Monday, April 28, 2014

From a View to a Kill

Write Like Fleming Series #2

So! Post number 002 in the Write Like Fleming series, in which I delve into the writing style of one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming. If you missed post 001, "Reflections in a Double Bourbon", click here.


Transitions from one scene to the next, and from one chapter to another, can often result in some tough decisions. Where do you start? Right after the last scene ended? Hours later? Days later?

On the one hand you want to move forward, keep the plot moving, the story moving, put your MC in new and increasingly tense situations. But you can't just jump ahead without explaining anything. We're not in a time machine here! We're telling a story. People want to know what happened in between.

In many of Fleming's Bond books, he uses a style I call the "Jump Ahead — Look Back".

He'll start a new scene or chapter by jumping ahead to an exciting moment in the story, one with lots of tension and interest, to grab your attention.

Then, once he's got you, he uses the opportunity to catch you up, by looking back at what happened to get Bond there. Sometimes the look back is short and sweet: quick summaries that get you up to speed. Often, however, they're much longer narratives, detailed chunks of the story that Fleming decided to tell *after* telling you what happened.

Here's an example.

In "From a View to a Kill", a short story in the anthology "For Your Eyes Only", Bond is tasked with solving the mystery of a murdered dispatch rider in France. The beginning of his mission sees him go through a series of interviews with the local secret service peeps, who basically tell him he won't find anything, and that he's wasting his time. Bond feels the same way about this assignment. In a few days, he believes, he'll be gone.

Next scene, Fleming "Jumps Ahead". We find Bond staking out a mysterious glade in a forest near the highway where the dispatch rider's body was found, decked out in full camo gear. Bond is on to something! How? Why? Cue the "Look Back".

Here it is in action:
Bond said goodnight and followed the aide out. As he walked along the neutral-painted, neutral-smelling corridors, he reflected that this was probably the most hopeless assignment he had ever been on. If the top security brains of fourteen countries were stumped, what hope had he got? By the time he was in bed that night, in the Spartan luxury of the visitors' overnight quarters, Bond had decided he would give it a couple more days — largely for the sake of keeping in touch with Mary Ann Russell for as long as possible — and then chuck it. On this decision he fell immediately into a deep and untroubled sleep. 
Not two, but four days later, as the dawn came up over the Forest of St Germain, James Bond was lying along the thick branch of an oak tree keeping watch over a small empty glade that lay deep among the trees bordering D98, the road of the murder. 
He was dressed from head to foot in parachutists' camouflage — green, brown and black. Even his hands were covered with the stuff, and there was a hood over his head with slits cut for the eyes and mouth. It was good camouflage which would be still better when the sun was higher and the shadows blacker, and from anywhere on the ground, even directly below the high branch, he could not be seen. 
It had come about like this. The first two days at SHAPE had been the expected waste of time. Bond had achieved nothing except to make himself mildly unpopular with the persistence of his double-checking questions. On the morning of the third day...

So, what does the "Jump Ahead - Look Back" do for this scene change in Fleming's story?

For one, it immediately makes things exciting. Bond goes from being in no danger, in a situation with no tension whatsoever, into one with extreme tension. As a reader, it feels like a jolt! It's just what this story needed at that point in time (it was, admittedly, getting "slow").

Two, it allows Fleming to summarize the events over the past two to three days, only going into detail and showing conversations from the most important moments. Rather than force us to experience those three days and everything that happened in them to get to Bond in that tree, he can quickly catch us up instead.

Third, it makes the events of the past two to three days more exciting. Rather than plod through Bond's investigation with us thinking "Where is this going???", he shows us that Bond makes an incredible discovery: a secret glade in the woods. Then he tells us about the investigation that led to it. It almost feels more satisfying knowing that in one of these seemingly harmless conversations, Bond is about to strike gold.

It's a great trick, and Fleming uses it often. Now I do too.

The Write Like Fleming Series:
#1 - Reflections in a Double Bourbon
#2 - From a View to a Kill
#3 - Tension, Mr. Bond!
#4 - Seascape with Figures
#5 - Interview with M
#6 - Dead Duck!
#7 - The Great Morass