©2010 by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick
Because it has the power to compress time, narration has good-bad polarities like that opening line in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale to Two Cities: “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” Good narration can make you famous. Bad narration can kill you dead. Writers who depend on narration to tell their stories need to understand the dangers of narration. Narration can skim the surface, zipping across time. And narration can go deep. The technique I use to show this depth in writing workshops is the freezeframe, a tool that examines the levels in a sentence or passage of narration. If it’s a single sentence, I start by asking some questions. Does the sentence run straight: subject-verb-object? Does the sentence run in reverse: object-verb-subject? Does the sentence have levels? Does it rise to a climax? How strong are the verbs? How concrete are the nouns? Find the syntactic levels in your narration. Then compare and contrast to the narration of a writer who has lasted. Here’s a line of narration from the climax of Moby-Dick:
“Caught and twisted – corkscrewed in the mazes of the line, loose harpoons and lances, with all their bristling barbs and points, came flashing and dripping up to the chocks in the bows of Ahab’s boat.”
The sentence written by Melville 150 years ago has the same subject-verb-object structure as that sentence from our chapters on Nouns and Verbs: “The Boy Whacks The Ball.”
subject: harpoons and lances
verb: came flashing and dripping
object: to the bows of Ahab’s boat
Ahab has just launched the harpoon. He’s at the peak of his quest for revenge. It’s the third day of the chase. Ahab’s in a whale boat; the White Whale’s at home in the water.
The writer uses words to make the picture sing. To get a feel for the words, I pull them out of the sentence and make a list: corkscrewed, caught, twisted, bristling, loose, harpoons, lances, barbs, points, chocks, boat, flashing, dripping. The word-picture follows the dictum of “show-don’t-tell” with an action-image that shows the reader that the whale hunt is out of Ahab’s control. The recurring objects brought to the climax have failed. Ahab’s about to pay for his revenge quest. The next step is the freezeframe:
1 Caught and
1 twisted –
2 in the mazes of the line
4 harpoons and lances
2 with all their
4 barbs and points
5 came flashing and dripping
2 up to the chocks
2 in the bows of Ahab’s boat
Analysis: The first three modifiers – caught, twisted, and corkscrewed – paint a word-picture of tangled purpose. All three carry the weight of strong verbs.
Then comes the double subject: harpoons and lances.
The subject is buttressed by more modifiers: bristling barbs and points. The image of danger on board.
With the subject modified, the writer introduces the verb: came flashing and dripping.
With the verb in place, the sentence races to complete the word-picture: “up to the chocks in the bows of Ahab’s boat.”
The climax in Moby Dick goes on for three days and covers three chapters. There are 135 chapters in Moby-Dick, plus an epilogue where the writer allows the narrator to live. Someone must tell this tale. The plot – getting revenge on the whale that bit off his leg – belongs to Captain Ahab, driven by his core story, Revenge Quest. Subplot One belongs to the White Whale, a malevolent force of nature who waits in his watery kingdom for sea captains greedy for whale blubber. The whale’s core story is Scapegoat Sacrifice. Subplot Two belongs to Ishmael the narrator, the Author’s Voice. Ishmael’s core story, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is Coming of Age.
The next step is to play What If: What if, during his rewrite, the writer of Moby-Dick had chosen a weak verb? What if, instead of “came flashing and dripping,” Melville had written a weak subjunctive: “could have probably come flashing and perhaps dripping”?
What if Melville had flipped the subject and object around, reversing the direction of the sentence? The object is the boat; the subject is harpoons and lances. Here’s the reversal:
“Ahab’s boat was suddenly and violently assaulted by bristling harpoons and lances.”
What if the writer had used interior verbs:
– loose harpoons and lances, with all their bristling barbs and points,
– COULD have been
– WERE imagined/understood/realized
– TO HAVE come flashing and dripping
– up to the chocks in the bows of Ahab’s boat.
The writer is dead; the word-picture lives on. The lesson for the weekend novelist in the midst of a rewrite in our time: make your word-pictures sing.