Carolyn Haines — BUILDING BLOCKS OF STORY

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 CarolynHainespic            Publishing is a crazy business these days, and the “rules” of what publishers like vary from country to country and publisher to publisher. I teach my students at the University of South Alabama that publishing rules are sort of like fashion trends. They come and go. I think I’m accurate when I say that, but remember, my ideas are based on my experience. So what’s true for me my not be true for every writer. So here’s what I know:

In America today in almost all genre fiction, stories are told in immediate scene.

            This wasn’t always the case, and it certainly isn’t the case in the rest of the world.

            Most—and this is a big generalization—mysteries, thrillers, romances, fantasy stories move like a train. Immediate scenes are hooked together by a strong coupling of narrative summary. The brilliant Sol Steins says that writers have three writing ways to tell a story: immediate scene, narrative summary, and description.

            Description is self-evident, and I have added another category called exposition, which is just description to the 10th power. It’s description with thematic elements, description that works twice or three times as hard as just painting a picture. Often, this includes the writer’s individual style. But what of the other two?

            What is immediate scene? It is merely showing what is happening rather than telling. Here’s an example. The ball crossed the plate at ninety-five miles an hour, and Johnny swung with all his might. “Crack!” Wood met leather and the ball pulled hard to third base. Johnny shot toward first base, cleats digging into sod. His hip ground into the dirt as he slid to safety. The reader lives the moment with Johnny.

            In narrative summary, that same little incident could be summed up more quickly, but it would be told rather than shown. For example: Johnny swung hard at the ball and hit it squarely. He ran to first and slid to safety. There is a distance here between the reader and the action.

            Both ways of writing a scene are useful to an author, and it is knowing when to give the full scene and when to use the summary that is important. Not every scene deserves the “full” treatment. But key scenes must be shown, not told.

            Many of my students read a lot of 19th Century writers. These books were written when narrative summary and head hopping were in style. The author essentially narrates a great portion of the story. This famous opening—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” is the narrator of the story telling us these things.  Much 19th Century fiction is narrative summary. It is not incorrect, but it is out of fashion now. Will it return? Maybe. But now reading audiences, for the most part, prefer immediate scene so that they can live the action. They want to draw their conclusions and not be told what or how to think.

            There are exceptions to every rule. You can go in any bookstore and find newly published novels that have vast sections of narrative summary. Many are by authors who have long established careers. For writers hoping to crack the door of traditional publishing, it’s always best to understand what publishers are interested in buying.

            I’m a firm believer that the author serves the story, which means that the demands of each story have to be met. If the story dictates narrative summary, author narration, intrusive narrator or any other technique, then the writer has no option except to serve the story. I do believe that all “rules” of publishing are meant to be broken. As long as they are broken with such expertise that the reader/editors sees immediately that the story could be told no other way.

            Writing is a joy and a privilege. I view each idea that I’m given as a gift. I try not to let my ego get in the way of the telling of the story. I listen to the story, and then I do my very best for it. But it is helpful to understand the techniques that catch an editor’s eye or interest. You have to know the rules to break them.

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Carolyn Haines is the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mystery series. The 14th book in the series, BOOTY BONES, will be published May 20 by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Haines is the author of 67 books in a number of genres. She has been honored with the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. She also writes gothic chillers as R.B. Chesterton.

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4 comments to Carolyn Haines — BUILDING BLOCKS OF STORY

  • Carolyn, this is a terrific breakdown of current styles and market preferences, the sort of thing to which I’ll be referring MY students. Thanks. And it’s nice to see you back at MW.

  • Welcome back! Thanks for explaining the differences.

  • Olga Godim

    Great post. One of my favorite writers, Georgette Heyer, uses narrative summary a lot. But then, she started writing in the 1920s.

  • Thanks, David and SiSi–it’s always nice to visit with you talented guys. Sorry to be slow in responding. We had flooding rains yesterday–not so good for computers and other devices. So I was out of commission for a bit. Now I’m back. Where do you teach, David?