Saturday, September 6, 2008

Dramatic Questions, Part 2

People left some very thoughtful posts in response to my last blog, but somehow the discussion (including my own contribution!) veered into the polemic-vs.-non-polemic ("entertaining") novel, which wasn't what I intended. So now I'm trying again to order my thoughts, since this is a topic very much on my mind just now. I've started to write another novel. It's a fantasy, which I haven't written in twenty years and thought I'd never do again, but this character has been gnawing at my mind for two months now, so I've given in. You really can't argue with these people.

But what I intended to muse about in my previous post is less a question of ideology than of narrative tension. What is it that actually keeps a reader turning pages, and how closely is it related to predictability? The late John Gardner, whom I quoted before, thought that the ability to predict a plot was irrelevant. In one sense, he's right; there are only so many basic plots (Heinlein put the number at three, Polti at 36). But if one can pretty much guess at how a plot will end, what else keeps readers going? And they DO keep going. Romance readers, for instance, always know how the plot will end (lovers united). So, usually, do mystery readers (crime solved). Many other readers (including me) have no objection to having been told the entire plot by a review or by another reader, or to rereading a new take on an old story (King Arthur, say) where I know pretty much how it will all turn out. So what keeps us all reading?

That's not a simple answer, of course. But I think the thing that makes a book a page-turner is wanting to know how a character will handle the immediate situation in any particular chapter. That's the "Omigod, what is she going to do about that?" factor. In other words, not the overall thematic material of the book, but the immediate situation right here, right now.

All this came to mind because I'm rereading Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling's novel that I will teach in Germany. I adore this book; Bruce throws off ideas like sparks. It's also subtly funny. But it's very episodic. This happens to Mia, then this, then this. Tension does not build in the way that, say, John Grisham can build tension by constantly raising the stakes for his characters. Mia's stakes are never really high; she can always just leave Europe and go home and there will be no negative consequences if she does. Sterling makes this point often. So the book offers much, but it is not full of dramatic tension. You don't stay up all night reading it. As a result, it got less attention and fewer sales than books that do offer that tension, as well as other joys.

I'm rambling. These are not simple questions to answer. But vital, I think, to both writers and teachers. I see a lot of student stories that just don't work because although the pay-off at the end may be good, the story does not create enough desire to know what will happen in the rest of this chapter, right here, right now.


Mr. JM said...

I agree with John Gardner: knowing the ending of a book is not what keeps us reading, at least not for me anyway. There have been a ton of books, novellas, short shories, etc. in which I predicted -- sometimes accurately, sometimes not so much -- how it would end, but in most cases that wasn't enough to make me stop reading.

It seems to me that the best writers I've read are able to create a kind of visceral sense of risk or danger or peril with respect to the characters' actions and reactions to other characters and the situation at hand.

Even if we know the protagonist will prevail in the end, the best stories are the ones in which the emotional stakes have been raised to such a point that we viscerally believe the protagonist could actually fail.

When we've reached that point -- abandoning the intellectual perspective from outside the story for the emotional investment inside the story -- then the ending could be staring you right in the face, and you'd still keeping reading.

How a writer actually manages to do this is still beyond me. But they do.

I'm not much of a writer myself, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Just my opinion.


Mr. JM said...

Just wanted to add one thing: I agree with you in your previous entry about people reading a book because they want to find out what happens at the end.

But it doesn't explain why a lot of people read the same books over and over again. It doesn't explain why people keep reading Lord of the Rings over and over again, even if they know how Frodo's journey ends.

Again, I think it goes back to this visceral belief in peril that the author has created -- that honest, yet completely illogical sense in the reader's head that the protagonist is in real danger and failure is a real possibility, no matter how many times you've read that book.

How this is done is, again, beyond me.


José Iriarte said...

I don't have any big answers, but I w2anted to say you just encapsulated for me very nicely the problem I've had in the past with the work of one of my crit-partners. I've complained about the novel being episodic but not been able to explain why this is a problem. You just nailed it for me by pointing out how that hamstrings dramatic tension.


I'm someone who rereads works, and I can tell you why, at least for me. I don't reread everything, but the works I do reread are those that have an incredibly rich world, backstory, and narrative in addition to a satisfying story, where I find that I discover something new every time I read (at least, for the first dozen reads or so). The works that seem very simplistic, where I feel like I've already mined all that I can out of them, I don't reread.

TheOFloinn said...

Many SF readers have a technological bias, and in the world of science and engineering discovering the answer is the high point. They may bring that mind-set to their reading protocols; so that, once the solution to the story-problem is known (or anticipated), the story is psychologically over. Like the scientist conducting an experiment, they may read in order to "find out" what the Answer is.

OTOH, it may be just as fascinating to learn how the "inevitable" answer is achieved. The delight of Hercule Poirot and that crowd is not whether they will solve the crime, but =how= they will solve it.

On the gripping hand, some people read not to "find out" but to "learn about." No one reads a history book of the 1940s to find out how WW2 ends; but rather to learn something about the texture of people's lives in that era. My old history professor, John Lukacs, used to say (quoting someone else I've forgotten) that an historian must approach the Battle of Salamis as if the Persians might still win.

Perhaps it's as you say: not to find out what will happen, but what will happen next; but maybe also to find out why it happened as it did.

Meanwhile, here is a take from elsewhere reflecting on the death of the novel:

Ann said...

Since I often read the endings of novels first, I don't think knowing or being able to predict is the main thing.

I like being surprised. I like characters I can relate to or wish I could be like.

I like snappy dialogue because the conversations of real life mainly lack snap.

I like a writer who can draw me in and make me wish the setting, characters or situations were real.

A good novel or novelist is like a comfy pair of jeans or wrapping up in a favorite blanket on the sofa with someone you love.

cd said...

I never thought of pageturning as a function of plot, except very indirectly. Isn't it instead a question of whether each page has some tension that we want to resolve and the scene is set in such a way that we expect the tension to be resolved on the next page? That tension requires an overall structure in the plot, but at any one time it's the actual scene itself, and not anticipation of the conclusion, that cause page turning. Right? If so, plot's very secondary.

Nancy Kress said...

Yes, CD, that's my point. You put it well: "That tension requires an overall structure in the plot, but at any one time it's the actual scene itself, and not anticipation of the conclusion, that cause page turning." Many writers have their eyes on the ultimate plot, neglecting the scene-by=scene tension, which in turn lessens reader interest. I know this because sometimes I'm one of those writers.

Nick A said...

_The Firm_ comes to mind, by Grisham. Within the first two pages, he defined a character appealing to a huge readership, in a compelling scene that was both immediately intriguing and set a long-term plot line. The rest of the book consisted of 'immediate action' for the protagonist.

Unknown said...

For me it's the details. I know that the protagonist is going to solve the problem but it's how they do that is what keeps me going.

The other thing that keeps me going is just the flow of the prose. I can't put it into words exactly but if the pace and dialogue and narration all move at a good pace I find it easy to keep turning.

James A. Ritchie said...

For me, it's simply about finding a character I want to be, and having a story I want to live.

When I read a good story, I become the character for the duration.

Nothing else matters.

Bill Dunning said...

As James said, and others have alluded to above, reading a novel is not just about themes and ideas, but also largely about good old escapism -- living as someone else, even if only in a limited fashion and for a short time. It's about seeing the world through someone else's eyes; either someone totally alien, or perhaps someone you could have been in different circumstances.

g d townshende said...

I like how E. M. Forster put it:

"The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.


If it is in a story we say "and then"? If it is in a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel.

I read, even if something is "predictable," because I want to know "Why?" When I read mysteries, certainly I'm interested in learning how the mystery will be solved, as well as who did it, but above all of that is the question, "Why?"

I think that an episodic tale that captures a reader's interest is one that encourages the reader to keep asking "And then? And then? And then?" But then there are those that, in addition to making you ask "And then?" also make you want to know "Why?"

I also like a story with a character with whom I can identify and through whom I can experience that character's adventures, but barring that, if a writer can so arouse my curiosity as to make me ask "Why?" then I'm hooked.