Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Comments About Aggregate Action

A few days ago, I introduced the topic of aggregate action -- my term for when groups of individuals are presented as behaving in identical ways, much like a chorus line on the page. Sometimes this can be a useful shorthand, but it also contains many traps. Today I thought we might take a closer look at some of your comments to that post and see if we might come up with a list of rules or guidelines for aggregate action. But first, let's review the example we worked from:

The girls huddled together along one side of the gym and pretended not to watch the boys along the other wall. The boys were bolder. Their shoulders squared up to the girls in a forthright manner, though most of them also slouched enough to prevent direct eye contact. Feet shuffled. A shower of giggles erupted from one cluster of girls, followed by a squeal, a high-pitched protest, and more giggling. The boys seemed to take courage from this and bumped each other as they milled about in the casual manner of athletes in a huddle. Any moment now, they would begin pairing off.

So let's begin with this comment from Jordan:

IMO, at least the shoulder squaring needs to be individualized. I found it confusing to read that they squared their shoulders—oh, no, wait, they slouched. Then I'm off wondering whether you can do both.

Yes, this is one of the classic problems associated with aggregate action. Sometimes, the group does not function like a perfect chorus line. Sometimes, one guy high-kicks while the others are shuffling off to Buffalo. So from this, we can derive our first rule.

Rule The First
Action can only be presented as aggregate when all members are performing the same moves at the same time.

Green Knight suggests one possible fix for this imperfect dance routine:

I would alter 'also slouching' to 'alternatively squaring and slouching' - they try to pretend they're bold whenever they are watched, but they're really not certain.

By changing the way the action is described, Green Knight has resynchronized the group. This is a good trick. Describe the actions as sequential rather than simultaneous, and you're much less likely to drive the characters into mass contortions.

On a related note, Jewel Tones said,

High pitched protest (that one lost me, so I say it needs an identifier)

Good eye, JT. The protest is uttered by a single person, not by the group. Thus it really can't be presented as an aggregate action, and here it's attached to a group of girls rather than to a single protester. (Ditto for the squeal which precedes it.)

The flipside to this is that we have probably all encountered this sort of group behavior from teenagers. The girls huddle, and any one of them could be responsible for the ear-shattering noises emitting from the group. I think this kind of aggregation might work better if viewed through the prism of a pov character's perspective -- a harried mom trying to dash through the mall, perhaps, whose progress is arrested by Those Girls. She wouldn't care, necessarily, which of Those Girls makes which noise. She views the pack as an obstacle, a collective barrier to her progress.

But I think the reason it works, then, is that the pov is clear. Which brings us to this comment from Patty Jansen,

It depends on how deep your POV is. This example reads to me as almost-omniscient, shallow POV. Alternatively, it reads as an observation by a third person who is watching while all this happens.

Yes. Exactly. This type of writing is necessarily omniscient because it's a form of narrative summary -- the mechanics of this are a bit complicated, but just trust me when I tell you that narrative summary veers sharply to objective, rather than subjective, on the pov sliding scale. Even when we're in a narrator-character's subjective pov, when we shift into NS, that pov will shallow out.

Rule The Second
Aggregate actions are almost always presented as narrative summary, which can change the pov.

This means you lose a degree of intimacy between the reader and the character whenever you rely on aggregate actions. There are times this works without a hitch. When are those times? The answer lies in comments from PatriciaW and Alicia.

PatriciaW: The entire thing read fine to me, as a setup for individualized action to come.

Alicia: I was okay until the giggle from the "cluster". I felt like by this time, we should be narrowing in on the main character.

Both of these comments seem to rely on the same assumption, that this passage would lead us from the omni into the specific pov of a particular character. This is a good assumption, actually, and not just because of the way the example was framed. It's also because of a nifty pov trick that Alicia discusses in her pov book. (You've all read this book, yes? You should. It's really the only book that tackles pov from the writer's perspective rather than from the scholar's or analyst's.)

In the beginning of a new scene, we have some leeway to play with depth of perspective in pov. We can start more objectively and, as Alicia puts it, drop the reader down gradually into a deeper subjective pov. This means that aggregate action, which is naturally more objective anyway, will fit better into the start of a scene.

Rule The Third
Aggregate action, if used at all, is probably best used in the first lines of a scene.

Which, of course, is because we can occasionally fool the reader into not noticing that we're wandering out of limited pov at that particular point in a scene. It's best not to do this too often as it will begin to take on the appearance of an affectation, unless you're writing highly stylized, mannered prose, in which case, rock on.

But even then, keep in mind one of the pitfalls of aggregate action, hinted at in the comment from Cathy in AK,

If we're in Kendra's POV, and she is neither the squealer nor the protester, I'd say attribute those to single characters.

This type of writing doesn't really specify the relationship of the individual to the group, right? IOW, we don't know if Kendra is the squealer or the protestor or even if she's inside the huddle. And we won't know until the pov deepens again. And even then, the reader will have already made some assumptions about where Kendra is, which means that the eventual clarification of this point might break the fictive reality the reader established independently. This is not good.

Yes, there are ways to write around this orientation/reorientation problem, but why bother? Why not just avoid the problem in the first place? How do we do that? By keeping the introductory aggregate action short, and by getting into character pov before the reader can draw too detailed a scene.

Rule the Fourth
Keep it tight, and get into subjective character viewpoint quickly thereafter.

When you do that, you can start getting into the details recommended by Dominique,

Since you mentioned that the main character is worried about her position in the pack order, I think you'd want to point out the two leaders.... we might want to individualize an action related to the guy she'd like to pick her. Something to highlight characters of importance in her life.

Beautiful. Yes. The essence of drama is in the relationships between the characters. If all the characters are mashed together in an aggregate, then the relationships between them are blurred or abandoned altogether. But by separating the characters and showing their relationship with and their importance to the pov character, now we have hints of tension and drama. Kendra doesn't watch that boy because he's in that group. She watches him because he's the one she likes. That. Specific. Boy. But he's not looking at her ... or is he? (See how easily the tension loads into that precise moment now?)

Anyway. All of this is can be boiled down to a paired principle: Stick with the specific, which is where the drama lies, and if you use aggregate action, hit it light and fast and then get on with the scene.



Adrian said...

I still think the original passage is near perfect. Anything done to single out individuals would damage the wonderful effect the paragraph has. The point is: this could be any group of kids, anywhere. To put individual faces on them would ruin that. The huddle of girls--in aggregate--*is* the character. It's not made up of characters. The huddle is an animal onto itself--a hive mind. Likewise with the boys.

Think of the paragraph as a bit of setting. It's not just the setting of a particular scene, but a part of the milieu of the story. It's the world the story is part of, not the characters that populate it.

In film, you'd call this the establishing shot. It's that bit, usually at the beginning of the scene (or during a transition), where the camera is at a distance from the action. The purpose is to give the audience an overall impression of the setting, before zooming in or cutting to a closer shot of the important character. Cutting to squealing spear-carrier would take us out of the establishing shot too soon, and direct too much attention to an unimportant character.

If the next paragraph shifted into a POV and the story continued rolling, then I wouldn't touch a word, as it's damn near perfect as it stands. If it remained in this mode for too long, then I'd shorten it, just as I would for any passage of runaway description.

And I really don't see any convincing evidence for Rule the First. Telling in aggregate action does not create the impression (in my mind, at least) that these moves are synchronized in time--certainly not for an aggregation of faceless characters. (I'll conceded that aggregate action for known, named characters in the middle of a scene could create that impression, but that's not what we have here.) The squaring and slouching actions here are representative of the actions going on in that gymnasium.

I especially like, "[The boys'] shoulders squared up to the girls in a forthright manner...." Making the shoulders the subject of the sentence rather than the boys themselves keeps these actions impersonal. To me that seemed very intentional, appropriate, and important to the overall effect.

It's hard to tell without seeing more context, but I see many signals here of very controlled writing. This doesn't appear to be a clumsy paragraph the writer banged out without much thought. I would be afraid to dicker with it for fear or damaging the author's wonderful voice.

green_knight said...

Great writeup!

However, I would disagree with the first rule because aggregate action isn't just a handy way of saying what a group is doing - it works a little like passive tense: the emphasis is on what is happening, not who is doing it. Feet are shuffled. Giggles erupt.

If an action is _important_ and the person who does it is, then yes, take it out of the aggregate; but if it's just an illustration of teenage behaviour, leave it in.

I'd also disagree with we don't know if Kendra is the squealer or the protestor because I think we do: she's not. To me, aggregate action still implies an observer - and if everything else is from Kendra's POV, this is, too.

How would she report this in speech? 'We girls kind of huddled along one side.' So some of the action would probably be 'Kelly's gang giggled like mad' - she'd have a better idea of who is doing what, but squeals aren't easy to identify.

One other thing I notice now about your passage is that you have a fine sense of dramatic tension: girls do one thing, boys respond. Girls step up the action, boys get bolder. Any moment now...

I think that's important because it builds the narrative - and you go from a fairly abstract thing (milling about) to something almost concrete (pairing up): any reader expects the next move to be 'Juan smiled at Kendra and motioned towards the marked-out line' - and we're off. Whether she wants to dance with him or not.