A Sparkling Shell

Writing in a distinctive narrative voice is a decisive step that separates an author from the pack. Stories that are told in a linear fashion are more likely to seem like other books on the same topic. They also don’t generate the same excitement among book professionals, who are always looking for original works. 

Crafting such an approach, however, is not a substitute for a satisfying book. Narrative can be regarded, crudely, as a mechanism—a way to tell a story. Relegating such a stellar achievement to that status may sound demeaning, but in fact the best narrative is a supplement employed to fill out characterization. Huck Finn would not stand out as much if he didn’t have that inimitable dialect, but we are moved by what he did on the raft. 

Plotting is largely unaffected by polished prose. That does not matter as much in a literary novel, when being inside the protagonist’ fascinating mind is largely the point of the reading exercise. Yet unless you mean to create only an intellectual abstraction, a good plot enables a character to make meaningful changes during the course of the book. Plotting also places a character in greater jeopardy, because a character who acts upon their dissatisfaction is more forceful than one who merely grouses. Acting entails an element of danger, that a bet will be wagered and could go wrong out in the world. 

An author may feel that providing stylish narrative voices adds to characterization, and to an extent it does. A younger character can use more current idioms, for instance. If the chatter is focused on mundane subjects, however, or skirts around rather than explores a weighty matter, it amounts to no more than surface gloss. Worse, it may leave the reader feeling that the character is using smart talk to mask the pain they feel. In that case, what started off as fresh and entertaining devolves into a scintillating shield to hide real emotions.

Worse, the reader may come to feel that a character is merely running in place. Nothing happens to produce meaningful change, and so the book skates on the surface. Artifice in word play ends up making the character feel artificial. What is happening seems ordinary, only told in a different way. Gradually, the character loses their grip on the reader’s attention.

A stock piece of advice for a commercial novelist is: keep them turning pages. An author shooting for a higher plane need not worry as much about this dictum, but making sure that a character makes a plot advance by the end of their chapter will ensure the reader feels they are still making progress toward a future goal.

Exercise: The place in a novel where the go-nowhere feeling is most apparent is when you are setting up your characters early on. A good strategy to combat this is looking for a character’s future scenes. When you see plot movement, you should move that event forward. Mash the two scenes together and see you get.

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”     —Adrienne Rich

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.