f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The Second Observation About Dense Writing

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Second Observation About Dense Writing

First, I'm changing this series to "observations" rather than "rules." I don't like writing rules. I don't necessarily think there are such things. And the first thing people do when you mention a writing rule is to find five examples that break it. So...these aren't rules. They're merely things Iv'e noticed in my reading that seem to have broad application for us as writers.

And the second thing I think I've noticed may be counter-intuitive to much of the advice given today. That is: density of story emerges primarily through narrative and exposition rather than dialogue. This is not meant to give you a free pass on your dialogue--I'll have more to say on that later in the series. Rather, it's to say that the heavy work of filling a book is done between the scenes.

This becomes difficult to parse out because in the best novels everything is for the sake of advancing the novel at some level. If it does no work, it should be excised. However, too often we've reduced that maxim to simply, "Everything must advance the plot." And with that I disagree. A richer understanding of a character's thoughts, a fuller development of a theme--these things make up the richness and fullness to which I'm referring.

Richard Russo's Straight Man begins with a seven page prologue. It is at once superfluous to the plot and intrinsic to the main character. Do you leave it?

Lying Awake pauses in its story to give flashbacks, set apart in italics, of Sister John of the Cross' childhood. Not a single one is pertinent to her dangerous medical condition. But each opens her life a little wider to us.

There are more and better examples out there. Hopefully you see what I'm getting at. Story is all. But story is not plot. And therefore plot is not all.
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Mark Bertrand has recently visited this topic in his study on craft, although from a slightly different angle, cracking that old chestnut about "showing, not telling."

We do need to learn to show. But as Mark says, we also need to learn to tell...well.

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Continue to the Third Observation About Dense Writing.