Pacing, Plot, Purposeful Action, And Human Values
  • Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions, said Ludwig von Mises.

    And so, in many ways, is plot.

    But, unlike life, plot is selective — and what that means, among other things, is that the author is the selector.

    The author chooses the actions his characters undertake.

    This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways in which fiction differs from journalism, and it’s why “the pressure to record” is not — contrary to what the Naturalist School of Art would have you believe — the primary function of art.

    Art creates. Journalism records.

    In life, there are a great many actions which are mundane and of no major consequence — whether it’s walking around the block, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or yawning.

    Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon. Art isolates and clarifies those issues, condensing into one single unit what in life might be spread out over a period of years, or even decades.

    That, in a nutshell, is the purpose and power of art.

    A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action. If, therefore, your story isn’t presented by means of physical action, it isn’t a novel. It may be a journal, it may be an epistle, it may be a memoir, it may be a diary, and it may be many other interesting things as well. But it is not a novel.

    It’s important to note here that physical action doesn’t necessarily just mean fist-fights, car chases, and sex-scenes.

    Physical action means that humans are engaged in purposeful action — which is to say, your characters are engaged in the pursuit of values.

    Whether you’re writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, or a literary novel, you must appeal to something real in the body of human experience.

    Life, said Nietszche, is a process of valuing. “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and from the perspective of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

    In my experience, the most talented editors are able to flesh out those parts of the story that have always troubled the writer even when the writer has never quite been able to put her finger on exactly what is troubling her. Virtually every manuscript I’ve ever written or worked upon has had issues with pacing. The reason for this, I’ve come to believe, is that writing a book of any length requires, perforce, a certain myopia. And yet sustaining a narrative pace for hundreds or even ONE hundred pages requires the exact opposite of myopia: it requires a kind of far-sightedness. Very often, writers are simply too caught up in the details of their story to see how the overall pace flows.

    That, I now think, is the greatest value of an editor: to show where the story grinds to a standstill.

    Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced book.

    It is, at times, extraordinarily well written from a stylistic perspective, and Moby Dick remains erudite and interesting on a great many levels, but the fact is, Moby Dick is not even really a novel. It’s a treatise: it’s a treatise on truth, it’s a treatise on whales, it’s a treatise on America, it’s a treatise on God, and it’s a treatise on many other things as well. But it’s not a novel.

    Think of pacing as a journey; and will your readers go along? Quoting editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner:

    The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags. I like to imagine the narrative as a trip. Just as the ride feels shorter on the way home, a phenomenon all school-age children remark on, even though it is exactly the same number of miles as the trip away, the reader expects that time will pass more rapidly as the book heads toward the finish. Once we know the way, the scenery rolls by like so much wallpaper. Your editor should help you see when the writing has turned into wallpaper (Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees).

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

14 Responses and Counting...

  • Rosalyn 02.16.2012

    I love this post! I can totally relate to writing characters who grow and learn through purposeful action–which may seem mundane, but is far from it in their experience as a person. That is art, isn’t it?

    And you are so right about Moby Dick. Although, I feel like I can’t say too much about that piece of work; I could only make it through about half. But the pace of a novel is key–I never thought about how different my work could be if someone pointed out the scenes that needed more time. That’s definitely something to consider.

  • Hi Rosalyn. This is art, yes, you’re absolutely correct, and so is your book, which I just bought.

    Thank you for your comment, and thank you for dropping by.

  • “Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon.”

    Beautifully said, and true of art across the spectrum. In photography, this translates to watching the background as well as the subject, moving around and lining things up in a way that excludes the periphery. I’ve always found the technique valuable in writing as well.

  • Averil Dean and her provocative avatar — you’re a very talented writer. Thank you. Thank you for your comment, and thank you for dropping by.

  • Good article, Ray, although I think it would be a mistake to discount the power of journalism to “select” from observation, and in doing so, turn the complexities of reality into a dime-store novel of heroes and villians.

    Also, I’m testing the avatar plugin and it’s giving me a headache. WORK, DAMN YOU.

  • That’s the spirit, Karl! Thank you for allowing me to give you a headache, and thank you for dropping by.

  • Karl, you got her done.

    Nice job, friend.

  • I did, and it tastes good. Now to get to those other big ticket items.

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