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.
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, 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 such quotidian 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, 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 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. None of which means that the story is categorically bad.
It means only that it doesn’t fit the full criteria that a novel by definition requires. It can certainly have elements of a novel — even many elements — and this also operates along a continuum of degrees. Or it may be a journal. It may be a memoir. It may be a history. It may be a diary. It may be a chronicle. It may be many other interesting things as well, including any number of cross-combinations. But if it lacks a unified plot structure — i.e. action involving obstacles and clash — 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. It includes these things, but they are not the essence of action.
Physical action in the context of story 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 may be purely mental or psychological, as in a story about a musician striving to compose a symphony or score, or a sculptor struggling to master her craft, or a writer driven to complete the human comedy.
The novel Crime and Punishment is largely psychological — one of the most psychological novels ever written, and compelling on this one level alone — and it is also a compelling detective-crime novel.
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 and psychological. It’s physical in the building of the Burma bridge, as well as in the attempted escape of the British POW’s, and it’s psychological in the complex, intense 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 battle of wills between these two, and it is as suspenseful on this psychological level as it is on the level of purely physical action —i.e. in the building of the Burma bridge and in the prisoner’s escape.
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 unforgettably 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 helped others write has at some point had issues with story pacing — my own novels most of all. Pacing is how fast or slow the story’s action takes place.
Pacing is among the greatest of challenges in the realm of novel-writing.
Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced story.
Stylistically Moby Dick is the most poetic of novel ever written, and it will remain timeless, just as it will remain stupendously erudite and excellent — all for the same reasons.
But the following fact about Moby Dick is inescapable:
Moby Dick is not really a novel — not in the full meaning of the word.
It is an exhortation.
It is a treatise.
It is an exhortation and treatise on truth, on whales, on whaling, on America, on freedom, on civilization, on God, mortality, morality, and on many other things as well.
It is among the strangest of books ever written.
It is a stylistic wonder.
It is a lyric masterpiece.
It is one of my all-time favorite books.
But in the full and definitional sense of the term, it is not really a novel.
The reason it’s not is that it doesn’t possess a unified plot structure.
Moby Dick forsakes purposeful progression. As a result of this, the pace is hampered seriously. Everybody who’s read it knows this. Everybody who’s read it knows that Moby Dick divagates continually — even brilliantly — and this continual, brilliant divagation comes at an obvious cost: relinquishment of concentrated drama.
In Moby Dick Herman Melville relinquished the dramatization of purposeful human action in favor of brilliant exhortation and stylistic lyricism.
There is in Moby Dick a definite purpose— a strong definite purpose clearly stated early on in the story: the pursuit of the white whale, which is entirely instigated and spearheaded by Captain Ahab, whose monomaniacal will is without equal in all the world’s literature. Yet for all its purpose, established early on, the story also early on divagates, loses its pace, and never regains it. Even the dramatic climax, when Ahab and his crew find the great white whale Moby Dick at last — “Thar she blows! Thar she blows! It’s the whale with a hump as white as a snow hill! It is Moby Dick!” — the drama is diluted by all the divagation that has come before.
The novel is dense and it is long, but the plot of Moby Dick is thin and brief. Herman Melville filled in his thin, brief plot with many, many pages of fascinating exhortation and poetry.
Think of story-pacing as journey. And will your readers go along? Or will they flag and go elsewhere?
I quote in closing an aspiring-writer-turned-editor named Betsy Lerner, who wrote brilliantly about pacing in her excellent book 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.
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.