How the Rollercoaster Effect Can Improve Your Fiction Writing
What makes a rollercoaster so exciting?
The variety of speeds: first there’s the long uphill climb, then the dashing plunge down. The coaster slows again as it rounds a curve, only to accelerate again on the first loop-de-loop. Thrilling.
This analogy can help us think about how to make our fiction writing more exciting for our readers: we simply need to vary our narrative speeds.
According to Jane Alison in Meander, Spiral, Explode (Catapult 2019), narrative speed is calculated by determining “the differences between story time (how long an event in the story world takes) and text time (how long the telling on the page takes).”
Text to Story Time Ration
Much Text / No Story Time
Much Text / Little Story Time
Text Time = Story Time
Little Text / Much Story Time
No Text / Much Story Time
(menu from Jane Alison's Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative)
Scene is the most powerful and most common speed in contemporary fiction. It’s the showing part of the “Show, Don’t Tell” dictum. Scene is powerful because it allows the reader to experience the story world as if it’s unfolding on the movie screen of their imagination. To be in true scene mode, you must incorporate the dramatic principle, with two usual components: dialogue and overt physical actions that take about the same time to perform as to relate.
The next common speed is summary. It’s faster. Summary covers a large swath of story time in only a few words often directly told, as in narration. It’s the telling part of “Show, Don’t Tell.” There’s prejudice against telling because if it’s not done well, it becomes dreadfully dull. (This happened and this happened, and then they did this…blah, blah…). “The trick,” explains Joan Silber, “is to render summary as if it were scene,” by using all the sensory details, strong verbs, and concrete descriptions one would use as if it were a scene. Chekov's short stories are full of summary that reads like scene because of the detailed specificity. For more on this, I recommend Silber's The Art of Time in Fiction (Graywolf 2009).
Rick Moody’s “Boys,” is an example of a story told entirely in summary, but that’s written as if it were scene.
BOYS ENTER THE HOUSE, boys enter the house. Boys, and with them the ideas of boys (ideas leaden, reductive, inflexible), enter the house. Boys, two of them, wound into hospital packaging, boys with infant-pattern baldness, slung in the arms of parents, boys dreaming of breasts, enter the house. Twin boys, kettles on the boil, boys in hideous vinyl knapsacks that young couples from Edison, NJ., wear on their shirt fronts, knapsacks coated with baby saliva and staphylococcus and milk vomit, enter the house. Two boys, one striking the other with a rubberized hot dog, enter the house. Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house calling for mother. On a Sunday, in May, a day one might nearly describe as perfect, an ice cream truck comes slowly down the lane, chimes inducing salivation, and children run after it, not long after which boys dig a hole in the backyard and bury their younger sister's dolls two feet down, so that she will never find these dolls and these dolls will rot in hell, after which boys enter the house. Boys, trailing after their father like he is the Second Goddamned Coming of Christ Goddamned Almighty, enter the house, repair to the basement to watch baseball. Boys enter the house, site of devastation, and repair immediately to the kitchen, where they mix Lighter fluid, vanilla pudding, drain-opening lye, balsamic vinegar, blue food coloring, calamine lotion, cottage cheese, ants, a plastic lizard one of them received in his Christmas stocking, tacks, leftover mashed potatoes,
Spam, frozen lima beans, and chocolate syrup in a medium-sized saucepan and heat over a low flame until thick, afterward transferring the contents of this saucepan into a Pyrex lasagna dish, baking the Pyrex lasagna dish in the oven for nineteen minutes before attempting to persuade their sister that she should eat the mixture;
The pace is brisk. Everything the boys do is related in less time than it take them to complete the action in story time. The narrator gallops forward, creating an echoing cadence with the anaphora of “two boys…enter the house.” Moody’s story is less rollercoaster, and more driving down the freeway with cruise control set at 75 miles per hour. It works, though, because the entire story, from the boys’ birth to middle age, only takes four pages. It works because though it’s summary, we get all the fresh sensory details and specificity of a full-blown scenes: baby saliva and staphylococcus and milk vomit, rubberized hot dogs, doll heads, Pyrex lasagna dish. Each item creates a flash of imagery.
It's possible to go even faster than summary by using a gap. In a gap, “the text goes mute and we can leap over eons of story time…All sorts of things can ‘happen’ in white space: a few minutes, a month, centuries—leaving a place for the reader to ponder or guess,” writes Alison. Gaps are helpful for when writers want to play with chronology or when they want to flashback or forward in story time. Beware, if you don’t clearly ground your reader in time and place after the white space/line break gap, you’ll lose them. Example: “A year after the divorce….” “The summer I turned 12 we were living in Galveston…”
When you want to emphasize the emotional significance of a character’s experience, it can be effective to slow way down through dilation. Dilation stretches the story out by using a excessive number of words in relation to the short amount of story time elapsed, and often uses long sentences to enhance the effect. This works best when it’s connected to a character’s longing or conflict.
Finally, the least common (and slowest) speed is the pause. When you pause, story time stops completely to enter deeply into the character’s thinking time. It’s common in the “my life flashed before my eyes” trope. Use it with caution because if you spend too much time away from the action, alone with a character and her thoughts, you risk killing the energy of your story.
The best way to learn how narrative speeds work in fiction though is to read for them. Alice Munro is a master at modulating summary, gaps, and scene, but perhaps the most famous example is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” In 6 ½ pages, Wolff covers summary, scene, dilation, and pause. The most brilliant rollercoaster effects in contemporary fiction I know.
If you feel like a story you’re working on is losing steam, it could be because you’ve been stuck on the same narrative speed for too long. Switch it up and see what happens.
Read “Bullet in the Brain,” and label where Wolff employs each narrative speed.
Write someone’s life story using sensory-specific summary like Moody does in “Boys.” Aim to cover 4 or more decades in under 200-words.