Plot to Prose Ratio

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.)

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Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer). ¬†Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.