Random Notes on Structure

This is another post in a series on a style of genre prose that I dislike; I wanted to analyze why I dislike it, and it’s turning out quite long. It will probably make more sense if you’ve read the earlier posts, which I’ve just linked to and are all under the tag “Novelization Style.”


This post is going to be a bit of a grab bag and, I will admit, probably the weakest in the series. So far I’ve discussed style almost exclusively. These observations are more about elements of story structure that, fitting with my running theme, feel like borrowings from visual media. As with everything else I’ve discussed, they’re all perfectly fine on their own–it’s just that together they add up to less than the sum of their parts. I don’t have a full-fledged theory on the structure of Novelization Style, so this will be a collection of notes.

Cutting Between Scenes

I’ll begin with a paragraph-level observation on a ridiculously specific subset of Novelization Style novels. Specifically, books with multiple point of view characters that also switch between those characters within chapters. It’s about how these books use section breaks–those gaps between paragraphs that tell you time has passed or the scene has changed within a chapter.

Unlike an omniscient narrator, Novelization Style doesn’t move from one point of view to the next within an unbroken passage of narrative.[1] Novelization Style switches characters with a distinct break–either a chapter break (A Game of Thrones stays with one character for every chapter, even naming each chapters after its POV character) or a section break.

During the decade and a half Doctor Who was off the air one or two Doctor Who novels came out every month. True confession: I’ve read most of them. Most were written in what I’m now calling Novelization Style, and most switched POVs. At some point I noticed the story chunks framed by the section breaks felt like scenes from the TV show: we’d get a chunk of story with one character, then cut to another at the point a TV show might cut to another scene–often a cliffhanger moment.

Again, Three Parts Dead is a good example: When Tara’s having her magical duel in court, the narrative breaks away at a tense moment and spends a few paragraphs with her friends in the audience before resuming, the same way a TV show would cut away for a bit of dialogue. What’s interesting is what happens when the novel gets into the more intense action set pieces, as in chapter 16–17 during a police raid intercut with a dinner and confrontation between Tara’s mentor and the villain. Often books that reach action sequences will pick up the pace of the prose but narrate the action straight through in an unbroken scene. Three Parts Dead picks up the pace of the section breaks and point of view switches. They come more often, switching focus characters within the raid and, at cliffhanger moments, switching scenes between the raid and the dinner. It feels like the way movies edit shots faster and tighter in action scenes. That’s a logical and reasonably effective technique for books in this style. Still, when I read them there are times I wish for a chapter of unbroken text.

The Teaser

Contemporary writing advice often borrows techniques from scriptwriting: I often see writers talking about “acts” and “beats,” for instance. I suspect few novels are specifically and deliberately written to the three-to-five-act structures and Save the Cat breakdowns favored by Hollywood. But I seem to encounter some storytelling tics more often in recent novels, and they feel like they drifted into prose from movies and TV. Not all Novelization Style novels use every one–again, Novelization Style is a collection of tendencies, not a hard formula–but it’s the style that uses them most. First, how these novels often begin, and how they often end.

Most TV shows set up the premise of the week with a pre-credits scene called a teaser. Often they don’t feature the main cast. The Avengers, for instance, usually showed a minor character getting eccentrically murdered before bringing in Steed and Mrs. Peel. Leverage began each episode with a new victim getting screwed over. This kind of opening is also common in horror movies: a lot of them (Night/Curse of the Demon is one example) show a random victim stumbling onto the monster before they introduce the main cast.

Anymore this is also a common feature in written SF. A lot of modern SF novels begin with prologues that don’t star anyone who will be important later in the book. Minor characters stumble onto the big threat or conspiracy the heroes will uncover, offering clues to the plot which prove meaningful 400 pages later. Leviathan Wakes has a prologue like this; so have the first volumes of half the epic fantasies published in the last decade.

This is actually a bit weird. It’s more common for novels to spend their first pages introducing, if not their protagonists, at least somebody we’ll spend a lot of the book with. (Again, look at Bujold’s openings: the first person we meet on the first page of her novels is usually the protagonist.) But it makes sense if you assume these prologues are teasers! The thing is, when I watch a teaser on The Avengers I know John Steed and Emma Peel will be along in a few minutes. When I read the prologue of a novel I haven’t even been introduced to the main characters. When I realize the apparent protagonist is going to disappear for the rest of the book it feels like hitting a narrative speed bump.

The Wrap-Up

I’ve also gotten used to reading a certain kind of ending. In the next-to-last chapter the hero has a big showdown with the villain. When the villain is defeated the chapter ends almost immediately. The next chapter jumps forward a few hours or days to when the situation has calmed down, and characters meet to exchange exposition, tie up loose ends, and explain what they plan to do next. This should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a procedural or monster-of-the-week series: there’s a punch-up and then a cut to everybody standing around with emergency vehicles in the background, expositing. Or, heck, The Avengers again. Steed and Mrs. Peel knock down the villain; ten seconds and one fade-out later they’re cracking jokes while doing something amusingly wine-related.

Which, again, works best on television. Showing the immediate consequences of a villain showdown, all the cleanup and the taking of responsibility for things, would throw off the pacing. On the other hand… a book shouldn’t have that problem because prose can vary its pace, and summarize. Except that Novelization Style usually doesn’t. And a lot is elided, sometimes, in that time skip. Sometimes I’d like to know how the protagonists managed to dig themselves out of the hole they’re generally still in. Sometimes the logistical details of cleaning up after a villain are as interesting as the defeat.

When a story has a villain–whether a plain old conventional evil genius or something more metaphorical but still unequivocally bad, like a pending natural disaster–a big confrontation is normal. What’s interesting is that with Novelization Style the confrontation is frequently also the story’s emotional high. The protagonist solves the plot and completes their character arc at the same time. The other big moments along the way tend to be action set pieces and trailer moments.

I think back on books I’ve enjoyed, and I’m specifically including my lighter, more adventureish favorites: Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, old mystery novelists like Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin. It strikes me how varied they are. Some of them, the mystery novels especially, are formulaic, but I still can’t always predict exactly which chapter the climax will come in, or what will happen just afterwards, or where the emotional high will be. Some stories come to a climax a few chapters before the end, and some hit their emotional high before the big plot-finishing scene, or after it, and some wrap everything up satisfyingly in their last few pages.

And though many books do action well, the frantic set pieces aren’t the parts that stick with me: I recall quieter moments, what the characters said or felt. When I read a novel that gives the emotional content less attention than the action, I retain less.

Stakes

At shorter lengths, Novelization Style can be small; at novel length, it has to be big. A disaster or a conspiracy must threaten to upend the protagonist’s world (unless they’re among those dystopian heroes who have to upend society themselves). As the novel begins, its problems may seem limited to the protagonist’s own life. But by the two-thirds mark at the latest it will reveal that, no, actually the whole city is under threat, or the whole country, or even the world. Mass death or go home!

This is what’s known as “raising the stakes.” That’s supposed to mean that a novel’s central question should feel more important, more intense as the novel continues. SF often assumes instead that the initial stakes are not enough to sustain a novel. But the initial stakes were what got me interested in the novel in the first place! I mean, I love when I’m reading a story and it turns out it was a completely different story all along–that’s a great trick to pull off. But when it just turns into a bigger story–when the only revelation is that, once again, lives are at stake–it feels like a bait and switch.

If I’ve been mentioning Lois McMaster Bujold a lot it’s because I recently finished her latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. (Which is the Worst Title Ever. But the book is good.) It’s science fiction about two older people planning the next stage of their lives in a world where technical advances give them more options. As the novel progresses it continues to be about two older people planning the next stage of their lives. Bujold is serenely confident in her ability to make older people planning subsequent life stages interesting and her confidence is not misplaced.

Which was refreshing, because a lot of SF novels are about preventing or dealing with mass trauma. I mean, it’s got to be more than half the genre, especially if you include the books that deal with smaller issues but have mass trauma as part of the background. It’s numbing. After reading about too many existential threats they cease to mean anything, like an air conditioner that hums so constantly I’ve tuned out. The breathtaking epics no longer take breath. I need smaller SF like Gentleman Jole to create contrast, make the epics feel epic again.

Extras

Lastly, and most sketchily… when reading Novelization Style I often get the impression that the characters walking around in the background are extras–nonspeaking actors walking around in the background of a scene, the ones we’re not supposed to pay attention to.

It’s hard to describe. But sometimes when reading a novel I get the impression that the protagonists, and other plot-relevant characters, aren’t deeply embedded in their society. As though they live in a plot bubble populated entirely by plot-related people, and everyone outside the bubble is just background. Not just that they aren’t the characters the story is about, but that they’re a qualitatively different kind of people within the fiction.

In many novels even characters who appear for less than a page show signs of life. A passerby cracks a joke, a shop clerk isn’t one hundred percent cooperative. The hero asks for directions, and in the paragraph it takes to explain the direction-giver shows off a personality quirk. The characters aren’t important, but the writer pulls off the illusion that they could be people with their own lives and stories. Other novels–especially those written in Novelization Style–treat very minor characters like film extras, who aren’t supposed to draw attention to themselves; they fade into the background, keeping out of the way of the speaking roles. Novelization Style stories sometimes don’t even acknowledge other people are around unless a protagonist interacts with them. I think it’s related to that lack of descriptive details I discussed in an earlier post, which affects characters as much as settings.

In some stories the characters really are off in their own little world–say, the cast of a stereotypical country house murder mystery. In that case this is not a problem. Where it does become a problem is when the story gives the impression that other people’s lives aren’t just less important to this story but diegetically less important than the protagonist’s. Some time ago I read a blog post I found striking enough that I saved the URL, speculating on what about our current culture would look weird in 50 years. The author guessed it might be stories that treat minor characters, extras, as literally less important than protagonists. Like, the hero causes a car accident during a chase and we’re supposed to find it exciting and not worry whether the people in the car were okay.

I’ll take a chance on almost any book about travelling to strange alternate realities. So a while back I read a very bad book called The Flight of the Silvers. The strangest part was that the heroes travelled to their new reality after our entire world was utterly destroyed… and it took them no time at all to recover from the shock. Because, yes, billions of people including everyone they ever knew and loved had just died horribly, but the important thing was that now they had superpowers.

Jo Walton in The Just City came up with a phrase I find useful in this context: equal significance. Every novel has characters around its edges who aren’t relevant, and I’m not necessarily interested in reading about them… but I want the story to imply that everyone in its world is equally significant, that it’s a place where the needs of people who don’t have stories told about them are not less important than the needs of a protagonist.


That’s it for describing Novelization Style. In the last post, I’ll summarize, wrap up, describe what’s missing for me in this style, and admit that I enjoy the occasional Novelization Style book–my problem isn’t that it exists, it’s that there’s so much of it.


  1. Badly written Novelization Style sometimes hops from one character’s head to another in a way that superficially resembles omniscient POV. The best way to tell omniscient POV from head-hopping close third person is that omniscient is never disorienting. When a close POV goes head-hopping it’s sometimes momentarily unclear whose head we’re in.  ↩

5 thoughts on “Random Notes on Structure

  1. Nothing substantive to say, just that I’ve been enjoying this analysis.

    I think there are two kinds of teaser. I can live with the kind you mention as long as it’s clearly labelled as a prologue and not hidden as “chapter one”. (Those structural aspects of books are more important to our tolerance levels for certain quirks than they seem.)

    The kind that annoys me more is also derived from TV: a shot of our heroes in some big action scene, ending in a cliffhanger, then a cut, the words “Two Days Earlier” and the real start of the book. It doesn’t always fail – Pratchett pulls it off beautifully the one and only time I can recall him doing it – but when it does, it grates. As you say, it prioritizes action over character – we’re supposed to care bout these people enough to care about how they get out of the scene, but we haven’t even been introduced. This works in a tv show where we’ve been seeing these characters for weeks, months, even years. But book characters we haven’t met? (notably, the successful Pratchett example is the THIRD Tiffany Aching book, not the first.)

  2. I’d completely forgotten about in media res beginnings, but you’re right about the TV influence, and about the reasons they don’t work–I probably should have mentioned them. I think some writers are trying to follow the common advice to start a novel with a hook and think that means action–“Jane jumped over the bar and punched the biker.” But, as you say, that won’t hook me if I don’t know who Jane is or why she’s punching.

    Thinking about it, it occurs to me how many of the great opening lines in literature are scene-setting (that Hill House opening) or introductions to characters (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) or just general statements of theme (Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”).

  3. Loving this series, and not only is it very good at identifying a kind of book I… don’t *hate* exactly, but find a lot less appealing than most people seem to (with a few exceptions), but it’s also pointing out to me where I’ve been going wrong in the last couple of things I’ve tried to write and stalled on — I’ve been trying to write like those books, rather than the kind of thing I like to read.

  4. Thanks–the series has actually been clarifying for me despite the fact that I’m the one writing it because there are a few opinions I’ve only consciously figured out as I write. So for me there have been points where I stopped typing and thought “Oh, so that’s why I had this reaction to that book…”

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