Monday, December 31, 2007

Onstage and Offstage Action in Fiction

On the stage or screen we witness most of the story, don't we? Occasionally, some action takes place offstage, and we learn of it through hearsay. For example, in Hamlet we don't witness what happens on Hamlet's voyage to England. But we do know that Claudius has arranged for his murder there. So, we see Hamlet reach the coast, thunder his great soliloquy, and embark. Then, back at the ranch….

The next thing we know, a good deal of time has passed, and Hamlet must already be dead. Things are going to hell in Denmark. Claudius and Gertrude are trapped in the web they wove. Suddenly, we are as surprised as Claudius to learn that Hamlet isn't dead and has returned to Denmark. What could be more dramatic and ominous? He might as well be the Christ returning in a cloud for Doomsday. How angry he must be! Shakespeare accomplishes this stunning dramatic effect simply by not showing us what happens at sea. Instead he has Hamlet relate a brief narrative summary of those events later.

Was Shakespeare lazy? Did he leave out this exciting action to shorten the play? No, he had good storytelling reasons to keep that action offstage. By doing so, he eliminated material unnecessary to prove his premise. Also, by not showing what happens next — by skipping that scene and jumping ahead to what happens weeks later in Denmark — he maximizes the plot's dramatic impact.

So, on stage and screen, some scenes are left out for good storytelling reasons. Nonetheless, notice that Shakespeare puts the lion's share of the story in immediate scene on stage. He relates only bits of it through narrative summary. Indeed, think how boring a play or movie would be if many things happened offstage and the characters just told us about them!

So most of a story on stage or screen is in immediate scene (or dramatic form), and some is narrative summary (or narrative form). In a novel, there's no set, so a third mode of conveying information is necessary, description.

Readers prefer immediate scene as much as a theater audience does. In fact, to get published today, the bulk of a novel's text must be immediate scene, with brief narrative summary only when appropriate, and with brief descriptions brought to life by filtering them through a character's viewpoint.

Immediate scene plays in the reader's imagination. That's the novelist's stage or screen.


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