2.06.2018

Too Indirect

Focus in prose can be scaled according to a number of factors. By adding intensive details or filling out conversations, you add immediacy. By covering events in narrative summary and indirect quotes, you’re passing over material on the way to somewhere else. Most of the time, of course, you’re trying for a tight focus, because that type of writing has the strongest impact. So why bother with the indirect approach at all?

A well-told scene can be likened to a beads on a necklace. As much as possible, you want to jump from one bead to the next. As a reader gains knowledge of your fictional world, you can pack these scenes closer and closer together. That’s why climax sequences are so exciting—you already provided the filler earlier.

You might consider indirect prose as the string holding the beads together. If Karla’s dad is waiting until all the other teenagers in the car have been dropped off before his guns start blazing about her being drunk, you want to get through the driving to different houses quickly. To use this example, you’d have: vivid scene of Karla getting smashed at the party —> vivid scene of Karla’s father yelling at her. The stuff that fills out the arrow is indirect. No one cares about the other kids. Let’s skim through that byplay to get to the good stuff.

As part of the summarized stretch of material, you can use indirect quotes. “Whoa, that was some party!” would work fine if Karla was boasting about it the next day with a friend that didn’t get invited. But if it’s spoken by George, whom she doesn’t even like but does live two streets over, you want to keep it to a dull roar: George made his typical lame remark about what a great party it was. What he says is not important to the story. That’s what you just told us with that indirect approach.

What you want to avoid is a straight reduction. Rather than five lines of spoken dialogue, you decide it can be covered in three sentences of prose. Hold up right there. That doesn’t do any good. You’re not summarizing at the right level. What the reader experiences is three lifeless sentences. You want to go higher. Be the executive you always dreamed of—that stuff deserves only one sentence. Maybe it’s not worth covering, period. Does George’s prattle really matter to Karla—i.e., the reader—at all?

Exercise: Review the manuscript for long stretches of dialogue. If you see a portion that is merely getting the conversation around to the new topic you want to cover, chop out all of the sentences between the two topics of interest. Summarize the bridge in one indirect sentence, maybe two. You’re summarizing at a high level, not tit for tat.

“Brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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