This weekend just gone saw us in Cardiff at the Film and Comic Con. We had an amazing weekend and had the chance to interact with huge numbers of cool people, all with similar genre favourites to us. All kinds of costumes and fandoms were on display, I had the chance to meet members of the cast from the original Hellraiser (yes I turned into a really soppy fanboy) and I was even lucky enough to sell loads of books. All in all I think that this was my number one convention to date.
But that’s not what I want to deal with in this post beyond what I’ve already pointed out.
Instead I want to look at the value of the time in stories which doesn’t take place. That delightful block of narrative which happens off the stage and only exists as remembered events that have shaped the characters as we see them.
I came home from another day at work and slumped down on the sofa as my wife watched Z Nation. In the show, a band of people have to evade the ever present threat of zombie attack after almost the entire human race has been wiped out or turned into the shambling creatures. Now I know that this seems to be really familiar as a plot device, especially at the moment as zombies are popular but having so very much action take place before you even join a story you present yourself with a very interesting chance.
The first point to make is that it’s a very nifty way to say almost anything. You can unveil almost any detail at any point and just refer it back to a time that no-one has seen before. How many stories have had action just take place at a never before discussed time and location which then allows the narrative to run away in a new and exciting way?
A second point to consider is that it can help greatly in drawing the reader into the story. The real world is rarely as tidy as having things unfold with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end so why would stories? We as readers are instantly familiar with the sensation of picking things up in the middle and having to do our best to match pace.
So why don’t all stories just jump into the middle if things and tell everything as flashback? Because although it’s familiar to find yourself thrown in the deep end, more often than not, we’re there at the start of events in our lives so we know exactly what’s gone into something. We recognise the sensation of just being thrown into something but that doesn’t happen with the same regularity as in stories.
The zombie genre lends itself perfectly to the structure of having the major cataclysm happen before we join the fray because other stories are about the cataclysm. Stumbling meat husks aren’t the stuff of sweeping action sequences but they are the perfect slow burn. They are the clean up after something big which just seems to go on and on as something which has to be endured. What we would all usually be paying attention to is discarded in favour of a very different story. We’re all forced to reassess how we would expect to behave in such a world and so very often, this time isn’t what we’re all used to assessing in our stories.
All in all, the narrative trick of not revealing huge chunks of the action is a magical way for an author to drop details back into the story even after it’s been published. There will always be the chance to reveal something which had been kept secret from the main character as well as the reader thereby putting you right alongside the protagonist as the story unfolds.
That and it’s a great way to correct errors later.