Friday, November 2, 2012

Timing in Writing: Suspended Sentences

Whenever you set forth with the intention of producing a “and then what happened?” response, you are at the risk of producing one of the two worst effects a writer could wish:  “Oh,” or “That’s it?”

Long moments of silence, if deployed with care, have the ability to assume a dramatic power, creating an atmosphere of uneasiness over a conversation or a classroom or a speech being presented to a large audience.

Such moments suggest a secret, about to be revealed, a point of emphasis about to be made, a moment of truth—absolute, unblinking truth—to be shared.

These moments are often taken too far in the sense of having been described instead of evoked, provoking the response of impatience from the audience rather than the intended curiosity and empathy.

When the audience says, either in group unison or singular explosion, “Get on with it,” the exclamation point does not have to be used as a stage direction because it is already implied in the force and depth of feeling of the utterance.

The risk of the “Oh,” or the “That’s it?” is at the heart of much narrative, whether invented or the so-called memoir or personal history.  For you, the risk extends into the personal essay and, of course, the book review.

You are of a generation where your non-literary role models were both products of the stage—no, not the dramatic stage, rather the vaudeville stage.  You refer to Jack Benny and George Burns.  Much as they came to mean to you in later years, your first exposure to them was via radio, where the word “timing” was used to describe them as opposed to the more ponderous “long moments of silence” you used a few paragraphs earlier.

The effects of these two men and their deployment of statement, response, and reaction on you were as primal as the effects of your mother’s cooking.  From experiences you were to gather later in your attempts to learn how to manipulate silences, you learned of Jack Benny that the guests on his radio (and later television) shows were told they were not to deliver their lines until Mr. Benny had made eye contact with them.  At that point, the guest was free to do as she or he wished, but not until, allowing Benny to set the pace.

You also learned that Benny had to work hard to keep a straight face when in Burns’ presence.  He was in such admiration of Burns’ timing and ability to deliver even the most conversational-sounding dialogue that he had to struggle to keep his demeanor and not burst into gales of laughter.
Timing, in this dramatic sense has more to do with when a thing is said than what is actually said; it is the essence of focus and a seemingly instinctive understanding of audience and character.

For years, as you labored over the techniques and tools of the narrative trade, you more or less kept this awareness separate, apart from the things you thought you needed to know in order to tell a story.  There was almost a time when you discovered the existence of an essay by Mark Twain, “How to Tell a Story,” then tracked it down and read it, that you made the connection.

By this time, you were utterly devoted to Twain and in complete, utter awe of Benny and Burns, but you could not seem to make the freeing steps of no longer imitating them, and of striking out on your own to make necessary connections as all three of these giants had.  Besides, how bad could it be to be seen as influenced by this unholy triumvirate?  Of course you had to learn the answer to that as well.

What you have learned so far is this:  timing is synonymous with building tension, which is a necessary ingredient in story and narrative.  But there’s more yet.

Tension, which is a required presence in every scene, is more than a mere vital element.  It is yeast.

If you allow the yeast of tension to rise, you get suspense.

What comes next is suspense.  What the characters will say or do next in these present circumstances is suspense.  By the time you are into your story, the readers will have yet another kind of suspense, the fear that the characters won’t do what they ought but will do something to make matters worse.

How do the readers come to this state of suspense?

Timing.  It’s all a matter of timing.

Empathy couldn’t hurt.  But isn’t empathy part of the equation?


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