Unspooling, and the story of now

Of late, I have the word unspooling unspooling in my head. It occurs to me as I type that perhaps this longtime obsessive habit of hearing words, bits of sentences, and lines from stories in my inner ear, is, um, not normal. Is this one of the dangers of reading that “they” warn about? Is this what happens after years of mainlining coffee and diet cola? Should I be worried about my fondness for the smell of pennies? Par example, the other day, as I frowned at the back of a woman who raced to cut me off in a return line at a dread suburban WorstPurchase, a line from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” popped in: “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptive crybaby in front of him.” Then parts of that looped in my head for awhile — conceived his own towering hatred, presumptive crybaby— even though I didn’t by any means hate this woman (although maybe I wished that she had tripped over a display of coaxial cables, but then I noticed her cheap jeans and the acne scars on her chin, and I thought, What if she’s in a hurry because she’s got a sick kid at home?, and I got so depressed at my pettiness that I promptly purchased an overpriced HDMI cable).

Anyhoo! Unspool. I’ve actually been thinking of it in terms of storytelling, its connection to film: as a reel unspools, the images are projected to the screen, et voila: a story comes to life. On the page, I suppose, this would be unfold. (For digital formats, no spooling, so: uploads? plays? or just projects?) The words seem to suggest an unhurried pace, and for a reader or viewer, that is how it works, even in a fast-paced, action-filled story: the story arrives frame by frame, scene by scene, page by page. We absorb the story in small pieces, splice it together in our minds. In a film, of course, the movie time controls the viewer’s experience; in a book, the reader is in charge of the time-frame.

From the writer’s perspective, creating that sense of pacing, time and movement is work, a essential part of the art of storytelling. To recount literal chronological time, including biographies and histories, settings, actions, changes, decisions — all of the facts and details involved in the story’s past and present — would not only take lots of page space (time), it also likely would be overwhelming, exhausting, and, ultimately, snooze-inducing. In fact, a writer has very little time, both in the sense of space (page/film length) and in keeping readers/viewers’ attention, to convey a story.

Instead, great movement in a story depends on selection and a balance of expansion and compression (scenes and summary). The trick — ah, the tricky trick — is knowing what to select and what to expand and compress to create what I like to the think of as the story of now.

To reach that point of decision, the writer’s first work is — ta da! — to discover as much about the characters and worlds and events as possible. But not all of that information, or even much of it, makes it to the page. That’s Hemingway’s famed “iceberg theory” from his interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Here’s a great example of selection and balance, from the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men (adapted from the P.D. James novel):

That opening scene is doing tremendous work: With those newscasters’ voices against the black screen, viewers immediately hush and listen. When the image arises, showing us a crowd of viewers, all riveted and anguished, we are thrust into tension/crisis, as we learn along with those in the story that the youngest person on planet has died. Simultaneously (simultaneity: one of the writer’s greatest tools), we learn the basic facts about the time, place, and strangeness of the world. Then in walks Clive Owen’s character, pushing through crowd (who the heck is this, and why is he unphased?) We follow him out the door as we listen, puzzling: where are we? Outside, it’s London – recognizable but in the future (we are given, perhaps unnecessarily, a non-diegetic date to affirm what we already know). We see and hear the noise of streets, the grittiness: We follow Owen’s character, who takes out a flask to doctor his coffee, an immensely characterizing action. And then: boom. Conflict/tension, action, characterization, setting, exposition, immediacy, suspense, tone/atmosphere: and all in 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Imagine if this film had started with everything that had happened to get us to a time when there were no young people on the planet: a narrative “info dump” (aka lots of exposition), the actual “beginning” that led us to the present. That is a choice, but probably a sluggish one, even though the writer certainly knows every in and out of how we got here. Instead, we are dropped into a day of crisis spawned by those other many events. We start with the story of now.

A major question, always, for the writer is where to begin. Another question, which I believe I originally encountered from Margot Livesey, can be useful in solving that conundrum: What is the occasion for the story? Or, Why now? Why today? In this story’s case, the occasion is that the youngest person on the planet has died. BUT: that isn’t what the story is about. Not exactly. We don’t know yet what will come, but since we are plunged into an immediate world of tension and suspense, we are willing to find out.

(A side note: the book from which the film is adapted is told as a diary. The first entry starts with the same event, along with many other details about the diary writer/narrator: http://www.amazon.com/The-Children-Men-P-D-James/dp/0307275434#reader_0307275434. That form — a written form — would be nearly impossible to translate to the screen, but choices for adaptation are another post, I suppose. Still, James knew where to start her story. Not a diary from childhood, but one whose genesis is tied to the occasion. After that, though, the story on the page unfolds with a lot of exposition. Technically, James’ premise of the diary allows for this sort of reflection, but as a reader I’m always leery/overwhelmed/worn out when I’m asked to take in so much exposition at once. Others may have different responses.)

Okay, I believe I have unspooled my rambly thoughts enough for one day. I’ll stop before I latch onto another phrase looping in my brain: Now is the winter of our discontent. (But, seriously, Winter: Can you give it a rest now?)

 

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