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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » Interesting storytelling technique

Author Topic: Interesting storytelling technique
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I was watching a German movie called "Mostly Martha" (*Bella Martha* in German), written and directed by Sandra Nettleback, and I noticed an interesting storytelling technique.

Martha, a high-strung chef de cuisine at an elite fine-dining restaurant in Hamburg, is expecting a visit from her sister Christin and Christin's 8 year-old daughter Lina. Martha is having a typical high-pressure evening at work when she receives a phone call; we don't hear the other side of the conversation, but Martha simply hangs up and says to her sous-chef "I have to go."

Next we get a brief shot Martha sitting in a hospital corridor crying, followed by Martha returning home to her apartment. She plays a message on her answering machine from Christin saying that they were running late and that they'd try to make up the time but Martha shouldn't wait up. The next morning we see Martha at the hospital, where a doctor tells her that Lina doesn't know yet that her mother died last night.

What's really interesting about telling the story this way is that while events are shown in strict chronological order, by withholding information it *feels* like the story is unfolding backwards. We see the consequences first, and then gradually learn the cause. It's effective because the audience knows that Martha is going to end up with Lina if they've seen the trailer or read the capsule review. Telling it this way throws them off balance; they can't be sure that this really it. The script avoids going through predictable motions just because they're necessary for the plot.

This struck me as a clever way to tell this part of the story, and perhaps uniquely cinematic. You could attempt it in third person narration if the narrative distance wasn't close; the camera does not tell the story from within the head of any one character the way we're all encouraged to do these days. But the montage depends on the camera's power to pack a lot of information into a brief shot.

Anyhow, I wonder if you could try something like that when handling a key event the reader knows is coming; to reveal the information gradually so the reader can't quite be sure this is what he's expecting.

The movie itself is aimed solidly at the distaff side, with long drawn-out scenes of romantic tension which won't be to everyone's taste. It trots out the old steroetypes of driven, uptight Germans and free-spirited Italians too. But it's well-made and often funny. I especially liked the scenes with Martha's therapist. Movie characters usually have therapists so that the audience has access to their thoughts, but Martha stubbornly refuses to talk to hers about anything but cooking. What's more, her therapist obviously can't stand her; at one point her obstinacy goads him into an angry tirade, and when Martha asks him whether he's this mean to all his patients, he snaps back, "Only the ones who deserve it."

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I know now that film jump cut transition technique as ellipsis or more precisely as extended ellipsis, A situational ellipsis is an omitted word or phrase readily inferred, sometimes signaled with ellipsis points.

An extended ellipsis is a more profound implication readily inferred spanning more than a word or phrase. The phone call and one-sided conversation depicted in Mostly Martha prepositions an extended ellipsis' setup. The stepped transition is set up by Martha receiving a phone call and having to leave abruptly due to undisclosed circumstances, the implication. An entire action is left out though implied and readily inferred, Martha's trip between work and the hospital for starters.

This technique is used to develop through antagonism and causation at least curiosity if not empathy for tension's development using also dramatic irony. And is common in film and prose though infinitely varied.

Third-person objective and detached narration most resembles film's camera objective. That's probably a strong and effective way to practice the technique though I've noticed its use in even first-person subjective. Like Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons.

I set a self-imposed rule for a short story I wrote for a workshop that all third-person narration would be given objectively and detachedly (spy-eye or fly on the wall) in standard paragraph indentation, and first-person subjective given in double indented single lines and second-person reflexive given in triple indented single lines. Auditors of the technique thought it worked for them mostly. Some in the workshop thought it was too gimmicky. A few enjoyed the story without noticing any special method. Universally, though, the story's kernel meaning was well-received.

In the end, I realized that the differences of opinion were a matter of variable sophistication degree in reading skills. I've worked on the method since, refining its "rules" so that it's accessible to wider audiences. The writing principle that most has influenced the method's development has been understanding ellipsis in all its potentials.

Oddly, the extended ellipsis principle is a creative writing method not realized fully in dictionary definitions nor rhetoric texts and not much in poetics texts, though the latter is where its domain applies. Its extended variants are mentioned by linguists, semioticians, and semanticists, though. Seymour Chatman gives the extended ellipsis variant much detailed discussion in Story and Discourse.

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