Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

Putting a Story Through Its Paces

athletes running on track and field oval in grayscale photography
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For nearly a year I’ve been working in earnest on my own novel, and much of that time has been spent in just getting the outline to the point that I want it at. And if I’m allowed a moment of pride, I’m genuinely very proud of how things are looking in that regard.

But obviously a great outline is not enough. And so I have moved on to writing the actual first draft, and I’m constantly afraid of not measuring up to the quality of the outline. I keep worrying to myself that no one will be able to see that the original idea was any good, because they’ll be too hung up on awkward bits of dialogue and uninspired scenery descriptions.

I have walked out of my fair share of movie theaters where I thought to yourself “well that was probably a great idea on paper, but in execution…” This is exactly the fear I have for my own work.

Of all the elements that I find most difficult to translate from outline to draft, it has to be the pacing. When my story was just an outline, every bullet point took the same amount of time to read. But when actually fleshed out, some of those list items are going to remain lean, while others carry on for a few thousand words or more. The result is that the rhythm I felt while reading the outline is not the same as in the actual draft.

Another problem with pacing is that writing something can feel much more epic than when reading it. More than once I have spent ten minutes hammering out a paragraph of intense emotional depth. By the time I get through typing every tear-jerking adjective I’m practically dabbing at my eyes, and wondering how I became such a master at expressing the deepest feelings of the heart.

Then I read through the completed paragraph, and the experience lasts all of twenty seconds, landing with all the emotional profundity of a soggy pancake. I read much more quickly than I can write, and so it is difficult to gauge the experience of one from the other. Or in other words, it is very easy to write a story so that it is written at a perfect pace, but far more difficult to write one that it is read at a perfect pace.

When I run into these issues of pacing, I like to consider how well I am adhering to the basic principles of the art.

 

Lulls and Rises)

Most stories do not want to begin at the same pace that they finish with. If there is no change in a story, then it will become monotone. A story that is all sad, or all sweet, will soon lose its sense of sadness or sweetness by over-saturation.

Therefore, most of our favorite tales feature a quiet beginning, and then build towards a rousing climax. This means that the story must grow increasingly more energetic as it moves along.

But again, if all we do is escalate, then even the escalation begins to feel flat. It either ceases to be impactful, or else it is exhausting. A common counter to this, then, is to overall escalate the story, but to have calming interludes along the way.

Think of Frodo Baggins taking the ring to Mount Doom. He is always growing closer towards the heart of darkness, and the chaos around him is constantly becoming more intense. But even so, he still finds time for respite in the abode of Tom Bombadil, and in Rivendell, and at Lothlorien. Notably, each of these resting points immediately follows a moment of intense action: nearly being crushed by Old Man Willow, Glorfindel chased across the fields by the Nazgul, and the party losing their leader in Moria.

As the series continues, these respites become fewer and fewer, and the action between becomes more and more prolonged. Thus we feel the increasing heights that we are climbing, and it makes for a dramatic climax at the end.

 

Bouncing Between Dramas)

So should we just shoehorn quiet moments into our story? Obviously not. A quiet moment should never exist only for the sake of only being a quiet moment. The perfect lull in a story not only occurs right where it should for perfect pacing, but also right where it should to develop a needed plot thread. It takes skill to hone a story that way, but that’s why we remain in awe of the authors who pull it off so well.

An important thing to consider is that even if a scene is quiet in nature, it still might be an escalation of a sort. One might feature visceral, physical action, and the next might feature a character coming to a profound epiphany. The scene of character development might not spike the reader’s adrenaline, but it will still satisfy their desire for progress and climax.

Therefore a skilled author knows that they can swap between progressing action, character, emotion, and plot. Each will feel fresh in its turn, each will overlap with one another’s escalation, and so the story will continue to be rousing as a whole.

Consider, for example, the film Master and Commander. In this film, a British naval vessel has been tasked with taking down a superior French Man-of-War. The film certainly has its fair share of action, where each encounter with their quarry introduces the crew to greater and greater danger.

But in between those battles, there is also an arc of the sailors coming to mistrust one of their own, and labeling him as a curse to their cause.  There is the arc of a youth that lost his arm in battle, and now must relearn how to be a man. There is the friendship between the Captain and the Doctor, which becomes strained as the Captain pushes his crew harder and harder, just as he pushes the ship to its physical limits.

That is not all. The story even interweaves secondary plots, such as the ship’s Naturalist constantly being frustrated in his attempts to examine a rare species of cormorant. Though this aside is more light-hearted, it still has its own sense of escalation and payoff.

 

On Thursday I pointed out that I have been shifting between various escalating arcs in The Soldier’s Last Sleep, such as the ones dealing with life in the trenches, the soldiers’ physical deterioration, and the chaos of military administration. Each of these comes in turn, and thus provide a natural rise and fall to the story’s cadence, while also heightening the overall tension in their own way.

On the surface it may seem like the story only escalates with each new wave of the enemy attacks, but each of those attacks feels all the more dire because of the quiet discontent that is mounting between them. Thus as the story has progressed, the chasm between its chaotic and calm moments has become smaller and smaller, the reprieves have seemed less and less restful, until now the plot is ready to conclude in a single climax.

Come back on Thursday to hear the end of that long, loud note, after which we will examine the fallout that comes after a story reaches its peak.