May 3, 2016

Novelists, why?

Why are you continually telling me how and where characters are moving — in and out of rooms and buildings, onto and up out of chairs and sofas, hands gesticulating this way and that? It's 20% of some novels. Why are you doing this?

Maybe you don't think we, the readers, notice. Maybe you imagine yourselves successfully staging a play in our minds — causing us to "see" your story as if we were sitting in a theater. But a play wouldn't waste my time with words about X passing through doorways and across rooms. X would be saying something interesting.

I won't say what I was trying to read. I'm just pushing back any novelists whose foot this shoe fits. You can walk across this dark, cluttered room, over the worn, plush carpet, and plant your well-padded ass on that comfy upholstered chair and remove your customary footwear and place your nether extremity inside this shabby slipper and ascertain if it's approximately your size.

I'm having a flashback to high school English class, where we were taught why "Lord of the Flies" was well-written. I still remember the sentence the teacher used — half a century ago! — to make his point that it's best to convey the emotions of the characters by describing some outward movement: "He took two leaden steps forward."

73 comments:

Sebastian said...

"Novelists, why?" Reader, why?

mockturtle said...

They are padding the word count trying to make a short story into a novel. Give me Dostoyevsky, any day.

eddie willers said...

Those that can, do.
Those that can't, blog.

Scott M said...

Part of it is voice, part is how visually the writer sees what's happening and that translates down on to the page (or screen, YMMV). While there is absolutely extraneous descriptions of action out there, there's quite a bit that impacts there story.

Describing a character leaving an office building in detail should only be used if there's something interesting about it or, more importantly, it either drives the story or reveals something about the character. If the act does neither, it's far better to simply say that, "Michael finished up and left work." If he's going to be in a car chase, you might want to mention that he's getting the car out of the parking garage :)

Ann Althouse said...

@Scott M I object to all of that stuff too. I don't want to read about a character in terms of all that banality, whether it's heavily described or briefly summarized. It's so dull.

mockturtle said...

Chekov said it best:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.
— Anton Chekhov

Michael K said...

The novels I read are mostly action oriented. The action moves along and there is little room for padding.
Among my favorites are Stephen Pressfield, William E Butterfield and Tom Clancy. I would love to be able to write like they do as they take technical topics and make them interesting to others while explaining the technology.

There are very few who can do that with Medicine. AJ Cronin might be the last one.

Rob said...

"What shall I write about now?" Ann asked herself as she stood at the window watching Meade play with neighbor-dog Zeus in the backyard. "Unnecessary stage directions in novels, that ought to do the trick." Ann walked purposefully across the room and sat down at the computer. "Novelists, why?" Ann wrote, as she congratulated herself on a nice use of apostrophe.

Scott M said...

It's so dull.

Watch a movie :)

Again, I'm not talking about banality. The current advice for new writers is to only include things that reveal IMPORTANT things about the character or drive the story. Talking about birth marks that don't affect a thing or a preponderance for hang nails doesn't raise to that bar. And this isn't exactly NEW advice. Vonnegut laid this out decades ago and I'm sure he was cribbing someone else's words.

All that aside, in my group I run something called Flog A Pro, which I got from yet another blog. Basically, I put up the first 17 lines of a book, meant to simulate the first page of a submitted manuscript and an agent's slush-pile reader only glancing at it. Does it compel one to keep reading? Does it create a question needing to be answered? Does it start with action? Everyone comments on it, yay or nay, and then I reveal the author/title. It's ALWAYS a NYT best-seller. The point being, some people are big enough fans of a particular writer, like King or Brown, that they are willing to slice through all of that muck because they feel it will pay off in the end.

Scott M said...

Re the Chekov quote...exactly.

Ann Althouse said...

"Watch a movie :)"

Movies are mostly dull (for other reasons).

My biggest objection is that they control your time. You can read a book fast or slow. A movie has determined the time it will take.

If I have my choice, I prefer a live play for some reason. Last year, we never went to the movies, but we saw a few plays.

Michael said...

Stunning.

"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge." So fucking dull that Dostoevsky.

"We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work." Flaubert is putting me to sleep here.

"The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house
Henry James! bore.



A dull person would find any of that dull.

Ann Althouse said...

"The current advice for new writers..."

What is the source of this advice? Maybe the stuff I'm complaining about is the result of advice. I object to my high school teacher's advice. There's a lot of bad writing out there. Most writing is bad. Some readers like the bad stuff, which is okay for them. I'm just saying the way most novels are written, I can see within a few pages that it's dreck.

rhhardin said...

He took two umbrella steps forward.

Sebastian said...

"I'm just saying the way most novels are written, I can see within a few pages that it's dreck" I'm just saying the way most pop songs are sung, I can hear . . .

Ann Althouse said...

"He took two umbrella steps forward."

LOL

mockturtle said...


"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge." So fucking dull that Dostoevsky.


But there was a reason he was walking that way.

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...

They all want to be screenwriters.

Not satisfied with the money or fame that comes (or doesn't come) with novel writing, they all want to move to Hollywood, sell shit-tastic scripts for eye-popping amounts (so-called "sick money") and snort coke off of Scarlett Johansson's tits.

EMD said...

If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.

Gabriel said...

@Ann:But a play wouldn't waste my time with words about X passing through doorways and across rooms. X would be saying something interesting.

Most plays would be having the characters do things, not just stand there and talk. The "business" the actors do should tell you something about the character, and not juts be a distraction, but that's saying it should be done well, not that it should not be done at all.

Would you like your novels reduced to just dialogue, and have people act out the actions while reciting the dialogue? Or do you prefer to figure out the action from the dialogue? I'm not sure where this is going.

1) "I find it boring when novelists describe how their characters are moving," said Ann, each footstep distinctly audible as she approached lectern. "I think it gets in the way of the story."

2) "I find it boring when novelists describe how their characters are moving," said Ann, languidly stirring her mint julep on the veranda. "I think it gets in the way of the story."

3) "I find it boring when novelists describe how their characters are moving," said Ann, while slowly and deliberately stropping a straight razor, her knuckles white, her teeth clenched. "I think it gets in the way of the story."

4) "I find it boring when novelists describe how their characters are moving," said Ann, as she watched through her rifle scope for William Golding's head. "I think it gets in the way of the story."









Scott M said...

If I have my choice, I prefer a live play for some reason. Last year, we never went to the movies, but we saw a few plays.

I LOVE plays, but only if they're very well done...and you don't know that until it's over. I lol'd at the control of time thing too :) A play has peer pressure over your time. It's a faux pas to get up and leave during an act, isn't it? And you COULD, but you're probably unlikely to stand up and tell them to stop. Nope...you're butt is planted there until intermission.

The source for that advice? Any number of craft-centric books out the past few years since e-books blew up. It's sort of the writer's group gestalt as well. Of course, "There are three golden rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are."

EMD said...

"They all want to be screenwriters."

I hope not. Novelists always overwrite. Screenwriters are browbeaten to become quite efficient with their words.

I work through drafts where I turn two words into one to describe the same thing.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

They learn it in college.

http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/page.cfm?pageid=1659

In fiction writing, it is important to make your scenes and characters as vivid as possible. One way this can be accomplished is through the inclusion of descriptive details. Fiction which incorporates original sensory description has the power to actively involve and affect the reader. Without such details, fiction is in danger of becoming listless or flat. Description is equally as important as dialogue and plot in moving forward the action of a story.

EMD said...

Notice no one has called out Tom Clancy. I'd rather an author describe a character's actions than 2-3 pages of the detailed mechanisms of a particular weapon.

buwaya puti said...

A lot of this is a waste of time and space.
A lot isn't, depends on the case. It may be part of the picture, but...
It's like a painting, assume some 18th century thing in a garden, by Boucher say. Those plants, every leaf sometimes, the folds of cloth, wisps of hair, the texture of velvet - why are they there? If they weren't, it would be rather less of a Boucher.
Consider Helprins "Soldier of the Great War". Much of it is atmospheric stuff just like a Boucher setting - or a Renaissance painting. A painting, and its setting, is significant in that book. Have a look.

Wilbur said...

Wilbur has never willingly read a piece of fiction, excepting a couple of Dickens' works and a short story or two by other authors.

When I complete all the non-fiction in books and on the web, then I'll dive into the made-up stuff.

Wilbur said...

"In fiction writing, it is important to make your scenes and characters as vivid as possible. One way this can be accomplished is through the inclusion of descriptive details."

Whoever wrote that must've loved Hawthorne.

Mike Sylwester said...

Ann, you will avoid this aggravation if you read Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun.

Here is Wikipedia's plot summary:

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital bed ... He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue), but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.

Joe attempts suicide by suffocation, but finds that he had been given a tracheotomy which he can neither remove nor control. .... he desires to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country in order to show others the true horrors of war. Joe successfully communicates these desires with military officials by banging his head on his pillow in Morse code. ....

As Joe drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend, and reflects upon the myths and realities of war.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@Scott M I object to all of that stuff too. I don't want to read about a character in terms of all that banality, whether it's heavily described or briefly summarized. It's so dull.

Writers shouldn't indicate when there is a change of scenery?

"Bob left work and met Carol at their favorite Disco."

Would seem to necessary to inform the reader that Bob is no longer at work (assuming the previous action took place at Bob's workplace) and he went directly to the Disco, where he met Carol. "Their favorite" would indicate that they already knew each other and had been to multiple Discos.

Its a short, declarative sentence giving necessary information to the reader.

What it isn't is:

Bob stopped briefly as he exited the 50 story glass building where he worked on the 24th floor as an attorney specializing in litigating cases involving resolving environmental destruction caused by heartless, earth raping corporations. He was momentarily distracted by his reflection in the glass doors as he prepared to pass through them into the cold Chicago winter on his way to meet Carol at their favorite Disco for the fifth time. He was startled to see that his carefully coiffed hair was in some disarray, and took a moment to carefully comb it.

As he walked out into the sidewalk, freshly shoveled by the Gregory, the Armenian door man, he thought to himself, "I hate those awful earth raping corporations."

Then, snapping his fingers he told Gregory, "Fetch my Lamborghini."

buwaya said...

Ron,

You are going to turn this into a romance novel aren't you?

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@buwaya

I'll admit it. After writing that I thought, "Should I pursue a lucrative career as a romance novelist or remain a titan of industry?"

tim in vermont said...

I agree that so many people write with a not so hidden agenda of creating a filmable story. Great novels often make lousy movies. Movies have elevated story telling, some novelist try to compete the way some painters try to compete with photography.

Michael K said...

"They all want to be screenwriters."

Pressfield is a screen writer and he still writes good action novels.

"I'd rather an author describe a character's actions than 2-3 pages of the detailed mechanisms of a particular weapon"

Clancy wrote an engrossing novel that explained how to make a thermonuclear bomb and deliver it to the US.

He wrote another one that described a war between the US and Japan that is better than the Stratfor.com prediction.

Both of those kept me up all night reading them

Ron Winkleheimer said...

I bet if I made Bob a vampire it would be very lucrative.

Scott M said...

Notice no one has called out Tom Clancy. I'd rather an author describe a character's actions than 2-3 pages of the detailed mechanisms of a particular weapon.

I did, mentally :) I stopped reading Clancy back in the 90's for this very reason. Light on action, heavy on the tech. The David Weber of the contemporary thriller.

mockturtle said...

Ann, you will avoid this aggravation if you read Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun.

I read that novel many years ago and remember that it was not just another anti-war novel but an argument for life, regardless of one's dismal situation.

Richard Dolan said...

"I won't say what I was trying to read. I'm just pushing back any novelists whose foot this shoe fits."

Yes, long passages of description, often to no real point in advancing or deepening the story. I was reading Richard Jenkyns' short book on Jane Austen this weekend, and he comments on the same thing -- it was even more standard-fare for second rate novels, and many first rate ones too, in the 19th century -- mostly to draw a contrast with Austen who was so sparing with details, paring them down to only the most telling. Her novels usually offer just dialog -- the first chapter of P and P is famous for that -- with essentially no scene-setting, and in that sense her writing captures much more of the experience of the theatre than pages of description.

It took a woman to write the perfect comedy of manners, and she's still unsurpassed.

tim in vermont said...

People didn't used to have complete access to pictures of everything.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

As Bob stared into Carol's cool green eyes he struggled to constrain his blood hunger. Staring at her neck he could see the precious life blood coursing through her arteries and hear the sensual beating of her heart.

"Carol", he said, huskily.

"Yes," Carol stated, staring at his well-defined pectoral muscles visible in the v made by his shirt, unbuttoned so as to emphasize the well-definedness of his pectoral muscles.

"Would you care to," a momentary hesitation, "dance."

For some reason the simple question made Carol shudder. She had a premonition that Bob was not just the powerful, earth defending litigator who drove a Lamborghini that he seemed.

"Yes," she replied.

"I would."

buwaya said...

I'll admit it. After writing that I thought, "Should I pursue a lucrative career as a romance novelist or remain a titan of industry?"
---------------------------------------------------
Well, there you go. You have an out from the rat race. Well started by the way.
In that crowd I think you can get away with "well-definedness".
A bit of homework on whats popular over there and, well, the sky's the limit.

I wonder what Laslo can do. He may have to work in a different genre though.

One day very soon I will be retired and, not having to solve the daily three problems, I may set myself a worse one.

Michael K said...

"I stopped reading Clancy back in the 90's for this very reason."

Obviously tastes differ. Most of my reading is non-fiction. Malachi Martin, for example, wrote many engrossing (to me) novels that explained what was going on in the Vatican in the 80s. Unlike Dan Brown, who made up the details, Martin's novels were roman a clef versions of the true stories.

I ran across a non-fiction book by a NY police detective that meshed exactly with Martin's novels.

Tastes certainly differ.

jr565 said...

Wahts wrong with showing a little movement. it can't ALL be dialogue. Granted, you can have too much of anything, so if your entire novel consists of people movign around with their movement described in great detail, the author is probably doing it wrong. But you could say the same thing about a book that's all dialog. Or about someone who describes EVERYTHING down to the tiniest detail.

cubanbob said...

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...
They all want to be screenwriters.

Not satisfied with the money or fame that comes (or doesn't come) with novel writing, they all want to move to Hollywood, sell shit-tastic scripts for eye-popping amounts (so-called "sick money") and snort coke off of Scarlett Johansson's tits.

A bit ambitious but an admirable plan in it's boldness.

Michael said...

I always think of Johnnie Got His Gun when discussing end of life decisions made by the healthy on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. Stop, stop, I feel better!!

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Its more than a little strange, (weird jokes interspersed in the video) but there is a guy calling himself Plinkett on redlettermedia.com that critiques the Star Wars prequels and one of the things he brings up is how little action there actually is in the movies.

He notes that a lot of scenes are of people sitting on couches talking, or walking down a hall, talking. Or standing in front of windows, talking. It screws up the pacing.

Just thought I would throw that out there.

mikee said...

Elmore Leonard writes his gritty crime novels using sparse descriptions and lots of dialogue, which may be why movies of his works hew fairly true to the original.

Of course, it makes them read at about the 4th grade level, which is infuriating to some people. To those infuriated folk, I suggest James Branch Cabell's novels.

I fall into the delightful author Terry Pratchett's readership, liking the funny descriptions and dialogue he uses simultaneously with his fantasy world, a disk on back of the great space turtle.



jr565 said...

One of my buddies used to write a lot of stuff in college. He writes in a very flowery prose which is very mannered sounding. some people love it. His writer teacher thought he was great. But he told me how one person described his writing the following way "your writing is like a rich dark chocolate. it tasted good in one bite but if you try to eat the whole bar it makes you want to vomit" Harsh.
But his writing professor loved it. So, who's to say what good writing is? The reader. If they like flowery prose, then you rock, if they don't then you suck.

buwaya said...

Malachi Martins best book.

"Hostage to the Devil"

Detailed, often very creepy case studies of demonic possessions and exorcisms. True? I think not, not entirely, but they are obviously based on something, else they are a set of very plausible, sophisticated mini-novels of supernatural horror. No shambling terrors, no bloodthirsty monsters, just evil as it would appear in real life.

Martin was not quite reliable, not quite truthful. He would have been quite a character in a novel.

buwaya said...

"I suggest James Branch Cabell's novels"

I second this. If you want language for the fun of language.

Also Pratchett.

I read our daughter "The Wee Free Men".
If you can imagine a fellow with a Filipino accent trying to sound like a tiny blue Scotsman.
No permanent damage done I think.
She picked up the rest of Pratchett a bit later.

tim in vermont said...

There are no rules if you are good, and there can never be enough rules if you are not.

Here is a review of a movie I watched that took place completely in one character's car as he drove to London. It was actually riveting. It is called Locke.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2692904/reviews

tim in vermont said...

Movies can convey thousands of words almost instantly through set decoration, make-up, casting choices, settings, etc. Thousands of hours go into such stuff and we are spoiled by it. The high bandwidth visual communication. Prose can't compete except through insight, the kind of stuff Hemingway was so good at, give the telling details, don't tell all the details.

EDH said...

As kids, we found an old fashioned spank book (novelette with dirty sex pictures inside, incongruous with the story) in a park trash barrel.

It was replete with this kind of prose.

I remember it described a penis as "pensive".

rcocean said...

Description in the rights hands can be fascinating, in the wrong hands boring.

I must say that Henry James wore me out with his page long descriptions and in-depth analysis of every thought in the characters head.

John said...

Lotta codswallop. We should read what we like and never worry about whether critics think it is well written other than on facts, dates and the like.

Some writing styles I like and most others hate them. Others vice versa. I've never paid that much attention to it. This kind of nonsense in HS and college English lit classes turned me off of some authors that I have come to love in later life. Conrad, for example, is one of my favorite authors. Absolutely hated all the analysis of Heart of Darkness in HS and avoided him like the plague for 20 years after. Then stumbled across Typhoon and was hooked.

Trollope was another spoiled in HS in the 60's and rediscovered in the 90s.

John Henry

John said...

Michael K said

Among my favorites are Stephen Pressfield, William E Butterfield and Tom Clancy.

Do you mean William E Butterworth? The little bit I've read under that name I've not cared much for. Now he is writing with his son WE Butterworth IV. When he writes as W E B Griffin, I am a big fan, though most strongly of his The Corps and Brotherhood of Arms series. I've read both all the way through perhaps a dozen times. Most recently last year. I tried one of his cop books and could not get through it.

I remember back '89 hearing and reading about Hunt for Red October and thinking it was precisely the kind of book that would not interest me. For some reason I started reading it and finished it in about 2 days. I was blown away. I've read that and his other books multiple times. Mostly in hardback because I did not want to wait for the paperback.

Then he wrote 2 books that were just absolute shit. Red Rabbit and something else. As well as all his Op Center and other stuff that others wrote and put his name on.

I read Rainbow Six again last year and really enjoyed it. So I went back to Red October figuring I would work my way through them all. It was very good but then I got sidetracked and have not read anymore of late.

John Henry

Nurse Rooke said...

Henry Green. Ivy Compton-Burnett.

MikeD said...

@Ann Althouse, just another reason to move Save Send Delete to the top of the "I'll give it a try" list? I pulled it outta the cloud &, in a quick review, saw none of these problems.

Maddad said...

This is the reason I stopped trying to be a writer. I would literally freeze up trying to tell the story I wanted to tell without narrating almost every breath every character took. I eventually decided that I didn't have the talent to tell the stories I wanted to tell, so I got an editor. The editor made the stories much more readable, but couldn't make them any better, so I accepted that I just wasnt a storyteller. A good storyteller can write badly and people will still read him. I was both a BA writer and a bad storyteller, so I quit.

Maddad said...

Bad

Schorsch said...

How do you feel about your own movement? Do you walk when you want to think, or stay still? Is how you move something you think of as a part of your character? I have taken leaden steps. I don't remember that page of LOTF, but reading it made my body feel terror, and courage, and danger. I have taken leaden steps. Words describing movement (well) make my body feel the action.

Michael K said...

"Movies can convey thousands of words almost instantly through set decoration,"

That is what Hitchcock did. He designed his moves with story boards first.

"Do you mean William E Butterworth?" Yes, momentary brain fart.

His Corps series and Brotherhood of War series are my favorites, followed by the first Argentina series called "Honor Bound." There is a lot of good Argentine history in that series. All of his novels show an inflation of the character as the series continues. They all get smarter and richer and speak more languages.

That most recent, "Presidential Agent" series started good but has deteriorated and his son is a hack, sort of like Stephen Ambrose son.

Clancy had some amazing insights. The Japan war novel ends with a pilot flying a 747 into the Capital building.

"Red October" was published by Naval Institute Press when nobody else would touch it.

I have not read the recent ones. Too bad he died so soon.

Pressfield is excellent, especially "Gates of Fire."

So is Bernard Cromwell with his English history series. His non-fiction book on Waterloo is terrific. I used it as a guide when we went there last fall.

Jim said...

Dark, cluttered, worn, plush, well-padded, comfy, upholstered, customary, shabby.

"When you catch an adjective, kill it." - Mark Twain

John said...

Someone said that an author has to grab us from the first page. I have two thoughts on that:

1) It is more important in the age of Kindle. I will hear a mention of a book, sometimes just in passing, and it will often make me download the free Kindle sample. I probably download 20-30 samples for every book I actually buy. If they can't catch me in the sample, usually about half the first chapter, they aren't going to get me to buy.

2) On the other hand, although I have known about John LeCarre since the 60s, I never had any urge to read him until I saw the Tinker tailor Soldier Spy movie 3-4 years ago. I read the book and was hooked. He is someone I can read over and over and over. Having said that, I think he is crap at starting a book. Every time I read one of his books for the first time I have to force myself through the 1st chapter. And then I get caught up and read the rest of the book at almost a single sitting.

And for LeCarre fans, BBC did a 7 part mini-series of Tinker Tailor and a 6 parter of Smiley's People. Both are terrific. Both are available on Youtube. There is also a 6 part version of Tinker Tailor that leaves some stuff out. Go for the 7 part.

Alec Guiness was born to be George Smiley in both.

John Henry

EMD said...

You haven't lived (and died in a state of obscure tedium) until you've cracked open Foucault's Pendulum.

John said...

One difference between writing in a blog or a book vs a newspaper or magazine is space.

In a book or blog I can go on and on forever and have to guard fiercely against that tendency. I sometimes get overly verbose here.

In a magazine article I have a certain amount of space. Say 500 words for a column. I have to fill the 500 words but can't go over and I have to make sure I do justice to whatever my subject is.

I usually find myself going way over, sometimes 8-900 words then have to go in with a weedwhacker and cut it back to 500. If I try to write up to the 500 words, it is usually pretty crappy and unbalanced.

John Henry

Robert Cook said...

"I'm just saying the way most novels are written, I can see within a few pages that it's dreck."

As science fiction Theodore Sturgeon, replied, when asked why he wrote science fiction, given that 90% of it was shit:

"90% of everything is shit."

(Sturgeon's was among the 10% of science fiction that wasn't shit.)

I'm big on fiction, but when I peruse the fiction in the shelves of airport bookstores, I often ask myself who would read most of what is on display. One can tell just by the titles, the covers, and the general description of the stories that it's almost all dreck. But, people like dreck; look what fills up most of any network's television schedule. It's time-filling diversion that does not require any effort on the part of the reader.

I also agree that too much description of surroundings and movement within it is dull...because it is extraneous, and because most writers simply aren't good enough to convey description in a way that is interesting, and because it is often the writer's way of showing off his or her "beautiful" writing.

I can enjoy dreck if it's a movie or television show, if it is at least well done dreck, but I don't want to invest the time and mental effort in reading a book if I know going in it is simply dreck.

mikee said...

John, if you liked Alec Guinness for LeCarre's spy, you will and should love Ian Holm as Bernard Sampson in the BBC adaptations of Len Deighton's triplet of spy trilogies, which read even better than their fine TV miniseries plays.

And after Deighton, perhaps the works of Richard Condon, from Prizzi's Honor and Manchurian Candidate to lesser known gems such as Arigato and Bandicoor. He knows how to plot an interesting story and develop interesting characters.

Henry said...

Going back to the original question, my answer is that there is no good answer. One editor, I forget who, called it "furniture moving." I couple that put-down with a comment from one of my long-ago creative writing instructors: dream sequences always work for me. I go to sleep.

The thing that impresses me most about great fiction writers is their ability to invent conflict. Most novelistic conflict is absurd! Great writers make it seem inevitable.

Robert Cook said...

"Here is a review of a movie I watched that took place completely in one character's car as he drove to London. It was actually riveting. It is called Locke.

"http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2692904/reviews"


I saw LOCKE. It was riveting. The character was played by Tom Hardy, who usually plays more active characters, (e.g., Mad Max in the recent new movie about that character, the villain Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, among others. I highly recommend THE DROP, with James Gandolfini in one of his very last roles).

Joe said...

In well written novels, vivid description can add to the story. In most novels, vivid description is used to hide bad writing and bad story.

Most novels could easily be reduced by a third. This is especially true with famous writers and their later books when the editors become cowards.

mockturtle said...

Most novels could easily be reduced by a third.

Or even by half. Three examples in which the films were far better than the novels because the chaff-half was ruthlessly discarded: All the King's Men, Jaws and The Color Purple.

clint said...

"Scott M said...

... Of course, "There are three golden rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are." "

That's fantastic. And comes from one of my favorite "literary" authors.

" EMD said...
Notice no one has called out Tom Clancy. I'd rather an author describe a character's actions than 2-3 pages of the detailed mechanisms of a particular weapon."

I blame Melville for this. *Shudder*

robother said...

Hell, even a literally stagey writer, Will Shakespeare, was satisfied with the pithy "exit, pursued by bear."