Plot, Pacing, Purposeful Action, And Human Values
“Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions,” wrote Ludwig von Mises, “but the single action is by no means isolated.”
So, in many ways, is plot.
Unlike life, however, plot is selective — which means among other things that the author is the selector: the author chooses the actions her or his characters undertake.
This is one of the primary ways in which fiction differs from journalism or chronicle. It’s also why “the pressure to record,” as the excellent poet Thom Gunn once described it, is not — contrary to what you may have heard — the primary function of art.
In actual day-to-day life, there are a great many actions undertaken by human beings which are mundane actions, of no major consequence — whether it’s walking to the mailbox, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or sweeping the kitchen floor, or doing a load of laundry, or any other such trivial thing. Art by definition selects out the comparatively insignificant things, and in so doing grants significance to the things that the artist does choose to include. Art isolates and clarifies these things, condensing into a single unit what in life might be spread out across a period of years, or even decades.
This, in abbreviated form, captures perfectly the purpose of art, as it also captures the power of art.
A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action (in the case of science-fiction or fantasy or magical realism, other creatures often substitute for human beings, but the exact same principle applies).
If, therefore, the story isn’t presented by means of some sort of action — even if that action is all psychological — it isn’t a novel.
This doesn’t mean that the story is categorically bad, nor does it mean that the writer of the story has failed entirely.
It means only that the story doesn’t fit the full criteria which a novel definitionally requires.
Any given story can have elements of a novel — even many elements — and yet still not qualify as an actual novel.
Like all processes, this process too operates along a spectrum of degrees.
War and Peace, for example, by Leo Tolstoy, is not really a novel.
War and Peace has many novelistic elements, but it is primarily a historical chronicle with a thinly veneered plot draped loosely (very loosely) over the top of it.
This is one of the reasons that a number of Tolstoy’s greatest admirers, as well as a number of his most caustic critics, castigate War and Peace and refer to it as “a novelistic failure”: because it is a novelistic failure.
War and Peace is also guilty of the greatest literary sin there is (and make no mistake: whatever, in the final analysis, you think of Tolstoy, the man could write with the best of the best). The literary sin I’m speaking of is the sin of being boring.
War and Peace is journalistically recorded, sluggishly paced, as long as hell, as wordy as hell — in a word: boring.
War and Peace contains the kernel of a novel, but it remains light years behind Tolstyo’s stylistic masterpiece Anna Kerenina.
In this respect — its novelistic respect — War and Peace does not suceed.
There are in War and Peace a handful of excellent pages and passages, but taken in its totality War and Peace is a dry, slow, mind-numbing read — and totally unpersuasive as a novel for these exact reasons.
Any given book may, on the one hand, aspire to be a novel but in actuality be a memoir.
Or it may be a travelogue, such as John Steinbeck’s pleasurable read Travels with Charlie.
Or it may be an epistle — novel-length but with no pretensions of being an actual novel, as Oscar Wilde’s remarkable prison letter De Profundis.
It may be an epistolary novel — a novel written purely in the form of exchanged letters — such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first book, when he was only 21-years-young: The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is often called the greatest epistolary novel ever written. Yet from a purely novelistic standpoint, these are exceptionally hard to pull off —even for the great Goethe, who’s among the very greatest of writers in all human history — i.e. they’re difficult to infuse with a full, unified plot structure, the absence of which makes them by definition non-novels.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is not really a novel.
A given book may aspire to be a novel when in actuality it’s a diary.
It may be a biography.
It may be a calendarium.
It may be a long essay.
It may be a literary treatise.
It may be a scientific thesis.
It may be a dialogue yet without a plot — plot being defined as purposeful, forward progression moving inevitably toward a climax — as Oscar Wilde’s beautiful, brilliant Critic as Artist: a dialogue without plot, structured (deliberately) as neither a novels nor a play but a long conversation written within the basic framework of a play.
Any given book may be many other things as well — including many interesting things — and any number of cross-combinations.
Yet if it lacks a unified plot structure, which is action involving clash, which involves some sort of physical or psychological opposition, which presupposes among other things characters engaged in the purposeful pursuit of desires and goals that conflict and in so pursuing overcome obstacles, all of which progress toward a climax or culmination, it is not a fully fledged novel.
It’s important to emphasize that physical action doesn’t merely mean fist-fights, car chases, sex scenes, gun play, knife play, explosions, and damsels-in-distress tied to railroad tracks with a locomotive barreling down the tracks at breakneck speed.
Physical action does include these things, but none of these things in and of themselves contain the essence of physical action.
Oscar Wilde’s excellent and well-plotted play The Importance of Being Ernest is an example of story that does contain physical action and an excellent plot, yet possesses no fist-fights, car chases, sex scenes, gun play, knife play, explosions, et cetera.
The physical action in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is subtle action: it’s action muted by writer’s purpose intent. Yet it is physical action — i.e. purpose progression instigated by intellect — and it’s combined with rich psychological drama.
Physical action in the context of storytelling means only that humans are engaged in purposeful pursuit of desires and aims. It is action sourced in the psychology of the main characters, who are engaged in the pursuit of their wants, wishes, and values, all of which are in some way pitted against others with opposing wants, wishes, and values, and all of it is pointed toward a goal.
The goal is the climax.
This pursuit may have nothing to do with car chases, fist fights, explosions, or damsels-in-distress tied to railroad tracks, but may rather be entirely mental, psychological, epistemological — as in a story of a musician striving to compose a symphony or score entirely inside the confines of her mind, or a sculptor struggling internally to master her craft, or a writer seeking to plot inside her mind the human comedy.
The novel Crime and Punishment is largely psychological — perhaps the most psychological novel ever written, and compelling on this level alone. Yet Crime and Punishment is also a compelling detective novel, with dramatic physical action that includes murder, physical chase and pursuit, and suspenseful police interrogation.
The movie Bridge on the River Kwai, which was first a novel — written, incidentally, by a nearly forgotten French writer named Pierre Boulle, most famous for La Planète Des Singes (once translated as Monkey Planet and then later Planet of the Apes ) — is another masterful example of a story that contains action which is both psychological and physical.
The physical action of Bridge on the River Kwai is contained in the building of the Burma bridge, as well as in the attempted escape of the British POW’s. Yet the story is also intensely psychological — specifically, in the complex relationship between the Japanese Colonel Saito and the British Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson, who is Saito’s prisoner. Bridge on the River Kwai is a dramatic psychological battle — a battle of wills — between these two men, and enormously suspenseful on this psychological level apart from the rest, as it is also suspenseful on the level of pure physical action: in the building of the Burma bridge and the attempted escape of the prisoners.
Whether one is writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror story, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, a magical fantasy, a literary novel, or any other kind of cross-combination, the writer, in every case, must appeal to something real within the body of the human experience — or, as William Faulkner described it in his unmatched Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“The writer must leave no room in the workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the human heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”
Life is a process of valuing, observed Mr. Nietzsche, nicely, and continued: “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and under the optic of life.”
The purposeful pursuit and clash of human values is the driver of good plots: this is the very thing good plots depict and do. It is this place and no place other from which good plots ultimately derive.
That is what good plots give to us: the dramatic clash of oppositional human values, culminating in climax and resulting in resolution.
In exchange for this we, as readers or viewers or listeners, are bestowed with the sense the satisfaction of having lived through an artistic experience.
Every novel or novella I’ve ever written or helped others write has at some point had issues with story pacing — my own novels most especially.
The word “pacing” in this context refers to how fast or how slow the story moves — how rapidly or sluggishly the action unfolds — how quickly or ponderously it pushes forward and takes place.
Pacing is without any doubt among the greatest challenges every novel-writer faces.
It’s in this context also that I often cite Herman Melville’s Magnus Opus Moby Dick.
Moby Dick — like War and Peace — exemplifies the poorly paced story. Unlike War and Peace, however, Moby Dick is not fatally boring.
Moby Dick remains and will always remain among the most beautiful, rereadable, poetic novels ever written.
Moby Dick remains timeless — as it also remains stupendously erudite and stupendously excellent—for its depth of style and for the sheer scope of Herman Melville’s erudition. Yet the following fact about Moby Dick is inescapable: it’s not really a novel — not in the elemental sense of the word.
Moby Dick is a dithyrambic.
Moby Dick is an exhortation.
Moby Dick is a treatise.
Moby Dick is a dithyrambic, exhortation, and treatise on truth, on whales, on whaling, on water, on oceans, on rivers, on America, on freedom, on civilization, on God, the bible, mortality, morality, monomania, and many, many other things as well.
Moby Dick is among the strangest of books ever written.
It is a stylistic wonder.
It is a lyrical masterpiece.
It is one of my all-time favorite books.
But in the full and final sense of the term, Moby Dick is not a true novel.
The reason that Moby Dick isn’t a true novel is that it possess no unified plot structure.
Moby Dick forsakes purposeful progression and replaces it with exhortation and stylistic eloquence — eloquence of the most rarified sort — as a result of which, the pace of Herman Melville’s story’s is seriously hamstrung. Everybody who reads Moby Dick grasps this within the first few pages, and I don’t personally know a single person who’s read Moby Dick who’s not commented upon this fact.
I don’t personally know a single reader, either, who has not commented on Moby Dick’s sluggish pace from the start to finish.
Everybody who finishes Moby Dick recognizes that for all the strangeness and wonder this book has to offer and for all the times it can be reread and inexhaustibly offer up new insight and meaning, the story nevertheless divagates from start to finish. It divagates brilliantly but continually.
Everybody who reads Moby Dick to the very end grasps on some level that this continual, brilliant divagation comes at a high cost: the cost of real drama.
In Moby Dick Herman Melville foresakes the dramatization of purposeful human action, in favor of his unmatched stylistic lyricism and exhortation. Because of this, the pace of his story meanders along like an old gentle whale, slow and lumbering.
There is, to be sure, a good and definite purpose set-up early on in the story of Moby Dick: a strong, specific purpose that’s clearly stated: the pursuit of an elusive, mythic, unvanquishable white whale.
This pursuit is furthermore spearheaded by an unforgettable character: Captain Ahab — a Quaker(!) let us never forget — whose monomaniacal drive and all-consuming passion are in this reader’s opinion without equal in all the world’s literature.
Yet for all its excellent and well-stated purpose, the story at the exact same time, early on, immediately begins its digressions — unremittingly, until the final page. Therefore Moby Dick the novel — as distinguished from Moby Dick the great white whale — loses its pace from the start and never regains it. Even the dramatic climax, when Ahab and his crew at last locate the elusive white whale — “Thar she blows! Thar she blows! It’s the whale with a hump as white as a snow hill! It is Moby Dick!” —even then, great as this climax is (and it is), the drama of this climax can only be described as diluted, dulled.
What dulls and dilutes such an otherwise excellent climax?
Answer: all the divagation that has filled this book from the beginning to the end.
Moby Dick is a long dense book — yet the plot of Moby Dick, such as it is, remains brief and thin.
Herman Melville or any other competent and experienced writer (which Herman Melville most assuredly was: without question one of the greatest writers in American history) could have written the main storyline of Moby Dick in 100 pages or less, and he or she could have done so in a fully compelling way.
Herman Melville, for specific and personal reasons, chose instead to fill in his thin brief plot with many pages of unmatched poetry and fascinating expostulation.
I wouldn’t change a word of it.
And yet because of these many pages of lyric writing and expostulation, there is no denying that Moby Dick falls short as a novel.
Even so, Moby Dick in my opinion towers above virtually all other literature in American history, and it towers so precisely because of its lyrical splendor, its strangeness, the enigma of its metaphor — a terror of a whale who’s nonetheless pristinely, purely, immaculately white.
This is why Moby Dick will always remain an eternal work of art.
Yet I’ll say it one final time: as a novel Moby Dick falls short.
Think of story-pacing as a journey or road-trip. And will your readers go along with you? Or will they flag and go elsewhere?
In answer to these questions, I’ll quote the aspiring-writer-turned-editor Betsy Lerner, who in the capactiy of editor wrote a brilliant book about pacing, in her excellent non-novel The Forest for the Trees:
The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire novel 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.