Slicing a Story

(Reposted from the previous version of this blog. Thought this was useful enough to keep around.)

Take a scene change in a novel. The transition between, usually, one chapter and the next. There is a gap in between, wherein the writer shifts time (usually going forward) and place, and possibly characters. Usually, this gap contains the irrelevant bits, the bits that are excised to make a story readable. Sometimes, this gap may contain relevant information, but mostly the writer brings you up to speed as soon as possible.

This is slicing the story. There are pieces created and kept next to each other, and the writer tries to make you not notice when you skip across these gaps.

These gaps are essential. Not all information is necessary or relevant, and it would be tedious if you followed characters through, say, a long, silent car ride for no reason.

This is an expansion of the most basic level of gap, the one created by, for example:

She got up from the sofa, reached the door, and let the dog in.

We’re skipping the fact that she walked from the sofa to the door, and that she opened the door. The reader fills in these gaps without needing to be told, because they’ve been trained through the act of reading.

This happens all the time in comics. The space between each panel and the next is a gap which is filled in by the reader. Scott McCloud calls this closure. It ranges from the basic (a. the doorbell rings while I’m on the sofa, b. I have opened the door) to the quite complex in the hands of an ambitious writer (see something like Watchmen or much of what Grant Morrison does).

In a comic, additionally, scene changes tend to look exactly the same as panel changes – they are both a gap between two panels – and the reader has to make the deduction that the action has moved, an example of how comics (as we might talk about at some point) can entice the reader into making the effort to close very large gaps by making them look like small ones.

Coming back to prose, in the basic storytelling model (where style is supposed to be invisible), the writer tries to require a minimal amount of closure from the reader. All relevant information is contained on the page.

If the writing maxim ‘come in late, leave early’ is being followed, the gap is larger, and the writer has to work hard to make the reader commit a greater act of closure without noticing that’s what they’re doing.

Or, a writer could lean into it. Slice the story in a way that the reader notices it’s being sliced. This creates the basis for non-linear storytelling.

A simple version of this can be seen in many of Stephen King’s books (for example, The Stand). The writer skips between different characters without skipping around in time too much, and when they come back to a particular strand, time has passed, stuff has happened, which is explained as the story moves along.

A slightly more evolved version of this can be seen in George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series, where each character’s story progresses in a linear manner in itself, but skipping between strands involves jumping into the past and future. To make this clear: Chapter 7 involving Character A might be taking place months after Chapter 8 involving Character B. The amount of information being exchanged between two strands, however, is minimal, as guaranteed by the lack of communications technology on Westeros.

But lean even further into it, and you reach what is generally called non-linear storytelling. Stay with the character, but skip back and forth in time. (See Slaughterhouse-Five and its descendants.) So information conveyed in Chapter 7 will give the reader an extra weapon to interpret the information conveyed in Chapter 8 which chronologically takes place before Chapter 7.

Used by a smart writer, this can be built on to provide two progressions, one chronological and the other thematic – one the story-internal order in which events occur, and the other the order in which events have been presented.

So now, if I’m reading Chapter 8, not only am I using information conveyed about the past and the future of these events, I also close the gap between Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 by interpreting why these two chapters having been placed next to each other.

And if this is used in conjunction with multiple characters and multiple strands, I’m also creating a thematic (or maybe even purely story-based) dialogue between the scenes based on the chosen juxtaposition (as seen in, say, movies like The Prestige).

So far, so obvious, but I thought writing it down might be useful.