Sunday, February 17, 2008

Redlines Three: Framing Scene Elements

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.


Recently, we have been looking at small scale logic problems. This month, we will take a look at an editing trick that helps balance interior monologue (IM) with action so that logic problems are avoided. But first, in order to understand this month’s concept, let’s look at the structural element usually called a “frame.”

Some of you may be familiar with the idea of a frame story; that is, a novel that opens and closes with linked pieces that “frame” the long middle. The frame can be set off from the main story piece in any number of ways -- most commonly, by being in a different time or setting.

Need an example? Think of The Odyssey, which opens with Odysseus’s return home, then tells the story of the last ten years, then returns to the present homecoming. In that, the homecoming is the frame.

The sequence can be mapped like this:

  • introduce an event in the present
  • event in the past
  • event in the past
  • event in the past.
  • return to complete the event in the present

with the number of events in the past varying according to the needs of the story.

This same structure, shrunk down to a smaller level, provides a model for balancing IM and scene action. IM is a crucial element in romance, where the romance plot centers on emotions rather than actions. But IM -- like backstory -- takes the narrative out of the action of the present story time. Because things that interrupt the story time will feel slower-paced than the action/dialogue scenes themselves, IM needs to be carefully handled to maintain reader interest.

Let’s imagine our heroine needs to step back from the story action and think about her attraction to the hero, Jake. Let’s say you draft this bit of IM and, upon re-reading it, it feels slow and chunky, almost disconnected from the story line.

By framing that short IM bit with present story-time action, you can effectively lower the reader into the IM, and then draw them back into the story line with the same idea. The action itself doesn’t matter much, as long as it makes sense within the overall context. So let’s have Kate saddle her horse while thinking about Jake.

  • start saddling horse in present story time
  • think about Jake’s shoulders
  • think about Jake’s hair
  • think about Jake’s lips
  • finish saddling the horse

Then continue the story.

You’ve probably seen that done hundreds of times, maybe even learned to recognize that the “saddle” sentences are transitions. They take the reader into and out of the IM, and simultaneously bridge the action interrupted by the IM. The technique would not be effective if we opened with the saddle, and closed with, say, a pitchfork or loose fencepost.

When the IM is complex, we can link framed pieces. Let’s say Kate is attracted to Jake’s body (piece one) but doesn’t like his temperament (piece two):

  • New Paragraph -start saddling horse in present story time~ think about Jake’s shoulders~ think about Jake’s hair~ think about Jake’s lips~
  • New Paragraph -tighten a jangly thingie on the saddle~ think about Jake’s scowl~ think about Jake yelling at his brother~
  • New Paragraph -finish saddling the horse~

Then continue the story.

Now we have two clusters of IM ideas, which are framed and linked by saddle action. This not only creates a smooth, balanced passage of IM, but it also fools the reader into interpreting the IM as part of the present story time action, thereby making the passage feel pacey instead of pokey.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all technique, but is one effective way of controlling the flow of IM. Next month we’ll try the same idea out on a dialogue passage.


1 comment:

PatriciaW said...

This is one of those I-didnt-know-what-you-call-it-but-I-know-when-its-missing things in writing craft. In my writing or in books I'm reading.