Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Story Structure Part Seven: Compression

Storytelling is the art of saying just enough. If we over-explain, we slow our stories down and tire out the reader. If we don't provide our readers with enough information to understand what's going on, they can't appreciate the events of the story, either. It's all about giving them just the right amount of information. That is part of compression—determining the most elegant and precise way to draw a scene.

Compression is also a function of time. The events of the story itself must move forward with meaningful purpose at all times. If there's a time gap between one event and another, determine if anything of note occurs in that gap. If not, it's the best policy to simply skip to the next notable event. It will sometimes be necessary to give a short summary of what occurred in the interim, but this can often be accomplished with one or two sentences. This is preferable to writing a chapter full of day-by-day accounts of a long process. Those “long process” chapters are the ones that will cause readers to put the book down and seek some other mode of entertainment.

Example: Six weeks into the siege, the Ganjerian forces had lost a third of their men. Time and again, they'd assaulted the walls, only to be repulsed by a volley of arrows. The men were hollow-cheeked and exhausted, their morale near the breaking point.

Yes, this is “telling”, but in a few telling sentences, you've set the scene for the action of the moment. In any story where you'll be dealing with big events that take a long time to unfold, it'll be to your advantage to “cut to the chase”. It's not necessary to show every step of the journey. All you have to do is give the reader something to hold onto. In the example, you get an idea of how the battle has fared since the last real-time installment. You're ready for the new information. The scene is set, and now you can show the struggles the characters are confronting.

Compression is vital to the success of any story. Everything is tailored, stylized, and cut down to its essential elements. In daily life, few of us have very many noteworthy events to report at the end of the day. It's reasonable to assume that our characters are not constantly engaging in wild adventures and life-and-death struggles. Sure, they get up some days, eat their oatmeal and trundle around in the same boring routines we all do. As readers, however, we're not interested in that part. We want to see them in their all-singing, all-dancing glory. We want them to be in the grip of tense and exciting times. Basically, we're sadistic. We want them to suffer and be miserable so we can have our fun. Consequently, we're going to want to read about the “important stuff”, and only have enough of the “normal stuff” to connect the bigger events together.


1)Don't describe things the reader is already familiar with. Often, a writer's instinct is to describe as much as possible when you're setting a scene. This isn't necessary. You can't describe everything. Hit a few highlights and important details, then let your readers fill in the rest. It's not necessary to quantify everything. If you don't say what color dress a character is wearing, that's fine. The readers will fill in this information as needed. It's surprising how much information a reader will supply herself. This applies to both physical details and steps in a common process. Unless the character reveals himself by the way he's performing a familiar process, there's no need to include it in your description.

2)Be careful about rehashing points too often. It's easy to keep harping on a particular point until the reader gets annoyed. When there's a major, recurring idea in a story, you'll obviously have to mention it more than once, but be careful about beating the reader over the head with it. If the characters are navel-gazing about a particular situation all the time, maybe they need more to do. As I've said before, if you have to bend over backward to explain a plot point, maybe it's a bad one and you're begging the question with the reader.

3)Don't get hung up on the mundane. It's easy to fall into the trap of following your characters in real time, but you don't need to. If the scene you're writing doesn't reveal an important truth about a character, put her in peril, or resolve a preexisting struggle, it's probably not that important, and could be skipped over.

4)Don't create plot elements that only serve to annoy the character while they're waiting for something to happen. In other words, don't have the characters engage in meaningless struggles “along the way” just because you want to justify your description of their day-to-day life. These struggles don't forward the plot, and an observant reader will recognize the scenes as “padding” right away. For rigid, linear thinkers, it's tough to let go of the “this, then that, then this” idea. The urge to tell everything can be strong sometimes. Just remember this: we're more interested in the big game than in the practice. It's sufficient to allude to the process of getting to the big, tense scene. You don't have to inundate the reader with all the boring steps along the way.

--Thus ends my discussions of Structure. Next time, I'll begin tackling the stylistic elements of good writing.

No comments: