Ticking clocks in prose

December 21, 2013

The unspoken part of dialogue in fiction, the 'he said, she declared', acts as a clock. Dialogue's spoken part starts a perception of time passing in a reader, a perception that continue through the unspoken parts. For example, in

"I shan't."

"You shall, and like it."

"We shall see about that."

we perceive the two characters talking with no break. Compare it with

"I shan't," he said.

"You shall," she said, "and like it."

"We shall see about that," he said.

This dialogue we perceive as more leisurely than the first example. And we may slow it further by injecting actions.

"I shan't," he said. He glared at her.

"You shall," she said, "and like it."

He huffed. "We shall see about that," he said.

though the perception of time passing in that version is not much changed if we remove the 'he said, she said', as in

"I shan't." He glared at her.

"You shall," she said, "and like it."

He huffed. "We shall see about that."

Or we can abandon actions entirely and simply pass time.

"I shan't." The afternoon light was golden.

"You shall." Dust motes shone in the beam of light that fell on the floor before her. "And like it."

The burl of the floorboards shone. "We shall see about that."

Though the unspoken parts of the passage bear no relation to the spoken, and embody not a single action which would punctuate the passage of time, they drastically slow the ticking of the clock in the dialogue.

Whatever the speed, the clock should run smoothly. If we combine several of the examples above, as in

"I shan't."

"You shall." Dust motes shone in the beam of light that fell on the floor before her. "And like it."

He huffed. "We shall see about that."

the impression is of a student writer who has not yet mastered the clutch.

A similar clock runs in expository prose, punctuated by the appearance of new entities in the prose. Compare

Slithytoads are happiest in captivity when kept in cardboard boxes. The boxes need not be much larger than the slithytoad itself. The slithytoad's diet in captivity should consist of toenail trimmings and earthworms.

with

Slithytoads are happiest in captivity when kept in cardboard boxes. The boxes must be chosen to provide adequate living space. The slithytoad's diet in captivity should consist of toenail trimmings and earthworms.

The second passage's clock ticks faster as the new, abstract entity of 'living space' is introduced at the end of the second sentence. The end of the sentence is where, in lucid English, new entities appear, so controlling the rate at which they do sets the pace of the clock. Just as in dialogue, an uneven pace of arrival leaves the reader feeling rattled.

Naturally, the dialogue clock drives mostly fiction, and the exposition clock mostly nonfiction. But are there examples which switch this?

A few minutes thought brought to mind several examples of the expository clock used to drive fiction: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Jorge Luis Borge's Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote and much of his other work, and, more obscurely, George William Curtis's Prue and I.

The other direction is less obvious. The only example that occurs quickly to me is Victor Wooten's The Music Lesson, which is written in scenes of action and dialogue despite being a very precise, technical text on playing music.


Did you enjoy that? Try one of my books:
Nonfiction Fiction
Into the Sciences Monologue: A Comedy of Telepathy