On the role of memory in both reading and writing

By happy accident, over the last month, two of the novels that I worked on both revealed and illustrated what is for me the most fundamental element of narration, and of storytelling, which is the role of memory in the process.

Both books contain high excitement, fast-moving action sequences, but the two authors take a very different approach to narrating those sequences.

One (we'll call him Adam) tries (and often succeeds) to make the pace of narration match the pace of the action. Sudden events are suddenly described; fast events are described fast, fleeting view are fleetingly presented. Loud noises are loud. Pell-mell sequences of events are related pell-mell, and in sequence. The consequence of Adam's approach is that reading is fast and rather breathless. It is, in my opinion, a very effective approach to narrating excitement to seek to excite the reader, and when Adam's attempts are a success they are both enjoyable and exciting. In some cases, however, they fail. In those cases, the action is choppy (pace jumps around or changes gear suddenly and joltingly), confused, obscure or incomprehensible.

The other (we'll call him Bob), takes a more leisurely approach. In Bob's writing there is almost no onomatopoeia. Rather than telling the reader suddenly that something sudden occurs, Bob takes the time to give the reader a sense of the state of mind of the protagonist, leading up to the sudden event, and then takes time to describe it in some detail. He takes a couple of pages to describe a shoot-out that we learn from his description must have lasted a few seconds. When Bob's technique succeeds, somehow it manages to be just as exciting as Adam's. Sudden shocks and wild alarms are somehow just as shocking and wild when told from a fireside armchair as when told from a speeding motorbike. When Bob's technique is weak (it never fails completely) it is because he takes the time to give, sometimes, a little too much local colour or background detail. That said, because he takes more time, more space, more words, he has more opportunity to develop pleasing images, satisfying turns of phrase or amusing observations. This can and does compensate for occasional mismatches between the pace of narration and the pace of events.

Adam's technique is unforgiving. There is no room for mitigation or compensation.

If you're wondering why I'm not giving examples, it is because Adam and Bob's techniques, fascinating though they would be to study in detail and to learn, are not the issue. The juxtaposition of the two reveals something rather strange, which is that they both work.

Talking to authors, I get the impression that the ones who try Adam's technique are doing so because they have thought hard about how to convey the pace and excitement of events, how to convey sudden shocks and surprises, loud noises, etc. Those who use Bob's technique do so instinctively. The other differences is that over the small sample that I have available to me, the Adams are younger (generally under 35) and the Bobs are older (generally over 50). I think there may be a connection but my sample size is too small for me to formally claim causation from this particular correlation.

What interests me the most is the question "why do both techniques succeed?".

I believe it is all down to memory, and the nature of the way in which we all experience what we like to call the present.

I will take this into the realms of theory in my next post.

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