Most readers want a smooth narration in their stories. They’d rather not have the story broken up, because it can be distracting. But sometimes, when it’s done well, a narrative can be broken up successfully, and still be a coherent story. It’s not easy to pull off well, but when it works, it can be an interesting innovation.
Some authors break up the narrative with asides to the reader. The ‘Queen team’ behind the Ellery Queen novels and stories did this more than once (I’m thinking, especially, of The Roman Hat Mystery). At some point in the story, the authors turn to the reader, as it were, and announce that all the clues are there. Then, the reader is invited to work out the solution. After that brief interlude, the story returns to a chronological retelling of the events, and then the solution.
We see just a hint of this in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings, too. In that novel, painter Sandy Campbell is found dead in a stream in Galloway, Scotland. Lord Peter Wimsey is in the area on a fishing holiday, so he gets involved in the investigation of Campbell’s death. There are six suspects, all of them artists. One of them is the real killer; the other are red herrings (hence, the title). At one point, Wimsey notices that something is not right about the scene of the crime. Here is how Sayers expresses it:
‘Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was looking for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.’
It’s an interesting way to tell that part of the story, and to invite the reader to engage in it.
Sometimes, the author chooses to use devices such as letters, transcripts and the like. This, too, breaks up the narrative, and can convey quite a lot of meaning. We see this in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. When the body of Kate Sumner is discovered near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset, PC Nick Ingram is the first police officer on the scene. He works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim and why. The list of possible suspects is soon narrowed to three: the victim’s husband, William Sumner; an actor named Stephen Harding; and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. Now, the team has to work through each suspect’s alibi and background to find out which one is guilty. Part of the information in the story is given in the form of transcripts, police files, hospital records, and so on. These pieces of information break up the narrative and provide detail in a different way.
You might argue that Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes doesn’t really have a narrative – not in the conventional sense. It’s the story of John ‘Duke’ Anderson and his plot to rob all of the apartments in a wealthy Manhattan building. As he gets the idea, enlists confederates, gets materials, and so on, readers follow along through a series of transcripts, notes, records, and other documentation. Each bit of information tells a part of the story, and it’s interesting to see how plot coheres, even though there isn’t one particular narrative voice that does that.
In one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is asked to come up with a new angle for a story to commemorate the (South Africa) Springbok’s 1981 tour of New Zealand. Often called ‘the Tour,’ the event was marked by a lot of controversy. At the time of the tour, South Africa was still under apartheid, and many New Zealanders didn’t want the Springboks to tour on that score. Others simply wanted to watch the rugby matches. And the police were supposed to keep order. There were protests, some of which turned very ugly, and everyone had to deal with that reality. Thorne doesn’t think there is a new angle for this story, as it’s been covered quite often. But then, she notices something. During some of the matches, two dancers dressed as lambs entertained the audience. Then, the lambs stopped attending. Thorne later finds out that one of them was killed. Now, she’s got an angle: what happened to the lambs? As the story of that day unfolds, Richardson uses interviews with some of the people there to help tell the story. Those interviews are woven into the rest of the narrative, and add to it, although they’re not, strictly speaking, part of it.
There are other ways, too, in which authors can break up, or interrupt, the narrative of the story. Sometimes, it’s a distraction, and can pull the reader out of the story. But, when it’s done well, it can actually have the opposite effect. Such breaks can actually invite the reader to process more and engage more. What do you think? Do you get distracted by breaks in the story? If you’re a writer, do you put them into your story?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rogue Wave’s Interruptions.