Monday, November 18, 2013

Narrative as a Leaky Spigot

By Michael J. Vaughn

As a judge of short story contests, one of the most common mistakes I see is an attempt by the author to cram the entire background of their story into the first paragraph. Something like this:

Captain Perry, leader of the Queen’s army, vaulted from his horse, displaying the 6-foot-2, 200-pound physique that had charmed the ladies of Quintupia for years, not to mention the powder-blue eyes that flashed as he walked, the striking dimpled chin, the biceps whose burly ripples contained the history of a thousand battlefield skirmishes, in addition to the years of training with his mentor, the legendary Hermit Duke of Edmundshire. It was under the Duke that Perry came to know the philosophies of the warlords of Celestia, the very savages who had begun the conflict from which he was now returning, victorious.

This is not so much a first paragraph as a data dump. The writer is so anxious for his reader to understand everything about the protagonist that he hopscotches from one digression to another, leaving poor Captain Perry standing next to his horse, wondering when it is that he gets to actually do something.

A variation of this mistaken impulse comes when an author creates an invigorating action scene, cannonfire thundering from the hills, men on horseback charging into the fray, dismembered limbs flying this way and that, and then…

Captain Perry could not have imagined himself in this predicament three years before, when he first aligned himself with the League of Kamarat, whose alleged…

And on, and on, until the fact that Captain Perry is at the business end of a broadsword has been entirely forgotten.

Three paragraphs of vicious warplay do not entitle you to a backstory. Your job is to 1) finish the damn battle scene, 2) ingratiate your reader with your character, and then, only then, after earning this good will, may you 3) fill in some background.

I reached the furthest extreme of this narratus interruptus when I was hired to edit a western novel, one that began with the promising line…

Everyone knew what time it was when the stranger rode into town.

And proceeded, for the next five pages, to explain in excruciating detail why it was that everyone knew what that time was: a shopkeeper’s morning routine, a punctual westbound train, the crowing habits of Mrs. Thompkins’ prize rooster – in short, enough arcania to fill a garbage truck.

I wasn’t in the mood to be nice about it, so I proceeded to cross out all five pages and send them back to the author. He summarily withdrew the novel from publication, which was probably for the best.

Hoarding Your Secrets

Every author enters a story with certain crucial bits of information. The secret to keeping a reader involved in your story is to hold back these morsels, meting them out only when the time is ripe. It may even cause your reader some frustration, but this also means that he will keep turning those pages, because he’s dying to figure out what’s going on. A colleague once told me, “Every good story is a mystery,” and I’d have to agree. If we knew everything right at the beginning, why would we keep reading?

In my own writing, I have employed two recent cases of extreme secret-hoarding that have proven quite successful. In Operaville, I held on to a crucial bit of secret identity for 250 pages, then finally set it free in the next-to-last chapter. I’ve had several messages from readers expressing their surprise and delight at this sudden twist. (The bonus, for the author, is the planting of subtle hints toward this revelation all through the narrative. After the “reveal,” the readers may then review the story and think, Oh! That’s why he did such-and-such and said such-and-such and bought those carrots in Indianapolis!)

In The Popcorn Girl, I employed what is commonly called an “unreliable narrator,” a device famously used in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and the film Memento. This illusionist trick derives its power from the assumption most of us make that a narrator is telling us the truth. In real life, of course, we understand that a person telling us a story might be lying, or incapable of perceiving the truth due to a mental handicap.

In order to intensify the conflict, I employed two first-person narrators. The gap between the two accounts was such that a couple of readers wrote me to say that one or the other of them was “pissing them off,” that they didn’t trust them. Much as it seems counterintuitive to frustrate your reader this way, the frustration will only intensify the satisfaction they will experience as they begin to piece together what’s actually going on. (Most of those same readers wrote me back, post-reveal, to say exactly that.) You will find a similar torture/relief cycle in the things that the characters in 50 Shades of Grey get paid to do to each other, or in the tension and release created in music by dissonance followed by resolution.

Sadly, I cannot give you a specific formula for doling out knowledge in your stories – every author has to find this rhythm for himself. But the next time you feel the urge to ‘fess up everything all at once, perhaps you will remember the tragically overdescribed Captain Perry and stow away a few of those acorns for the winter. Open that spigot all the way up and you will drown your reader. Keep it at a steady drip and he’ll come back for more.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. Find a listing of his books at his author’s page. Photo by MJV.

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