And, right on cue from the previous entry:
I’m in the middle of a fantasy novel at the moment (which shall remain nameless because I’m about to heap a lot of unfair judgment on it), and its leisurely pace is painfully reminding me of a common problem with fantasy novels: too many of them take forever to get anywhere. I’m not talking about raw word count here — a book could be fifteen hundred pages long, as long as things move forward. But too often, they don’t.
For example, I’m two hundred pages into this book, and so far we’ve
- Introduced the characters
- Talked a little about the world
- Some characters have made plans
- They’ve talked about the plans they’ve made
- They’ve had a nice dinner in which they talk about the plans some more
- They reflect on the plans they made and the dinner they had
And that’s really about it. Two hundred pages, and I’m still waiting for something really significant to happen. As Mike Nelson said during MST3K’s send-up of The Undead, “I’ve never known more about what isn’t going on.” I understand that we’re still in the first act and all, but on the other hand, I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber in parallel, and by a mere ninety pages in, Zelazny has covered:
- A Coronet Blue-style amnesia subplot (now resolved)
- A journey to other dimensions with about ten times the world-building of the above book
- Five different individual battles
- A half-dozen emerging interpersonal conflicts
- An epic city siege
Now, Nine Princes in Amber was written in 1970, and the fantasy market has changed dramatically since then. Still, I’m struck by how dramatically these books differ in pace and brevity. I recently abandoned another fantasy novel midway through, because people were just puttering around a castle discussing interesting things that might possibly happen someday. I’m not talking about foreshadowing or even raising the story stakes — more like the prose equivalent of window-shopping at the mall.
Part of this, I’m sure, is just the market at work — readers want a lot of bang for their buck, and fantasy series can be a lot like car dealerships: why sell the reader just one book when you can sell them ten books over ten years? (Or, in George Martin’s case, five books over fifteen years. Zing!) Also, a lot of fantasy writers grew up with Tolkien and Jordan and epic doorstops that went on for thousands of pages, and so reflect that scale and ambition in their own work — which is fine. But for crying out loud, writers, if you’re going to write a 900-page novel, make something happen.
David Mamet’s infamous memo to the writers of the Unit sums up the matter succinctly:
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.
HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
Brutally put, in true Mamet style, but pointed.
My favorite note on scene and structure comes from a writer whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, but goes like this: if two characters enter a scene, one or both of them must leave the scene changed somehow. If you have characters show up, discuss some things, and leave the same way they came in, nothing has happened. All the clever dialogue or vivid environmental detail in the world won’t change that. This is hardly a trade secret; it’s basic structure. And yet I see writers, even published writers, forgetting or neglecting it all the time.
So if your prose has a bunch of limp scenes in which people discuss the plans they’re not carrying out, please do your readers a favor. Wade in there and start cutting.