Monday, October 25, 2010

I went to see him, yada yada yada, and now he's dead

By Steve Weddle

Recently I was on the road all by lonesome for a couple of ten-hour drives. I dropped the CDs of Joseph Finder's COMPANY MAN into the CD-playing machine in my automobile's dashboard. That and Michael Connelly's new THE REVERSAL are a couple of interesting examples of how to use timing in writing.

Really, any audio book suffers from, er, I mean, benefits from this. You don't know when the chapter is going to end. When I'm reading a book in print -- hell, even on the Kindle machine for reading the new electronic books -- I know that we're coming to a break. I see it out of the corner of my eye. I've flipped ahead a little to know that I'm just three pages away from a new chapter, so I should just push through and then head to bed. Like in one of them big fancy classical music pieces, you know? All of those strings starts screeching away, louder and louder. You know something is building up. Sure you can feel the build-up in the audio book, but you don't see the end; you don't know exactly how long the build-up will last. In a book, you see the end coming, even though you don't know how it will end.

You know when you're watching a cop show on the television box and they arrest the killer dude 37 minutes after the hour and you totally know that's not the dude because then what are they going to do for the rest of the show, you know? Have Bones and Angel kiss for 20 minutes? Damn, I hope not. Anyway, you have some aspect of what's coming up based on the timing of the arrest. We've got these expectations of how things will play out, and listening to an audio book kinda takes away one of the, I don't know, "tools" I use to know what to expect.

We grow to expect a certain timing in crime fiction, and when we stop and listen -- or, you know, drive 78 mph and listen -- stuff sorta goes a little goofy.

Speaking of a little goofy, Michael Connelly's new book plays with timing and expectations in a whole different way.

Michael Connelly
In THE REVERSAL, Harry Bosch and his half-brother, Mickey Haller (I used the comma there thinking Haller is his only half-brother. I don't know for sure, though.) do the investigation thing. The book is kinda-sorta from Haller's perspective. What this allows is for Bosch to pop in every other chapter or so having done something already. In a couple of spots in the book, he's already investigated a lead and Haller and the reader get to find out what happened. Sometimes, this happens in front of you, of course. So it's a matter of perspective and timing.

Does the action always have to happen in-sequence? Can you have substantial action occur off-stage and carry the story forward by the telling of the action, which, not to get too meta-, but is kind of a telling of the telling, ain't it?

You expect the investigator -- whether retired cop, private investigator, or antique salesperson -- to go to this person and ask questions, which lead to that person. Then go to that person, get clonked on the back of the head by a shadowy assailant, then get more invested. And so on. You don't expect the "I went to ask some questions, yada yada yada, and came home with this eyeball."

So when the timing of the story gets goofy -- whether from not being able to know when the close of the scene is or from the action having taken place off-stage -- things can get kind interesting.

I'm sure there are other ways to play around with timing. You know that trick in third-person novels, right? The hero is about to be lowered into the pit of fire-breathing piranha terrorists and the next chapter is from another character's point-of-view on the other side of the world? Those thriller folks do this all day long.

What other "timing tricks" am I missing?

Do timing and point-of-view always hang out so closely together? Am I conflating the two?



Discount Noir -- tons of cool flash pieces including work from our own John McFetridge, Jay Stringer, and me, as well as many of our commenting people and readers.

8 Pounds -- an ebook collection from Chris F Holm, cover by John H Jacobs

Terminal Damage -- still scheduled for the end of the month, with an introduction from Jason Pinter and cover from Mr Jacobs, again


John Hornor said...

You know what drives my wife crazy? When we're watching Law & Order or some other police procedural and I name the killer (I've got a solid 93% record - that's a low A) not because of the facts but because he (or she) is the most recognizable guest actor. Because the producers ain't gonna waste Tim Matheson, or Tony Goldwyn, or George Newbern, or any other b-list psuedo-unknown actor on just a supporting role.

At least 93% of the time.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, that stunt casting is usually a clear give-away.

I do like the telling of the telling. I think it adds another whole layer of choices for the writer to make, and when it works well, it's great.

I find it's a tough line to walk when reading a book, knowing that it's a constructed story. I know we're all supposed to get so involved in the story and completely lost in it, but does that really happen? Is it so bad to sometimes admit that isn't going to happen and to try and work with the idea that we all know this is a story?

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like it when a writer skips the boring parts (thanks Elmore) so if some of that investigating gets foot-noted so to speak, I am usually grateful. Too many books and cop shows take the flat-footed route and show us every rung doorbell.
If there is a more metaphysical question I am not answering here I apologize. I slept through philosophy 101 and time is too close to math for me.

Travener said...

I like books that bounce all over the place. I guess I just like being confused.

Dana King said...

George V. Higgins made a career out of having characters tell other characters what happened. As John said, it adds a layer, especially if the person relating the events to the POV character isn't the most reliable narrator in the world. Declan Hughes uses this to great effect in his Ed Loy' novels, as Ed'd sidekick/helper Tommy Owens is not exactly money as a storyteller.

Anonymous said...

POV is so much fun to play with. The unreliable point of view character is my very favorite kind.

Chris said...

Hey, thanks for the link! Much obliged.

Bryon Quertermous said...

This was always done well on Seinfeld. They'd cut away right before something funny or interesting would happen then cut to the exterior of Jerry's building where you here the voices of Jerry and George and Elaine talking about what happened. It's also VERY popular in theatre where you're usually confined to one setting and you rely and new characters coming in and talking about what's going on.

Graham Powell said...

Adam Hall used to use an interesting trick in his Quiller novels. He'd have secret agent Quiller about to be lowered into a pit of molten lava full of fire-breathing pirhanas...

...and then the next chapter would start, and Quiller would be very much alive and safely out of danger. Only later would he explain how he got out of it.