I was watching Disney/Pixar's Up a couple nights ago, and it really got me thinking. For those of you who haven't yet seen it, I'll try not to spoil anything. Basically, the first twenty or so minutes of the movie involve the main character meeting his future wife as a child and then shows their life together. Even though there's so much more to the story after they reach old age (the rest of the movie, in fact), that first twenty minutes is amazingly powerful, and poignant. All it is after their initial introduction is a montage without words. But it tugs on every heart string (I) have, and tells an incredible story. Without words. Without devoting more than thirty seconds to a single snapshot of their life.
I thought about this first part for a while, and realized that what the movie does there is tell a compelling and powerful story by only showing the most important parts. You leave that first twenty minutes feeling saddened that they're gone-- it seems as if the whole movie has already taken place-- only to discover there's still a lot more of the story to go. It's a masterful execution, and a technique we could all learn from.
If you haven't yet seen Up, I recommend watching it so you can see what I mean. If you have, I recommend keeping that first twenty minutes in mind the next time you're struggling with a narrative summary or a too-long story (I know I will). Some of the most compelling and powerful stories can literally tell whole lives in a few pages.
The key is the snapshots. I'll take one example, from the middle, that might have a slight spoiler. Carl, the main character, and Ellie, his wife, are lying on their backs watching clouds when one of the clouds takes on the shape of a baby. Suddenly, the sky is full of clouds that look like babies, and the way the two of them smile suggests they're going to try for one. They're shown decorating a nursery. Ellie paints the wall joyfully. Then the scene cuts to a doctor's office. Ellie sits in a chair, head in hands, shoulders shaking. Carl comforts her from behind.
We don't get a lot of information here, but it tells us everything we need to know. We have some questions: did Ellie ever get pregnant? Or, why can't they have a baby? But those questions pale in comparison to the story, and we're okay not knowing the answers. Saddened, but okay.
Using snapshots in your writing could easily and effectively reduce summarizing narrative to a powerful, yet brief tool to tell a story. I intend to experiment with it myself.
Do you think this would be an effective tool for you?