Scene and Narrative, Part 5


I nearly forgot to tell you: Nicole Petrino-Salter invited me to do a guest blog at her site, concerning the difficulty of writing my first book. I joked with her that writing it wasn’t hard, it was the fifty revisions that followed that proved difficult—but I wasn’t really kidding. Anyway, I’ve recounted the beginning of my writing experience over at Hope of Glory.

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Examples. Author and CSFF Blog Tour member Robert Treskillard suggested I give examples of scene and narrative to show the difference.

I’m tempted to give you the examples from Monica Wood’s book Description. One reason I like that book so much is because she does exactly what Robert is asking. She explains, then illustrates. And not from some published works where it would be hard to compare. She writes segments, then rewries them, and often rewrites them again.

OK, I talked myself into it. Her examples are much better than anything from my writing.

Without further fanfare, Monica Wood:

Narrative (“telling): Ms. Kendall was Middleton School’s most popular teacher. She was always bringing in maps and atlases to brighten her classroom and motivate her fourth graders. The children adored her and ran to her aid every time they had a chance. Mrs. Brimley, the other fourth-grade teacher, watched this daily homage with a mixture of resentment and awe.

Then, after some brief comment:

Scene (“showing”): Ms. Kendall paused at her classroom door and shifted her full-color maps of the NATO nations from one arm to the other Spotting her, a small group of fourth graders dropped the books they were hauling and rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

“Children! Children!” Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. “One at a time, now. You can’t all help at once.”

Mrs. Brimley, marooned at the far end of the hall amidst a splatter of upended math books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet.

Following this, Wood dissects the styles:

Most of us have been trained to think of narrative (telling) as “bad description” and scene (showing) as “good description.” Certainly a case can be made that in the above examples, the scene is better than the narrative passage, but that’s only because both passages are rendered in such extremes. The narrative passage is dull and expository—it doesn’t vividly describe the Kendall-Brimley conflict. The verbs aren’t particularly strong (was; motivate; ran; watched). and the picture being painted doesn’t engage he senses. There is no sound or movement; again, we’re watching characters on a screen. The scene, on the other hand, contains noise and movement and dialogue and marvelous verbs like “marooned” and “yipping.”

Next comes a rewrite of the narrtive that is just effective as the scene:

Narrative, second draft: Mrs. Brimley envied Ms. Kendall’s youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the thirty-five fourth graders they divided between them. The children preferred Ms. Kendall, every last one of them, and who could blame hem? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. I love her, Mrs. Brimley whispered dozens of times a day. And I hate her.

Wood doesn’t stop there. After additional comments, such as “Narrative does not have to be merely informational. This passage contains imagistic language (‘silky arms’ and laughter like a ‘salve’) and a haunting bit of sound with the whispered ‘I love her … I hate her.’ The internal monologue … brings your readers deep inside Mrs. Brimley’s experience,” Wood gives a final example:

Combination narrative and scene: Mrs. Brimley’s 4A’s, each with an armload of math books they were helping to transfer from the library to Room 3, spotted Ms. Kendall at the other end of the corridor. She was stalled at her classroom door, shifting her own bundle—full-color maps of the NATO nations—from one arm to the other. Dropping their books like so many bombs, the 4A’s rushed to her aid, yipping like puppies, each clamoring to be the one to turn the knob.

“Children! Children! Ms. Kendall trilled, her musical laughter echoing down the dingy corridor. “One at a time, now. You can’t all help at once.”

Mrs. Brimley, suddenly marooned amidst a splatter of upended books, thinned her lips and sighed over the echo of stampeding feet. She envied Ms. Kendall’s youth: her silky arms, her just-washed hair, her easy way with the children. Who could blame them for adoring her? She had the voice of an angel; her laughter was a salve. Mrs. Brimley sighed, bending to retrieve the books. I hate her, she whispered, tucking back a ripped page. And I love her.

Wood goes on to discuss how to tell well, how to show well, and when to use which.

I think I need to reread this section, maybe the entire book.

Published in: on April 18, 2008 at 10:29 am  Comments (2)  
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Scene vs. Narrative, Part 3


I mentioned yesterday that I’d made a comment in response to Dave Long’s post at Faith in Fiction about the use of narrative and exposition. Mostly I quoted from one of my favorite writing instructors. As I did a search of my archives, I did not uncover a single reference to this writer. Hard for me to imagine that I haven’t mentioned her here before.

I’m referring to Monica Wood, author of Description, (Writers Digest, 1995). By that publication date, you can see that, in all likelihood, she was operating in the writing era before the emphasis on all things short and quick. Still, I think her advice is sound. Here’s the basics of my response to Dave’s post:

It’s just that there’s a way to do exposition and narrative well and a way to do it so that the story suffers.

I’ve read some beautiful prose that really doesn’t belong in my opinion. Not in a novel. Not as it appeared anyway.

Maybe it’s just what I like, but I’ve bought into some of the principles Monica Wood teaches in her book entitled Description. For example:
“Forward movement in fiction is twofold: physical and emotional …Stories move forward most seamlessly when plot and character mesh.”

Then later: “There is no greater (nor annoying) motion-stopper than immobile chunks of physical description … Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable.”

And from the beginning of the chapter on forward motion: “Don’t ask who your character is; ask what your character does.”

And those lines in a book on description! 😮 But don’t get me wrong. Wood clearly believes narrative has a place. From the chapter entitled “Showing and Telling”:

[Referencing a previous example] all this “showing” is taking the spotlight away from someone else who is more important. Besides, too much showing can start to seem self-conscious, as if you’re brandishing your arsenal of similes and metaphors just for the heck of it. Your characters might even disappear in the process. Don’t let your prose style overwhelm the story you want to tell.

Too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it … A combination of showing and telling usually yields the best description.

Perhaps that combination, once favoring narrative, now favors scene, but I think the combination is still necessary. More from Wood:

Scenes have to be relieved by spots of narrative, though, or your story will never end … You can suggest the torpor of the long afternoon without subjecting the unfortunate readers to a torpid scene.

So maybe there really is no “versus” in fiction when it comes to narrative and scene. But I still need to click on that link Dave posted and read what J. Mark Bertrand had to say about the subject. Could be I’ll have more thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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