Action and Time

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.”


Having bloviated at length about the transparent prose/close third person tag team, a question occurs to me: why don’t I struggle to slog through Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels as I did Leviathan Wakes? Because I just read her latest book, and raced through it in a couple of days. Bujold’s prose is straightforward[1] and she consistently sticks to close third person points of view. Why don’t I lump Bujold’s writing in with Novelization Style?

The difference is Bujold’s attention to her characters’ internal lives. The most important aspect of any scene is how her characters feel. They constantly analyze themselves, ruminating on ethics, fundamental goals, and underlying drives. They speculate on the goals, ethics, and drives of everyone around them. They apply what they’ve learned to general theories of human behavior. Many of Bujold’s most memorable lines are pithy observations on how people behave in the societies she’s created. The first page of a book hints at what it considers important. Novelization Style novels often begin with an action scene, or a prologue about a minor character stumbling upon the novel’s central conspiracy, or both. The first page of a Bujold novel introduces her protagonist and situates us in their mental world.

Novelization Style characters mostly think about what’s happening now. They react to what’s in front of them, focus on immediate goals. There’s less time for introspection. They save the realizations about underlying motivations and deep character for the climax. As I’ve said, Novelization Style is influenced by film and television. I gave it that name because reading it feels like reading a novelization of an imaginary movie. It emphasizes what movies and television are good at: action and dialogue. Novelization Style is about things happening.

For an example I’ll use Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, which unlike Leviathan Wakes is not bad. That’s what make it a better example for talking about structure: I finished it! But it took me longer to finish than I expected. I kept putting it down and not picking it up again. It took me a while to figure out why. Although Three Parts Dead is better written (and doesn’t consistently use the same point of view and prose), in places it’s structured like Novelization Style.

Here’s an example. In Three Parts Dead legal documents control magic; elaborate contracts create the gods who keep civilization running. Basically, wizards are lawyers. When the god of Alt Coulomb dies the church calls in a wizard firm to fix the contracts. In Chapter 11 junior lawyer Tara Abernathy is ready to argue her first case in front of a judge… and the book shifts into a magical otherworld where the trial plays out as a metaphorical special effects wizard battle action sequence.

Which is weird. A court case is an argument and novels are better at arguments than fight scenes. Not that novels can’t do action; talking is just more in their wheelhouse. When the courtroom drama switches out for a magical punch-up it feels like we’ve reached the part of an Agatha Christie novel where the suspects have gathered for the big explanation, but instead of monologuing Miss Marple shouts “MURDERVISION ACTIVATE!” and there’s a dazzle of colored lights and suddenly the suspects are watching the murder happen. But, just as Agatha Christie adaptations handle the big reveal by having the detective narrate flashbacks to the crime, if Three Parts Dead were a movie a metaphorical wizard battle might be exactly what you wanted.

Earlier Tara examines the contracts that constitute the dead god’s “body.” Unsatisfied with just describing how the contracts are the god’s body, and explaining what’s wrong with them, the book takes Tara into another alternate reality so she can literally walk around on a giant body and look at metaphorical wounds. And Three Parts Dead has other action set pieces that sit oddly in a magic legal thriller. The police raid is an important plot point, but the monster that chases a supporting character through the church feels like a set piece a Hollywood movie might include to fill time and supply exciting footage for the trailer. And although the novel’s climax takes place in another courtroom it is at heart a superhero fight.

Magic in Three Parts Dead is a metaphor for the laws and economics and civil engineering our civilizations depend on: understood by few, draped in mysterious rules and incantations. Another book might spend more pages exploring what this metaphor says about the infrastructure of a city. Here, philosophizing takes a back seat to action and suspense, conspiracy and murder.

This may relate to some common writerly advice: show, don’t tell. This means that if a story wants to claim something is the case, it should demonstrate it. Like, don’t tell us Fred has a sense of humor and then have him take everything completely seriously. Movies define the rule more strictly: they never tell us outright about Fred’s sense of humor, we just see him laugh off a minor problem and deduce it. This is also Novelization Style’s version of “show, don’t tell.” So it rarely stops to analyze very deeply what’s happening in a character’s mind. And scenes where the characters just sit and talk about ideas for pages, My Dinner With Andre style, are as rare in Novelization Style as in movies. Most dialogue is functional; plot-advancing conversations are leavened by the occasional wisecrack. Open Three Parts Dead at random and whatever dialogue you hit upon is likely to be question-and-answer exposition.

What I miss most in these books are parts where the story just stops to talk about something for a couple of pages. The way Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary will start a chapter with a paragraph on briefcases, or Gerard Manley Hopkins. The way Kelly Link spends half of “Magic for Beginners” describing an imaginary TV series. For me the most memorable parts of a story are often embedded chunks of essay.[2] I’m among the few readers who enjoyed the nattering-about-whaling chapters of Moby-Dick. And I can enjoy books by people whose views I consider disconnected from reality if they’re up-front about them; at least they’re giving me something to argue with.

(This is one reason I like first person narrators. The character is telling their story for a reason. They want to convince you of something. So this inherently opinionated viewpoint naturally nudges the story towards essayish writing.)

A Matter of Timing

I’ve said Novelization Style is present-oriented–not just about things happening, but about what’s happening right now. This leads to a certain kind of pacing. Novelization Style mostly narrates at a moment-to-moment pace, the pace a scene would play out on video:

Bob glared at the shed. ‘Well, I guess I’d better shovel out that popcorn,’ he said. He picked up his shovel.

This is the way most novels narrate, most of the time, but they’ll also summarize long stretches of time: “Bob spent the next two weeks shoveling the popcorn out of his shed”. (Three Parts Dead does a lot of this in its first chapter before going to moment-to-moment pacing almost exclusively.) Or they’ll describe how things usually happen (as in the first chapters of Les Miserables, which spends its first hundred pages on the biography of a minor character; they alternate moment-to-moment anecdotes with descriptions of his habits). Novelization Style does these things, sometimes, but less often. Rather than summarize a long period of popcorn-shoveling it will skip over it with a chapter or section break. When Novelization Style summarizes, it’s usually immediately after one of these breaks, a way of getting back up to speed before returning to moment-to-moment pacing.

Most movies and TV episodes take place over a limited span of time–usually hours or days. Maybe weeks. Some movies cover more time, but it’s not common. It’s been a while since anyone cared about strict dramatic unity, but when individual shots are inherently paced moment-to-moment keeping the story to a limited time span just seems more natural. This is even more true of individual TV episodes… although an entire series, if it’s successful, covers years of the characters’ lives.[3]

Novelization Style’s steady pace can have different effects depending on whether the book in question stands by itself (the movie model) or is one volume in an ongoing soap opera (the TV model). Standalone novels, even when the page count is long, can feel overly spare and cut down. Like a movie that has to keep the budget and the run time from going overboard, they try to strip away any detail, incident, or line of dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot or reinforce the theme. They cut ambiguities, detours, and complications.

But in soap opera novels, the pace has the opposite effect. They seem to plod, skipping nothing no matter how unimportant, playing out events an omniscient narrator might choose to summarize. If Bob is shoveling popcorn out of a shed, and there’s no way to have that happen during a chapter break, we’re going to hear every detail of Bob’s popcorn-shoveling adventure, moment by moment.

A Song of Ice and Fire is notorious for dragging itself out (though there are other series that are far worse). I found an interview with George R. R. Martin on io9 in which he makes an interesting comment about what the wrong kind of pacing can do to a novel:

But when I actually got into writing them, the events have a certain momentum. So you write a chapter and then in your next chapter, it can’t be six months later, because something’s going to happen the next day. So you have to write what happens the next day, and then you have to write what happens the week after that. And the news gets to some other place.

And pretty soon, you’ve written hundreds of pages and a week has passed, instead of the six months, or the year that you wanted to pass. So you end a book, and you’ve had a tremendous amount of events — but they’ve taken place over a short time frame, and the eight-year-old kid is still eight years old.

Novels that feel free to vary the pace can deal with time in all sorts of ways–they can switch from overviews to anecdotes and back again. Novelization Style’s adherence to a certain kind of narration, and a certain kind of pacing, dumps a lot of those tools out of the toolbox.

I think I’ll have just two more posts in this series. Next time, more about the tics Novelization Style borrows from Hollywood storytelling. After that, a conclusion and summary of why Novelization Style doesn’t do much for me, and what I’m missing when I read it.

  1. Although I’d argue her prose is deceptively simple, as opposed to just simple. Bujold writes the sort of prose that gets called transparent but she varies her tone noticeably depending on what genre she’s writing–her science fiction novels have a contemporary sound, her Chalion novels are a little more elevated, and her Sharing Knife series, an fantasy series with a 19th-century American feel, is more folksy.  ↩

  2. I should acknowledge that what I’m describing comes close to a common failing of bad epic fantasy: long passages of invented history and myth are often terrible. That’s not inevitable, though; it’s because they tend to be indistinguishable from each other and disconnected from the story. I’ve just finished Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories. One of the things I love about that book, and A Stranger in Olondria, is how they weave in the history and culture Samatar created; Samatar’s worldbuilding is specific, and has a direct emotional connection to her characters.  ↩

  3. Television is casual about time in general. It’s often strikingly difficult to tell how much time is supposed to have passed during an episode of Doctor Who or Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s just… a thing happens, and then another thing, and we don’t always have enough cues to work out how long it took.  ↩