1.07.2020

The One-Legged Stool

A novel has to hit so many marks in order to grab a reader’s interest. It must have good characters involved in an unusual plot that is narrated from a striking point of view. For the author, another imperative also holds: it must hold their interest while writing the book. Among various aims, that may mean developing a distinctive prose style, one that isn’t like all the other stuff out there.

For most writers, a great deal of effort needs to be expended to make sure that every sentence has a crisp edge or uncommon turn of phrase. Tons of word substitutions, constant paring of unnecessary verbiage, copious attention paid to sentence rhythm. The multifaceted task can become so consuming, the effort may end up mirroring the isolation the author experiences while doing all this rewriting. That is, the story ends up tunneling inside the point of view of the lead character.

Why is that a problem? Doesn’t the reader want to be inside the head of the protagonist? Yes, this is very true. It is one of the three attainments—character, plot, narration—that marks a good book. But it’s only one of them.

Beware of a character that views the other characters and the plot events through a prism of the author’s polishing. In order to sustain the inner patter that keeps the narrative unique, a barrage of personal observations needs to be made. Yet the prism is still only a filtered lens, to borrow a stage term. Action still has to take place onstage in order to keep the reader’s interest.

In particular, an author’s observations, covering such a wide array of topics, can become scattered. Because the other characters exist outside the patter, they can start to seem pawns of the narrator’s designs. One problem I see is that the other characters don’t develop as the book goes on. They don’t show up on a regular basis, and therefore the reader never develops a relationship with them. If you don’t have building relationships in a novel, what do you have? A bunch of people I don’t care about, because I don’t know them.

The same exigency applies to plotting. If the initial plot premise doesn’t develop—hopefully spiral down into an abyss—the novel can start to feel slight. Much ado in the prose style about nothing. Love and death are not options; they are the very foundation of almost all novels. You ignore them at your peril.

Exercise: Mannered prose works well for descriptions, less strongly in building relationships. A reader doesn’t want the wheel to be reinvented to narrate passion. Does he love her or not? When you are editing, think twice about changing direct passages that relate to feelings. If the reader becomes confused about your intent, it’s hard to lay building blocks that go somewhere.

“People want poetry. They need poetry. They get it. They don't want fancy work.”
—Mary Oliver

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine




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