4 min read

You can move a (prose) story forward outside of its scenes

In a video on "show, don't tell," Tim Hickson quotes an interesting passage from Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie":

If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I was around.

Mom began to mime things if she needed to let me know something. She tried to hug me the way she saw American mothers did on TV. I thought her movements exaggerated, uncertain, ridiculous, graceless. She saw that I was annoyed and stopped.

... Every once in a while, I would see her at the kitchen table studying the plain side of a sheet of wrapping paper. Later a new paper animal would appear on my nightstand and try to cuddle up to me. I caught them, squeezed them down until the air went out of them, and then stuffed them away in the box in the attic.

It's a heartbreaking passage in a story worth reading in full, but there are three interesting things—at least three—about the mechanics of this passage. First, this isn't a scene—it's describing an ongoing series of events. There's hardly any setting. Second, it still features concrete actions and reactions that move the story forward (as mentioned in the video). It's actually surprisingly fast-paced. Third, this passage tells and does some perspective-calling. It even explicitly calls out a few times when her actions are reactions to the protagonist's.

It's not a scene. This passage describes a series of discontinuous events. This passage doesn't take place in an hour or in twenty minutes with all events in between described. We don't even get a specific timeframe. It could be weeks or months or years. The events described aren't even necessarily linear in order. His mother staring at the wrapping paper and crafting the origami animals probably happened in parallel with their declining communication, even though it's described linearly after. This is clear in context because this passage is among a few more paragraphs of loosely connected events on similar themes.

We know the events aren't continuous because of the repeating cue phrases and words. "If Mom spoke to me in Chinese," "After a while," "Eventually," "Mom began to mime things..." and "Every once in a while."

This passage also doesn't describe or re-describe the setting. We don't stay in any one place for more than a breath, and they aren't described in detail. We get phrases like "the kitchen table," "on my nightstand," "in the attic," which are the closest we get to a setting for the action. This isn't a problem; I can easily imagine some setting or other for each action.

Second, this passage describes action. It shows a series of actions and reactions that move the story forward. His mother does at least three different things to try to connect with him despite the challenges. For each attempt, the passage describes what she tried and his reaction to that attempt, and in at least one case her reaction to his reaction: "Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether."

This passage doesn't dwell on the action. It's constantly moving forward: Action, reaction, action, reaction, action, reaction. Each one is just a single sentence, and sometimes less, just one half of a phrase: "If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her." Action, reaction. It's quick.

In other words, this passage is fast-paced. I find that funny—I normally think of pacing in terms of action sequences, and this isn't one. It's not a swordfight, and it's not a team of ice miners and space marines escaping an exploding warship. It's ordinary and everyday with little explicit physical motion at all.

(This phrase, "If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her," uses the past tense. It could have used the conditional "were to speak to me" and "I would," but it doesn't. Because it doesn't, we know his mom did speak to him in Chinese and he did refuse to answer her.)

It's interesting, and makes sense given the story, that his mother is the one to drive the plot forward at this point. The protagonist is not acting and dealing with the consequences of his action. Instead, the other main character, his mother, is acting and he is reacting to her. When I think of stories and their structure, I tend to think of the protagonist as the character who drives things forward. They want something, they try to get it, and in the process run into obstacles and consequences of their actions. But that model isn't a great fit for this passage— unless we think of his mother as the protagonist here.

(What if we thought of the role of protagonist as a ball that gets passed between characters over the course of the story?)

Third, this passage also tells and does some perspective-calling. "But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me." Direct telling. Another example: "I thought her movements exaggerated, uncertain, ridiculous, graceless. She saw that I was annoyed and stopped." We're told how the protagonist felt. The perspective-calling "thought" calls the perspective into question. We're in the first person, past tense, so the fact that he phrases it this way suggests he's ashamed and wants to distance himself from how unkindly he saw his mother at the time.

I also find it interesting how this passage describes her reaction: "She saw that I was annoyed and stopped." This could have been written, "She stopped," but that wouldn't mean the same thing. It's important for this passage to underline that she stopped in reaction, otherwise it would just be a meaningless action. It wouldn't connect back to what she wants. The sentence as it is doesn't mention the hurt she felt, but we know that's there, too. It's subtext.

Together, these discontinuous actions and reactions play out the consequences of the scene before this passage. Three times his mother tries to reach out to him, and three times he pushes her away. This builds tension. The mechanics allows the story cover a much greater span of time than if it had to play out the exact details of interactions over time. But we stay in touch with the story because the protagonist is still making decisions. His situation continues to move forward and change throughout the passage.