Plot, Pacing, Purposeful Action, And Human Values

The anatomy of a good story

Ray Harvey
Lit Up

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(Image source)

“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.

Art creates.

Journalism records.

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 entirely failed.

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.

This process, like every other process, operates along a spectrum of degrees.

War and Peace, for example, by Leo Tolstoy, is not really a novel.

War and Peace has novelistic elements, but it’s 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, have for over a century referred to War and Peace as “a novelistic failure”: because strictly speaking it is a novelistic failure — which is to say, War and Peace is not a true novel. It doesn’t possess a full and unified plot structure. Whatever, in the final analysis, you think of Leo Tolstoy, make no mistake about this: the man could write with the best of the best. Which is why to this very day in mother Russia, there’s only one other writer revered as highly as Tolstoy, and that one other writer is the poet Pushkin. Tolstoy is Russia’s Shakespeare.

And yet not even this level of literary genius changes the fact that War and Peace, isn’t a true novel.

A given book may aspire to be a novel and even market itself as such, but in actuality be more of a chronicle or a memoir.

Or it may be a travelogue, novel-or-novella length, yet without claiming to be a novel, such as John Steinbeck’s pleasurable read Travels with Charlie.

Or it may be an epistle — novel-length but non-fictional by design and with no pretensions of being an actual novel, as Oscar Wilde’s remarkable prison letter De Profundis.

It may aspire to be an epistolary novel — a fictional piece written purely in the form of exchanged letters — such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first book, written when Goethe was only 21-years-old, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is often described as the greatest epistolary novel ever written. Yet from a purely novelistic standpoint, I object. Epistolary novels are exceptionally hard to pull off — I don’t personally know of a successful one — even for the great Goethe, who’s among the very greatest of writers in all human history, more, in my opinion, than even Tolstoy.

Epistolary novels are difficult to pull off because they’re difficult to infuse with a unified plot structure, the absence of which makes them by definition non-novels. The Sorrows of Young Werther is an interesting read. It’s stylistically well-written. And it’s most certainly a significant achievement for a 21-year-old. But because it lacks a unified plot, it’s not a a real novel.

A given book may also aspire to be a novel and market itself as such when in actuality it’s an embellished diary or a fictionally embellished biography, such as the now famously farcical book Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs, later made into a movie.

It may be a series of sexual escapades, embellished or not, a la Henry Miller’s infamous oeuvre, not a single one of which is a novel.

It may be a fictionalized calendarium.

It may be a long essay embellished.

It may be a literary treatise with fictional touches sprinkled everywhere about.

It may be a scientific thesis with a literary style.

It may be a fictional, stylized dialogue yet without any plot — plot being defined as purposeful, forward progression moving inevitably toward climax — as Oscar Wilde’s Critic as Artist: a dialogue without plot, structured (deliberately) as neither a novel 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.

But if it lacks a unified plot structure, which is action involving clash, which involves some sort of physical or psychological opposition, which presupposes characters engaged in the purposeful pursuit of conflicting desires and goals and in so pursuing these desires and goals overcome or attempt to overcome obstacles, all of which progresses toward climax, it’s not a fully fledged novel.

It’s important to emphasize also 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 locomotives barreling toward them at breakneck speeds.

Physical action does include these things, but none of these things in and of themselves contain the essence of physical action.

Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece 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, or anything of this sensational sort.

The physical action in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is subtle and subdued action: it’s action muted by the writer’s purpose and intent. Yet it is physical action — i.e. purposeful progression instigated by intellect — and it’s combined with rich psychological drama. It’s also lighthearted and witty, interesting from the very beginning to end, and the end delivers with a fully satisfying climax that you don’t necessarily see coming.

Physical action in the context of storytelling means only that humans are engaged in the purposeful pursuit of desires and aims. This is what I mean when saying above “purposeful progression instigated by intellect.” It’s action sourced in the psychology of the main characters, who are engaged in the pursuit of their wants, wishes, dreams, and values, all of which are in some way pitted against others who possess opposing wants, wishes, dreams, and values — and all of it (this is crucial) must be pointed toward a goal.

The goal is the climax. It is the culmination of all proceeding action.

This pursuit may have nothing at all to do with car chases, fist fights, explosions, or damsels-in-distress tied to railroad tracks, but may be entirely mental, psychological, epistemological — as, for example, a story of a musician striving to compose a symphony entirely inside the confines of her mind (Henrik Ibsen), or a sculptor struggling internally to master her craft (Camille Claudel), or a writer seeking to plot inside his mind the entire human comedy (Honore de Balzac), or in number of other wildly imaginary ways, such as those found in the best novels of Haruki Murakami.

The novel Crime and Punishment, an inarguably well-plotted story, is largely psychological — the most psychological novel ever written, and compelling on this level alone. Yet Crime and Punishment is also a compelling crime-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 prisoners of war. 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 science-fiction book, a magical fantasy, a literary novel, or any cross-combination, the writer, in every case, must appeal to something real within the body of the human experience — or, as William Faulkner put 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.

Human 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 are the drivers of good plots: they are the very locus of good plots and the very thing that good plots depict. It’s this place and no place other from which strong plots derive.

This is what strong 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 uniquely human 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 slow the story moves — how rapidly or sluggishly the action unfolds — how quickly or ponderously it pushes forward.

Pacing is without any doubt among the greatest challenges every novel-writer faces.

It’s in this context that I often cite Herman Melville’s opus Moby Dick.

Moby Dick, like War and Peace, exemplifies a poorly paced story. Unlike War and Peace, however, Moby Dick is not, in my opinion, fatally boring — far from it.

Moby Dick remains and will always remain among the most beautiful, rereadable, lyrical novels ever written.

Moby Dick is as timeless as it is stupendously erudite and stupendously brilliant—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 true 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, whales, whaling, oceans, rivers, water in general, America, freedom, civilization, God, the bible, mortality, morality, monomania, and many, many other things as well.

Moby Dick is among the strangest of books ever written.

It’s a stylistic wonder.

It’s a lyrical masterpiece.

It’s one of my all-time favorite books.

But in the full and final sense of the term, Moby Dick isn’t really a novel.

The reason that Moby Dick isn’t really novel is that it possesses 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 is seriously hamstrung. Everybody who reads Moby Dick grasps this within its first few pages, and I don’t personally know a single person who’s read Moby Dick in full who hasn’t also commented upon that fact. I don’t personally know a single reader, either, who has not commented on Moby Dick’s sluggish pace from 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 still 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 pacing and 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 definite purpose set-up early on in Moby Dick a strong, specific purpose which is 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 well-defined purpose, the story at the exact same time begins its constant 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, the drama of it can only be described as diluted, dulled, watered down.

What dulls and dilutes and waters down such an otherwise excellent climax?

The answer is clear: all the divagation that’s 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 thin and brief.

Herman Melville or any other competent and experienced writer (which Herman Melville most assuredly was: without question one of the greatest writers in history) could have written the main storyline of Moby Dick in 100 pages or less, and she or he could have done so in a fully compelling way.

Herman Melville, for specific and personal reasons (which, incidentally, he partially disclosed in a letter to his dear friend and fellow writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novel The Scarlet Letter is a very well-plotted story with a masterful integration of plot and theme), chose instead to fill his thin brief plot with many pages of unmatched poetry and fascinating expostulation.

I wouldn’t change a word of it.

Still, because of these many, many pages of lyrical 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, and perhaps most especially 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.

But a true novel Moby Dick is not.

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-novelist-turned-editor Betsy Lerner, who in the capacity of editor wrote a very fine book about pacing, in her 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.

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Ray Harvey
Lit Up
Editor for

Creative director of all things delightful.