Depth in Fiction, Part Three: Density of Paper vs. Density of Story

This article is the third in a five part series about the skill of adding depth to fiction. Parts One and Two may be read here and here.

With gratitude to the incomparable David Breitenbeck for introducing this author to the video above, we turn to today’s subject. Having discussed the need for “magic” within fiction, followed by a review of the essential requirement for archetypes and image in story, we turn to the principal error noted at two points (the 9:06 and 20:18 minute marks, specifically) in the aforementioned review.

This topic is the fact that density of paper – i.e. the length of a book – is secondary to the “density of story.” The former is only important insofar as it helps to show the difficulties, dramas, and the human condition through the adventures the protagonists endure. If the story can be told just as well with fewer words and less pages, there is nothing wrong with ending it there.

Before continuing, it must be asked: Why is an author who focuses on prose writing using a video critique of comic books to make this point? There are two answers to this inquiry. The first is that all writing is writing. An author can learn as much about creating a good story from a favorite video game, cartoon, or comic strip as from The Iliad, Gone with the Wind, or Alien. Storytelling of every kind has something of value to impart to a prospective writer. In whatever form it is offered to audiences, a good tale can help a beginning author learn the craft of fiction.

Second, comic books are nothing more or less than illustrated short stories. This is not a jest; the average length for a 1963 Marvel comic – even accounting for advertisements – was around sixteen to eighteen pages. From my own experience writing short fiction, this amounts to around four or five thousand words, well within the limits of many magazine and anthology word count restrictions. Add to this the fact that Stan Lee, who wrote or co-authored many of the early comics, won a local short story contest ten years in a row, and you may begin to see what I mean.

The reviewer in the film at the head of this post makes a good point with his focused critique, which can be expanded to tales across the board. The modern discipline of writing usually stresses the emotional validation of the protagonist’s original position instead of challenging them to move beyond it. In order to make this work, the author cannot allow the characters to face significant push back against their ego, since this might cause them to re-evaluate themselves and decide to change. When current authors do make an attempt at introspection, it often falls short of the mark because it substitutes a chintzy, feel-good message rather than force the characters (and thereby the author and readers) to recognize everyone needs to improve on a daily basis.

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As noted by the videographer, this school of writing demands that the audience prove themselves to the writer by agreeing with them. Fiction is not meant to do this. Storytelling is a form of service; through narrative writing culture is maintained, philosophy explored, the human condition understood, and meaning discovered in the most unexpected places. By playing class clown and dreamer, the writer lightens the burdens of his fellow men, if only for a brief time.

For this reason, the present fascination with the perfection of the author – whoever he or she may be, and whatever he or she writes – must end. We are neither gods nor angels, and to pretend to these positions is folly of the highest order. “Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return” applies to all mankind; only rarely have there been exceptions made to this law. To ignore this is to condemn oneself to a life and then an eternity of pain, isolation, and loss.

Naturally, this raises the question of how to evade the trap of self-righteous, flat storytelling. The first order of business is for writers to realize they are entertainers and, therefore, the least among men. Our job is vital, and we should treat it with the utmost respect and sincerity. But we ought to take ourselves lightly; we are but comedians in a great play, one that has better characters in it than us. This is a daily struggle, and there will be times when we fail and fall. But it is the safest path for authors of every stripe to follow.

It is also important for an author to understand that a story is not made by word length or page numbers. Many contemporary authors and publishers misguidedly emphasize these things due to the popularity of such tales as The Lord of the Rings, the Wheel of Time series, and Odd Thomas. While this is an understandable error, it has proven to be detrimental for many. Epic fiction has its place, but not every story can or should be four hundred plus pages in length.

This may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but a closer inspection of these series makes the problem clear. Tolkien, Jordan, and Koontz were and are able to fill their lengthy works with challenges, drama, and humanity. However, they actually need four hundred or more pages to tell their stories and make their points. Thus even when they add “filler” material such as the adventure in the Old Forest with Bombadil, or the apparently useless descriptions of bizarre animal behavior in Deeply Odd, these items only add depth and strength to their narratives.

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On the other hand, Poul Anderson and Andre Norton’s books would be highly unattractive to readers if they were longer than their roughly two-hundred-fifty pages. Their novels function best at a smaller size and lesser length. Just so, many modern stories will do well without being stretched to an extent they are not meant to reach. Arbitrarily pushing one’s fiction beyond this point to make a lengthy narrative does everyone involved with it a great disservice. It is better to end a story where it asks to stop than to push it forward “because that’s the length that everyone wants to publish/read.”

One of the best ways for a writer to avoid this problem is to practice creating short stories. As Misha Burnett has said several times, the near-death of this form of fiction in our age has been detrimental to the craft as a whole. Meeting a one to seventeen thousand word limit is much harder than it sounds, as it requires the author to present readers with a complete picture of the world he has in mind quickly without sacrificing character, plot, and theme, each of which correspond to the aforementioned items. Without a challenge, plot and character fall flat and no drama is created. And without a theme, humanity is left unexplored and misunderstood.

Due to its limited format, short fiction necessarily forces an author to leave “magic” unexplained while using images to their utmost. There is no room for the short fiction writer to focus on emotional validation or self aggrandizement. Engaging in either violation will slow the tale and likely drag it out well past the required word count.

Should the tale sell to a publication despite these obstacles, it will be well remembered and thought of by only a few. No one likes a braggart in person, much less in writing. Emotional validation soon devolves into either pride or self-pity, both unattractive vices that do more harm than good. Thus even when an author writing under these misguided aims succeeds in becoming published, he ultimately fails to win his audience’s good will.

The art of the short story and light novel, while honed in writing, is best studied through absorbing those tales already published in this mould. From The Chronicles of Narnia to the Witch World series, the “light” form of fiction has enjoyed a long and renowned history. Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many other pulp artists mastered this writing style and put it to excellent use for decades. Reading their works, one finds not the expected lack of complexity and sophistication, but a surfeit of each.

Image result for wraith squadron

Other, somewhat longer novels fit this category as well. Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series, Wraith Squadron, is the example that comes readily to mind. The novels race forward at a breakneck pace, so that it almost feels as if three or four books have been read in place of one. Along with several other early Star Wars Expanded Universe authors, Mr. Allston left an astounding legacy which astute writers may study in order to add intricacy and intensity to their own work.

In the realm of short stories, the classics are the best place to start. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Great Carbunkle to Kate Chopin’s Regret to Andre Norton’s People of the Crater, the writers of the past have much to impart to a new generation of authors. Models of compression, challenge, drama, and humanity, their stories have stood the test of time in no small part because they keep the magic and the image intact throughout their works. Whether the word count is three thousand or eighteen, these masters of the craft kept their tales short, to the point, and very, very human.

Comic books are also a worthwhile genre for beginning writers to study. As the video at the head of this post demonstrates, the original, older comics were capable of telling a single, contained story within an hour’s reading time. They are also valuable for aspiring authors in that they demonstrate how to expand a fictional universe and build up/maintain enormous story arcs across decades of time. The annual the reviewer discusses above carries the weight hundreds of previous books while setting up a number of future tales in the process.

It is good, too, for authors to study live action television series and cartoons. Animated series especially provide a prospective fiction author with insight into the craft of short story writing. Watching Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; Zoids: Chaotic Century; G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero, My Little Pony, or even less striking series such as Little Bear demonstrate to beginning writers the aforementioned qualities of challenge, drama, and humanity in memorable, dense packages.

Half-hour and hour long live action series are helpful in this area as well. From The Rifleman and I Dream of Jeannie to Star Trek and Stargate SG-1, authors can learn a great deal about telling effective, insightful tales by watching television with the will to learn what makes them tick. Within thirty or sixty minute time slots, stories in this medium manage to deliver powerful, moving tales that carry forward past ideas at the same time they explore new ones.

The benefits of these various episodes and series will have disparate effects on some writers. Nor will every installment or series be pure gold for the student. However, as writers well know, one can learn from the mistakes of others as well as from his own errors. Despite the faults and failures in these disparate tales, visual or written, their value remains constant to authors of each forthcoming generation.

Finally, a word must be said about the videographer’s comment on dialogue. As he and others have rightly pointed out, the speech patterns of many characters today all conform to a particular pattern. The heroes and villains all swear the same way, use the same vernacular, and either speak like Ivy League educated young adults or Long Island high schoolers. This leads not only to poor uses and abuses of the English language but to a banal, superficial style of communication between not only the characters on the page, but the author and his audience as well.

It also ignores reality, something that was not done in previous decades. In every locality where people congregate, they develop unique accents, expressions, and idioms that are rarely similar to those used elsewhere. Some inflections will be almost exactly the same while others will be entirely different. Unless the people speaking have the same background, the same circumstances, and the same home city/state/country, they will not sound at all alike.

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Just consider Marvel Comics’ Monica Rambeau (Spectrum) and Remy Lebeau (Gambit). Both were born and raised in New Orleans, yet their accents and speech patterns are light years apart. Gambit tends to refer to himself in the third person and to maintain his thick, Cajun intonations when communicating in English. Spectrum, however, has a refined manner of speech in both French and English. Her inflections are also lighter and more musical than the Ragin’ Cajun’s emphatic, almost heavy drawl, whether she is shouting or whispering.

Thus we have two characters from the same city, the same state, and the same country who speak in two entirely different ways due to their different circumstances. Neither sounds like the other; nor do they speak in the manner of their various compatriots. Altering their distinctive, personal speech patterns to match everyone else’s would destroy their individuality, charm, and appeal as completely as rewriting and redrawing them from the ground up would. Yet authors throughout modern fiction continually do just that to their own protagonists. They reduce the colorful, vibrant distinctions between speech patterns and foreign languages to well-recognized, often stereotypical accents. Or they overwrite local inflections to make the characters sound like them.

While not a new problem in and of itself, this style of writing dialogue is spreading and making it hard to add depth to fiction. It takes all kinds, as the saying goes, to make the world go ‘round. Denying this fact by giving characters a stereotyped or homogeneous pool of idioms, inflections, and swear words to use in daily speech is to reduce mankind to one globular blob of uninspiring dough which no one wants to cook, let alone eat.

So while you are challenging your heroes to add drama and humanity to your fiction, future writers, don’t forget to respect the dialects they use. Local color adds more charm and depth to a story, not less. Your readers – especially those from the same regions as your protagonists – will greatly appreciate such details.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her novelette, “Halcyon,” will appear in Cirsova Magazine’s summer issue.

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5 thoughts on “Depth in Fiction, Part Three: Density of Paper vs. Density of Story

  1. Another excellent piece, and a very good point on letting the story tell itself and not trying to bloat it to ‘publishable length’ (something I’ve struggled with in the past).

    And I like your point that we authors are, in fact, mere servicemen; craftsmen like any other, not demigods to demand adulation. The best work, I usually find, is done by those who take themselves lightly, or approach writing / entertaining as a craft for pay, not a mystical experience (see Shakespeare, Dickens, Burroughs, Stan Lee, etc.), or else hobbyists who do it more or less for fun (Austen, Tolkien, etc.). Like you say, it’s tough to keep that in mind, but we need to if we’re going to be any good.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with the substance, but still have a love and longing for what TVTROPES dubs “narrative filigree”– the little extraneous flourishes of narrative, information, exposition, or set dressing which are just there for added color or spice. To me, these show that the author was putting more than just the bare minimum requirements of *thought* in–and now there’s something fun, or funny, or thought-provoking, etc, to show for it. Pratchett–and Jack Vance–‘s footnotes are the gold standard of this, IM(H)O.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Depth in Fiction, Part Four: Philosophy, Theology, and the Difference between Right and Wrong | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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