Writing about What Matters

How much a book impacts its readers depends on its aims. A literary novel such as Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, a favorite of mine, is so delicately written that the plot events hardly matter. Most fledgling writers, however, do not write with such precision, and they must adjust accordingly. Depending on how many plot events fill the novel, they may go to the opposite extreme, fulfilling a thriller’s demand for a looming global catastrophe.

The vast spectrum of choices between these two poles leads to great confusion. How many plot events, would you say, indicate an action-oriented book? How can you tell if the prose style is distinctive enough to obviate plot imperatives? If you fall short either way, you end up with the dreaded midlist book: sorta but not really worth the time spent reading it.

Narrative voice is highly linked to a lead character’s bent for introspection, and that provides a useful guideline. How many times does your protagonist natter on about a thought skein that lasts at least a paragraph? I’ll exclude from this list any thought related to the immediate action around it. How often do you go for a deep dive into observations the character has? If they occur more than a dozen times, you should head in the literary direction. You obviously have a facility for that type of writing.

For most authors, though, what happens to the characters far outweighs the meaningful comments the protagonist makes. This holds true even if the narration is skillfully wrought. Say, you tell anecdotes that various cabbies in the LaGuardia Airport taxi pool relate, replete with patois. Yet without supplying any underlying meaning, they are merely entertaining bits. A smattering of low-level plot events, in other words. Your approach is working against what lifts a plot-driven book to its heights: strong organization of events around major characters.

No one should be blamed for trying to infuse meaning into a novel. An author spends so much time alone, wrestling with matters that are so much more stirring than the morning traffic report. Yet if what moves you inside is not being transmitted by pen to paper, you cannot make the mistake of assuming the reader knows you are filled with such lofty ideas. If Cam is hunting down the crew that mowed down the rebels, that is the realm of can-do. Write about the interesting ways in which revenge can be exacted.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for lulls between the action. These often occur at the beginning of a chapter. If you want to add meaning, think not about what just happened at the end of the last chapter. Retrace a course back through the endings of multiple chapters involving that character, maybe 5-6. What long-range observations can you make about them as a group?

“Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”
—Yasunari Kawabata

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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