Friday, July 26, 2013

And then, what happened?

During your senior years--there were a few of them--as an undergraduate, you worked the night shift, 3:30 p.m. until 12:10 a.m. for one of the world's largest and most influential wire services, The Associated Press.  Among other valuable things relative to reporting facts and attributing sources, which caused a dramatic rise in your grades at the university, you learned to watch sentence length, paragraph length, and story length.

The AP financed an extensive survey which concluded that the optimal sentence in one of their news stories should not exceed seventeen words.  There were other findings related to  the optimal number of sentences in paragraphs.  Of course the AP joined numerous other journalistic conventions in the belief that the essential parts of the story belonged in the first paragraph.  

(Adherence to these conventions became the primary cause of your grades on essay-type exams taking an enormous upward spike, even to the point where you were awarded extra points for keeping your answer terse and "mercifully free of padding.)

You've had an ongoing dialectic ever since, in which your sentence length shrank and grew.  One result of this long-sentence vs. short-sentence debate is your observation of how the AP concept of shorter sentences and lead paragraphs relates to real time conversation, to dialogue in fiction, and in general and specific ways, amount of information within paragraphs and entire narratives.

These observations relate to reader overload, the burdening of a reader (and conversation overload, which is the burdening of persons in conversations) and your own metric, the coefficient of boredom.
Stories that begin with too much background about characters and their motives produce a sense of intense disinterest.  

You, alas, have too much direct experience with telling persons in real life and readers of narrative more than they wish to know, with little regard shown for finding ways to freight the information and/or to cause the reader/listener to care and wish to hear more.

The key to all of this is withholding information to the point where the listener or reader, on the edge of curiosity bordering on impatience, asks the relevant question:  "And then, what happened?"  The sooner you can get the listener or reader to feel that degree of curiosity, the quicker your established communication is in place.

You also have experience with short, one- or two-word answers to questions, both in real life and in narrative writing,  This approach to response is the other end of the curve, the rat-tail end.  Such answers are of equal negating effect.  "Sure." "Nothing."  "Yes."  "Okay."  "Why not?"  And for real luxury, "It all depends."  

A question directed at a person or evoked in a reader is a potential opening of communication.  You in effect evoke a question in the reader's mind every time you set a story in motion.  "What's this character doing?"  "Why?"  "How will this work out?"  "What obstacles does this individual have to overcome?"  "What are the potential dangers?"

Most formulas, if repeated often enough, will produce results that, while not entirely bad, are boring.  In consequence of that awareness, you don't wish to carry these lines to a formulaic conclusion.  You do wish to observe that questions, direct and evoked, produce opportunities for response.  In story and conversation, response signifies the ante into the pot of communication with a response, which is either the beginning of a conversation or the involvement in a narrative.

Conversations and stories fail when they present too much undifferentiated information too soon.  Dialogue begins to sour when characters speechify, talking at a perceived problem or situation rather than speaking directly to it.  Dialogue begins to sweeten considerably when the reader is able to sense that there is something going on here beneath the surface, some subterranean design or agenda none of the characters may be able to see with clarity.  With the correct modes of presentation, the reader will become aware of anomalies and sub-surface correlatives.  Then the reader begins examining every word for that most ideal contraband to be found in story, intent.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

Very helpful. I want to know more.