Splicing the strands
This is the last in Derek Neale’s four-part creative writing series, ‘Developing Your Style’.
What do James Joyce’s Ulysses and Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders have in common. Not a lot, you may think. You would be wrong. The answer is time frame – the action of both is set over a single day.
This, Aristotle suggested, is the ideal time frame for a play. You may not always want – or be able – to confine your story to twenty four hours, but knowing your time frame early in the writing process is most important. This is true whether you’re writing a play, novel or film.
Last Orders was adapted for screen and it starred Michael Caine. The storytelling in the novel is achieved in a fashion very similar to the ways in which films tell their stories. It crams more into a day than you might imagine possible.
Films work by cutting from one shot to the next and from one scene to the next – without explaining the jump. This is variously called montage, cross-cutting or splicing.
One of the first films to splice strands in this way was a 1903 docudrama, The Life of an American Fireman. It cuts back and forth between firemen racing to a fire and a mother and child trapped inside a building. Eventually the two strands meet – the firemen rescue the mother and child.
We’re now all accustomed to this concise way of telling a story. It sets up an expectation and tension in the viewer, and it’s a method that can be most effective in novels as well.
In Last Orders four men go to Margate to spread the ashes of a friend. The novel splices several different perspectives of the day’s events. It also uses another method from film – flashback. Some of the strands reveal the back story, leading up to the day of the novel’s action.
Jane Rogers often splices strands in her stories, and a prime example is her novel Mr Wroe’s Virgins. She suggests that it’s a technique with pedigree, and one that is guaranteed to create and sustain suspense. And it is interesting that both Last Orders and Mr Wroe’s Virgins are novels with strands of distinctive and dramatic voices.
Swift’s novel is written in a stylised London dialect, using the present tense and with many typical turns of phrase. Rogers’s novel is historical but the characters’ different personalities and motivations lend them contrasting voices. One is religious, one is sexually knowing; one is politically aware, one is barely able to speak.
An exercise in splicing strands
I set my students an introductory exercise in splicing strands. You might like to try it.
Write a brief passage about a single afternoon (this is your time frame) in the life of a particular character that lives on a particular street. Then write about a different character, but set it on the same afternoon and street. The two characters shouldn’t meet. When you’ve finished see if you can cut and splice together sections of the two passages. Then write an end section where the characters do meet – still within the time frame.
You can try this using some of the techniques mentioned previously. Create characters you’ve researched, heard on the street or in cafés, characters with distinct and contrasting voices. Think of the eventual meeting of your characters as a scene. Make sure you start it at the right moment and don’t dawdle or stay too long.
Grabbing your reader
Splicing strands isn’t a technique ideally suited to short stories, but trying it out like this, keeping to a time frame to give you a tight structure, will allow you to see its potential in your larger projects. In novels it’s a proven way of grabbing your reader and making them want more.
Thinking of film scenes, dramatic voices and splicing narrative strands – these are some suggestions about how drama might have a positive effect on your storytelling.
Henry James’s advice – ‘Dramatize! Dramatize! – can be interpreted in a number of ways; I’ve just covered a few here. There are many more ways in which drama can inform, enliven and refresh your writing style, and help you to develop as a writer.
If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at: