Plot, Pacing, Purposeful Action, And Human Values
The anatomy of a good story
“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.
But, unlike life, 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, incidentally, is one of the primary ways in which fiction differs from journalism or chronicle, and it’s 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 similar 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 the purpose of art, and 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 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 it’s bad. It means only that it doesn’t fit the full criteria that a novel requires. It can certainly have elements of a novel — even many elements — and this, too, operates along a continuum. Or it may be a journal. It may be an epistle. It may be a memoir. It may be a chronicle. It may be a diary. It may be many other interesting things as well, including cross-combinations. But if it lacks a unified plot structure, it’s not in the full meaning of the word a novel.
It’s important to emphasize also that physical action doesn’t necessarily mean fist-fights, car chases, sex scenes, et cetera. Physical action means that humans are engaged in some sort of purposeful action — which is to say, the story’s characters are engaged in the pursuit of desires and values — and this pursuit and purpose can be mental or psychological, as in a story about a writer or a musician striving to compose a piece.
The novel Crime and Punishment is largely psychological — one of the most psychological novels ever written, and compelling on this one level alone.
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 a masterful example of a story that contains action which is both physical, in the building of the Burma bridge as well as the attempted escape of the British POW’s, and also psychological, in the relationship of the Japanese Colonel Saito and British Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson, his prisoner: a dramatic battle of wills, and suspenseful on both levels.
Whether one is writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror story, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, a magical fantasy, or a literary novel, the writer must appeal to something real within the body of the human experience — or, as William Faulkner described it in his 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.
“When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and under the optic of life.”
Every novel or novella I’ve ever written or worked upon has at some point had issues with pacing — my own most especially. It is among the greatest of challenges in the realm of storytelling.
Moby Dick is a famous example of a poorly paced book.
Stylistically, Moby Dick is one of the most poetic of novels ever written, in my opinion, and it remains timeless, just as it remains stupendously erudite and stupendously excellent, largely for the same reasons.
But the following fundamental fact is inescapable: Moby Dick is not really a novel — not in the full sense of the word.
It is an exhortation.
It is a treatise.
It is an exhortation, and it is a treatise on truth, a treatise on whales, a treatise on America, a treatise on God and mortality and morality, a treatise on many other things as well.
It is a strange and stylistic wonder.
It is also a masterpiece.
But in the full and definitional sense of the term, it is not quite, I say again, a novel. The reason it’s not is that it doesn’t possess a unified plot structure. The plot is so thin that Melville filled it in with many, many pages of brilliant exhortation and poetry.
Think of story-pacing as journey, and will your readers go along?
Quoting aspiring-writer-turned-editor Betsy Lerner, in her book The Forest for the Trees:
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.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.