Saturday, February 23, 2008

Redlines Four: Avoiding the Need for "Sequels"

Last month, we structured some interior monologue (IM) so that action framed the IM and oriented the reader. That technique is effective in “sequels” -- narrative bits in which we pause for reflection, planning, and the like. IMand its weaker cousin, exposition, can also be used in scenes. This month, we’ll braid interpetive bits into a scene where plot information is conveyed through dialogue.

One of the primary differences between a scene and a sequel is the narrative emphasis. In a scene, the narrative focuses on events -- action or dialogue moving the plot forward. Anything that detracts from the events will slow the pacing of the scene.

By contrast, a sequel focuses on the internal reaction of the point of view character to a prior scene or scene sequence. The character will literally be exploring thoughts and feelings, which means that sequels are generally heavy in exposition.

Some writing teachers advocate a one-to-one ratio of scenes and sequels. But even where a lot of internal landscaping is necessary -- as in romance -- following every scene with a sequel can slow the pace and create a mechanical narrative. This is true even when the sequels are shorter than the scenes.

One alternative is to weave small pieces of IM and/or exposition into scenes. For this to work, the IM/expo and the scene action must remain in balance. Knowing how to balance these elements requires analysis and judgment, because the balance will vary depending on the plot and characters.

Think, for example, of a dialogue scene in which Tex tells Kate that his mother doesn’t like her. If this is a major plot element -- if, for example, Tex will lose his inheritance if his mother does not approve of his bride -- then the reader might need Kate’s emotional reactions in the scene, plus a sequel. Balance is the key. Big movements in plot action require bigger amounts of character reaction.

In that case, the sequence might look like this:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
*Kate has an internal reaction.*
*Kate responds to Tex directly.*
*The scene concludes.*
*IM-heavy sequel where Kate reflects and decides how to proceed.*

But maybe Tex’s mother’s feelings are not outcome-determinative. The reader will still want Kate’s reaction. The question becomes, how much information is needed for Kate’s reaction to make sense? If a lot of information is necessary -- for example, backstory about Kate’s dealings with the mother, things that happened outside the narrative timeline -- then the scene may need to be briefly interrupted to convey that information.

Then the sequence might look like this:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
*Kate starts to react, but pauses.*
*Exposition: Kate reflects on backstory that explains her reaction.*
*Kate returns to her reaction and more dialogue ensues.*
*The scene concludes.*

In that case, no sequel would be needed. Here’s another option:
“My mother doesn’t like you,” Tex said.
“But we’ve sat on committees together, and she’s never acted like she hates me,” Kate said. (introduce backstory)
*Conclude scene quickly.*
*Sequel to fully develop backstory and Kate’s IM.*

But maybe Tex’s revelation is not outcome-determinative and any backstory has already been revealed. In that case, you can avoid interrupting the scene and/or providing a sequel. In order for this to work, the bits of reaction must be succinct and understandable.

One way to do this requires dialogue beats. Beats are little drops of action that fall outside the quotation marks and let the reader know who is speaking and what they are doing. For example:

“My mother doesn’t like you.” Tex folded his arms across his broad chest.

The beat is the second sentence. It replaces the dialogue tag (Tex said) with a stage gesture that provides insight into Tex’s internal dynamics. It’s not true IM because we’re not in Tex’s point of view, but it is a clue into what his IM might be, and provides something more for Kate to react to.

Now let’s add Kate’s reaction:
“My mother doesn’t like you.” Tex folded his arms across his broad chest.
His gesture was at odds with his casual tone. All right, then, he didn’t want her to take it too hard, even though he clearly felt a need to brace himself for her response. But Kate was not about to let his mother stand between them.
“She’ll change her mind once she knows me better.” Kate spread her hands wide, a gesture of openness, and was relieved to see that he dropped his arms to his sides.
“If anyone can win her over, it’s you.”

The IM comes through in Kate’s analysis of his gesture, her planned responsive gesture, and her relief when he relaxes. If we map it, it looks something like this:

*dialogue* *beat*
*her IM in three sentences*
*she mirrors his gesture* *his new gesture*

The dialogue acts like touchstones, framing the gestures and bridging his changing responses. The IM acts like a fulcrum, balancing Tex’s first action with his changed reaction.

Now we don’t need a sequel that explains Kate’s or Tex’s state of mind, because it should be clear from the scene. The reader not only sees the characters’ gestures, but why the gestures are important. But it takes a lot of narrative to load the gestures with meaning -- three sentences in Kate’s IM to qualify what they’re doing with their arms. This goes beyond the scope of a typical beat in a dialogue exchange, which is usually much shorter.

And that’s the danger in weaving IM or exposition into an active scene. Dialogue is fast-paced, but exposition in particular feels slow. The key, again, is balance. If the dialogue is important, more qualifying details can be braided in without grinding the pace down too much. But if the dialogue is relatively unimportant, the interpretive details should be confined to pieces no longer than typical beats -- or even eliminated altogether.

This is the third in the series of my dusty old Redlines column.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialoge sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.


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