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Home » Archives » October 2008 » Jhumpa! Jhumpa!
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10/27/2008: Jhumpa! Jhumpa!

Sometimes I receive kind letters tucked between the pages of novels or other works of prose. The notes are from the authors, which overwhelms me -- people who manage to put together book-length amounts of prose impress me beyond my own meager words. Books -- have you looked at these things? The words go all the way to the margins! Do you know how hard that must be?

Sometimes the authors are pointing out a reference in their book to the influence of Buffy on their lives. Thank you very much on this score to Brianna Hope Jacobson, the author of Mortified, a collection of teenaged writings edited by their now adult authors, and Doreen Orion, author of Queen of the Road an off-beat travel memoir. Thanks also to Jennette Fulda (Half-Assed, a Weight-Loss Memoir), Austin Grossman (Soon I Will Be Invincible), Lani Diane Rich (The Fortune Quilt and Maybe Baby among others), and Eugene Ramos (one of the nine collective co-authors of The Artifact) for their wonderful words. James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish) was especially gracious in his note. And there are more, the books currently residing in my home on various bookshelves and resisting my efforts to locate them.

Sometimes these authors mention that they've found something in this blog that applies to their variety of writing, and that they've been able to apply it. I'm tremendously flattered to think that might be true, since I myself write entirely -- other than a few short stories and this blog -- in script format.

But today I had a thought that is directly applicable to prose writing, so I'm going to lay it out there. It's about the granularity of detail in a scene. (Do novels have scenes? I mean, they do, but I'm not sure they're called that. You know what I mean.) Sometimes a novel has been sweeping along, covering days and weeks efficiently, and then you get a long slow start to a scene -- I'm thinking of a specific one in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. (SPOILER ALERT) On page 159, chapter seven starts with "Ashima sits at the kitchen table on Pemberton Road, addressing Christmas cards." And the action slows to a maddening crawl. On purpose. We hear about the cards, the envelopes, the address books, the tea kettle. She gets a call, ends the call, the scene goes on, and the fine fine grain of the scene tells you that something very important is about to happen. And it does. Ten full pages later. And, my goodness, those are a great ten pages because you're so tense throughout that you're in danger of cracking open. (END SPOILER ALERT)

It works because the readers know that a scene wasn't included for no reason, so they keep waiting for the reason, but it also works, I think, for a deeper reason having to do with the human brain. The precise reporting of inconsequential details mimics the way our memories go into retentive overload in dangerous or emotional situations. It's the effect that makes spills and collisions suddenly seem to go into slow motion as we experience them, because we're suddenly hyper-aware of every moment. A great prose writer like Lahiri can capture that feeling on the novel's page.

Now, can you apply this to script writing? Yes! And since you're presumably writing spec scripts, not scripts for production, you can achieve it remarkably easily through the novel-simulating magic of stage directions. Don't make them long, because the readers will skip them, but make them frequent and you'll get the effect of slowing down the reader, slowing down the scene. Do it right (a mild suggestion of danger inherent in the situation helps) and you'll get suspense. Let me try it. Let's say that John is making a phone call as he walks down a empty city street on a cold night:

(into phone)
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, that's what I told him, but he insisted...

He pulls a hand from his coat pocket to gesture. Hears something fall. Did he drop a coin?

(into phone)
... yeah... you know how he gets...

He's looking around now for the dropped coin. Sees nothing. Moves on...

(into phone)
Wait, say that again? Oh, right...

But now something glints under a street light. He steps closer. A quarter. Could it have rolled all the way over here?

(into phone)
Huh? Sorry. It's just... never mind. Go on.

He picks up the quarter and pauses, looking around...

See how it's all suspensy? It's not just the situation, it's the level of detail and how it slows it all down. Sometimes you want danger to blindside your character, and that can be great too, but if you want suspense, play it like a novelist.

And thanks again for the lovely notes, all you prose writers out there!

Lunch: "Green Eggs and Ham" from the breakfast menu at Moe's, a (primarily) burger place in the valley. Lots of spinach and avocado. A new discovery!


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