Coherence and Novel Writing

Well-written prose, among other things, should have a logical order.

It’s frequently difficult to decide what to show and in what order in a scene or chapter. Sometimes imagining your scene through a camera helps to focus on events in a logical fashion in time (a) or space (b).

(a) Order of time: Show things in chronological order (the candlestick being snatched from a bookcase, rising and falling, Mr. Body crumpling under the impact, the copy of Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight falling from his limp hand).

(b) Order in space: Show things in geometrical order (the library door, carmine footprints on the floor, the bloody candlestick, the book, then the lifeless corpse of Mr. Body).

For more longer, more complex, or psychological scenes, the camera method doesn’t always work well as an organizer. We have to employ a different device: the Robinson/Goldberg machine, a train of events based totally on cause and effect: Gear G turns Shaft S which flips Widget W. The entire machine is our invention, but every part of it is under the apparent control of our characters:

A does X, which causes B to do Y, which results in Z happening to C. The wires from the writer to all these parts must not be visible to the reader; the machine’s functioning must appear to be totally due to cause and effect, driven in every case by the characters’ motivations, not our own. This provides a logical thread running through the scene.

Action scenes seem easier, since they are clearly chronological, but they are particularly difficult. I’m not exaggerating when I say I may rewrite an action scene 30 times. Actions scenes have to flow, carrying the reader smoothly along.

The objective is not a complete and detailed account of where every boot, fist, jaw and nose stood in space. Action scenes are like sumi-e, not trompe l’oeil. You need to show only the major arcs, with minimal detail. The reader will fill in the missing details accurately enough to imagine the scene. The important thing is to avoid slowing the reader by presenting too many details or extraneous dialogue.

Bad Myles reached for his .44. Sheriff Woods launched himself at Myles, grabbing for his gun hand as the two of them fell across the desk, grunting and cursing. Myles had Woods at gunpoint for only a fraction of a second before he found himself staring into the barrel, his wrist broken.*

Maybe not optimum, yet, but better than:

Bad Myles took his left hand and reached down and back for the butt of his .44. Sheriff Woods bent both knees, then sprang up, leaping across the space between them, his right hand extended, trying to get a grip on Myles’s weapon before the gunman could free it from the holster and take a shot. When they fell across the assayer’s desk, they struggled and swore.

“Dang, you, Lishness!” hissed the Sheriff.

“Consarn you, Woods!” exclaimed Bad Myles.

Myles wrestled the gun upward, swivelling it until it pointed directly at the Sheriff’s chest. A second later, the lawman twisted Bad Myles’s wrist clockwise far enough to point the gun at the latter’s nose, far enough to break the wrist.


* From High Noonish, Damson Greengage Satsuma, Schmutzig & Dreckig Verlag, Berlin, 1969.


This entry was posted in fiction, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s