Saturday, December 7, 2013

Interrupted Narrative

In your editing the works of others and in the revisions of your own work, you have become aware of an ideal cadence for the transmission of dramatic action and its consequences.

This cadence is a major constituent of the aspect of narrative referred to as style; it is the speed with which event and action appear.  Anything more and the narrative begins to struggle for traction in much the same way the old Volkswagen Westphalia camper struggles against an incline.  Anything less, and your editor's mind or your composer's mind shifts into the questioning mode, wondering about such things as you wondered this morning when you heard a student say of a character, "She fingered her ivory necklace."  That one adjective, ivory, was enough to throw you out of your concentrated presence in the narrative.

This kind of superfluity reminds you of a man you once knew who was interested in introducing you to his Chinese wife, prompting you to ask him, to his complete bewilderment, "When do I get to meet your American wife?"

The reader--whether as editor, reader for entertainment, reader for information, or even as writer, reading now to see if the correct balance has been achieved--is engaged; "in" the story to the point where story is experienced rather than explained.  Story is demonstrated.  Individual words no longer matter.  The experience is a narrative stream.

Experience of a narrative stream is herewith likened to encountering a mosaic floor, a bricked pathway, a wooden floor in which there is a deliberate pattern, emphasizing shape, form, light, and shadow, all this to achieve a geometric effect that will cause whoever treads upon the floor to have the singular awareness of presence, on that floor.

Too much information in narrative causes the reader--and you--to skip, looking for some trace of one or more of the salient aspects of story.  Too much information, whether it is description, backstory, or explanation of activity the reader has just witnessed, nudges the reader out of the flow of narrative stream.

Too little information causes the reader to ask questions, the answers to which will supply the incentive to return to the narrative stream.

Your frequent advice, to yourself in times of first draft composition, to students, and to clients may be reduced to two words, "Stop thinking."  First draft, indeed, early draft, is not the time for thought.  The thought switch is flicked on after the draft has been completed; then you are looking for things you may have missed or for things you may have inserted out of some desire to show off, letting the world know you are there, splendid fellow and writer that you are.

In fact, the writers who have held your attention from the beginning of the novel, through its engagements of gathering mass to the point of becoming a runaway projectile, don;t have to demonstrate such things as what splendid persons they are or how gifted their narrative abilities are.  Such things are manifest in the deployment of event, the response of the characters to the event, and the sense the reader has of being a close eavesdropper on the thoughts, plans, and actions of the characters--without any additional help from you.

They don't need you.  Nor do you, when you read, need them.  They need the narrative line.  You need the narrative line to make of the story what you can.

There are some writers you have to read two or three times before you can proceed with comfort to the next page or chapter.  Sometimes, these writers are of the so-called literary sort, say William Gass, or Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner, or Antonia S. Byatt, or Cynthia Ozick.  Such writers present heightened degrees of nuance to the point where, even after you've read with care, you still have the sense of having missed out a potential dimension.

You habitually embark on journey with such writers aware that there are more meanings lurking, perhaps even hiding with some deliberation, under the surface of seemingly straightforward activities.

Each of these writers composes with great care, their work appearing accessible, straightforward.  But as you progress, you have the accelerated feeling you are missing something.  When you pause to reread, you do so not with the irritation of thinking you've discovered an anomaly neither the writer nor her editors have caught, rather with the sense that you have not read with enough care or, to put the matter yet another way, you have not read closely enough.

When you read, you want to find that expert sense of narrative cadence.  Even if you have to go back to read again, you understand that doing so is not a reflection on the author's departure from craft, rather because the work is so well crafted that it allows you to see there is substance waiting for you just below the surface.

Unnecessary words, stage directions, and either unnecessary facts or facts inserted before they are needed are contributing factors to the abrupt interruption of the seemingly effortless flow of narrative, pulling the reader along in its wake.

This is what you strive to achieve after you've got those early drafts down with as little thought as possible, and then the blending of incident, reaction, motive, and subtext, without missing a beat.

No comments: