Thursday, January 3, 2008

Real Life vs. Fiction

Every week I have lunch in a Rochester diner with two very old friends. Today at lunch we had more than soup and salad; we had drama. A man who had been loitering near the counter pocketed money left on a table to pay a lunch bill and then walked out the door. The waitress noticed this and yelled, "Hey, he stole my money!" Three men sitting at a table near the door jumped up and took off in pursuit, followed by the waitress. A plain-clothes policeman coming out of the bank building saw the running four, heard the shouting pursuers, grabbed the thief and threw him in a snowbank, of which we have lots -- it's sixteen degrees Fahrenheit outside. The cop arrested the perp, the money was returned, the pursuers went back inside, and the waitress burst into tears.

What I especially noticed about all this was how fast it happened. The whole story took about three minutes. If I were writing this in a story (as opposed to a blog), I would probably take three or four pages to write the scene, which means it would take between five and eight minutes to read aloud (depending on the amount of dialogue and whether the reader was from upcountry Georgia or downtown New York). I'm used to thinking of fiction as happening faster than real life, but here real life was much more rapid.

I'm not sure what this means -- I should use fewer words in writing scenes? Thieves should plan better escapes? Cops shouldn't be so efficient? I'm not sure of the lunch-time drama's literary implications for me, but I'm pondering them.


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I think (granted, I've only sold two stories and only one of them involved any action) that action should be described in short paragraphs.

The longer the paragraph, in my Reader's mind, the longer the clock is ticking in the Story's Internal Universe. If I want a pause or I want to slow things down, be it a history paper for grad school or a scene in a story, I use a longer paragraph.

If I want something to happen FAST, I use shorter paragraphs. I might even resort to simple sentences, maybe even (God help me) sentence fragments.

Perhaps a good example to use is to consider how soldiers talk to each other. Even when they are not in battle but are in a military situation (short of shooting the breeze) they speak in clipped, short, efficient sentences. Or at least they try very hard to.

A criticism I often have as a Reader is that action scenes do seem to take too long. Or worse, they are confusing to the point where it is difficult to figure out who is doing what to who. I see this not only in regular fiction but also in specialized military fiction (often written by veterans themselves).

So, I think the best way to handle action is shorter paragraphs, less detail, focus on the bare necessities.

1. Describe the antagonist (your thief).

2. Describe direction of travel and people in pursuit. Don't describe the pursuers in detail unless they are important (they catch him, they do something, they are important later in the story).

3. Describe plain clothes cop in detail and delinate the difference between him and the other pursuers.

The other thing would be to use dialogue. Here is a bit from a chase from my life experience as a rent a donut.

ME: "Why did you run, man?"

PERP: "Because you were chasing me, dude?"

Depends on the type of action, I suppose. And I don't know if my advice helps. I know I don't have even a stitch of the writing experience you do.

S. F. Murphy

Elver said...

For the love of God, yes, please. Shorter is better. I'm reading Fountainhead at the moment and while the story and characters are fascinating, the pacing leaves a lot to be desired. There are just too many words.

This is what I love about the screenplay format. You only get the bare essentials. We can all imagine what a generic diner looks like. (INT. DINER - DAY) The writer adds only that which makes the place and the characters unique: "A run-down diner with faded red seats"; "BILL and JACK, two guys in their 40s with flannel shirts, are sitting opposite one another. Bill is gnawing on a grilled chicken leg." This is followed by dialog and action descriptions.

Whenever I read a book, I imagine how much time and effort I would save if it was a screenplay instead.

And then there are some authors, like Tolkien, who spend several pages describing the setting, down to the very last detail. I would be much happier with a short, generic description that has some added brush strokes here and there when they're essential to the story. When description is not essential to the story and isn't used to set the proper mood, then it's a waste of paper and ink.

As for action scenes, then in films as well as novels I've always loved those that highlight the unique aspects of the action. Instead of setting the camera up in the corner and following the action or the literary equivalent: describing everything that happens, these writers and directors take an impressionistic approach, trying to make us feel the action.

The waitress spills a cup of coffee when she shouts "thief!" and the cup shatters to the ground.

Thief looks over his shoulder as he's heading for the door, a look of fear and madness in his haunting blue eyes.

He crumples the $5 in his fist and pushes the door open with the same hand.

The rush of incoming air as he pushes the door open ruffles his blond hair.

Three men burst out of the diner and stand for a second to see which way the thief was going.

A policeman writing a ticket to a motorist sees the men. One of the men shouts: "Stop the thief!"

The policeman tackling the man, throwing him in a snowbank. The man's mouth open, the agony of his arms being twisted behind his back, his scream, snow in his mouth.

Waitress holding the crumpled $5, crying.

It could be over in less than 2 pages and you'd end up with a very tight action scene that focuses on the unique aspects. Because the readers and the viewers are intelligent enough to fill in the non-unique parts themselves.

What I'm looking for in a story are two things. One is a fascinating story. The other is bits and pieces, truths, that I haven't thought about. For example, everyone could write that the man took the money and left, but what I'd like to see is proof that the writer knows every little detail of the scene and only chooses to write down the bits that convey some emotion or some unexpected side that one wouldn't think about at first.

This comment is probably too long.

Nancy Kress said...

Actually, both posts are really valid, and in line with what I tell my writing students. So why do I think I'd take longer to describe this scene? Probably because I'd also be developing secondary or even tertiary tensions among the various characters, to fuel the next scene.
-- Nancy Kress

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Nancy, if the action is the primary driver of the scene, then the choice you are making to develop other issues seems perfectly valid to me.

Depending on which POV you told the story from, the narrative would evolve differently. Told from the waitress, she isn't going to be tied up in the action component. She is going to be anxious about lost income, angry, and worried about issues related to that lost income. Told from a bystander's point of view, they may take all of the details in and depending on their personal politics (especially if the undercover officer pulls out a Taser, a precursor to Nervewash) they'll have an emotional reaction to the take down.

If you told it from the plainclothes POV, it would probably be very short paragraphs.

In pursuit on foot, suspect description. On radio calling it in if he/she feels the need or actually has a radio with them (if they are off duty, they may not). Then the training takes over and you go from there. Probably a wrist lock or some other PPT point grabbed, suspect twisted, cuffed and tossed onto the ground.

But if action is the primary focus and you want to emphasize speed of events, then short paragraphs are the way to go.

Then again, you've always got those writers (who are not wrong per se but it gets overdone) who decide that the POV action character is having one of those Time Turns to Molasses moments. That does actually happen, but it gets overplayed in my opinion.

My two cents. Sad thing is there doesn't seem to be much use for action in the American Short Markets and most of what I read never convinces me.

S. F. Murphy

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Hmm. What a fascinating bit of someone else's life to observe. I find it heartening 3 people were willing to help the waitress. I also wonder if you were truly aware of what was going on at the time it was happening. Police officers say some people make better eyewitnesses than others because they're more observant. I wonder how writers rate as witnesses?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I think it's what you're trying to express in any given scene. Let's riff: a young woman and her finacee are in a diner. She takes off her engagement ring to look at it and wonder at it. Next to her is a lowlife nursing a cup of coffee. He sees his chance, grabs the ring, and bolts for the exit...right into the arms of Officer Tim, who's there for his usual bowl of soup. Anything's possible there. A short story, a chapter in a novel, even a haiku, maybe...hmmm...

"My ring! My ring!"...tears...
The cop said, "Your ring, lady"
Sweeter burst of tears

Why overthink in fiction, unless you want to write the stuff niggled over in obscure French journals? A good yarn, conflict and action and maybe a kiss or two. That's what readers crave!