Thursday, October 7, 2010

Funneling: A Few Words on Narrative Momentum From My Friend Bruce Black

The idea came to me one steamy summer day as I was swimming laps. Writing can be such a lonely profession, and I was feeling cut off from friends and colleagues after our move to Florida. But that day the process of swimming–touching water that other swimmers had spent time in, watching other swimmers dive into the water– helped me feel connected to a larger world, and the idea for a blog (with swimming and water as a metaphor, of sorts, for writing) emerged out of that.

These are the words of a children's-book-editor-turned-writer Bruce Black on why he started his excellent fiction-writing blog, wordswimmer. As a college student, Black used to escape to the library to read Cheever and Updike in back issues of The New Yorker. Black, who has published in prestigious children's magazines Cricket and Cobblestone, further explains how he hopes readers will benefit from his blog:

A better sense of how they write and what works best for them, a sense of how each writer is different and needs to find his or her own way into a story, a sense of hope and faith in the power of words to lead them where they need to go. I want readers to come away from each posting with the feeling that writing offers a path to understanding, and that stories are our way of exploring the world, and that writing can illuminate our world and our inner selves if we approach the process from the perspective of curiosity and a sense of adventure and joy in the process.

I'm thrilled to share with you a post on what Bruce calls "funneling," a means of narrowing and therefore quickening/tightening the narrative momentum of a story. I was particularly taken with this particular post, but you should definitely check out Black's blog for yourself. His posts are helpful, specific, and inspired. I'm a fan.

Thank you, Bruce Black!

Sunday, August 08, 2010
Funneling

If you’ve ever hiked along a stream, you may have noticed how water slows where the stream widens and picks up its pace in places where it narrows.

And if you’ve ever followed a stream down a slope, you may have observed how the slow-moving water at the mouth of the stream, where the bed is widest, plunges faster and faster down the slope as gravity and the narrowing streambed exert their forces on the water’s flow.

The same energy and forces that you observe in nature can also contribute to the creation of energy and force in your writing, especially in the opening sequences of chapters, if you let your story pass through a funnel.

A funnel is just another way of describing a way of presenting information, and funneling is the process of moving that information from a broad, wide-angle view in close to a particular point of interest that, like a leaf carried by the current, draws the reader's attention into the scene.

So, funneling means starting out from the slower, wider view of the story and picking up speed as the story flows toward that narrower, closer point of interest.

Here’s an example from a chapter toward the end of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, an adaptation of the legends of Robin Hood which I picked up after viewing the newest film version of Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe portraying Robin.

The opening paragraph of the chapter begins:

The high-road stretched white and dusty in the hot summer afternoon sun, and the trees stood motionless along the roadside. All across the meadow lands the hot air danced and quivered, and in the limpid waters of the lowland brook, spanned by a little stone bridge, the fish hung motionless above the yellow gravel, and the dragon-fly sat quite still, perched upon the sharp tip of a spike of the rushes, with its wings glistening in the sun.

That’s the wide-open end of the funnel, where the story is presented in an overview of the countryside at first, but then, within the slowly swirling pool of the opening paragraph, Pyle focuses our attention on the dragonfly... so that even within the paragraph itself there’s a funneling effect.

Here’s the second paragraph:

Along the road a youth came riding upon a fair milk-white barb, and the folk that he passed stopped and turned and looked after him, for never had so lovely a lad or one so gayly clad been seen in Nottingham before. He could not have been more than sixteen years of age, and was as fair as any maiden. His long yellow hair flowed behind him as he rode along, all clad in silk and velvet, with jewels flashing and dagger jingling against the pommel of the saddle. Thus came the Queen’s Page, young Richard Partington, from famous London Town down into Nottinghamshire, upon her majesty’s bidding, to seek Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest.
Notice how out of the general picture painted in paragraph one, Pyle then draws (narrows) our focus from the wide angle to the road... and points our attention to the moving figure on that road, the young man who is then described in great detail.
(Again, notice the movement from overview to specific details, the Queen’s Page brought into focus much like the dragonfly in the first paragraph).

Here’s the third paragraph, which is where the flow of the story begins to pick up its pace, as Partington’s mission begins to take shape:

The road was hot and dusty and his journey had been long, for that day he had come all the way from Leicester Town, a good twenty miles and more; wherefore young Partington was right glad when he saw before him a sweet little inn, all shady and cool beneath the trees, in front of the door of which a sign hung pendant, bearing the picture of a Blue Boar. Here he drew rein and called loudly for a pottle of Rhenish wine to be brought him, for stout country ale was too coarse a drink for this young gentleman. Five lusty fellows sat upon the bench beneath the pleasant shade of the wide-spreading oak in front of the inn door, drinking ale and beer, and all stared amain at this fair and gallant lad. Two of the stoutest of them were clothed in Lincoln green, and a great heavy oaken staff leaned against the gnarled oak tree trunk beside each fellow.

In three paragraphs we’ve been drawn into the scene... having arrived at the place where the Page meets (unknown to him yet) two of Robin’s men who will ultimately lead him to Robin so that he can fulfill his mission and request Robin’s presence in London Town on behalf of the queen.

Pyle adapted and published the tales with his illustrations in 1883, but the technique of funneling –zooming from wide-angle to narrow, close-up– continues to be used in storytelling today.

Here’s the opening paragraph from Chapter 56 of Daniel Silva's newest mystery adventure, The Rembrandt Affair, which came out a few weeks ago:

The farm lay some fifty miles to the west of Washington, at the point where the first foothills of the Blue Ridge begin to sprout from the edge of the Shenandoah Valley. Residents of The Plains, a quaint hamlet located along the John Marshall Highway, believed the owner to be a powerful Washington lawyer with a great deal of money and many important friends in government, thus the black limousines and SUVs that were frequently seen roaring through town, sometimes at the oddest hours.

Note, as in Pyle’s work, how Silva provides the reader with an overview of the landscape (the slowly spinning water at the top of the funnel), drawing the reader closer and closer (zooming in, narrowing the view), focusing on the specific details –the black limousines and SUVs–to hold a reader’s gaze (like the dragonfly).

Now look at the second paragraph of the chapter:

On a bitterly cold morning in mid-December, a dozen such vehicles were spotted in The Plains, far more than usual. All followed the same route–a left at the BP gas station and mini-mart, a right after the railroad tracks, then straight for a mile or so on Country Road 601. Because it was a Friday and close to the Christmas holidays, it was assumed in The Plains that the farm was playing host to a weekend Washington retreat–the sort of gathering where lobbyists and politicians gather to swap money and favors, along with tips on how to improve one’s golf swing and love life. As it turned out, the rumors were no accident. They had been planted by a division of the Central Intelligence Agency, which owned and operated the farm through a front company.

What just happened?

That’s the effect of funneling–moving from a slow-moving overview of a scene into the scene itself, gathering details in the same way that a stream gathers force and energy as it descends a slope, from a wide-mouthed opening to its narrower bed of swiftly flowing water further downstream.

5 comments:

Jessie Carty said...

love when a writer can put into words what I've been trying to even explain to my comp students! :) great help!

emilberry said...

So glad you directed us to this in your post. Very timely for me as I am in a hard re-write of my first 3 chapters of my novel-in-progress...Thinking of you as I read Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, magic and food and southern superstition. Love it! Makes me think of Alice Hoffman, only set in the South. Hope to see you at NCWN conference in a few weeks. :)

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, yes, it's a pretty amazing post. I love wordswimmer. Every post is a really insightful and practical rumination on a specific issue of fiction-writing. Excellent stuff.

Susan Woodring said...

Emily, so glad you're finding this useful, and I'm so thrilled to hear about your progress with your novel!!

Yes, I read and really enjoyed Garden Spells--it was featured the summer before last in our library's summer reading program. I thought the exact same thing--Alice Hoffman in the South! Yay!!

Unfortunately, I won't be at the conference, but I'm really thrilled you're attending. I found some very useful workshops there when I attended last year. I know you're going to love it--please report back!

towriteistowrite said...

Since first reading this post several weeks ago, I've seen examples of funneling everywhere. It's always been there, but I had to know its name before it came into focus.