Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Ratio of Scene to Narration

I recently had someone tell me this: "The balance between scene and narration is supposed to be 75% to 25%, actually."

As if novels can be written by numbers.

Notions such as this annoy me.
Being reductive is annoying. Image "Annoyed or Sleepy?
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Doug McGr.
I understand the need to try to figure out writing a novel when new to
the process--I've done plenty of that myself--but where do these percentages come from?

I maintain that, if you look at the books that you read, you will find wildly different ratios of scene to narration.

To exemplify this, I have taken a sample of the books strewn about my office. I opened the books randomly and made sure I was not at the beginning or end of a chapter, since those would tend to have more narration and the dreaded telling. Here's what I have come up with:

1. Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle
         What next? he thought, sinking wearily into the car seat. He hadn't sat there half a second before some moron was honking behind him, and he jerked the car angrily out into the street, ignoring the manufacturer's warnings, and roared up Ventura Boulevard for the canyon road.
          He was in a rage, and he tried to calm himself. It seemed he was always in a rage lately--he, Delaney Mossbacher, the Pilgrim of Topanga Creek--he who led the least stressful existence of anybody on earth besides maybe a handful of Tibetan lamas. He had a loving wife, a great stepson, his parents had left him enough money so he didn't have any worries there, and he spent most of his time doing what he really wanted to do: write and think and experience nature. So what was the problem? What had gone wrong? Nothing, he told himself, accelerating round a car trying to make an illegal U-turn, nothing at all. And then it came to him: the day was shot anyway, so why not go straight out into the hills? If that didn't calm him, nothing would.
          It was barely two. He could go out to Stunt Road and hike up in the hills above the ocean-he wouldn't have to be back until five for Jordan, and they could go out to eat. He turned west on Mulholland and followed it to where the houses began to fall away and the stark naked hills rose up out of the chaparral, and he cranked down the windows to let the heat and fragrance of the countryside wash over him. For once, he'd have to do without his daypack-he always carried a smaller satchel with sunscreen and bottled water no matter where he went, even if it was only to the supermarket or the Acura dealer, and he glanced over at it on the slick new spotless seat beside him. If he went home for his things he'd have to deal with the fence people-somebody new, somebody Kyra had got through the office-and he just wasn't in the mood for any more hassles today.
          When he got there, to the place where the trail crossed the road and a narrow dirt parking strip loomed up on the left, he cut across the blacktop and eased the car in: no sense in scratching it the first day. There were no other cars-that was a good sign: he'd have the trail to himself-and he stepped out into the grip of the heat that radiated off the hills with all the intensity of a good stacked split-log fire. The heat didn't bother him, not today. It was good just to be away from all that smog, confusion and sheer--he came back to the word--nastiness. The way the guy had just said "fuck you" to his wife, when he was in the wrong and anybody could see it. And Kenny Grissom. The hordes of the poor and downtrodden. Jack. The theft.
          It was then that he stood back and looked at the car for the first time, really looked at it. Brand new. Not a scratch on it. Not a dent or ding. He thought: Maybe I should go down into Tarzana to the car wash and have it waxed, to protect it, just in case. And then he thought: No, I'm here, I'll hike. He smeared his face with sunblock, tucked the bottle of mineral water down his shirt and started off up the trail.
          He didn't get far. He kept thinking about that new car-forty miles on it and four and a half thousand dollars on top of the insurance-and how vulnerable it was sitting there beside the road. Sure, this wasn't as busy as the canyon road, but if they'd got the first car, what was to stop them from getting this one too? The fact that it was quieter out here just played into their hands, didn't it? Fewer people to see the crime, as if anybody would do anything about it anyway. And any car parked here guaranteed that the owner would be away from it for hours.
          Suddenly, without thinking, he sank into the brush no more than a hundred yards from the road. He could see the car glittering in the sunlight through the stalks and branches of the vegetation that lined the trail. He was being paranoiac, that was all--you couldn't hold on to everything, could you? He knew that, but for the moment he didn't care. He was just going to sit here, sit here through the afternoon, hidden in the bushes, sit here and watch.

The highlights are the showing sections and what's left are telling. I will have writers in workshops say, "Why not show he was in a rage?" "What can you do to make him seem paranoid without saying it?"

What I want to say here is that we are writers of books. These are not films. We have an opportunity that films don't to give insight into the inner workings of our characters. We are telling stories of people--that means their actions, their thoughts, and their reasoning. Those things don't always come out naturally in dialogue or action. They often don't even come out explicitly through narration, but narration exposes some of that person for us to see and draw conclusions about.

Now, the above excerpt does not look like a 75/25 showing/telling split, so I pulled another section from a little later in the book, representing another character and also not at the beginning or end of the chapter:
          Candido was a wall, but the wall was crumbling. He wasn't used to the North, had seen snow only twice before in his life, both times with the potatoes in Idaho, and he hated it. His jacket was thin. He was freezing to death. And so, he became a moving wall, lurching up out of the ditch, crossing under a barbed-wire fence and making his way in huaraches and wet socks across the field to the barn, where he stopped, his heart turning over in his chest, and knocked at the broad plane of painted wood that formed one-half of the door through which the farmer had disappeared. He was shivering, his arms wrapped round his shoulders. He didn't care whether they deported him or not, didn't care whether they put him in prison or stretched him on the rack, just so long as he got warm.
          And then the farmer was standing there, towering over him, a man of huge hocks and beefy arms with a head the size of a prize calabash and great sinewy thick-fingered hands, a man who could easily have earned his living touring Mexico as the thyroid giant in a traveling circus. The man-the giant-looked stunned, shocked, as surprised as if this actually were another planet and Candido a strange new species of being. "Pleese," Candido said through jackhammering teeth, and realizing that he'd already used up the full range of his English, he merely repeated himself: "Pleese."
          The next thing he knew he was wrapped in a blanket, sitting in a big gleaming American kitchen, appliances humming, a steaming cup of coffee clutched in his hands. The farmer moved about the kitchen on feet the size of snowshoes. All the broad geometry of his back was in motion as he fussed over his appliances, six slices of toast in the shining silver toaster, eggs and a slab of ham in the little black oven that congealed the yolks and set the meat sizzling in two minutes flat, and then he was standing there, offering the plate and trying to work his face into a smile. Candido took the plate from the huge callused hands with a dip of his head and a murmur of "Muchisimas gracias," and the big man lumbered across the kitchen to a white telephone hanging on the wall and began to dial. The eggs went cold in Candido's mouth: this was it, this was the end. The farmer was turning him in. Candido crouched over the plate and made like a wall.
          There are always surprises. Life may be inveterately grim and the surprises disproportionately unpleasant, but it would be hardly worth living if there were no exceptions, no sunny days, no acts of random kindness. The farmer motioned him to the phone, and on the other end of the line there was an angelic voice, the sweet lilting gently lisping voice of Graciela Herrera, a chicana from a town five miles away, talking to him in the language of their ancestors. Graciela picked him up in her bright yellow Volkswagen and dropped him off at the bus station, where she translated for the ticket agent so he could purchase his ticket. Candido wanted to raise a shrine to her. He kissed her fingertips and gave her the only thing he had to give: the laminated picture card of the Virgin of Guadalupe he carried for luck.

This excerpt is somewhat closer to a 75/25 showing/telling split.

But please note that I am calling it a showing/telling split rather than action/exposition or scene/narration. This isn't accidental:

Action and exposition are integrated together to create the scene. The scene is conveyed by the narrator. It's really difficult to separate them, other than to say This part is showing and this part is telling.

I, for one, have recently realized that the parts I love most about a lot of books are the narration. The narrator is the personality of the book. The narrator chooses how to tell the story. (Yes, the narrator tells it!)

2. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

In case you didn't know from reading my blog, this is one of my favorite books and I use it in nearly every example. Here's the what a page in that book is like:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The people who say they skip narration to get to the dialogue are missing a lot in this book. How do you describe and contextualize the Detroit riots of '67 in dialogue? I guess you could, but it wouldn't take your breath away. Here, you get a little dialogue, a paragraph of how the narrator's dad used it over and over thereafter, a seven-year-old's impressions, a little history, the action, the norm, then back to her riding her bike past tanks and bullets to her dad ducking behind tins of olives, distant action, and then a paragraph speculating on the snipers. 

These two pages might actually be close to the 75% action if you consider summation of a scene, in parts, as action; it's action in several different places at once. Does this count?

3. I doubt that Gone Girl would have been the same if Gillian Flynn and said to herself, Hey, the rule is 75/25--I need to cut down on this exposition. How much would we have understood at all of that story without all the interior explanation?
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
These two pages are every bit exposition. It's all telling. Admittedly, I took this photo before I realized it was "the cool girl" speech, but I guess it's important enough that the book fell open to these pages. My point now is that the important sections of the novel aren't necessarily scenes, and this is a standout section. Exposition can be just as riveting as direct scene. So when you need to narrate, narrate your heart out.

Wait a minute.

4. Take a look at NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. There is well under 25% exposition. Does that mean it's missing something?

          What exactly is an African? Godknows asks.
          Shhh, look, Bastard says.
          The white man starts tearing the paper in his hands; he rips it and rips it and rips it, throws the pieces onto the ground. Then he starts trampling them with his feet, his enormous legs moving swiftly. A small cloud of dust lifts. He moves like dancing, stomp-stomp-stomp, as if he is hearing a drum somewhere in his head. The woman watches but doesn’t do anything.
          Then, as if that is not enough, the white man gets on the ground and starts pummeling it with his fists, just pummeling and pummeling, and I think of Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro when he fights with a demon. I picture the white man’s knuckles cut and bleeding, the brown earth drinking the blood. When he finally, finally stops, maybe because he has worn himself out, and just stays there on all fours, dangling his golden head like he will never look up again, the woman kneels there besides him and lays her hand on his broad back as if she is about to pray for him. Then her shoulders start heaving and heaving and heaving like she is crying for the world.  
          The guard just stands there looking. Then Sbho starts sniffling again.
          What, are you crying for the white people? Are they your relatives? Bastard says.
          They are people, you asshole! Sbho says in this hard, hot voice we have never heard before, and I almost fall out of the tree because nobody has ever called Bastard that. Never ever. I wait to see what he will do but he is looking at Sbho with confusion on his face.
          What are they going to do? Godknows says, and just as the question leaves his lips we hear the sounds of smashing. The white man and woman keep kneeling as if they don’t even hear the noise but the guard is pacing around nervously. I don’t know why he doesn’t run away, it’s not like his legs are tied, like his hands.
          Maybe they are killing things, Godknows says, answering himself. We sit there and listen to the sound of things breaking and crashing and falling and damaging.
          I want to be in there, in there smashing things, Bastard says, and he laughs. He has taken out his pocketknife and is stabbing at the tree, tattooing it.
          Me, I’m going home; I should have stayed behind with Chipo, I’m going home right now, Godknows says, his voice sounding like somebody who is fed up with playing.
          Wait. Wait until they leave, Stina says. Plus, look at the white people still down there, they’ll see us.
          I don’t care, I’m going. I’m not even hitting Budapest anymore, Godknows says. He starts to move, but Stina slides down his branch like a snake, reaches, and grabs Godknows by his Don’t Be Mean, Go Green T-shirt. There is a sound of cloth ripping. We sit in silence and wait, Stina holding Godknows by the shirt as if he’s a mad dog that shouldn’t be let loose. Bastard has finished tattooing the tree. It reads Bastad; he has left out the r but I doubt he even knows this.
No. It's not missing something. It's told the way the author and narrator needed to tell this very particular story.

When you're working through your novel, you might be tempted to listen to all the advice: to have an inciting incident in the first five pages or keep your chapters to less than ten pages or expose your "villain" to your readers by chapter two or to show-don't-tell or to follow whatever formula...

Every book is different. Every writer is different. Every story is different. You simply have to work out what you need for the story you are telling.

And you probably don't know what that is from the beginning--or even the second or third drafts. Maybe it will need to fit into a formula eventually. Maybe you do need to look for a balance, but
even the idea of "balancing" can be corrupted when we start using percentages.

So when someone starts saying that your protagonist needs to have a goal apparent on page one--and it doesn't suit your story--stop listening. He's not talking about your book.


  1. Interesting article, Robin. Of course, there's no Holy Grail. Rules like the 75/25 split can be useful for beginning writers. In fact, in such a case they can offer a frame of reference, a guide. But as it is the case with the vast majority of rules, especially those having to do with language, they should never turn into fetters.

    1. Thank you, Peter. That's precisely my point! (As usual, comments say what I try to--and more succinctly!)

    2. Don't worry, Robin. I think yours is a very well written post. For sure, commenting is way easier than creating. =)