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In an omniscient third person, I have 8 (practically unrelated) events going simultaneously in different parts of a large mansion. I want to present these events as they happen, but I feel jumping around every two sentences is bound to cause confusion!

Are there any prose or typographical tricks I could use to make this easier on the reader? The idea is to preserve a sense of hectic momentum, so a little confusion would be fine.

Thus far I have tried taking the perspective of an inanimate object that naturally passes through these events at a rapid pace (An overly-aggressively thrown bouncy ball), but I found the scene(s) quickly became about the object rather than the events.

I suppose the exact feeling I want to elicit is a prose equivalent of, in film, the variable time single-shot scene. I realize this is impossible, but I think exploring the options I have would at the very least be educational.

  • 1
    Learning reading opportunity: S.M. Stirling's Nantucket/Emberverse series, there is almost never only one timeline running in any of the 18 novels. – Ash Jul 18 at 14:36
  • Another reading (or viewing) opportunity: Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy of plays "The Norman Conquests", each featuring the activities of the same characters in the same time-frame, in different parts of a single house, with many cross-references between them - though the three plays make sense when watched in any order. – alephzero Jul 19 at 0:00
  • @AdamUraynar I am really starting to wonder if I should delete this question if it is that badly misunderstood. – Weckar E. Jul 19 at 21:55
  • .....................ouch. – adamaero Jul 21 at 21:53
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If your goal is hectic momentum, then two-sentence paragraphs with a visual indicator of "scene change" might work.

Colonel Mustard frantically wiped up the table. No one would believe he hadn't done it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Miss Scarlett straightened her dress, patted her hair, and checked her makeup in her compact. She had to look impeccable or the detective would see right through her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Detective Black charged up the stairs. If she was fast enough, she might catch him in the act.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Colonel Mustard stuffed the towels in the laundry chute and threw the pipe out the window. He fussed with the curtains far too long. Someone was coming down the hall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the kitchen, the timer rang.

And so on. It's a little obvious, but it might work.

  • I think this would indeed be the way to go. It would require a bit of setting up (getting each character established in a location first), but seems elegant and effective. Out of respect to others and their time zones leaving off the accept mark until 24 hours after asking, though. – Weckar E. Jul 18 at 14:52
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    This seems like a good way to portray multiple short, fast-paced vignettes with a lot of momentum, but could become fatiguing if you repeatedly have to revisit the same characters, as readers might lose the flow of action for a single character. It'd be tough to write a very long sequence or an entire book in this fashion, but could be really cool for a relatively short, action-packed chapter. – Nuclear Wang Jul 18 at 20:40
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    @NuclearWang - I agree. As a reader I would tire of this very quickly. – Thomo Jul 18 at 22:29
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    I agree with both of you: I wouldn't do this for long stretches, but a few pages, once, should be fine. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jul 19 at 9:48
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You could try using a common element outside of any of the scenes themselves to establish a common reference point in time.

For example describe Alice and Bob having a heated marriage argument but being forced to resume their happy facade by the dinner gong calling everyone together.

Charlie and Danielle are describing their plans to murder the Countess but are interrupted by the sound of the dinner gong going off.

While Eric is frantically searching for the incriminating document in the Count's study knowing he only has till dinner to do so as the Count always spends the evening after dinner in his study, again being interrupted by the gong.

This way each is scene is distinct, so there is no confusion between them, and the common element of the gong shows they all happened simultaneously. While the hectic momentum would be shown within each scene rather than between it. By using short sentences and joining each scene mid way through maybe.

I think this would be more similar though to lots of rapid jump cuts in a film rather than the long single shot.

The next scene should perhaps be the dinner scene with each of the characters reacting to each other for their own reasons to reinforce that everything happened immediately before this scene.

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    This would also work with a common "starting gun", begin the description in every room with a reference to some singular event. "Charlie heard the church bell begin its morning peal. [...]" Next "Alice heard the church bell begin to ring, and hurried her scrubbing. She must be down for breakfast or they'd be suspicious [...]". Next "Marcia heard the church bell ring. I'm late, they'll be here any minute, she thought. [...]" etc. Re-orient the reader on the same unique event at the beginning of each description, and then take all the space you need to describe what is happening. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 18 at 13:38
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    If you have a very large number of scenes then you can also use "Anchors and Chains" rather than each scene reusing the exact same "Starting gun" event. - Scenes A, B, C, and D might start with the Church Bell, then at different points in scene A and B they slam open/close the Pantry Door - Scene E in the pantry skips the bell, but clearly notes the door slams interrupting it. [Various scenes establish 'anchor points' that get 'chained together' to establish time flow.] – TheLuckless Jul 18 at 17:14
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This rapid scene-switching works in film because you can establish exactly where you are and who you are with in an instant, with a framing shot or something else that recalls one.

In a novel, you either have to re-describe the setting or you need shortcuts for recalling it.

Lauren Ipsum's example of starting each short scene with the primary character's name (or occasionally, the room), and keeping each scene separate from the other, works very well.

You have two basic approaches as options here.

  1. Tell a normal narrative, perhaps moving from setting to setting as an investigating person does, or not. But every-so-often, have a set of short scenes.

In this case, I would also set aside the sequence of short scenes (the "check-in bits") from the rest of the narrative. Either in a separate chapter or in a sub-chapter with a divider of some sort (one more substantial and different from the dividers between the short scenes themselves).

  1. Have short scenes throughout the story and intersperse them as needed.

In this case, you'd have longer scenes taking up most of the space, but you'd throw in short (or medium) scenes when important to do so. Simply set them apart visually with a divider of some sort (it can be subtle) and always "frame your shot."

Even a film would not keep up the rapid switching for too long, and your novel shouldn't either. It's wearying on the eyes.

Adding in short scenes so the reader knows these things are happening simultaneously and gets a sense of what other characters are doing? Very possible. Just make all transitions crystal clear. Both in the fact that there is a setting switch and where you are switching to.

  • I did intend this to be a device for a single scene, not a story. I hoped that was clear. – Weckar E. Jul 18 at 22:35
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    @WeckarE. It wasn't clear in the question but that's okay. While you don't want overly broad questions, I think it's fine to leave yours a bit ambiguous about when you would use the technique. Since the question is about the technique itself. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 18 at 22:43
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Index event(s), things that either happen to everyone or that everyone is expecting to happen will help keep the timing of the various POVs synced up. Examples of things that happen include loud noises, physical motions of the setting such as a house shuddering or a ship turning, or completely non-physical event that makes the characters collectively react in some way. Examples of things that are expected include deadlines and events organised by the character(s) for a particular time.

To differentiate between the scenes clearly you need a division of aesthetics between your POVs. This usually done by having the different characters have "individual voice", this is not unique to parallel timelines it's universally good technique for clearly defining characters, use different internal voice and/or dialogue styles. It can also be achieved in some cases by using different form language for describing the setting when the different timelines are taking place in different spaces.

To create a hectic feeling have the characters panicky rather than risk confusion to the reader. Readers who are confused tend to go back and reread passages to make sure they understand what's happening, this will hammer the momentum of the scene.

  • There is no internal voice (not quite needed in omniscient), but otherwise I see what you mean. – Weckar E. Jul 18 at 22:34
  • I'm used to third person omniscient including at least some of the characters' thoughts expressed as thought by the character, thus "internal voice", I grand it's altogether more common in first person narratives. – Ash Jul 19 at 11:05
3

Confusion arises when readers can not orient themselves in the story. While complex storylines, lots of characters or multiple parallel events can lead to disorientation, they are not the source of it.

What you need are anchor points so the reader is never lost. The more rapid your pace or scene switching, the stronger they need to be. Cyn is right that rapid switches work in movies because you can put so many anchors into a shot - the lighting, colour scheme, weather, background and so on.

You could establish relatively simple but specific anchors and refer to them to make people understand where they are and with whom. In the mansion, maybe one unique feature about the room and one about the character, both to be mentioned in the first sentence after a scene switch.

Another trick used both in movies and written stories is to not jump between the scenes, but transition. Your scenes all happen within the same building, so you can "walk" your reader between them, like so:

(bla bla bla, scene in dining room)

All this commotion was barely hearable on the stairway outside, and even less so at its top, where the king was at the same moment meeting with the ambassador.

(bla, bla, scene between them)

On the same floor, just across the hallway and beyond the second door, the princess was still awake.

(bla bla, scene with princess)

Giving the reader a transition allows him to a) understand that the action is moving to another place and b) gives him orientation, in this case spacial.

As long as the reader knows where he is and with whom, he will not be lost.


One more word: Frantic action does not have to mean short and frantic writing. The beauty of the written word over movies is that you can disconnect the time it takes to read a scene and the time that actually passes in the scene. That goes both ways. Roger Zelazny has a brilliant piece in the first book of his Amber series, where after describing some battle action in detail for a few paragraphs, he continues with "and for hours, they died and they died". That is brilliant pacing because he already established enough detail, everything else would be repetition and it moves the story along. In other parts of the series he takes two or three pages to describe actions that take but a few seconds within the story. As a reader, that works, because all the details he describes advance the story or paint a better picture of some character.

You can easily do the same. Just because the action is fast doesn't mean you can't write enough words to let the reader keep his orientation in the story.

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