Monday, March 31, 2008

Stop starting

A recent post on Litopia covered a specific problem in creating a join from a developing situation/observation to a memory. This is something Solvejg has touched upon over on the MaggotFarm, with regard to considering what he can use to spark a memory link (not that I can find the post right now).

Having fleshed out a join the user decided to come up with a different approach, citing that someone had pointed out she does too much stop starting - moving from dialogue to backstory and then back to the dialogue. Her excerpt on its own linked a smile from one character to that of the narrator's husband. Working it out a little made the excerpt very effective - it's something I've not tried myself yet, but, reading Cornelia Funke's Inkheart has shown this up too (funny coincidence since I've been waiting for Inkheart's arrival for three months and it should pop up now when someone asks the very same question I found myself asking as I read the first chapter).

While I think this is a great way (as with all things - in bitesize chunks) to move the action, info drop, develop and relate to character, I was thinking to myself that perhaps Funke was relying upon it a little too much (taking me away from the action - though I can see how much worse my own writing must read now).

So, first off, here's the link to the excerpt. It's in a printable format, but just open it in a new tab or window.

Let's breeze over the opening paragraph though it's a masterclass in itself, evoking atmosphere, telling us the protagonist will be alive in many years to come, setting it off almost fairytale like with this "look back on things" view:
Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain. Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane. A dog barked somewhere in the darkness, and however often she tossed and turned Meggie couldn't get to sleep.
The shift in time almost doesn't work for me - it is slightly distracting and pulls us immediately out of the time of the book - but it is effective.

Anyhoo, throughout the text we are developing the story and our understanding and attachment to the two main characters, Meggie and her father, Mo. However, here is a perfect example of just what the Litopians were discussing:
Meggie frowned. "Please, Mo! Come and look."

He didn't believe her, but he went anyway. Meggie tugged him along the corridor so impatiently that he stubbed his toe on a pile of books, which was hardly surprising. Stacks of books were piled high all over the house— not just arranged in neat rows on bookshelves, the way other people kept them, oh no! The books in Mo and Meggie's house were stacked under tables, on chairs, in the corners of the rooms. There were books in the kitchen and books in the lavatory. Books on the TV set and in the closet, small piles of books, tall piles of books, books thick and thin, books old and new. They welcomed Meggie down to breakfast with invitingly opened pages; they kept boredom at bay when the weather was bad. And sometimes you fell over them.

"He's just standing there!" whispered Meggie, leading Mo into her room.
Right in the middle of intrigue - WALLOP - we get a chunk of information shoved down our throats. I don't deny that both characters love reading and that we need to appreciate this earlier than later as it is pretty much our description of their home, but what an info dump, especially when all we're interested in is who is standing outside and what they want. Just read that paragraph again - it takes us way out of the current situation - intriguing that Funke gets away with it, isn't it?

The key is not to do it too much - like the use of adjectives. So, let's look at a slightly different use of this tool (from a few paragraphs earlier):
Suddenly, he turned his head, and Meggie felt as if he were looking straight into her eyes. She shot off the bed so fast the open book fell to the floor, and she ran barefoot out into the dark corridor. This was the end of May, but it was chilly in the old house.

There was still a light on in Mo's room. He often stayed up reading late into the night. Meggie had inherited her love of books from her father. When she took refuge from a bad dream with him, nothing could lull her to sleep better than Mo's calm breathing beside her and the sound of the pages turning. Nothing chased nightmares away faster than the rustle of printed paper. But the figure outside the house was no dream.
Here we have a brilliant segue from Meggie's room to Mo's, giving us not just knowledge of his keenness for reading, but that he allows Meggie into his bed when she suffers from nightmares and that she is calmed by him.

And just as importantly, Funke has linked the paragraph back to the preceding - realigning and reminding us of the potential danger.

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