I find it useful—and usually pretty easy—to break narration down into action and inaction. That is, the stuff that happens and the stuff other than the present-time, filmable story. Such digressions includes character interiority, back story, description, and scene-setting. Take look at this excerpt from the beginning of Game of Thrones, in which I’ve highlighted the inaction in purple:
We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”
“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”
Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.
“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.
“We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”
Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”
Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent forty years in the Night’s Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear .Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness that the southron called the haunted forest had no more terrors for him . Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of wildling raiders. Each day had been worse than the day that had come before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander . Especially not a commander like this one . Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned .
His cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin. “Bet he killed them all himself, he did,” Gared told the barracks over wine, “twisted their little heads off, our mighty warrior.” They had all shared the laugh .*It is hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your cups, Will reflected as he sat shivering atop his garron. Gared must have felt the same .
“Mormont said as we should track them, and we did,” Gared said. “They’re dead. They shan’t trouble us no more. There’s hard riding before us. I don’t like this weather. If it snows, we could be a fortnight getting back, and snow’s the best we can hope for. Ever seen an ice storm, my lord?”
The lordling seemed not to hear him. He studied the deepening twilight in that half-bored, half-distracted way he had. Will had ridden with the knight long enough to understand that it was best not to interrupt him when he looked like that. “Tell me again what you saw, Will. All the details. Leave nothing out.”
(*that lighter purple highlight is a half-scene in the past; it’s action, but it’s not present-time story, so I keep it in purple)
Now, if you were in charge of filming the above scene, the easiest adaptation would be to cut out all of the stuff in purple and depict everything not highlighted, right? Perhaps your actors should know the highlighted stuff, but the scene would have plenty of tension, mood, and conflict in it without all that stuff.
Sure, you might do a bit more to emphasize a sense of trouble looming. Have Will and Gered turn up their collars, gaze around the forest, calm their agitated horses—things like that. And yes, you might consult the highlighted descriptions for ideas about costuming and set. But if we were watching a filmed version of the above story, we couldn’t know Will’s thoughts in any way other than through implication via external action (barring voice-over, which is pretty frowned-upon in film these days).
And though we could include a flashback or two, we’d want to budget those, and here, it’s probably unnecessary. So we’d have to forego most of the back story stuff.
With me so far?
In some ways, we could consider all of the inaction stuff to be information: action is about doing; information is about being.
Information conveys states of mind, states of existence, but not states of affairs (unless you’re dramatizing the past via a flashback, but that’s not conveying the present-time story state of affairs).
When we hear that Gered “was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go,” that’s expressing a state of existence, not a character doing anything.
When we read that “Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner,” we’re reading about Will’s state of mind, not what he’s doing.
And when we learn that “Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife,” we’re understanding the contextual state of existence that underlies one of the conflicts in this scene.
Let’s back up, though. This scene has two main conflicts: 1) Gered and Will answer to this 18-year-old and they therefore must respect his authority despite probably knowing more than he does and certainly having more experience than he does; and 2) there’s some mysterious wrongness in this neck of the woods, and the wiser, more experienced characters want to leave. The state of affairs has to do with the scene’s character objective and conflict. That is, desire + conflict = action.
Information does two things:
1) provides context for the action, or
2) conveys the states of mind of the characters.
Let’s look back at the three quotes I isolated earlier.
“Gered was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go.” This gives us information about Gered’s age and experience. It draws from fact (past fifty) and the past (he had seen the lordlings come and go), and it’s relevant to that conflict between these more experienced watchmen and their youthful superior.
“Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner.” This gives us information about Will’s interiority. In this case, the verbs tip us off to the state-of-mind focus of these sentences: had known, wished. And again, note the relevance to the conflict.
“Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife.” This gives us informational context that will help us understand the nature of the conflict between Royce and the other two (he’s rich; he’s got something to prove; he’s very young; he’s not strong).
If your information (facts, past, interiority, context) is not relevant to the story’s state of affairs, your reader is going to tune it out—or worse, come to distrust your narration. If, for instance, I were to inject the following additional information about Ser Waymar Royce, how would you feel about it?
Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. His brothers sometimes called him Whine-mar and made fun of him for flossing his teeth every night. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife, though he’d tried to bulk up on occasion, even once going so far as to attempt to be an apprentice to the local blacksmith, just so he could lift heavy objects all day. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. Will sometimes called his horse Stumpy; Gered called his Wascal because he had trouble pronouncing his r’s. Ser Waymar wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. He had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, having joined back in the spring, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.
One could perhaps be forgiven for supplying a little more backstory to Waymar’s feelings of inadequacy, but there’s no excuse for injecting the names of Will’s and Gered’s “garrons” here. And it’s redundant to say “having joined back in the spring.”
Even if we were to allow more context for Waymar’s inferiority complex, you can see how that gets carried away, right? (And it would be carried away even if I were to have struck a tone less silly and more consistent with the pre-existing text.) The added information starts to detract from the main conflict of this scene, mentioned just before this paragraph: “Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander.” (That sentence perfectly combines the two conflicts of this scene, by the way.) In such a context, to go on and on about Waymar’s past feels like a distraction. It takes us away from the state of affairs.
Make sure you don’t wander too far away from the state of affairs when you’re informing us of context or state of mind. Stick to the green zone below:
A reader maintains a sense of balance between information and action. Even if it’s only subconscious, the reader is thinking, Is the information relevant to the desire+conflict that comprises the action? Do I need to know this right now? Am I distraced from the story?
Any time you throw off that balance, the reader will feel it.
1) Don’t give us information that isn’t relevant to current scene desire + conflict.
2) Give us the minimal amount of information possible. There’s quite a lot of information that can just be implied via the affairs of the story. You may want to add more and you may argue it’s relevant to the desire+conflict. And you may be right. But is it really necessary?
3) Don’t try to slip in excessive information in dialogue. We’re on to you. We know what you’re doing. You’re not going to get away with it.
What do you think? Is this paradigm useful? Do you prefer the other types of differentiations I’ve made regarding narration (present time vs. time digressions; external action vs. interiority; scene vs. summary)?
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