Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’
Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions, said Ludwig von Mises.
And so is plot.
But unlike life, plot is selective — and what that means, among other things, is that the author is the selector.
The author chooses the actions his characters undertake.
This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways that fiction differs from journalism, and it’s why “the pressure to record” is not — contrary to what the Naturalist School of Art would have you believe — the primary function of art.
Art creates. Journalism records.
In life, there are a great many actions which are mundane and of no major consequence — whether it’s walking around the block, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or yawning.
Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon. Art isolates and clarifies those issues, condensing into one single unit what in life might be spread out over a period of years, or even decades.
That, in a nutshell, is the purpose and power of art.
A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action. If, therefore, your story isn’t presented by means of physical action, it isn’t a novel. It may be a journal, it may be an epistle, it may be a memoir, it may be a diary, and it may be many other interesting things as well. But it is not a novel.
It’s important to note here that physical action doesn’t necessarily just mean fist-fights, car chases, and sex-scenes.
Physical action means that humans are engaged in purposeful action — which is to say, your characters are engaged in the pursuit of values.
Whether you’re writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, or a literary novel, you must appeal to something real in the body of human experience.
Life, said Nietszche, is a process of valuing. “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and from the perspective of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).
In my experience, the most talented editors are able to flesh out those parts of the story that have always troubled the writer even when the writer has never quite been able to put her finger on exactly what is troubling her. Virtually every manuscript I’ve ever written or worked upon has had issues with pacing. The reason for this, I’ve come to believe, is that writing a book of any length requires, perforce, a certain myopia. And yet sustaining a narrative pace for hundreds or even ONE hundred pages requires the exact opposite of myopia: it requires a kind of far-sightedness. Very often, writers are simply too caught up in the details of their story to see how the overall pace flows.
That, I now think, is the greatest value of an editor: to show where the story grinds to a standstill.
Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced book.
It is, at times, extraordinarily well written from a stylistic perspective, and Moby Dick remains erudite and interesting on a great many levels, but the fact is, Moby Dick is not even really a novel. It’s a treatise: it’s a treatise on truth, it’s a treatise on whales, it’s a treatise on America, it’s a treatise on God, and it’s a treatise on many other things as well. But it’s not a novel.
Think of pacing as a journey; and will your readers go along? Quoting editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner:
The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags. I like to imagine the narrative as a trip. Just as the ride feels shorter on the way home, a phenomenon all school-age children remark on, even though it is exactly the same number of miles as the trip away, the reader expects that time will pass more rapidly as the book heads toward the finish. Once we know the way, the scenery rolls by like so much wallpaper. Your editor should help you see when the writing has turned into wallpaper (Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees).
A real story cannot exist without some sort of conflict.
If, though, you don’t have a specific message, you must then begin your story by thinking up a good central conflict. And by “good,” I mean a conflict that’s important enough to hold people’s interest.
(If, for example, you’re hungry for cookies but you’ll only allow yourself one cookie, and then you find in your cookie jar two peanut butter and two sugar, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve — i.e. you must choose between those two things — but it isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. Why? Because the choices aren’t strong enough to be of lasting interest. To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain importance to many people. That last thing is known as universality. Universality is important because stories must appeal to a range of people.)
Often, new writers ask if they should decide their theme first, or their plot first. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Either method is okay.
The method you’re most comfortable with is a personal preference. Sometimes, in a fit of inspiration, you get an idea for a theme, and you must then figure out how to dramatize that theme, the act of which is called plotting.
Or sometimes you get a good idea for a story — a real clash of desires — and you must then, if you’re philosophically inclined, figure out a way to convey a universal message which that conflict represents (for example, honesty in the case of the movie Quiz Show, which I thought was a unique and excellent idea).
If you don’t have a universal message — i.e. a theme — that’s okay too. Your story will then be a plot story without an added level of depth. Soap operas and most commercial fiction, as I’ve also said, are examples of this.
The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of the most famous (and played-out) Situations there is: Pretty Woman, with Richard Gere and Juilia Roberts, used it.
Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, also used it, though that story gave it a distinctly dystopic twist.
The reason the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is such a popular Situation is that it has a built-in conflict — a woman who betrays a certain respectability and then falls in love — and also because it’s inherently sexual, which is one of the most universal desires there is.
Here are some less common Situations:
The Situation of Crime and Punishment is this: a man who believes that great people are above conventional morality commits a crime and is then condemned by his own moral sense.
The Situation of Madame Bovary is this: a small-town French girl, bored by her petty bourgeois marriage, engages in numerous adulteries and dies as a result.
The Situation of the movie Amadeus is: a marginally gifted musical composer named Antonio Salieri grows increasingly consumed by his jealousy over Wolfang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents and so plots and carries out Mozart’s murder.
The Situation of House of Leaves is: a mysterious house that’s bigger inside than outside, containing endless unlit hallways, is explored by the family who’ve just moved in — explored until it almost kills them. (This Situation is symbolic of their marriage.)
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie where the characters do little more than engage in long, philosophical discussions, then you’ve seen an example of a plot that doesn’t support its theme — which is to say, a theme that is not well integrated into the plot. This is a flaw in the storytelling, and the basic standard of measurement for that is this: how complex are the events of your story, and are they complicated enough to support the philosophy that you’re putting into the mouths of your characters — without, mind you, taking readers out of the framework of the story?
The main point here is that theme, if it exists, must be integrated into your plot. This means, among other things, that when you’re searching for a good Situation — i.e. a good central conflict — you must find a Situation complex enough around which a whole story can be built, and which will support your theme.
Plot is a vehicle. It is the method by which you present your story.
Plot is a purposeful sequence of events. In a well-plotted story, those events will connect logically, culminating in a specific goal, or climax.
“Life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions.”
Said Ludwig von Mises.
That is true. Plot is similar, but plot is selective in the actions presented. And the author is the selector.
Plot is purpose, and for this reason plot requires adversity and obstruction — it requires struggles and obstacles of some sort. And why does plot require this? Because it is only by means of such things that characters can be presented and developed interestingly.
Plot is drama, and drama is what holds the reader’s interest. It is in turn only by means of such things as characters that a theme — which is the essence of a story’s meaning — can be portrayed.
As the late Kurt Vonnegut said:
“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Plot is not action alone. It is not random events. Neither is it a series of conversations (even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting), and it is not a catalog of day-to-day or minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it is not a successful story.
Within this framework, there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions that aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it is appropriate to call this a plotless story. But of a story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposely, or even semi-purposely, and yet which is resolved by pure chance — or if there are actions unrelated to the storyline — it is likewise appropriate to call this a plotted but poorly plotted story.
To dismiss plot because it is invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, as many do, is like dismissing chess rules as an unnecessary contrivance and yet trying to play chess without them.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in compendiated, encapsulated form. That, incidentally, is the function of art — all art — and that is why plots are the indispensable device of storytelling: because they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.