What is too much action? What are epigraphs?
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: October 27, 2009
|Q: Is it possible to have too much action in a scene? |
A: A scene is when you slow down, zoom in on a situation, and let it unfold, much like a scene in a play or movie. The reader sees and hears what's happening in the moment. Plays and movies are composed of nothing but scenes. But the writer of prose chooses which moments to turn into scenes. Scenes are often reserved for hot spots in a story, moments that make a difference in the character's journey. Brandi
Action refers to the activity occurring within a scene, which can be something dramatic, such as a character going to extreme measures to catch a train or a shoot-out at a bank. Or it can be something much more subtle, such as a two people in the act of eating dinner.
Much of a scene's success depends upon where the writer places emphasis and how he chooses to focus the reader's attention. Too much action can be as much of a hindrance to a scene as too little.
A scene that focuses only on action—at the expense of the more nuanced elements of characterization and emotion—is bound to bore, no matter how grand or spectacular the events. Tom's explosive car crash, for example, won't have much impact if the reader doesn't care about what happens to Tom. Without a sense of the character's individual experience or the reader's heightening concern for the character, the action won't have the emotional context that makes it evocative. To remedy this, you could pare down the action or you might find you simply need to bring in more of the character's perspective. Showing how the character responds—inwardly and outwardly—may be enough to create the necessary balance.
Another way writers include too much action is by detailing every little movement a character makes. Tracking action with this kind of intensity can make for tedious reading:
Janice sat in the car for a few minutes before making her way up the drive. She put the key in the lock and turned. The door squeaked as it opened. She stepped in and closed it behind her, putting her purse on the foyer table. The house was dark and she turned on the light. She took off her coat and draped it on the couch, then sat down and clicked on the television. Harry would be home in an hour and she wanted to clear her mind before his arrival.
The action here is mostly empty, detailing Janice's routine. There's nothing important about the way she enters the house or what she finds there.—However, readers have to slog through each little movement just to get to what is important about the scene-that she's trying to clear her mind before Harry comes home.
Fiction writers do have to deal with the logistics of a character moving within her space, but much of this can be implied. A revision of the previous passage might whittle things down in this way:
Inside, Janice sat in front of the television, her coat draped over the arm of the couch. Harry would be home in an hour and she wanted to clear her mind before his arrival.
This passage gives the reader a sense of Janice's fatigue; she didn't even bother to hang up her coat. It also shows her mindlessly in front of the television as she waits for Harry. The moment-by-moment description of how she navigated her way into the house is missing, but no meaning is lost. One word—"inside"—implies that movement from car to house.
Tracking action too closely will certainly bore the reader, but it also has the potential to mislead. When a writer places so much emphasis on a moment, he sends a message that readers should pay attention. It seems like something significant is going to come from Janice entering the house because the writer has lingered on it for so long. When this doesn't pan out, readers are left wondering what deserves their close attention and what doesn't.
|Q: What are epigraphs? |
A: These are brief quotations at the beginning of a poem, story, novel, or chapter that are often taken from other works of literature. They serve to set a specific tone, suggest a theme, or create a larger context.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender Is the Night has an epigraph from John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." The epigraph includes the line Fitzgerald used for the title:
Already with thee! tender is the night . . .
. . . But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
But the connections do not end there. An entire essay could be written on the way the poem and novel intertwine. Put briefly, the two works both engage the similar subject matter of human mortality.
Epigraphs don't have to be quotes from other works of poetry or fiction. Vladimir Nabokov's epigraph for his novel The Gift comes from A Textbook of Russian Grammar by P. Smirnovski:
"An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable."
Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye includes an epigraph from the scientist Stephen W. Hawking's nonfiction book A Brief History of Time:
"Why do we remember the past, and not the future?"
Sharon Olds' poem "Calvinist Parents" has two epigraphs. One comes from a review of her earlier book The Unswept Room:
"Sometime during the Truman Administration Sharon Olds's parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it."
The other is from Prescott Sheldon Bush Jr., George H.W. Bush's brother, on his father's method of discipline.
Some authors even invent the epigraph. In his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald used an epigraph from the fictional poet Thomas Parke D'Invilliers that appeared as a character in his novel This Side of Paradise.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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--Posted Oct. 27, 2009