Installment IV of excerpts from Thomas McCormack's The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist
The previous post described what happens when the rich flow of detail falters. It has the effect of choking off oxygen from the story. We resume McCormack's exposition from there.
The one-thing-at-a-time scene
Here's an example of a principle from a celebrated editor of a generation ago, William Sloane:
"The enemy of fictional density is the one-thing-at-a-time scene, that simply shows you, the reader, one of the facets of the story, whether it be something about the characters or about the action or the setting, or whatever. All too often this thin scene is invented to convey a piece of factual information to the reader—a tea party where the characters talk about their ancestors and their families, and, perhaps, as an added fictional bit of icing on the cake, announce that a new teacher is coming to town. [But in] a good piece of fiction . . . all parts of each scene are working: characterization of the people, creation of the physical world of the story narrative motion, whetting of anticipation, resolution of the mystery characterization of the author—style inevitably does this—all the dimensions, and all at once."
Here's a second principle, a first cousin to Sloane's, tailored to address a particular feeling the responsive editor may register in the last chapter of a novel. The symptom is a feeling of attenuation, enfeeblement. The cause may be serial resolution. It can arise in novels with, say, more than three central characters. Each is wrapped up all right, but one by one:
Bridey betrayed Kevin to the British because he preferred her rival, Kate. She confesses at the end to Sean, who has married Kate. The intent of the scene is to reveal that she hates herself. Sean then confesses to his brother his relief: He's feared Kate had done it. Kate, miserable and angry because her hometown thinks she's a traitor, finally gets a letter from her aunt: The truth is out and the aunt begs forgiveness for her bad thoughts.
Parsed that way, its revision seems obvious: Let's have one colossal scene with all parties present. Expressed as a general rule of writing, this says: Resolve simultaneously if you can; it makes the narrative exponentially more powerful, and it tends to take on a life of its own, distinguished from the author-driven serial wrap-up. (This principle is one that technicians in film and theater have always seen better than those in the business of fiction.) But now we should underline that it is not a 'rule' for writing; there have been serial resolutions that have worked, and the editor must have a sensibility that will not be prevented by his intellectual grasp of the craft from realizing when a serial resolution is working and should be left alone. Which means that it's not a 'rule' of editing either; it says only that, if the ending feels feeble, consider the possibility that the cause is serial resolution—but also consider other causes, just as a doctor, aware of certain general symptoms, will test for a variety of possible ailments.
The premature flashback
Another diagnostic tip for a specific symptom: If the editor senses lethargy in the first fifty pages of a novel, he should look for a premature flashback. Unless it's a great story in itself, don't expect the readers to be interested in a character's background before they're interested in his foreground.