Dispatches | May 15, 2004

The interns are gone for a month, and Evelyn, Kris, and I are diving into what we call the “raw bundles” again. I’m afraid the bundles are winning. There are already 150 stories gathered against us.

Reading any and all submissions, I am reminded again of one of the most common problems in many of the stories that we receive at TMR. A lot of authors, even those with talent, have a hard time with narration. They’re stuck in scene.

Scene is easier to write than narrative because the author can merely bumble along with trivia. He said/she said/she looked concerned/he got up to go/he changed his mind/she wished he would/etc.

Unseasoned writers sometimes imagine that scene is inherently suspenseful. They’ve been taught to “show don’t tell” and haven’t yet learned to pay attention not to teachers but to great writing. Highly scenic writing is more often boringly detailed and micromanaged, with few of the bridges and elisions that make a story genuinely compelling.

To narrate, the writer has to know the background of a story and have a sense of where it is going, as well as a sense of what it might mean. Well-handled narrative demonstrates control, purpose and a sense that the story needs to be told. Its overall effect can be more suspenseful than that of scene.

For an example of good narrative, as well as of how rich with detail it can be, see the opening few paragraphs of Michael Byers’ story “Wizard,” from TMR, 20.2.