Sunday, July 24, 2005

Drawing from Life: Story Analysis

Yesterday I posted a description of a real-life event that I felt illustrated how you can show dramatic tension in a story. While the events that are reported really happened, the way in which I reported them was important. Whether or not the subject of a story is true is really irrelevant to good storytelling. I don't know if anyone actually reads my musings here, but on the off chance someone does, I figured I'd give you a day to think about the story before I comment on it. Today, I'd like to explain what I was trying to accomplish with the story craft-wise. I don't know how successful I was (it was just a first draft, after all -- I didn't even have time for any edits), but hopefully I can explain and make my point.

First of all, take a look at the pacing in the story. At the beginning, everything is moving along fairly slowly and smoothly. You'll notice that the sentences are longer and use words like "carefully," "double checked," and "thoroughly." All of these are intended to convey the feeling of slow, deliberate movement. What I'm trying to do is establish the norm. If you aren't a pilot, you've got no way of knowing that the frantic events at the end aren't routine events. So, just as with Dibell's "Rule of Three" that I mentioned a few days ago, we have to establish the norm before we can shatter it. As the story progresses, notice how the pace picks up. Paragraphs become shorter. Sentences become fragmentary, and there are more of them. By the time of the actual landing, I'm down to three-word phrases fired one after the other. Not only am I trying to build the dramatic tension, I'm also trying to convey the rush of scenery that races past your window as you bring a plane in for landing. Even if your airspeed doesn't change, things seem to move much faster the closer you get to the ground. Note also that you never actually see the touchdown itself. Having (hopefully) built the tension in the reader's mind, there's nothing I could write that can be as dramatic as his own imagination. Did he make it? Did he run off the runway? The tension at this point should be at its absolute maximum, and I want to hold it for as long as I can. There is some white space to separate the next paragraph, and then I return immediately to the slower pacing structure (longer sentences, etc.). The fact that things are now moving slowly tells you that we're safe and everything is okay. Not coincidentally, that's also how the pilot feels when he's taxiing off the runway. There's a feeling of relief (even in the most experienced pilots) and release of tension. Hopefully that came across in the writing as well.

Second of all, note the breaks for dialog versus description. Now, normally in the stories I write, I include a lot more dialog than this. I'm of the opinion that, in general, dialog conveys the story much better than description. But read the description carefully. Even when there is no dialog, I'm communicating what I'm thinking and feeling, all the while trying to build the tension as things start to break down after the winds kick in. I'm not just describing my surroundings. Also, aviation radio transmissions are very hard to follow in print because they are so full of jargon (in order to keep transmissions brief). I wanted to include enough dialog to add an authentic feeling of actually being in the cockpit with me, but I didn't want to overwhelm my non-pilot readers. As I've said in other essays, though, I didn't put the dialog in just to serve this one mechanical purpose, I tried to make sure that it earned its place in the story. In each of the three main dialog sections, I'm trying to convey a specific mood. The first shows a professional, safe, and careful pilot. Again, we're trying to establish a norm, to show that the pilot (that's me, in case you've lost track) is not a reckless screw-up. The second is intended to reveal my surprise at the realization I'm in trouble, yet still struggling to keep things regular. The final dialog piece is intended to show that we're okay and even the controllers acknowledge that it was a tough landing that came out okay. That further adds to the sense of relief at the end of the story.

See if you can find the foreshadowing that set up the events to come. The student pilot who extended his downwind, for example, becomes a clue as to what has happened to the winds. But this clue doesn't fall into place until later in the story; you aren't aware of its import until it is important. It also allowed the pilot to be rattled enough so that when the real tension starts, it's run up that much more in a believable way. Same idea with the suddenly-deserted traffic pattern -- not much is made of the fact initially, but it becomes increasingly clear that this is major sign something's wrong. The wind shear that hit on the balked approach (the one I waved off) was designed to show that the situation I hit on the next go-around could have potentially fatal effects. It also increases the tension by showing why I was forced to land much faster than I really felt I could control. Again, the tension increases.

Finally, the ending (no pun intended). I sum up my feelings at the end and make a point of showing the confidence I had gained as a result of the adventure. Remember, your characters need to change in some way as a result of the story, or it's not a story. The final sentence acknowledges this change, but reinforces the relief at being home and simultaneously reminds us of the tension we felt during the story (in hopes the story will stick in their minds even after they are finished reading).

I hope that this insight into my thought processes is useful. A story should speak for itself; it shouldn't need explaining. But I thought that if I gave you a "peek at the man behind the curtain" it might be informative. At the very least, I find that metacognition (thinking about thinking) on my own writing process helps me to refine it for the next time, so I think it's a worthwhile exercise!

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