Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A ticking potato

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was at some book sale and I came across a collection of condensed novels.  I think some science fiction magazine back in the 80’s condensed three or four novels from the early 1900’s to fit in a 100 or so page digest sized magazine.  I picked it up – for maybe a dollar – because I do have an interest in classic stories, to see what has and hasn’t changed in storytelling over the last century.  Of course, things don’t often go to the front of my “To Read” pile so it was some time before I started reading it.  But I didn’t get too far.

I don’t remember the title or author of the first story, all I remember is that it was about some guy who had some invention and he needed money to build it, so he went to an estranged, rich uncle.  The uncle invited him to dinner, and the first course comes out and they talk for a bit.  The first course is clean up, the second is brought out, and they talk a bit more.  And I got so thrown out of the story that I had to stop.  What’s the issue, you ask?  Well, when I say they talked a bit, I mean it was like, the First Course arrives, “How’s your sister?” “She died last year of TB.” “I’m dreadfully sorry.” “These things happen.” First Course removed, Second Course arrives.  “How go your studies?” “Very well.” Second Course removed, Third Course arrives.

Now, I don’t know if in the original version their conversation was more in-depth, or if there were long, awkward silences where the narrator looked around at the paintings, or what.  If I can ever find that magazine again – it’s probably in a box in the attic – I’d love to look up the original novel to see what was cut out.  But by the Third Course in less than a page, I was completely out of the story.  I’m not sure what deeper meaning there could be for us having to know what each course was, so I’m not sure why those details were kept. 

I bring all that up, because I’m … I guess you could say sensitive to the flow of time in stories.  For example, something that makes me groan every time I see it is a standard thing in cop shows.  In one scene the main characters are talking at the station when they get a call for a body in a parking structure downtown.  The next scene they get out of their car at the parking structure and continue their conversation as if there wasn’t a twenty minute car ride in the middle.  I understand it’s done because they have the set for the station, and the set for the murder scene, so they want to use them as much as possible.  And it would cost too much to set up a third set in a car and CGI the traffic through the windows.  I understand that, but it still takes me out of the show. 

Fortunately, when writing a story, we’re not limited by a set budget.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues.  For example, in one of my current projects, these people are staying out in the woods for a while and are eating potatoes and fish cooked over a campfire.  My characters will be talking and putting food on to cook.  They’ll then talk for two or three pages.  So far, so good.  But then, maybe only five minutes have passed in their world so I can’t just have them eating still uncooked potatoes.  But I don’t want to just end the scene and come back with them eating or cleaning up and have them start the conversation again.  Did they just sit around the campfire for twenty minutes without saying anything of importance?

I realize that few people would bat an eye if I continued a conversation after a time jump, but it irks me.  I’m doing my best to have natural, realistic, flowing dialogue that drops in little bits of plot exposition, but I don’t want to write half-an-hour’s worth of in world dialogue while the potatoes cook.  My solution, as such, is once I’ve dropped enough plot points, I have a character – usually the dragon – tell a story.  And I do lead the conversation to a story, I don’t just have the dragon stand up in the middle of something and go, “Story time.” I don’t have to write the actual story, just have her start telling a story about X and have some of my main character’s thoughts.  So in a paragraph or two I can have a story that takes as long to tell as the potatoes need to cook.  And then the normal conversation can begin again as they eat.  So they’re not eating raw potatoes, they’re not sitting around the campfire silently, and while there is a time gap it comes without the bluntness of “End Scene.”