Friday, September 9, 2011

Scenes and Pacing

Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion." Image credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
I've been thinking about story pacing lately, and this led me to thinking about scenes. I'm not holding forth here, just thinking out loud. Sometimes it's daunting, how much I've got to learn. But follow along if you like.

So far I've thought of pacing as a function of sentences and paragraphs on the one hand, and overall storyline on the other. For example at the sentence level, you want active verbs. At the paragraph level, you want to drop details that drag. And out at the storyline level, you want to have a sense that everything's driving toward a big finish, and avoid the temptation to overcomplicate the plot. (A big, big temptation for me, always. Love those strange byways of plot.)

Somehow, though, I've never thought carefully about a middle layer of pacing -- what you do with scenes. I tend to handle scenes off the cuff, throwing things around until I get something that has some energy, that feels right. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm surprised to see I've never tried to get analytical with scene construction, even as an experiment.

I suspect part of that's a preference on my part for fiction that has a strong narrative voice, in which scenes rise up like jewels in the storyteller's hand, are spun in the light, and then returned to her treasure pouch until a new scene is needed. In between we have her voice and the motion of her hands to carry us along.

Or in less romanticized terms, you have narration that conveys you from one scene to the next in a seamless way, so that you may not even notice the transition between "showing" and "telling," and the "telling" part, contrary to introductory writing advice, is often the best part. Ursula K. Le Guin is one writer that comes to mind who is wonderful at this. Another I've recently discovered, thanks to the Howard A. Jones-edited edition of his "Cossack" stories, is Harold Lamb.

The other extreme is a kind of story that seems like a screenplay in prose, where everything revolves around scenes, and the narration's job is to get you from scene to scene with as little fuss as possible. I think I've unfairly overlooked this method, because of my preferences, but it does have its advantages. It forces you to think carefully about what scenes are needed, to pack those scenes with as much punch as possible, and to waste no time with what doesn't support those scenes. Some of Robert E. Howard's work seems to fit this pattern, and I've lately discovered John C. Hocking's "Archivist" stories and admired how his scenes build a fast pace.

For example the first story in the series, "A Night in the Archives,"  compresses everything into a single scene, as if it were a one-act play. The story involves political intrigue, magic, vengeance, and several twists and turns, all in the confined space of the Archives of the fantasy city of Frekore. I realized reading it that I would have told the same story with at least three scenes. They might have been good scenes, but the story would surely have been slower-paced. Hocking's later Archivist stories (the most recent in Black Gate 15) aren't quite so compressed, but they retain that lean, mean pacing. It's something to study.

Speaking of scenes, I got some good tips about them at Worldcon (where I didn't actually manage to blog the Hugos live as planned, but had a lot of fun nonetheless) when I had the great honor of talking writing with an sf legend, Joan D. Vinge. She was one of my Clarion West instructors way back when, and it's great to see her back writing after terrible difficulties -- see this article for more information. She passed along some solid advice on scenes. A good scene, she said, should tackle at least two, and preferably three of these items -- develop or show character, advance the plot, and establish background.

(Now, I think I may have hit two or three of these targets in my own scenes by accident, but that may be a case of throwing a lot of stuff at the barn wall. Maybe some actual planning is in order.)

I'm attempting to apply this advice in the science fiction story I'm working on, a sequel to my space pirate story "Sails the Morne." Meanwhile I'm trying to pull off the all-in-one-scene approach with a short fantasy story. Hopefully both exercises will teach me something.

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