Focus, Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at the importance of focus in describing a person. Now we’ll consider its uses in writing narrative.

 

A narrative is a sequence of events, or series of actions. Of itself, a narrative is not necessarily a story, but it’s certainly the stuff that stories are made of. Everybody likes an interesting, exciting, fast-paced narrative.

But what makes a narrative interesting, exciting, or fast-paced? Well . . . the event itself has to be interesting, right? Not necessarily. Compare the following two paragraphs:

The day began badly for the peace-loving mountain Schlepps when warlike Errkmans from barbarian-invadersthe nearby valley of Errk invaded their settlement. First they ambushed the guardian dragon and cut off its head. Next they slaughtered the bunty-herders with their gentle, pink-wool-bearing flocks. Then they swept into the village where most of the Schlepps were still sleeping, killed the village elders in their beds and struck down every able-bodied man who tried to resist. Women and children were herded to the village square and tied together, with no regard for their weeping and pleading. All day long the captives were marched over the mountain passes, reaching the fortified city of Errk shortly after sundown. There they were sold as slaves.

 

coat-shoppingWhen we got to Wal-Mart I could hardly wait for Mom to secure Timmy in the shopping cart and take out her list. “I’ll meet you here at the front in fifteen minutes,” I said, trying to sound casual. She just nodded, thinking I was going to browse among the electronics as always. But when she turned toward the grocery department I ducked into women’s wear. The fresh smell of new clothes surrounded me as I brushed my fingertips over the sweaters and slacks and looked for the yellow “clearance” signs sticking up over the racks. I would have to move fast to find one particular object, buy it, smuggle it out to the car and return without her suspecting anything. There it was! The rack of “All-Weather Coats/were $34.99/now $19.99.” I remembered Mom, just before Christmas, fingering a bright red coat and reluctantly deciding she couldn’t afford it. But her birthday was in two weeks, and for once I was thinking ahead. Eagerly I searched the rack for the bright red, satin-lined, size medium. But as I pawed past one coat after another, my heart sank. The one I was looking for wasn’t there.

 

Judging by events alone, the first paragraph is more “exciting.” So why is it so boring to read? It’s as if one of the bloodthirsty Eerkmans wrote, at the end of the day, “Dear Diary: We attacked the Schlepp village early this morning and everything went according to plan. Killed one dragon, three village elders, and lots of bunties. Bagged 127 women and children to sell as slaves. Good day’s work.”

The second paragraph narrates a trip to WalMart: big deal. But the writer doesn’t tell about driving to the store, getting Timmy out of the car, walking past the greeter, etc. She has a purpose in mind for the narrative, which is to describe a disappointing moment. She provides enough background for the reader to know where she is and what she’s doing, but the focus is on that moment, and the events and details build up to that.

(Incidentally, if the writer leaves it at this, she’s written only a narrative. But if she goes on to resolve this situation somehow, by discovering a substitute birthday present or wrestling the coat from another lady who wanted to buy it, that would be a story.)

 

It’s the focus that determines whether a narrative is interesting or not. The Errk-attack paragraph includes strong actions with strong verbs and nouns, but it attempts to describe an eventful day with the same amount of detail–that is, very little. On the other hand, if the writer tried to develop every event with sensual details and emotional impact, he would exhaust himself and the reader too. The narrative would be much more effective if it shone the spotlight on one incident:

The watch-dragon raised its scaly head, alerted by an alien noise.

 

General Goorn raised his sword at the city gate, speaking in a hoarse whisper. “Remember, men: he who resists us shall die!”

 

Little Patrone fought down a sob as the strange man in armor pushed him out the door of his house; out of everything safe and familiar.

 

The focus allows a writer to explore the moment and add the details necessary to create an emotional impact. “Emotional impact” doesn’t mean your readers should be sobbing uncontrollably by the time they finish the paragraph; all it means is that you have added enough human interest to make the narrative appealing.

 

Try this: imagine your composition teacher has assigned a paper on “What I Did Over Christmas Break” (or Summer vacation). This is the World’s Most Boring Assignment–why? Because it’s so broad the narrative threatens to spread out into a huge flat puddle in which everything gets equal attention. Which means that none of it is very interesting. Think of one incident in your Christmas or summer vacation that stands out: the highlight of the ski trip, the moment you realized your purse had been stolen, or the funniest thing that happened on the job. Everything in the narrative should build up to that, or illuminate that, or fill in the details about that one moment. Make sure the incident is focused enough: not the entire ski trip, but that first or last downhill run or the compliment you got from the Olympic champion in the lodge.

Once you have determined a sharp focus it’s much easier to determine what details to include and what impressions you want to communicate. The narrative may even write itself!