’ll continue to talk about them in videos to come.
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