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That Doesn't Track!

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by FifthView, Apr 15, 2021.

  1. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Lately I've run into a surprising issue while reading, a certain kind of messy prose I've encountered twice in a row now, from two separate authors.

    Things in the story...do not track. I'm not talking about significant story-level or world building features, nor about overall character development, but the simple flow from paragraph to paragraph and even sometimes from sentence to sentence. The prose doesn't track.

    Baseball may be a great sport, but I don't watch it. It isn't more tedious to watch than golf, but it's way too slow paced for me. But to be honest, I don't watch any sports, so what do I know? Sitting for hours in front of a television to watch millionaires run around a diamond or back and forth on a court or hitting a tiny ball hundreds of yards trying to find a hole isn't something I understand.

    —Wait a minute. See what I mean? Where did that last paragraph originate? How does the preceding flow into it; how does it flow from the preceding? You don't know me, so can you say it's the sort of thought I'd spontaneously have in my mind for some reason? Or is it just....there, forcing you (daring you) to fill in the missing pieces?

    I've been encountering this exact sort of thing when reading.

    Brain Salad

    Of the two examples from my recent reading, the first wasn't so bad as the second. The sort of spontaneous insert of non-tracking info was intended, I believe, to give depth to a character or insight into a character's thought processes. The author seemed to desire the sort of deep immersion into the character's mind that other authors do so well, but chose to create "character voice" by having the character spontaneously shoot out non sequitur nuggets without context. Were I that author, I'd erase everything after the first sentence of this paragraph and replace it with something like, The author was Jackson Pollock, plastering the canvas with the character's brain.

    And leave it at that. You've seen those other sentences, so you know what I'm talking about. You have the context. Suppose those other sentences never existed, and all I'd written was this:

    Of the two examples from my recent reading, the first wasn't so bad as the second. The author was Jackson Pollock, plastering the canvas with the character's brain.
    That's where the author would start a new paragraph, perhaps with, But the second author forced me to stop reading after I masochistically let myself finish reading the whole first chapter.

    Reading the first author, I could simply scratch my head a lot when a character's brain splattered like that from time to time throughout the story—Even though, I might add, the author also chose to have about 7 POV characters in the story and did this with all of them. In first person, for all of them. The story itself was clear enough and enjoyable enough for me not to mind the non sequitur bits leaking from the characters' heads. (But I was still often annoyed, since I don't like feeling I have to force myself to ignore things in the prose.)

    Scene and Brain Salad

    The second example from my recent reading was worse. I did stop reading after one chapter, and I'm still trying to decide whether to force myself beyond that chapter.

    Imagine using prose potpourri as your design principle for writing any setting and the events happening in that setting.

    Again, this attempt was intended to put me in the POV of a main character, but it failed miserably because I can't imagine anyone going through the world with a mind in several places at once, thinking about several unrelated things at once, hopping around so much that there becomes here becomes over there now and...back to here? Where were we? Are we there yet? What were we talking about?

    This is difficult to describe without examples, but the examples are too depressing to describe. So before I began to write this, I was trying to summarize the issue clearly in my own head, and I settled on "That doesn't track!" for a reason.

    First, the phrase generally implies, via a negative, the way prose should work. It should track. If you are telling me a story, and I am wanting to be told that story, then you should make clear what is happening every moment of that story.

    I mean, my moments. The real world moments I am reading your story. Sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph...lead me down that track, alright?

    From this perspective, a story is not a Jackson Pollock painting.

    It is not a random assemblage of dots that can form a picture if only the reader will use a pencil to connect them.

    When I read the next sentence in a series of sentences, I want to know a) that it connects to what I've already read, b) that it's most certainly going to connect in some way to what follows, and c) it is, on some level, important to the story. Even if these aren't 100% clear at the moment I'm reading that sentence, 60-75% clear, 40% clear is better than having a sentence that is utterly disconnected from where I am on the track of that story. (The less clear, the more likely some new sentence should soon make it very clear. That's kind of like a belated author apology to me, heh.)

    Second, the phrase in the title of this thread might relate to another medium, at least metaphorically. Tracking shots. In movie making. Here's the first paragraph from an article about tracking shots on the web site Film School Rejects:

    Tracking shots are similar to the long take because they both keep the audience engaged with the actions occurring on screen. However, instead of just keeping a certain shot in frame, the tracking shot is specifically meant to follow someone or something along as they move through the scene. When done well, the tracking shot should be invigorating, taking the audience down the same roads our characters follow.​

    That last sentence describes what our prose should be doing, at least in close narrative styles. And this metaphor helps me describe what was so bad in the second example from my recent reading.

    When a character enters a scene, he's going to be focused on something in that scene. As he moves, his focus will change. His focus could change many times throughout the scene. But in most cases, when his focus shifts, it stays until there's a reason for his focus to shift again. As the scene develops, there's some sense of progression, and the character's attention should reflect this. What he was thinking about or noticing when he first entered the scene is probably going to be in the past now, forgotten.

    If a prince about to be crowned king is worrying, thinking the coronation will be viewed by thousands of people, some of them enemies, when he first enters the hall, those thoughts will be different than the type of thoughts he'll have at the end of the coronation ceremony. If he first notices the marble floors and columns, the drapes, other environmental things when he enters the hall, he's not going to go back thinking about them after the ceremony—unless it's in some very new light.

    More than this, if the prince is truly progressing down that hall, drawing ever closer to the actual coronation, his focus will move with him. This is the tracking shot. If for some reason during the tracking shot you flash back to the first broken marble tile in the hall, for no reason, and then you "notice" a young noblewoman who stood just inside the door—after the prince has already made it halfway down the hall—I call that prose potpourri.

    It's not a great term, admittedly. But if you look at potpourri...what are you looking at? There's such a melange, mixed in no particular order. This is what that second author was doing. I could never tell exactly where I was in the scene, the distances between areas in that coronation location, and so forth. Sometimes I couldn't tell if the MC was still thinking about one person or another; he'd introduced several in the matter of a few pages in the first chapter, and he bounded about in context, back and forth, all over the place. If the MC's focus shifts so erratically, how can I, the reader, track where we are going and what is happening?
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2021
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    "Oh shit! There's the king of X! Did he notice that broken tile back there? Damn it, does he think we're some poor, impoverished kingdom that can't keep its grand cathedral in repair? I'm definitely going to have to spruce things up once I'm king. What was the blue of that one ladies dress by the entrance? I like that blue. Maybe I'll use that to decorate? Hm? Wait, don't I know that lady? Crap, that's So-and-so. Guuuuh, really hoping that she didn't take my declaration of undying love sincerely. Don't want drama over who my queen will be on day one."

    Or, just because you don't see the flow of logic doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
     
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Creating a flow of logic and using it as an example of a flow of logic doesn't quite track with the idea of not seeing a flow of logic in something that was not created with a flow of logic, right?

    By this I meant to include referencing something previously in focus. A new light. Obviously, the broken marble tile might have been noticed in passing the first time, and then the king of X is noticed, which brings back a recollection of that tile in a new light. New context, new meaning. And of course that train of thought could lead back to a recollection of a blue dress seen when he'd first entered.

    This is not what I meant to address, however. Actually, "logic" is probably not the right word. (Did I use it?) Something more like "flow of experience" or even "flow of attention" might be closer to the mark.
     
  4. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

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    I think this is where writing diverges from reality.

    In reality, these kinds of weird flows and strange leaps happen all the time. A smell or an image triggers some random thought or memory which we have no control over. In real life it's actually very normal for someone down the hall to go from a random person to a tile he saw at the beginning of the hall to what he had for breakfast to the lady he saw in the doorway to whatever. A mind which is not focussing directly wanders and it does so fairly randomly. Just go sit and stare out of the window for 5 minutes and see where your mind takes you.

    In writing, this sort of thing makes for a very weird experience. It's like writing dialogue. You want to give the impression of a real conversation, but you don't want to write an actual conversation with all the "how are you's", uhm's and ah's, and random divergences. It makes the writing slow and disjointed. The same with building a scene. You don't write everything a person actually notices and everything which happens. You write what helps establish the character and what moves the story forward.
     
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  5. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I like the idea of the tracking shot method. It's simple, easy to imagine and useful.

    As for the rest of the stuff, well I might be a bit too close to the subject to be properly objective.

    See, that's basically life for me.

    It's also life for a lot of people.

    The basic principle behind it has already been established here. Thought proceeds down a track until something makes it change course. Maybe the track itself curves as thinking about one subject leads you to thinking about another, or perhaps some outside input whacks the thought off topic. You know, something like realizing you need to pee or ninjas attacking.

    That's our baseline. It's easy to understand, right?

    Now, speed it up.

    Instead of a cart running down a track it's a BB flying through the air and bouncing off of everything. By time a normal person's thought process has gone from one thought to another their thought process has pinballed six different times already. If they then gave voice to what they were thinking when they're six steps removed from what everyone else then wouldn't that naturally seem a non-sequitor to everyone else?

    We're writers. That much must be easy to imagine, right?

    Cool, because that's just the basics.

    There's a bunch more and all the knock on effects of that stuff, but this isn't the place to talk about my personal goblin brain.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    QueshireQueshire, the example you'd given earlier is, to me, an example of stream-of-consciousness writing, or at least an interior monologue. I have nothing against that. There can be an internal logic, I suppose that's the streaming aspect, and the whole thing "tracks" for me because it's coming from a singular character in a singular voice and, in this case, the thoughts lead from one thing to another.

    It's also nothing like the writing in the second novel that recently inspired me to start this thread. Imagine a more or less typical, straight forward expository style (not stream-of-consciousness) but jumble up the information the character is delivering. Environmental cues, other persons mentioned, events and relationships in the past. Now imagine they are jumbled up for no apparent reason. They are not being delivered in a way that reinforces the mental or emotional state of the character.

    The difference is that the stream-of-consciousness is something I can imagine a person actually living, but this other jumble...well, much less so. Sure, when real people try to explain or describe things, what comes out is often jumbled; but I think their experiences are not. The experience is more like a flowing stream, actually.
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2021
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Prince of SpiresPrince of Spires, yes, I think this is similar to the issue of writing dialogue. Even stream-of-consciousness writing should be intentional, right? That's part of the smoke and mirrors.

    I like the metaphor of the tracking shot for this reason. The audience sees what's in front of the camera, through the lens. There's a whole lot of other stuff to either side, out of frame or behind the camera, but the director and cinematographer want the camera to be pointed where it's pointed because that's where they want the audience to focus their attention.

    Writing prose is not exactly cinematography. The author can take an audience into the head of a character via use of a very tiny "camera," so to speak. If done for a movie, you'd see brains, not thoughts, and they'd probably need to utilize cgi or models, heh.

    But the principle is the same.
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2021
  8. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    This, I think, is where beta readers can help a lot. The examples you ran into out in the wild, were they self-published books or traditionally published? Do they feel like a professional editor went through them? On a different forum I had a discussion about stream of conscious writing and what separates "good" from "bad." And there is a distinction, it's just not obvious like a spelling mistake would be. I don't know what it is since I'm not that well versed in the style, but it does exist.
     
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  9. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

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    "Brain salad" is a great description of some works that are now classified as great literature. James Joyce, for example.

    Personally, I hate those "great literature" pieces, because, as you say, they don't make sense. And they get forced on you in high school and college, which makes it even worse.

    But if you want to be Jackson Pollock with words, there's a niche for that. That niche may be torturing future students, but hey, someone thinks it's great.
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    ChasejxyzChasejxyz The first book was traditionally published. The second was independently published.

    The first periodically gave me moments of Huh? whenever a character would throw out some non sequitur; but these were never important to the scene or story, and I could simply move on. The scenes were otherwise clear, and I actually enjoyed the story.

    My best guess is that this was a stylistic choice. The author followed the notion that a character already knows the context of her own thoughts, so naturally the character wouldn't elaborate or provide the context. Why bother, if it's not actual dialogue with another person but simply the narrative of the story? But the result was the occasional non sequitur that tripped me in my reading.

    The second novel was less clear in the first chapter, and I never made it past that chapter. Curiously, it had two authors, and since reading your questions I've wondered why they didn't "edit" each other or at least point out unclear development for the scene.

    I don't think a little lack of clarity is incredibly rare. It happens from time to time even in many otherwise well-written novels, at least in my experience. I'll encounter Huh? moments and need to reread something. But most of the time, this doesn't happened continuously in a novel, heh. The first chapter of the book I read was a jumble from start to finish. I actually groaned when I finished reading the chapter and closed my Kindle. I couldn't believe I'd had my hopes up for the book when I purchased it.
     
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Rosemary TeaRosemary Tea I'm really not trying to single out a whole style of writing, but simply what I consider to be examples of bad writing. Some bad apples in the barrel. I assume that any style of writing will have great results and horrible results, depending on the person writing it and the use they put it to.
     
  12. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    From here it sounds like the first one is just a style that doesn't jive with you, which is fine and normal. Some people don't like first POV, some don't like multiple POV characters, that's personal taste. While the second just sounds....not finished. Two writers could mean a lot of things; plenty of celebrities "write" books but the vast majority of it is written (ghost or otherwise) by someone else (a "real" writer). So the celeb might come up with the concept/basic outline and the other writer does the other 99% of the work. Or maybe they swapped scenes or chapters, kinda hard to know from just reading one chapter...either way it seemed to have made an experience that was so crappy and unpolished that you can't make yourself read it. Whcih is why editing and beta reading is so important.
     
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  13. LAG

    LAG Minstrel

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    Lack of subtlety, inability to balance the need for prose flow with the need for information transference.
     
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