Monday, March 16, 2015

Narrative Gaps

What’s missing from the following passage?

     “Have you heard from Gil?” Miranda asked as she lit her cigarette.
     “No,” Nikolai replied, frowning at the smoke. “But he’s usually bad about checking in.” It was unusual to hear from Gil more often than once a week.
     “But you’re worried anyway, aren’t you?” Miranda blew some more smoke in Nikolai’s face and then smiled.

The hint to what is missing is those words “some more.” We’re told that Miranda blew some more smoke into Nikolai’s face, which implies that she’d done that once already. But that first time wasn’t shown—she lit the cigarette, Nikolai was bothered by the smoke, and then she was already blowing the smoke a second time.

This is similar to the perspective error mentioned here, but it’s a more general, widespread problem. The problem with these little gaps in the narrative is that they knock the reader out of the story. You don’t want your readers pausing to look through what they’ve read, thinking that perhaps they missed something earlier. Confusion is the enemy of immersive reading.

These sorts of small gaps in a scene are usually the result of a series of edits—relics of earlier drafts.

Cleaning up little narrative gaps after numerous drafts and re-writes is a little like trying to keep your house clean while children are living in it; there's always a new problem to fix.

Perhaps the author deleted the section of dialog wherein Miranda first blew smoke in Nikolai’s face without remembering to alter the later line of text. Maybe the author mistakenly thought she had already had Miranda blow some smoke and added the above instance without double-checking.

Unfortunately, since these errors tend to come about because authors are overwhelmed with trying to keep track of dozens to hundreds of edits at once, the task of catching them without aid is next to impossible. That’s where alpha and beta readers come in—find some friends who are attentive and thoughtful readers and ask them to go through your story and highlight any discrepancies you find. Once you’ve fixed the errors they found, ask a completely different group of readers to go over the story.

Another useful method is to search through your manuscript for terms such as again, once more, or some more—any terms that could indicate repetition. Make sure, if you've got someone performing an action a second time, that they actually performed it the first time.

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