Or, “Tell Me The Goddamn Story, already!”
Over the last week, I had the good fortune of going on a relaxing vacation with lots of time to read. I picked up a half dozen paperbacks to take with me, including Glen Cook’s The Silver Spike, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane and a few others. On the recommendation of a friend, I started with The Silver Spike. I won’t review it here other than to say, hot damn I loved it and will be looking for more Black Company books in the near future.
When I finished The Silver Spike, I picked up Dragonsbane next. From the outset, I found myself having difficulty getting into it. I thought perhaps it was too big of a shift in tone from the bloody, gritty Spike, so I put it down in favor of trying Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew by geek-culture osmosis that LFB was a more cynical novel with an unlikable protagonist, so I thought it might be a better fit right off Spike. Although the tone was, as I suspected, closer to what I wanted, I was still having trouble getting really immersed in the story the same way that I had fallen into Spike. After 100 pages or so (I can be a slow learner sometimes) it struck me: neither Dragonsbane or LFB was Telling Me The Goddamn Story, at least not at the pace I wanted.
In other words, the Plot to Prose Ratio was way off.
Let me start by saying, emphatically, that the Plot to Prose Ratio (PPR) is entirely subjective. Not only does every individual person have their own preference, but any individual’s preference changes from story to story as well. That said, I also think it is universal: every reader has a PPR they prefer, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. I did not, until I was presented with back to back stark examples of works with very different PPRs.
The Silver Spike is a fast paced crime novel that happens to be set against a high fantasy weird fiction sword and sorcery backdrop. Relative to the actions of the characters, very little word count is given over to meticulous description and historical exposition. That is not to say Spike lacks for world building; it doesn’t. But that world building is secondary to the struggles of the characters and serves the needs of the author more than it serves the desires of the reader. That is, the complex and strange world that Cook has created is the vehicle for the story, not the other way around. In this way, the PPR of The Silver Spike is heavily weighted toward Plot. Most every word on the page moves the story forward.
Lord Foul’s Bane by contrast (which I will use as a counter example, since I put Dragonsbane down too early to make a fair assessment) leans more heavily toward the Prose side of the PPR. Donaldson spends a lot of words on immersive description, world building and the internal life of his anti-hero Thomas Covenant. So much so, in fact, that even a hundred and a half pages in to the novel very little has actually occurred. A trek across a wooded valley occupies thousands of words in LFB, where in Spike a sequence of similar narrative importance might have consumed a mere paragraph. In instances like these, I find myself distracted from the story in wondering how much longer before the next actual thing that matters happens.
Again, one’s Plot to Prose Ration preference is subjective. Some readers adore words and have a robust tolerance for long passages that enhance immersion or delve deep into character or setting. Obviously, me preferences lean the other direction, toward the flow of the narrative and the development of characters through action rather than description. I want to the author it to Tell Me The Goddamn Story.
None of this is to suggest that I do not appreciate well crafted prose. Rather, well crafted prose, for me, should also move the plot forward. My favorite example of this is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I cannot think of a more beautifully crafted novel as far as the prose itself is concerned. Beagle has a give for description and narrative device that is sadly all too uncommon. At the same time, he never wastes that talent on unnecessary padding. Each wonderful paragraph serves the larger story and not only embellishes his world and characters but propels the reader ever forward in the narrative. J. R. R. Tolkien writes similarly in The Hobbit but leans more heavily toward prose for prose sake in The Lord of the Rings.
When I wander into the book store (an increasingly rare occurrence, granted) and I see shelves sagging under the weight of Big Fat Fantasy series, I find myself recoiling. Having found both Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire too concerned with Prose and not concerned enough with Plot, I tend to shy away from long series of thick novels. That is too bad, because I am sure there are plenty of series in which the individual books are fast paced, plot heavy narratives (as I discovered with The Silver Spike and previously found with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.)