Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Long Form: Persistence of Vision

Writing Wednesday

Toni McGee Causey has a post titled, "The Art and Soul of POV," that's well worth your time. In it she points out that in addition to, "point of view," POV stands for, "persistence of vision."

We often invoke persistence of vision to explain the fact that we see smooth motion when a projector shows a sequence of still images at a rate of more than 16 frames a second. Psychologists and physiologists don't have much use for the theory, but there's artistic truth in the concept that's particularly relevant to the art of the long form.

Each time a story element appears in the narrative we get a mental image of that element. Those images persist, at least on a conceptual level, and blend together to give us give us a synthetic view of the element. The remarkable thing, thanks to our ability to find patterns, is that our vision always includes more than we've been shown. Once we've seen enough of a character, we believe we know them because we can predict what they will do and how they will react.

In these terms, a key difference between long and short narrative forms is in the number of elements for which we can form persisting visions. The short form is like an evening out. The long form is a journey.

The artistic effect of persistence of vision gives us two keys for success in the long form:
  1. The images must all contribute to a consistent picture. 
  2. The implications in the collage of images must be congruent with the story.
Consistent Picture

In cinematography, an abrupt change in images is a jump cut, which we interpret as a change in context. In narrative, an abrupt change in character sticks out as an error of cheap trick. For example, readers won't accept a character that's been consistently kind to animals suddenly deciding to kick a cat. If kicking the cat is an important story point, then we need to see indications that the character might do such a thing before they actually do it.

Maintaining the consistency of the story elements is one of the challenges of the long form. On the flip side, the long form affords many more opportunities to show different dimensions of the element, weaving them together for the reader in a way that surprises and delights.

Congruent Story

Congruency is more subtle because it operates on the level of the readers expectations that go beyond the specific images you've shown in the narrative. My wife almost threw a book across the room recently when hours after the character finds true happiness (and scant pages from the end) they get run over and die. The twist was incongruent with her expectations, and she felt the author took the easy way out.

This is not to say that the story has to be obvious. Quite the opposite: done right, each twist and turn, whether character or plot, gives the reader a richer picture by showing all the images up to that point in a new light. The most artful narratives bring the reader to a conclusion that is surprising and yet inevitable.

Image: Simon Howden /

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