Sunday, March 6, 2011

Your Setting Examples - #8

This one comes to us from someone whose name I recognized instantly, but who didn't say whether anonymity was preferred. In keeping with my standard policy, then, I'm not going to disclose the name. What we have here are two pieces of setting interrupted by a long action sequence, and we'll pull the action sequence out.

The docks spread out across the wild prairie, the tall grass punctuated with octagonal landing pads like a flattened fullerene molecule.  The Iron-clad lay several pads away, the square, bulky monstrosity the only other ship in sight.

(intervening actions - Protag gets threatened by a bunch of Hunters)

He glanced back at his ship.  The cargo ramp lay a dozen steps away.  Three, four seconds max.

The leader followed Deep's gaze.  “I wouldn’t do that.  Just give us the crate and walk away.”

The wind droned through the prairie grass drenched blood-red by the morning sun.  The horizon spread out around Deep, empty save the distant and smug Iron Clad, and now more than ever he wished his father was still with him. 

But he was alone.

In the comments to the Example #7 with the weedy herringbone driveway, we briefly talked about the way we can use different narrative elements to frame other elements on the small scale or at the scene level. And now, conveniently :) , Anon is giving us an example that zeroes in on this exact technique.

First let's start by explaining what a narrative frame is. The term is usually used to describe two pieces of story, one on the first page and one on the last page, that act as a container for the rest of the story. Usually this frame occurs outside the regular story timeline, perhaps with different point of view characters narrating, perhaps with an entirely cast or setting or time period, with the result that the whole piece feels much like a story within a story. A great example of this technique can be found in the film The Princess Bride, in which the outer frame is the story of a boy and his grandfather, and the inner story is about Buttercup and the farm boy.

If we shrink this frame device down to the smaller level -- not the story as a whole, but a scene or a piece of a scene -- we end up with something much like the knocks on the door in Example #7. There's a knock. There's a pause to describe the setting. There's a second knock. Those knocks frame the description with action.

Here, we have the reverse of that pattern. Now the bits of setting description are used to frame the action. I bolded two particular words used to build the frame -- prairie and grass in the opening frame, and prairie grass in the closing frame is the first, and spread out is the second. That deliberate repetition, not just of an image but of the words themselves, proves that sometimes repetition can be a good thing. What else is repeated? The Iron-clad and the sense of vastness or openness.

Note that Anon's frames aren't exact duplicates of each other, though. The term "prairie grass" is used differently, first split into two pieces and last as a compound noun. The verb "spread out" is used first in conjunction with the prairie, and second with the horizon. This is how to build a repetition -- repeat a key element and recombine it with something new. (Though, I might advise ditching one of the two uses of "out" -- dealer's choice on that.)

There are two possible narrative effects from using a frame on this level. The first is that the framed inner story will feel contained to such a degree that it will have a "case closed" feel. This is the rarer of the two effects. The more common effect is that the framed inner piece will feel elevated in significance. If we were to read Anon's story as a whole, I suspect this confrontation would provide a lot of narrative fuel, a lot of tension that carries over into other parts of the story.

In either case, it's a good example of this particular technique.


1 comment:

Annette said...

I thought this sample was pretty. And there was an easy, languid feel to it. But I wondered about the repetition. "The" was used many times throughout (six of them in the first paragraph alone). There was also a great similarity in how the first paragraph and the second to last paragraph were structured. I probably would have preferred a bit of variation in rhythm. Was that repetition done purposely for effect? And if so, what effect?

Interesting discussion in framing here. Thank you for that.