When asked how her writing day had gone, Virginia Woolf once famously replied, “It went wonderfully. I got my characters off the couch, through the French doors and onto the veranda.”
The problems of narrative transition that Woolf grappled with – physical, mental and emotional – remain intransigent more than sixty years after her death. They’re relentless. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important, changes his mind, or makes a decision is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you stumble or miscalculate, the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole intricately coordinated performance falls apart. In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph.
There are many ways to organize this set of problems. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide transitions into two types: intra- and inter-textual. The former, which occur inside the ongoing action of a chapter, represent the biggest and most daunting set of challenges. The writer here is like a card sharp in a high stakes poker game, executing a sleight of hand whose central purpose is to go unnoticed. He doesn’t want to dazzle you with his prestidigitations. He doesn’t want your admiration or respect; he just wants to take your money as unobtrusively as possible.
In the case of the inter-textual transitions, which are my primary focus in this essay, the writer is more like an old fashioned stage magician, fanning the cards, inviting you to take one, pulling aces from behind your ear, building momentum on the bewildered curiosity of the crowd. These transitions end chapters or begin them – I call them hooks and tags. Mickey Spillane once remarked “The purpose of my first sentence is to get you to read the book. The purpose of my last sentence is to get you to read the next book.”
The purpose of a hook is to get you to read the current chapter; the purpose of a tag is to get you to read the next chapter. To a large extent, the type of hook and tag a writer uses determines the time signature of the story. The temptation to keep the tempo strictly allegro is powerful and insidious. And yet sometimes it’s actually more effective to slow things down. Umberto Eco endorses the value of ‘lingering’ in the third of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, collected under the title Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.
"If, as we have noted, a text is a lazy machine that peals to the reader to do some of its work, why might a text linger, slow down, take its time? A fictional work, you would suppose, describes people performing actions, and the reader wants to know how these actions turn out. They tell me that in Hollywood, when a producer is listening to the story or plot of a film that is being proposed and finds there is too much detail, he calls out “Cut to the chase!” And this means: don’t waste time, drop the psychological subtleties, get to the climax… On the other hand … if something important is going to take place, we have to cultivate the art of lingering … Lingering doesn’t mean wasting time: frequently one stops to ponder before making a decision. One of the of slowing down techniques that n author can employ is one that allows the reader to take “inferential walks” … In any work of fiction the text emits signals of suspense, almost s if the discourse had slowed down or come to a halt, and as if the writer were suggesting, “Now you try carrying on…” When I spoke of “inferential walks” I meant, in the terms of our woodsy metaphor, imaginary walks outside the wood: readers, in order to predict how the story is going to go, turn to their own experience of life or their own knowledge of other stories… We mustn’t, however, make the mistake of thinking that signals of suspense are typical only of dime novels or of commercial films. The readerly process of making predictions constitutes a necessary aspect of reading …"
Hooks and tags encourage this process. They generally invoke the future, the direction or even the destination of the story, known to the writer but hidden from the reader. The intensity of these proleptic messages sets the narrative tone. The choice of that tone is one of the most critical and perplexing one that a writer faces. I find myself torn between the need for propulsive story telling and the desire to linger in Eco’s woods and attempt something like literature.
The recent revision of a chapter of my own book Owners is a good example. My intention was to introduce my character from the inside out, exploring his point of view, his past and his emotional state before starting the action. I was especially pleased that all the events of his apparently routine evening prefigured and even inventoried the plot developments to come. I privately thought of the chapter as the overture, in which all the major themes and motifs would be introduced. The reader would only grasp this later, when the story had been fully revealed. My conceit was that a second reading of the section would strike the reader a series of narrative blows: forehead slapping, oh-my-God-it-was-all-right-there-in-front-of me moments. The problem with this grand plan is that readers need some motivation to get through the book once, before they can revel in an encore.
The chapter struck most readers as exposition heavy and downright tedious. The first actual event, it was pointed out to me, was a fight in the Chicken Box bar, five or six pages into the story. Until then it was more or less of a snooze. I revised the chapter, cut much of the exposition, placing the fraction of it which I chose to preserve much later in the text, and decided to lay my cards on the table with a self-conscious and shameless hook:
"There was nothing special about the fourth of December: just another early winter night on Nantucket, or so it seemed. Much later it would occur to Police Chief Henry Kennis that it had been like the overture to a musical; a medley of tunes you scarcely noticed until you bought the cast album and really listened. Then you heard every theme and motif, every song played in advance. All the secrets and revelations, all the players and their plans were in the air that night, if he had known enough to listen. But of course he didn’t. Only weeks later, after the last chord was played, would he realize how pointed and prophetic the events of that night had been.
It began with a fight at the chicken box."
Now the primary action begins in the second paragraph and the reader is challenged to find the clues and talismans of the plot in the ordinary events of Henry’s night patrol. The reader is drawn in (I hope), but at some cost: I’ve set a stringent tempo. More importantly, my attempt to linger in Umberto Eco’s wood was a dispiriting failure.
It may be that each tale sets its own pace, that stories, like people, have their own natural rhythm and struggling against it causes the problem. Anyone who manages people for a living knows this. A landscaper wouldn’t let the hyper-active, impatient speed-freak weed the rose garden; and he’d keep the tortoise-like painstaking perfectionist away from the lawn mower; it’s just common sense. The detective story isn’t best served by a stream of consciousness narration; just as an IRA attack in Dublin would have done little to improve Ulysses.
I thought it might be interesting to look at group of writers along the spectrum of ambition and accomplishment to see how they deal with this issue. Marcel Proust, with his blithe certainty that we cannot wait to see what intrigues will unfold at the Guermantes’ soiree, and the his contract with the reader that agrees to put his thoughts and feelings about any incident far above the actual incident itself, chooses to end the first section of the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time in this way:
"At all events, on that particular day, before my visit to the Duchesse, I was not thinking so far ahead and was distressed at having, by attending to the Jupien-Charlus conjunction, perhaps missed the fertilization of the flower by the bumble-bee."
Proust feels a haughty disdain for the rhetoric of enticement. He invites us to share it with him. And we do (Though perhaps we have a Dick Francis novel handy on the bed-side for our weaker moments).
A little further down the literary food chain, things aren’t quite so clear-cut.
In Scott Spencer’s Waking the Dead a mainstream literary novel from the mid eighties, aspiring politician Fielding Pierce becomes obsessed with his dead girlfriend, a political activist killed in a car bombing. He is more and more certain she is alive, a delusion that threatens to wreck his life, until it turns out to be the truth. Sarah faked her own death, and emerges from the political underground for one devastating encounter. She tells him that she tore her life in half; he says it’s okay, they can put it back together again. His endearing optimism means nothing to her. “I threw the other half away,” she tells him.
With an urgent warning to stop asking about her and drawing attention to her disappearance, she makes love with him once, kisses him goodbye and disappears again into something very much like death, at least from Fielding’s point of view: a severance just as permanent. It’s a sad book but a brilliant one. Any novel with lines like “Ambition is the ice on the lake of emotion” and “Like progressive parents slowly, gently taking a meat cleaver away from a wild child, Danny and Sarah gradually moved the conversation out of my reach.” deserves its claim to literature.
Spencer uses tags overtly, like this one at the end of chapter five, when Fielding is certain that Sarah has been watching him from the street, certain that it was her voice on the telephone that afternoon, refusing to talk to his girlfriend Juliet, who has figured him out and is in the process of storming out of the house in the middle of the night to get away from him:
"The light from the hall raced across the bedroom floor as Juliet opened the door and then with a slam I was in darkness again. I was in darkness and I was in pain and despite all I believed and could not believe, despite having no more expectations of the miraculous than any other ordinary modern soul, despite all the arguments of common sense and all the cautions of fear, I was waiting."
Moving into the realm of genre fiction, and starting at the top, I read P.D. James’s Innocent Blood. She is a fine and elegant writer who chooses to concern herself with crime and its ramifications. Murder is her subject rather as espionage is John LeCarre’s. Both transcend and elevate the narrow category in which they write, and add some class to their ghettoized sections of Borders or Barnes & Noble.
In this book, the father of a murdered child plots his revenge as the murderess is released from prison into the custody of her own daughter. The child had been adopted by well-to-do parents, but has become increasingly obsessed with knowing her mother and understanding her mother’s grim story. The two obsessions converge with devastating effect, and James pushes us along the road to that confrontation with bold strokes. These lines begin Book Three, An Act of Violence:
"And now he moved with a mounting sense of excitement away from his settled routine at Pimlico and into a new world, their world. And the act itself was no longer hidden in an unknown future; the time had come to prepare himself physically and mentally for the deed."
It’s subtle but effective. By this time James has only to hint at the future to fill us with anxiety; it’s like touching a bruise.
Moving further down the line, dangerously close to my own neighborhood, here is a good example of what I call a ‘sinker’ – a tag so overwrought that the writer just seems desperate and the essential sense of confidence these devices are designed to impart just sinks, like a leaky rowboat. This is from The Watchman, by Robert Crais, the first novel featuring his perennial side-kick tough guy Joe Pike – the end of chapter one:
"The first patrol car arrived in seven minutes; the paramedics three minutes later. Larkin thought it would end that night when the policemen finished their questions, but her nightmare had only begun.
In forty eight hours she would meet with agents from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s. In six days, the first attempt would be made on her life. In eleven days she would meet a man named Joe Pike.
Everything in her world was about to change. And it began that night."
Here the future is used as a blunt instrument and I feel pummeled by the clamoring dread and expectation. “seven minutes,” “three minutes later,” “had only begun”, “In forty eight hours”, “In six days”, “In eleven days” “Everything was about to change”,” it began that night”: bang, bang, bang: eight time references in seven sentences and they hit you like a wrecking ball. Can Crais really have this little faith in the interest and attention span of his readers? It’s like the local news: “Something you’re doing RIGHT NOW may be KILLING YOU! Details at eleven.”
It’s a long slide down from Proust’s bumble-bee.
It’s hard to know, or perhaps to admit, where one fits on this scale. But in fact I’m writing a mystery and the pace is built in to the form. Eco talks about a “model reader”, whom the text invites but also creates. The book informs its audience how they should read it, and what they should expect to feel. Some books are a walk in Eco’s forest, some are a meditation or a discourse.
My book is a treasure hunt. And I’m the guide. These people are following me for two connected reasons: they want the treasure and I know how to find it. Pointing out the lovely views or the unusual fauna en route is fine, up to a very limited point. They’re not following me because I have the guidebook.
They’re following me because I have the map.
They need constant reassurance. They’re greedy and impatient. That’s why the hooks and tags have to be there. They are the clearest way of saying: I know where I’m going and you don’t. Follow me or get lost. I have to constantly re-assert the tyranny of superior knowledge. Readers want to be docile and follow. But they have to trust the guy with the map.
I don’t really know where I’m going, of course; most writers don’t. That’s the real secret at the heart of the story. And the mysterious process by which we somehow find our destination anyway?
That’s the real treasure.