October 29


Recaps: Storytelling Techniques, part 4

This is amazing. (From Mrs. Foster's Literature Class.)
This is amazing. (From Mrs. Foster's Literature Class.)
Many stories, we are told, follow the format of Freytag's triangle.

The story opens with a brief passage of exposition, explaining the background, the setting, and the characters. Then something happens, disrupting the protagonist's situation, and tensions rise until a climax, the story's big event. At that point, tension falls and the story heads towards its final lines.

For now, let's ignore the question of how well Freytag's triangle mirrors the structure of actual fiction. For the purposes of this post, let's just accept the basic idea: a story typically involves a process of escalation, the ride “up” the triangle. Things are getting more tense, more significant, more substantial as the story's action develops.

My argument is that it's meaningless to discuss a plot idea like “rising action” without also discussing narration. If the story is escalating, but the reader doesn't know it, we surely have a problem. In order for “rising action” to mean something, there has to be some way to convey to the reader what is going on, that things are getting more intense, more serious.

This is the third post of the week, and just as before, I'm talking about the importance of “telling” in fiction. On Tuesday, in “The Aristotle Problem,” I argued that a focus on plot alone is limiting, and on Wednesday, in “Keeping The Lights On,” I tried to complicate the old dictum of “Show, Don't Tell.”

I also speculated that most aspiring writers' stories have a serious “telling” deficiency. There simply isn't enough communication, and so the reader loses the ability to be fully immersed.

Here, I’d like to offer one technique for good “telling” that is easy to adopt yet very effective.

I call it a “recap,” but there is surely a better term (suggest one in the comments?). A recap is a passage of pure narration, describing what a character is thinking or feeling. It generally appears after a dramatic scene, or after a dramatic moment of action. It describes your protagonist's thoughts and mood in the immediate aftermath of their most recent encounter. If you have multiple main characters, they can each have their own recaps, in turns, as they take a turn in the narrative.

The idea is simple. After a scene in which the character experiences something substantial, in which dramatic events happen, the narrator pauses the action and tells the reader, in a paragraph or more of exposition, what this scene means to that character. How is the character feeling? What did the events mean to her? How is her state of being different to when the scene began? What does she plan to do now?

You might think of a “recap” as the moment in a film where, after a shocking revelation or major upset, the camera zooms into the protagonist's face, showing the actor's reaction. Here's a particularly dramatic example from the film, Ratatouille.

From FX Rant: The Dolly Zoom
From FX Rant: The Dolly Zoom

One might ask — why are such moments necessary?

After all, if a film like Ratatouille is simply about a plot, about action and dramatic scenes, why did the animators take the trouble to design such a “recap” moment? Wasn't the action that had just preceded that recap enough? Perhaps we might even worry that the need for such a moment reveals something lacking about the action that we just saw.

I don't agree. The soul of a story is how the plot affects the characters and their world. Both the action and the recap were necessary. The events on themselves may be great, but their meaning comes from how they change and affect the story's major characters. If we viewers / readers lack clear information about how each turning point or dramatic scene is affecting our characters, we may feel confused, pulled out of the fictional dream.

At this stage, you might be thinking: “A close-up zoom is maybe necessary in Ratatouille, because it's a story meant for small-brained kids. Those cultural neanderthals need to have a story's plot spoon-fed to them. We novelists are above such requirements. Our empathic and worldly readers love the puzzle of figuring stuff out!”

I understand the urge to think so, but, in the politest possible tone, I am going to tell you that you are wrong. Clearly, each novel has its own requirements, but if I were forced to offer a general rule, I would say that recaps are actually more important in serious, literary fiction. Why? Because in literary fiction, the action is often relatively slight. To put it bluntly: not much is happening. In James Joyce's universally admired story “The Dead,” the main character has a few muted arguments at a party, gives a successful speech, and then, late at night, hears something unexpected from his wife. That's it. That's all there is of an outward plot — yet this is the most famous short story ever written.

The more “character-based” your story, the more adding in “recaps” will help.

We already saw one recap in an earliest post this week. Here it is again, in Richard Wright's Native Son. This passage comes late in the first scene of the novel. Bigger has been arguing with his mother and his siblings.

Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.

Suddenly, we understand what the scene means. We also know how we are supposed to read all future scenes when Bigger acts “tough.”

Here is the Grandmother, the Asian-American narrator of Gish Jen’s short story “Who’s Irish?” At this moment in the story, the Grandmother has been caught giving Sophie, her grandchild, a beating, to discipline her. Her daughter, shocked, has ordered her not to do it again. But in a quick “recap,” the Grandmother tells us that she is not persuaded. Her granddaughter is a wilful little monster. Deep down, she knows the child only understands force.

Use your words, my daughter say. That's what we tell Sophie. How about if you set a good example?

As if good example mean anything to Sophie

I am so fierce, the gang members who used to come to the restaurant all afraid of me, but Sophie is not afraid.

Here is the narrator of James Joyce's “The Dead,” pausing to describe how and why a casual misunderstanding at a party, an argument with a “girl in the pantry,” has affected the protagonist.

He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. Then he took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure

A recap doesn’t have to be delivered by the narrator. Perhaps after each major scene, the protagonist sits down and writes in her diary; perhaps after every confrontation, a wise friend text messages over a commentary about how the protagonist just screwed up.

Perhaps this seems very basic. But I think that recaps are vital not just to tell the reader what a character is thinking, but to convey that the stakes in a story are rising. If a story is supposed to escalate, then it has to escalate relative to someone’s values. A dramatic scene, on its own, may struggle to convey this. Say you write a scene in which the protagonist, already angry about a disagreement at work, walks out of his house, gets into an argument with a stranger, and ends up knocking the guy out cold with a tire iron. For one character, and one kind of fictional setting, this could be a life-changing burst of temper, a traumatic event that can never be recovered from. But for James Bond, it would just be a normal Tuesday. A recap tells us what has changed. How the character has been affected tells us how to understand the dramatic moment we just saw.

There’s a lot more to say about this. For now, if you’d like to try out the technique, think of a story you’re working on, and a scene in which something major has occurred. Take a paragraph to write a recap, describing what your character now thinks and feels. How has the scene changed his view?

Or, if you’d like to try a prompt from me, try this. Let’s imagine a story about two families on a roadtrip. Our protagonist is Mr. Bobby Drummond, a middle-aged pharmacist, driving his wife and kids through a wintry landscape. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor are in the car behind, with their one child. Bobby Drummond is feeling on edge because in a casual dinner party a week before, out of nowhere, he found himself kissing Mrs. Taylor in the kitchen. They had never flirted before, at least so he thought.. He had never thought he would do something like that. He had come to the kitchen in search of a corkscrew. No one found out — they broke it off quickly (well, fairly quickly) but ever since, he has been terrified the secret will out. Mr. Drummond is desperate to avoid a crisis in his marriage.

That's the exposition, setting out the characters and situation. In the story's first real scene, the two families stop at the next hotel on the road trip. While everyone is unpacking and the kids are complaining, Mrs. Taylor approaches him, and tells him she has decided to tell her husband what happened. She seems happy, excited. Her husband, she says, hasn't paid her any attention in months. Now he will, damn him! Our protagonist begs her not to, tells her they should just pretend the kiss never happened. He even flails at offering her a threat, warning Mrs. Taylor that he will pin the blame on her if his wife finds out. But she does not change her mind, and walks briskly away.

Now write the recap that follows, where the protagonist, in his own mind, tries to assess what has happened and what is about to happen — where the reader gets to see exactly how Mr. Drummond is now feeling.

Alternatively, for more of a challenge, instead write a re-cap focusing on Mrs. Taylor (Angie, to her friends). Your goal is to make the reader feel sympathy for her, and to take her side. After all, she has so far seemed a fairly dislikable character: kissing someone she isn't married to, risking a big fight while both families are sharing a hotel. But perhaps that's only because we've been stuck in Mr. Drummond's point of view, taking his side, sharing his worries. Can you, in a paragraph, write a recap that explains Angie Taylor's actions from her perspective, and gets the reader on her side?



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        • Oh, good. Sorry — sometimes tone is hard to make out in comments. I’m not always sure how something is intended! — So you thought that this back and forth of action and reflection was how those Swain books were written?

          • Ah, you haven’t read Techniques of the Selling Writer? It’s a writing manual. Google “scene sequel Swain” for some recaps of the relevant chapters of that book. I do wonder if you’ll see any parallels yourself.

            There’s also an entire book which covers it, Scene and Structure, written by his pupil Jack Bickham.

          • Cool. I haven’t read it, but will!

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