The Four Horsemen of Storytelling

Had the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice (below) been covering a workshop for aspiring fiction writers instead of the October 1924 Notre Dame-Army college football game at New York’s Polo Grounds, the most famous lede in journalism might have read:

Outlined against a bright white sheet of paper, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: POV, Backstory, Showing & Telling, and Information Dumping.

Indeed, it is rare to sit through a critique-group session without somebody at the table yammering about at least one of the Four Horsemen of storytelling. If you want to sound like a writing workshop expert, you’ve got to know the lingo. Like this:

POV. It’s inconsistent.

Backstory. It appears too early and/or there is too much of it.

Showing & telling. There is too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Information dump. There is TMI.

Here are some random thoughts about the Four Horsemen, using examples from a few of the tough-guy type of novels I’ve been known to read.

POV. Point of view comes in many forms. First person. Second person (if you’re channeling Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City) Third-person omniscient. Third-person limited (sort of like first person, i.e., from one character’s perspective, without the “I”).

Several years ago, in his first-person Dave Robicheaux novels, the master crime writer James Lee Burke began including long passages about events that his hero was not present for. Often, Burke sets them up by having Robicheaux say something like, “Here’s what he told me had happened.” Much as I have enjoyed the Robicheaux stories, with their great sensory detail of setting and their lively, idiom-inflected dialogue, I’ve never grown comfortable with author Burke’s jarring POV shifts.

When you start with a first-person or third-person-limited POV, stay with that character as the story unfolds. If you must fill in the blanks, you could try what the late Robert. B. Parker did in his final novel, Sixkill: Set off the material unwitnessed by the protagonist with line spaces and italics. Still, it is awkward. You are taking the reader out of the dramatic present of your storytelling.

Backstory. As in:

Two shots rang out and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself.

(Skip to page 75 to return to the present.)

In Colin Harrison’s thriller The Finder, the reader learns early, albeit briefly, about a nasty scar on protagonist Ray Grant Jr.’s stomach. There are mentions as well of nightmarish memories Grant endures from a past exposure to multiple corpses. Yet it isn’t until the middle of Chapter 15, 150-plus pages into a 310-page book, that we learn what caused the scar. Then, 175-plus pages in, in Chapter 18, we learn why and where Grant came across so many bodies. Both are important to the character and the plot. The early hints leave the reader with a desire to find out, which helps keep her or him turning pages. Harrison follows the rule of not giving the reader backstory until absolutely necessary.

Showing & telling. The more technical terms are scene and summary. “Show, don’t tell,” may be the most knee-jerk phrase uttered in critique groups. Yes, you want to dramatize your story with action and dialogue. One of my workshop mentors, Sandi Kahn Shelton, said one of the most liberating things I’ve ever heard from a published novelist: Sometimes you’ve got to simply tell it. You can waste a lot of time trying to convey necessary information in dialogue or through a character’s inner process or via some artificial framing device.

Suzanne Hoover of Sarah Lawrence College, another writing mentor of mine, told us that, if you are writing a highly dramatic moment in your story, the choice is easy—scene. But when writing intermediate passages of information or transition, the choice is questionable. If you put everything into scene, everything carries equal weight. You may not want that. You also are constantly jerking the story to keep the energy flowing.

You must consider the narrative pacing of your story. Establish an acceptable rhythm. Build, then relax, then build again. Ask yourself, is this scene obligatory? Does the reader really need to see this? Finally, so much of our best, lyrical writing is in descriptive summary passages. Yet, Suzanne says, it’s shocking how much of that is being ignored, even skipped, by today’s readers.

Information dumping. The author has reams of research and is determined to include it all, regardless of how critical it is to the story and its characters. Again, Harrison’s The Finder offers examples. We learn about construction engineering details in the Empire State Building, and about the many gradients of pulverization in the paper shredding business. Would the story have succeeded without the details in these short passages? Perhaps. Too much information? Not for me.

Part of the fun of reading a good novel is learning about things. If the information is presented within the context of a much larger whole, and appears far enough in that the story’s forward propulsion is firmly established, it can work—and it does in The Finder. Neither the Empire State Building stuff or the paper-shredding details might have been appropriate in a 10-page short story. Yet in a 310-page novel, they are quick, fascinating sidebars that help illuminate the conflicts and characters.

In both instances, Harrison delivers the information in dialogue, one character lecturing another. In The Finder, the method is effective. But that is rarely the case. Spoken information dumps often are not just unnecessary, they sound phony. One of my favorite tough-guy authors had a couple in a novel he published a few years ago. I was surprised and disappointed. But I’m not going to call him out by name. That would be TMI.—Alex McNab

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