Distilling and Condensing: or Storytelling By Implication
The famous Deidre Knight, after a very encouraging request for a full manuscript a couple of years ago, told me that I am “too detailed a writer.” Other agents have said that they think I should quicken the pace of my stories, and when asked how they’d recommend I do that, they have said I should cut half of every sentence, half of every paragraph, half of every scene. They want me to get to the action. “Meet ya, greet ya, baby, where the action is!”*
*[A fur-lined soap dish to those of you fellow fossils who can identify the song this snippet comes from.]
I know that kind of “fixing” would be a voice-destroying catastrophe with books like mine, as my books are not ABOUT the action in the scenes but about the characters’ reactions and the character arcs that take place as relationships and situations change. There is simply not that much action of consequence in my books that doesn’t rely on the characters’ reactions and what they do in response, so you’d be deleting the meat of the story. My prose is *about* my voice and about the POV character’s inner voice and about the whimsical little touches and about the charming character quirks and about those clever turns of phrase that would be squeezed out.
However, perhaps there is something less drastic that I *could* learn to do better.
I was listening to somebody on talk radio who mentioned “distilling” scenes and conversations. I never could find out who was being interviewed on what show, because it was someone else’s radio and I was in a waiting room. However, the gist of the concept was . . . well, let’s go to Mr. Example.
What do we need to happen in the scene? Teenaged Julie confronts her junior high brother Joe to get after him about getting into a fight in school and getting suspended for three days, jeopardizing his spot on the team and by extension his chances for a football scholarship. Joe collared a guy who played a prank and set Joe up to look bad in front of the math teacher/coach the first day of school, and got a black eye while giving the other guy a bloody nose and a couple of loose back teeth. Their parents don’t know yet, but are about to find out tonight when phone calls come to the house.
The original way the scene was written (approximated):
JULIE: Joe! Why did you beat that kid up? He was twice your size. God! You could have really been hurt. Now you’re gonna have trouble all year with the principal. It was really ridiculous. I can’t imagine why you couldn’t just shrug that off. You know better.
JOE: Aw, get off my case. I had to put a stop to him. He made me get off on the wrong foot with the coach–he still thinks I was the one t’ set up that stupid prank, and it really embarrassed him in front of the guys. Damn, I can’t believe that happened. A man’s got to protect his honor. I should’ve put that jackass in the hospital.
After distillation into a condensed version that tells and shows by implication:
JULIE: Joe–what are you doing? I heard about the problem you got into at school. Not cool.
JOE: Back off. I didn’t start it. He got me off on the wrong foot and put both Coach and me as the butt of a stupid prank. I couldn’t let him get away with it; that jackass ruined my entire year.
MOTHER: (calling up staircase) JOE!! JULIE, WHERE ARE YOU TWO? JOE!!! I need you down here NOW!
*Anyway*, perhaps you see what the guy was saying. He was telling us that we don’t have to put everything into words. That we should tell by implication, and that our readers want to figure out what’s happening from the clues we give, and that it makes them feel smart to do this. Sometimes I may overtell, and when I do, I don’t usually notice it.
Most of the time, when you see an overtold passage that is overexplained, it is because some critique partner or beta reader said, “I don’t get it,” “I don’t understand this part,” or “Who is Jack? Tell us what happened that made him mad, or we can’t understand the intensity of emotion.” OR some such thing that asked the author to put too much in. The story questions being raised aren’t SUPPOSED to be answered right away, but many inexperienced beta readers will start wanting you to answer them right away with an infodump or a flashback and perhaps a dumptruck load of backstory. We’ve got to nip that inna bud, as Barney Fife always said.
On the other hand, sometimes I find this kind of stripped-down stuff very enigmatic and thus irritating. I want to know enough so that I can make sense of the scene and not hate the characters for going all ballistic over nothing. Don’t tell me TOO MUCH, but just ENOUGH.
That’s the interesting borderline that we have to tiptoe along.
# # #
“I’m not Lula Mae any more.”–Holly Golightly, to ex-husband (in the film version of _Breakfast at Tiffany’s_)
“You know, the hell of it is, I still AM Lula Mae, on the inside.”–Holly Golightly, to Paul, a moment later (in the film)
# # #
Favorite stories told in film, in order:
* It’s a Wonderful Life
* To Kill a Mockingbird
* Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a smaller and sad/bittersweet story that is made happier in the film–anyone who believes that the situation shown in the ending will stay that way for any length of time has not been paying attention)
* Casablanca (yes, the larger story and more Eternal Human Condition-examining than BaT, but I put BaT before it because of the non-admirable but loved characters and the smaller story that’s more interior)
* A Christmas Story (I think this one is special to ME because my mother and dad lived through this kind of childhood in this very era and continually told me about its magical nature and enduring wonderfulness)
* Real Genius (how many films are about smart people but don’t do a bunch of unbelievable stuff or make them into silly things as the _Revenge of the Nerds_ sequence ends up doing?)
* The Bishop’s Wife (yes, I know, not for everyone)
* Miracle on 34th Street (the ORIGINAL, with the cynical little girl and the Post Office’s miracle)
* The Parent Trap (ONLY the ORIGINAL, as nowadays you would NEVER see such a custody arrangement–dads can keep moms from moving more than a certain number of miles away, at least here in Texas, even if it’s for a job, when they have shared custody, and they typically DO–and therefore the newer film was not believable to begin with . . . whereas back in 1967 there wasn’t any such respect for the rights of siblings to see one another and know one another, and it was a completely plausible situation. Also, I adore Hayley Mills and can’t stand that Lindsay Lohan.)
* The Competition (I know . . . you’ve never heard of it, or you hate it. But it was ABOUT how his love gave her the passion to put into the concerto that caused her to win and upset his applecart. It wasn’t so much about the piano competition at all.)
* Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (a minor Doris Day vehicle, but I love it. Don’t ask me why I think it is so great. Perhaps it’s because I saw it as a kid and can enjoy it now, as well.)
* Father Goose (you should see this if you love Cary Grant.)
The’ve never made successful films of either _The Great Gatsby_ or _Cat’s Cradle_ because I suspect they couldn’t; much of these books’ power lies in the quality of the prose (and in the sardonic voice in the second case), and that is not the language of film. But they’re on my list, as is _A Tale of Two Cities_ (still one of the biggest best-sellers of ALL TIME).
Now, if I could write a book of THAT caliber or a film that was anything like the ones I’ve named . . . we’d all be running down the street naked screaming in celebration.
Wouldn’t THAT show ’em back down on Grandpa’s farm!!
* [Whoops! Almost forgot. That’s the end of the theme song to an old after-school music show, “Where the Action Is.” Never been released on video because it’s a Dick Clark property, I think. It was like “Hullabaloo” and “American Bandstand,” where groups played and kids danced. Watch the film “Hairspray” and you’ll get some idea of how these shows worked back in the day. I was actually a preschooler who was influenced by these because my baby-sitters were teenagers and they’d come after school to help Mama with me and they’d click the TV on and dance with me to these songs. Why, yes, I am olde . . . why do you ask?]
*Hmmm* Either I’m coming across as absolutely not liking the idea of distillation that I’m presenting in this post, or people just THINK that I’m totally against it–in which case, why would I be posting it? ‘Cause I’m putting it forth as something to try to figure out how to apply without going to extremes, not putting it forth to knock down the idea, but everybody’s writing in to tell me that I ought to think about doing it. Hey, y’all, I think we should look at using the technique, but without going overboard. Didn’t mean to slam the technique. Just saying that you should use it with caution, and saying that I am going to explore it further.