Back when I was talking about writing sex scenes, I talked about how they can confuse your writerly compass into forgetting a basic rule of writing: "you only need to write as much of the scene, and as much of the detail, as needs to be in there for the larger purposes of the story." Of course "larger purposes" doesn't just mean the bare bones of a plot - the particular details in a detective story which are red herrings or express the character of the victim are just as important as the actual clues and the murderer's motive. But I was surprised, the other day, when a friend who writes good, high-end mum lit said that she always starts narrating a scene where the action starts, and writes it in more-or-less real time through to the end.
I love my friend's books, so my surprise isn't a criticism. And Shakespeare had to do it, because he had to get his actors on and off stage, with no curtains or blackouts to help; it takes a reasonably experienced audience to understand what's going on in, say, Shared Experience's physical, crosscutting of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. But one of the joys of prose fiction is that by integrating everything of life into a single narrative which has no physical, sensory content at all, we're liberated from the awkwardness of physical representation. So there's no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time.
Most students quickly grasp the idea that you might start narrating a scene in medias res, and only a little later they realise that you might cut it before the end. But it much more rarely occurs to them that you might skim over bits of the middle; generally speaking, once they're launched on a chunk of character-in-action, they keep going till its finished. And I do it too, when I'm wrongly (as opposed to rightly) forcing myself to write some more in the teeth of Stuff in the rest of life: I plod on, pulling the action blow by blow out of myself and sticking it on the page. The higher sense - that intuition to use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative - isn't operating because I'm tired or stressed or not very well.The result is that quite a bit of what gets on the page may actually be not good storytelling, but merely the scaffolding, like many other things which are by-products of the way the creative imagination works.
I think the show-don't-tell brigade are partly responsible (they usually are), because their unsophisticated ideas mean that new writers are convinced that Showing means showing everything (I dealt with that one here) and that Telling is a "a no-no" for anything which isn't the most basic bit of necessary information. And the result is yards of stuff about coffee and traffic lights in real-time. Of course a character's drawing up at a red traffic light might be important - he misses the train - or his reaction very revealing. Still more so the contrast between the reactions of both people in the car, say. It might even be a plot point (he jack-rabbit starts away from the light, and knocks down his future wife...). But it might not, and what I'm trying to get at today is the idea that you can combine the infinite elasticity of narrative time, and the idea that showing and telling aren't really two separate things at all, to your advantage. For example:
'How long can you stay?' he asked.
She slung her jacket over the back of a chair. 'My bus doesn't go till six.'
'Good. I'll put the kettle on.'
They sorted out the business of coffee - when had she gone decaff-only? - and he waited until the kettle had boiled and the dog been let out into the garden before he said, 'Did you get my letter?'
There are various things you might be doing here. Putting in the coffee being made could just be to give us a sense of the overall pace and shape of the meeting. It also embodies the delay before he asks about the letter, alongside us being told that "he waited". Putting the dog in embodies the delay a bit more, plus you might want the dog to be scratching to come back in later, just as they're about to acknowledge that breaking up was a terrible mistake. But the decaff is, to me, the most interesting thing to think about. It's significant because it embodies an important change since they were together - her new man (woman?) is a health freak - so it wants to go in. It might be so significant that you want to write that bit in full dialogue and full thought-action, from his or from her point of view. But, equally, the story is pushing forward to the first turning-point of the scene, which is (presumably, I haven't written this story... yet) the moment when she tells him what she thought about his letter. You might not want to take the time that real-time narrative would to get to that moment; you might not want to give the changes that much significance, yet. It's up to you, and your larger purposes.
Two last points. It helps enormously to work scenes in this way if you have a firm grasp of the possibilities of free indirect style, (that's a big new post as of Sept '13) because of the flexibility it gives you: for example in the way his thought "when had she gone decaff-only?" can happen in the middle of what's otherwise a plain bit of telling. Without free indirect style, it's much harder to use the elasticity God - or rather Jane Austen - gave us, to integrate real-time action, real-time thought, and covering-the-ground, into a single, fluid, profluent narrative.
And it will all be much easier if you've got a good sense of the narrator as an entity, separate from the characters and separate from you, who has the power to tell stories however they're best told. This storyteller knows what happened, and is in control of what gets on the page. Once you realise that a narrator is not a camera (whatever those who haven't noticed that novels are not film scripts with a bit of description chucked in might say), you can start thinking of a narrator as director, editor, voice-over and cinematographer. And enjoy the power it gives you over time and space. Who says a narrator shouldn't be god-like?