Storytelling is Linear

Marjorie plummeted from the clifftop toward the surface below. But the surface was an ocean battering the cliffs, so she didn’t die on impact.

She flailed and foundered. She couldn’t swim.

But it wasn’t an ocean of water. It was a lake of fire. Even with her flame-resistant bodysuit, she’d have burned in minutes if not for the vessel that hauled her aboard. Marjorie marveled at the translucent walls, for it was a blood vessel, and a massive one.

Up the bloodstream, Marjorie emerged in an atrium. Not the heart, but a starlit chamber.

She had wings, so she flew.


Well, that was one of my more absurd pieces,  but trust me, I’m going somewhere with it. Today I want to talk  about the limitations — and possibilities — present in the written word, and what it means for us writerly types.

Let’s start with the basics: language is linear. We can say or read exactly one word at a time. It makes the most sense when you contrast a conversation with photography. A picture is worth a thousand words because visual communication is not constrained by linearity. I can say, “The dog… jumped,” but you have to wait until I finish the sentence before you know what the dog’s going to do. By contrast, if you watch a video of the dog barking, you see both the dog and its actions at the same time.

English: Hallway at the Royal York Hotel
Your story is like this hallway, only with more pirates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think of language as a long hallway with many doors on either side. You are trying to walk from one end to the other, but as you go, you have to step over obstacles, occasionally stop, or even back up a few steps to let another person by. Eventually you’ll get to the end, but it will take time, and there is only one way forward.

For writers, this is problematic. You want to tell a good story. You can see the setting, the characters, and the whole plot in your mind’s eye. But what to tell the reader first? Do you describe the setting? Give some dialogue? How much description should you use? How do you organize the plot? Remember, readers can read only one word at a time. You may be omniscient, but your readers can only see straight ahead.

Today’s story illustrates this difficulty. In each sentence, did you find you had to revise your mental image of the action? Storytelling is linear. You can only picture what I’ve already mentioned, and even then only if I’ve written them without ambiguity. Is it a ship or a blood vessel? You can use the context to make an educated guess, but you can’t tell for sure without more information.

Sometimes this phenomenon is useful. I write a lot of flash fiction, and when I want to write a twist ending, sometimes I hold back a piece of crucial information in order to produce an emotional response: laughter, sadness, surprise, horror, warmth, and so on. Good jokes are made of this stuff!

I always feel like this when trying to write good sentences. (Photo credit: Lel4nd)

But linearity can be a huge headache. I’m talking about the problem of wordy prose. Speculative fiction author Cat Rambo wrote some advice on her blog recently on how to write well-crafted, complex sentences, and it really got me thinking. Long sentences are gorgeous when pulled off correctly, but when they’re less than masterful, they’re a train wreck. The hallway gets cluttered, and the reader can’t find her way through. Poorly organized prose forces her to reread several times in order to understand the meaning.

One of Cat’s best observations is how in well-executed dense prose, every  word carries its weight. This idea is at the crux of the oft-repeated advice to Murder The Adverbs when you’re first setting out to write good fiction. Adverbs tend to clutter the hallway and force more reevaluation than a good description would.

So what’s a writer to do? As someone hanging out on the amateur end of the pool, I recommend studying the heck out of the pros. Read, read, read. When you find someone whose style makes you melt into little puddles of happy, take a moment and really look at their sentences. Think about the order in which the information is presented.

And of course, in your own writing, be aware of the constraints of linearity. Try to picture things from the reader’s standpoint, and make it easy for the reader to race down the hallway. It’s hard to get lost in a good book when you keep tripping on confusing details and falling on your face.

Except I forgot to mention: you don’t have a face. You’re a peanut butter monster! Rawr!

If you’ve made it this far, have an excellent weekend! I am positively fried from the first week of school, but gradually finding my feet.

Do you like wordy prose? What do you think of the problem of linearity? What tips or advice can you offer to make wordy prose work?

5 thoughts on “Storytelling is Linear

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