Monday, October 26, 2009

Try a Non-Linear Approach

Often I come across stories with all the right elements––good writing that includes varied sentence structure; well-developed characters; even a great plot line––and yet it bores me. Often this happens because the story is told in linear progression when another approach might work better. Simplified to the extreme a linear story is one where events are told in chronological order. First this happens, then that happens, then that happens, then it ends.

While this sounds like the obvious way to relate any story, not only can it feel tedious, but it is the main reason so many stories by new writers consume far too many words and first drafts of novels exceed a thousand pages. Told as an absolute linear progression the writer must start with backstory, which in itself adds extra verbiage and pages, but even the forward progression will require scenes and dialogue that could more naturally be summarized with a different approach.

Some non-linear approaches
The wonderful thing about writing fiction is you can play with time. There are any number of approaches, some standard and some a little more unorthodox, outside the linear. One way, and probably a little too challenging for a beginner, is telling the story backwards, starting at the end and peeling back the layers. Then there's the circle where the writer starts with an event, tells the background, then ends where the story started. This is often done is movies as well. The two most popular approaches are beginning "in medias res" and what I like to call zig-zagging. In fact, these two are often combined in the same story or novel.

In medias res
If you've done any reading about craft you already know about "in medias res" which literally means "in the middle of things." Just as it sounds, it means the story begins after some yet untold back story and  when most of the story is yet to come.  But while moving forward in the story is easy, how does a writer fit in the backstory without resorting to the dreaded flashback?

One mistake new writers make is assuming that backstory needs to be explicitly revealed in all its details. In some cases the backstory can be implied using just a few significant words or sentences. It also doesn't need to be revealed all at once but can be interwoven into the story.

One of my favorite classic writers is Edith Wharton. Recently I re-read The Age of Innocence. In this novel set during the Gilded Age protagonist Newland Archer begins to question the conventions of New York society when he meets––and eventually falls in love with––his fiancee's very unconventional cousin, The Countess Olenska.  Of utmost significance to the plot is understanding just how blindly Archer accepted those conventions before he met the countess. A less skilled writer might have begun with a chapter or two showing Archer going about his business. Instead, and much more effectively, Wharton starts the story at the opera the night Archer meets Olenska for the first time since childhood, and sums up both the rules of New York society and Archer's obeisance in just a few lines.

"There was no reason why the young man should not have come early... But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was 'not the thing' to arrive early at the opera.; and what was or was not 'the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago. (p. 4)*
The zig-zag
There probably is a more literary term for this, but this is the term I use for moving forward and backward in time within the same story. This sounds awkward but done correctly it can be a seamless, usually unnoticeable way to summarize information. Again, since I'm immersed in The Age of Innocence I'll use that as an example once again.

Part II Chapter 2 begins with Archer and his new wife May eating breakfast while on their honeymoon in Europe. They have received a dinner invitation from an English friend of Archer's mother. Immediately, Wharton falls into an explanation of who the woman is and how Mrs. Archer first made her acquaintance, adding in some satirical explanations of the rules followed by New Yorkers when traveling abroad. She then returns to the present with May agonizing over what she will wear to the dinner. That scene ends with the newlyweds going out for some sightseeing, and is followed by an abrupt switch that takes us to the end of their trip and moves backwards in time to the actual dinner party.

Explaining it this way may have you wondering how in the world Wharton pulled it off or why. I'm not good enough to explain the how. Unless you've read the novel, you'll have to take my word that it works. The why is easier to explain. It allowed her to summarize scenes and dialogue she'd have had to show in detail had she moved in a linear progression. The kinds of things May said at the dinner party were significant in defining her character, but her actual words weren't crucial to the plot. A conversation Archer has after the women have left the dining room is crucial to the plot and therefore is covered in detail. Similarly, the way May behaved on the remainder of their trip was significant, but again, we didn't need to follow the couple through every museum and up every mountain. At the same time, had Wharton moved the story forward chronologically at that point, instead of backward, a wrap-up that amounted to "since May preferred physical over intellectual exercise, they spent the rest of the trip boating and hiking" wouldn't exactly flow.

Using non-linear approaches
For some writers non-linear approaches come naturally. Others, especially new writers, may find it easier to start the story with a straight beginning, middle, and end. After you've allowed the story or novel to rest, see if it begins in the right place. With short stories––both my on and those I edit––I find the real beginning is often somewhere around the third or fourth paragraph. Similarly with novels, if you are using the first chapter to tell backstory, consider how you could show that information in a better way. If your work is too wordy or dialogue goes on for pages in some places, consider approaching some scenes from a different point in time that will allow you to summarize more. You'll be surprised how this can save your work from being overly long and tedious.

*The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics-Paperback) 2006


Angie Ledbetter said...

Thanks for the R&T kudos.

Great post. Going to link to it tomorrow at my blog.

Yvette Ward-Horner said...

Thanks for the interesting read. You gave me to something to think about.


Related Posts with Thumbnails