Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How do you slow down time in your prose?

Y'day, Scott talked about his new strategy to slow down time at critical points in his story. I got home from work, excited to slow down my own fiction, when I realized that I only had a few tricks for doing it.

Here's an excerpt from my fictional fictional story, The Cyberlama Cannibal. Spoiler alert, we're in the penultimate chapter and we are reaching the climax of the story.

The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. The man kissed the lama's robotic feet. He stroked the lama's robotic ankle knobs. Cyberlama aimed his subatomic particle departiculator at the back of the man's head and fired. He was dead. The lama picked him up and began to gnaw.

(Dear Pulitzer Committee, you can reach me at dmalasarn (at) gmail (dot) com or call me at 555-Word.)

Now, let's say I wanted to slow this down. I have decided that this scene is important, and I want to make sure that's clear to my readers. What can I do?

One approach that I'm embarrassed to admit I do fairly often is what I call "the window approach." It would go something like this:

The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. The man kissed the lama's robotic feet. He stroked the lama's robotic ankle knobs. Cyberlama aimed his subatomic particle departiculator at the back of the man's head and fired. He was dead. Outside, the sun was setting, and the fragrance of jasmine came in through the high window. The lama stopped just long enough to take in the sweetness in the air before he picked his victim up and began to gnaw.

As stupid as this example is, I do think it serves to slow down the scene like I had intended. It gives CL a bit of humanity, perhaps some emotion (albeit not much) before he gets to his task.

Another approach I use, which is slightly better in my opinion, is "the stopped and looked approach".

The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. The man kissed the lama's robotic feet. He stroked the lama's robotic ankle knobs. Cyberlama aimed his subatomic particle departiculator at the back of the man's head and fired. He was dead. The cyberlama turned and looked across the way at the dingy gray walls that surrounded him. He stared at the walls for a long time. He listened to the noise in the street as a bus full of rowdy children drove by. Then, he picked his victim up and began to gnaw.

Again, I think this manages to slow the scene down and assign the character a moment of contemplation, perhaps regret or some other emotion. It works, but at the same time it's limited in what it can convey. A character staring out at nothing can only give you so much information.

When I'm feeling the most energetic and the most imaginative, I'll do a sort of expansion, like looking at the scene under a confocal microscope (which is similar to other microscopes except that it's optimized for thick sample visualization):

The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. The man kissed the lama's robotic feet. He stroked the lama's robotic ankle knobs. Cyberlama aimed his subatomic particle departiculator at the back of the man's head. He saw the pale part in the man's hair, the goosebumps and beads of sweat that formed there. He noticed that the man was whimpering, a sound that reminded the lama of a young yak that had once fallen through the ice in a frozen pond in U-tsang. The whimpering started softly and slowed down to almost nothing. The man did not look up, but instead kept his head lowered, his forehead touching the cyberlama's feet. He fired. The man was dead. He slumped over. His departiculated brains drifted upward like a thin trail of cigarette smoke. The lama picked him up and began to gnaw. The taste of the flesh was sweet. He chewed several times until the flesh formed a mush in his mouth, and then he swallowed it down to his electronic stomach and turned on the digestive valve.

What I like about this method is that it stays focused on the matter at hand, while the other two approaches I mentioned above have more of an escapist feel to them. I'm not sure how much emotion can come through using the microscopic approach, unless one decides to do some telling or perhaps bring back some symbols that had been set up earlier. Still, it's an approach I try to do more of.

In general, these are the three ways I have of slowing down fiction. I'd be curious to see what other people do. Feel free to use the cyberlama example or one of your long as it also has cyberlamas in it.

What techniques do you use to slow down time in your prose?


  1. There's another technique for this I discovered recently while reading The Iliad. It's more intrusive than your approaches. Some of it may be particular to the ancient poetic-epic form, but I think it can be adapted to a modern novel fairly readily.

    What it does is describe action in scene, then steps back and gives a metaphorical description of how that action proceeds before the scene moves on.

    So it's something like this (this is not Homer, just my poor apeing of the style): "Patroclus and Sarpedon leapt from their chariots and began to fight. Imagine a lion, chasing a stag through plain and field, hours on end, weary but borne on by ravenous hunger for the kill, who finally corners the beast and lashes out, eager for victory as the stag is for life. That is how they clashed, the bronze-shod hero Patroclus and godlike Sarpedon. Patroclos threw a spear, but the shaft passed by Sarpedon, striking his driver, and darkness veiled the man's eyes. Sarpedon in turn lofted a huge boulder, . . . ."

  2. Nice prose example, Davin, and I'm sorry, but that little insert to the Pulitzer committee had me laughing really hard. ;)

    I like the examples you have here aside from the gore factor. This makes me want to analyze my own writing to see which approach I use most. I'm thinking I usually go for the microscope, but I'm not sure. The other two seem like if they are not handled correctly, they could pull the reader out of the story much too easily.

  3. Jabez, That's a really interesting example. Thanks! As I was was reading what you wrote, I found it to be quite effective. It distances the reader someone, but in a way that makes me more engaged. That's really cool.

    Michelle, sometimes you just have to spoon feed the Pulitzer committee a bit. :)

    It was funny, I was reading smoe Hemingway last night to find out what he does to slow time down, and the first thing I saw when I opened up The Sun Also Rises at a random page was a description of the weather outside. It definitely does work in the right hands!

  4. Jabez: Homer does that all the time, starting up a scene and then giving you a simile and then resuming the action. It would be hard to get away with that nowadays, but it would be an interesting experiment. I also like the way Homer, at the halfway point in the Iliad, jumps hundreds of years into the future to describe the battlefield being reclaimed by nature long after the heros are all dead, and then he jumps back into the battle. That was amazingly cool. I stole the technique for the final climactic chapter of my novel "Killing Hamlet," where the timeline loops around from the story present to the future to the past and back to the present and then into the future and then into infinity. Fun times.

    Big D: Here's what I do.

    1. Longer sentences, keeping the strong verbs far apart.

    2. Details (your microscope) in the scene that harken back to earlier details, especially in a climax. The climax details should echo details found in the very first scene of the book. I also use the "window" technique, but it's got to do more than to slow the narrative down; it has to expose something about the action or the characters, preferably in an ironic manner. I have no examples, but maybe later I'll dig out my own cyberzombie MS and quote something.

  5. Scott, the longer sentences approach is interesting. I'm trying to think if I've ever done that, or if I even know what you're talking about. I'm pondering.

  6. Those are great examples! I like the details you kept adding, very nice. :) Happy Wednesday!

  7. Davin, the following isn't quite what I mean, but you can see where this passage has been expanded and slowed down from the original, which was something like, "Cocke and Bull surprised the priest on the road outside of town. They had been hiding in the trees all morning, waiting for a victim to come along."

    Two men, John Cocke and William Bull, sit on horseback at the edge of a road, hidden behind a screen of birch trees. It is late spring, and the horses have trampled a patch of white crocus under their hooves. The woods buzz with the voices of insects and birds. The air smells of fresh earth, flowers and growing things. Cocke and Bull sit quietly astride the horses. They have lived as highwaymen often enough in the past to have learned patience. The road runs north and south, roughly parallel to Chesapeake Bay, inland some dozen miles from the water, connecting farms and market towns. Someone is sure to come along eventually.

    Someone does. Bull hears the approaching horse before Cocke and signals wordlessly, pointing to the north. They sit up in their saddles. Each man checks the brace of pistols he has pushed through his belt. Cocke drags the broad brim of his hat down and pulls a kerchief up to cover the lower half of his face. Bull does the same.

    The traveler, soon to be a victim, soon to be a corpse, rides into view around a bend in the road fifty yards from Cocke and Bull. It is a priest riding a dun-colored nag. He wears a black suit of wool with a wide-brimmed hat upon his head, the very clothes in which Cocke will later masquerade himself in Joppa.

    The traveler’s horse is laden with full saddlebags and several small trunks are strapped behind the saddle. Cocke licks his lips at seeing this, wondering what good fortune will befall him upon opening those bags and trunks. Bull slips a pistol from his belt, feeling the weight of it in his hand. This, he thinks, will be child’s play.

    When the priest has ridden to where Cocke and Bull wait, the men dig their spurs into the flanks of their horses and burst from their hiding place. From the road, to the eyes of the priest, it is as if Cocke and Bull materialize out of nowhere, coming forth into the world from the very air of the forest, horses in mid-leap. Bull rides ahead of the victim as Cocke comes behind him. The priest draws back on his reins, stopping in the road, bewildered by the sudden manifestation of these two men.

    Bull raises his pistol and levels it at the priest’s head.

  8. Thanks, Carol! Happy Wednesday!

    Scott, Thanks for putting this up. I'm going to look at ir more closely, but I have to go count some algae.

  9. Scott, Thanks again for the example. It does help me to clarify what you mean in my head. It was funny you chose this section, because it was one of the more memorable ones when I read your book the first time around. I'm not sure how much you've changed it--some of the language sounds different--but it feels very strong to me.

  10. Domey, thanks! I have no idea how much of this passage has changed since you read it. It's been through three passes of revisions, I think. My lovely agent thinks it's solid, too. Let's hope some lovely editor agrees and throws a contract at me.

  11. These are great ideas! However, I think your cyberllama is mean. I have a tendency of rushing through my scenes without contemplation. I need to slow down...

  12. Clarissa, Yeah, Cyberlama is not one you should mess with. ;)

  13. So I actually ended up doing this today in my revision process for, "Kansai Oniisan," the story I'm submitting to consideration for Stories from Sendai.

    The pivotal moment in the story happens fairly suddenly. I think it's pretty natural for it to happen suddenly. It's pretty "realistic" for it to happen suddenly.

    But as I was tweaking, I realized that even suddenly can be slowed down by using some of this techniques so that in terms of lapsed time in the fictitious world, it's still sudden -- but in terms of prose time in the narrative itself, the reader has a little more time to anticipate and prepare for the moment.

    So, good timing on these posts, Pee Domey and Near Brilliance.

  14. Thoughts and flashbacks: The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. This was not the first time he had been there. There was this time when such and such happened and he remembered thinking much the same as he was thinking just now how weak humans really were and… You get the idea. The ‘such and such’ could go one for a couple of pages. And the same with what he’s thinking.

    What takes place in a fraction of a second can be made to last several minutes by detailing exactly what was going through his mind. And the same goes for the mind of the other guy. You could even jump up to the ceiling and describe the situation from the perspective of a passing fly. I’m being facetious here but bear with me: a fly’s perception of time is very different to ours (at least I assume it is) and so what takes a few seconds for us could take several fly-hours. Or it might not be a fly, it might be a camera that’s recorded the scene and what you actually end up describing is a conversation between the two guys who’re reviewing the tape, rewinding it every now and then, speeding it up and slowing it down.

    There doesn’t even have to be a camera or a fly there. It’s enough that there might be: The cyberlama stood over the man, who cowered and begged for mercy. If there had been a camera in the ceiling at that time and if it had recorded what was about to happen then this is what the men reviewing the tape might have thought about what they were watching… Okay I want to go away and write this now so I need to stop.

  15. No cyberlamas, but here's a scene from one of my WIPs where I use the microscope approach to slow down time in an action scene:

    A noise – small, slight, but out of place – startled Chantal awake. She lay in bed for a couple of minutes trying to determine the source before realizing it sounded like an intruder in the cottage. Her cell phone was charging on the desk in her office/studio, leaving her without a way to call for help. As soon as this is over, I’m moving that charger in here, she thought as she moved silently out of bed, slipped on her house shoes and went to the bedroom door, grabbing the pepper grinder on her way into the dark living room. It may not have been a real bat, but it sure looked like one and it had enough heft to work as a weapon if necessary. Recalling a summer of girls’ softball league from her teen years, she choked up on the bat with both hands and prepared to swing if necessary.

    The living room was clear, so Chantal stopped and listened again. It sounded like the noise was coming from her office. Gripping the pepper grinder even more tightly, she walked across the living room to the office door, which was slightly ajar. Seeing a flashlight beam play across her desk and the wall behind it, she pushed the door further open with the grinder, entered and flipped on the light switch with her elbow.

    Startled by the sudden illumination, a masked intruder whirled away from her desk, which he was in the middle of ransacking, and flew at her. CHantal swung with all the force she could muster. The intruder tried to block her swing with his large heavy-duty flashlight, but he didn’t get his arm up quickly enough and the bat connected with the side of his head instead.

    The beech wood bat and the pepper grinder inside both broke, spewing beech shards, peppercorns and ground pepper all over the room. Chantal sneezed twice as she dodged to her left and ran for her phone while the intruder sprawled in the office doorway, dazed and bleeding through his mask from the impact of the grinder and sneezing from the pepper in the air.

  16. Jim, This is fantastic. Thank you! I was actually going to write a related post about this sort of thing based on how William Faulkner uses a technique very similar to your when he's dealing with high drama situations. This fits in perfectly.

  17. TraciB, that's most excellent writing. Thank you for posting it. You definitely show how slowing the scene down can have a great effect. But, more than that, I really like the voice you have in this. It's unique without feeling overworked. Your writing is lovely. The peppercorns were great!


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