Examining Pro’s Prose Part 3


Today, let’s turn to the master himself, John Cheever. As I said in the first post on the series, many say this modern “MFA” set of rules teaches people to write like Cheever. What might be surprising is just how often he doesn’t follow them. Today’s rule is the roughest of them all.

Rule 3: Avoid narrative summary.

More accurately this should be: minimize narrative summary. Narrative summary means you tell the reader something happened rather than let the reader experience it. Often this falls under “show don’t tell.”

Let’s do an example. Bob went to the store. That is narrative summary. We hit our first difficulty, because summary is not a binary concept. We could expand it to a paragraph. As Bob approached his car, he couldn’t help but be reminded of how desperately he needed a new one. At least the beat up, green ’82 Oldsmobile would get him to the store. The store sat only two miles away, so his frustration built at each successive red light. Kate’s cello lesson ended in a half hour, and he wouldn’t get to hear her play if he was late to pick her up.

There’s still a bunch of summary in there. This trip to the store could easily blow up into a 3000 word short story if you take the advice of Rule 3 too seriously. Despite the shining silver of the handle glinting in the sunlight, it never occurred to Bob to exercise some caution. His finger seared as he touched the handle of his ’82 Oldsmobile, and he pulled away with a quick, jerking motion before any serious damage could be done. His brow furrowed in annoyance as his superstition kicked in. I bet I’ll hit all the red lights with this luck.

To understand why people talk about this rule, it is important to first understand that this whole scale of summary exists, and summary can never be fully removed (nor would you want it to). The point of the rule is that the more fine your description of detail, the more you will pull a reader in. Narrative summary is a problem if it takes the reader out of the moment.

Summary is how we remember books, but the great authors only give an illusion of continuity by creating a sequence of scenes where the time between them can easily be inferred by the reader. New writers often don’t realize this and try to explicitly fill it in, because this is what they think was done.

One of the most common examples of breaking the rule (in a bad way) occurs with backstory. This may be a flashback, or may be stray information. Either way, it is almost always better to turn it into a full-fledged scene that is not summarized or fit it in some more subtle way.

Consider this example. If the main character’s mother died when he was ten, you could say “Bob’s mother died when he was ten.” But if this is relevant information to the story, it will be apparent on its own through conversations or thoughts or interactions or whatever. There is no need to summarize it explicitly like that.

This is what the rule means. Avoid the summary. If it isn’t important enough for the reader to figure out, then it isn’t important enough to summarize. If it is important, then you are repeating the information needlessly and pulling the reader out of the moment.

All this being said, summary provides a moment of respite for the reader. It can be judiciously used to slow down or speed up the pacing. If you constantly describe every little detail of every minor, tiny thing that happens, you get a very intense experience that overwhelms the reader. There must be balance.

This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rules. If you follow the rule too literally, you mess the pacing of your writing up. Even when you are careful, if you break the rule (with good purpose!), critics/editors/reviewers have an easy target: look at this amateur, doesn’t even know to show and not tell.

Are you screwed on this rule? Kind of. The only thing you can do is read the prose of people you admire and really think about how they get their balance right. I imagine this is something the greatest writers struggle with even after decades of success. Maybe I’m wrong.

Let’s see how Cheever handles it in The Wapshot Chronicle. I’ll skip the first chapter which is basically a creative way to get some quick information on each of the main characters. The literary world seems divided on this. Half of writers think you can break the rule in the first few pages to get the reader grounded somewhere. The other half wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. The second chapter is a full family history. This, again, used to be more common back in the 50’s when the novel came out. The third chapter gets to the first real scene (we’re only talking about 15 pages in).

Mr. Pincher’s horse galloped along Hill Street for about a hundred yards–maybe two–and then, her wind gone, she fell into a heavy-footed trot. Fatty Titus followed the float in his car, planning to rescue the charter members of the Woman’s Club, but when he reached them the picture was so tranquil–it looked like a hayride–that he backed his car around and returned to the village to see the rest of the parade. The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady, she chewed tobacco and she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends. He loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

“I ain’t going to stop her now,” Mr. Pincher said. “She’s had a lot more to put up with than the rest of you. She wants to get home now and I ain’t going to stop her.”

Mrs. Wapshot and her friends resigned themselves to the news of their captivity. After all, none of them had been hurt…

The summary all but disappears. The only place I see it sneak in is when Cheever outright tells the reader “…she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends…” According to Rule 3 (and even Rule 1), this is an egregious error, because we get shown this fact soon after when he prioritizes getting his horse home over letting the group of women off the float. Not only is this needless repetition, but the summary gets shown a few sentences later.

One could argue that the only natural way to guide the reader’s attention properly is to put that summary in. It flows naturally as language and lets the conversation veer in a different direction. On the other hand, it feels like you haven’t tried hard enough if you can’t think of another way to do it. Cutting much of the rest of that first paragraph and continuing with the scene takes absolutely nothing from the novel and keeps the scene moving without repetition or narrative summary:

The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady. Mr. Pincher loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

You might find this to be extremely nit-picky, but this is why it sometimes takes years to edit a book (and other, less meticulous, popular writers take less time). These changes are so minor that they don’t seem worth it. It’s true that a typical reader can read something carefully polished in this way and something less polished yet good enough to get published and not be able to articulate any of these differences. But over the course of a novel, there will be thousands of these tiny differences, and they add up to a very different reading experience.

The Wapshot Chronicle was John Cheever’s first novel, and my guess is it would be harder to find these subtle repetitions and unnecessary lines of summary in later ones.

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