Scene vs. Narrative

Brandilyn Collins, as gracious as she is talented, left a comment to yesterday’s post in which she remarked about the change in her style of writing since she was first published:

I like the books I write today, but they are different from Eyes of Elisha and Dread Champion. Those books were each about 120,000 words. Way too long for today’s standards and for what my publisher wants. The longer word count allows for multiple storylines and subplots. Can’t do that in the current word count.

However, if you’re referring to “leaner” as a style of writing, that’s a different thing. My style IS leaner today. That is, every word counts, whereas in EOE and DC I had longer paragraphs and was more wordy in general.

The thing is Eyes of Elisha came out in 2001, with Dread Champion following in 2002, so this change we’re talking about happened over the last six or so years.

By the way, this span of time has been the height of the Harry Potter craze, with books five through seven weighing in at 500 pages or more.

Is it genre then, that has created a distinct style?

I know people often talk about writing for the MTV generations, implying that these readers need things with graphics, written in sound bites, including sidebars, without depth. Thus, shorter books.

Of course, part of the “shorter book” concept might just be the economics of it. I mean, it’s what the candy company and the canned soup people did. Don’t raise the price; shrink the product.

Could publishers be taking that route? With the exception of those who have a blockbuster hit on their hands. Those books can come in at 600, 700 pages and the publisher will still clear a tidy profit. (Is that understated sufficiently, do you think? 😉 )

So, what does this have to do with “scene vs. narrative”? I suggest scene is leaner. Narrative tends to be wordy.

Here’s an example from the book I’m currently reading, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (Bantam Books, 1995):

That afternoon I was back with Hod, practicing until I was sure my stave had mysteriously doubled its weight. Then food, and bed, and up again in the morning and back to Burrich’s tutelage. My learning filled my days, and any spare time I found was swallowed up with the chores associated with my learning, whether it was tack care for Burrich, or sweeping the armory and putting it back in order for Hod. In due time I found not one, or even two, but three entire sets of clothing, including stockings, set out one afternoon on my bed. Two were of fairly ordinary stuff, in a familiar brown that most of the children my age seemed to wear, but one was of thin blue cloth, and on the breast was a buck’s head, done in silver thread. Burrich and the other men-at-arms wore a leaping buck as their emblem. I had only seen the buck’s head on the jerkins of Regal and Verity. So I looked at it and wondered, but wondered, too, at the slash of red stitching that cut it diagonally, marching right over the design.

So ends one paragraph from pp. 68-69, followed by a scene (and I wonder how many of you managed to read the entire paragraph. 😮 Is blog reading affecting the way we want our fiction?). I opened the book at random to find that section of narrative, which, by the way, was preceded by several similar pages, and I feel confident I could find an example nearly every time I randomly selected a page.

The question I’m pondering is this: Rather than balancing scene and narrative, does the contemporary style of fiction shun narrative as a necessary evil to be avoided whenever possible? And the correlaries: Is fiction mirroring television, and should it? Are only certain genres, like suspense, pulled into a faster-paced style?

OR, is an overbalance of scene a result of “rules” enforced because new writers have a propensity to tell too much and tell poorly? In other words, are we Browne-and-King-ing narrative right out of our stories? Is this a tendency in Christian fiction alone, or are writers in the general market also writing less narrative?

Your thoughts on any of these questions?

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 11:40 am  Comments (13)  
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  1. Chip MacGregor did a guest post on “voice” over at Novel Journey not too long ago. It was an excellent commentary on the “cloning” concept of current publishing/editing trends. Paul Robertson gave his similar opinion including the ongoing controversy about the “rules” of writing.

    It does seeem to me that the trends are leading us to an Ernest Hemingway approach to writing. Contrary to Stephen King’s opinion, I do not think Hemingway was a writing genius. His prose is anorexic but his story lines are good.

    I totally agree that Brandilyn is a good writer. I loved her 120,000+ word counts, but she’s adhering to what is desired from her publishers. I think it must be rooted more in economics than reader preferences. If not, then publishers are making a huge assumption about readers that statistics don’t bear out–your Harry Potter example being the most obvious regarding book lengths.

    “Telling” is necessary in all novels yet also different according to genres. What is overdone in one person’s eyes isn’t nearly enough in another’s. I’ve read samples of before-and-after paragraphs, scenes, etc. from some editors. Almost without exception, I’ve preferred the original voice of the author. Cut and slash is a trend and while it works for some, it does NOT work for every reader or writer.


  2. I felt the pinch on word count acceptability. I’ve been working on a editing a mainstream Christian fiction book, and Zondervan as well as several other publishers have asked that I edit it down to below 110,000 words.
    That’s hard considering its a epic scope, multiple POV novel, with several storylines that come together. My co-author and I managed to drop it from 135,000 to 110,000.
    I have to admit, some of the cutting was good, and sharpened the novel, but other parts were much harder, and definitely subtract from our characters.
    Now that we’ve done all that work cutting, all Mike and I can hope for is that one of the publishers likes it!!


  3. I’ve long been a fan of Hemingway. Less is more. I like short.


  4. I tend to agree with Mark. I love full, rich scenes and deep, conflicted characters.

    But I just can’t cough up a 100,000 word manuscript. For the life of me. And I can’t read a book that’s 400-500 pages long, either. To me, the story arc seems invisible in such a long piece.

    I have problems when I’m writing non-fiction too. If the word-count is supposed to be 1,000 words, then I want to stop at 600.

    Perhaps I’m truly shallow and have nothing to say.

    Or maybe I just don’t like to play by everybody else’s rules.

    Or maybe I just get to the point sooner than other people. For no apparent reason.



  5. Merrie, you are who you are. And I appreciate writers and readers who prefer less, write less. Everyone shouldn’t write alike.

    I just don’t want to be told it’s “better” or “best”. I disagree. Staunchly. I recognize it’s a matter of preference. Subjectivity. Either way is good for those who appreciate it.


  6. I agree with Merrie. I think her problem is that she’s just shallow. : P


  7. […] honor of my own occasional Poetry Friday, in honor of my recent comment on Becky’s blog, in honor of good friends and new friends who like poetry, in honor of God really, the original […]


  8. Is fiction mirroring TV? Yes. There’s a clear corollary between the present culture of fast-cutting cameras/scenes on TV, video games, fast-loading internet, etc. and leaner fiction. We can’t underestimate how the culture around us, even if we don’t activitely participate in every part of it (e.g., play video games) shapes our entertainment as a whole.

    So what to make of the Harry Potter craze? It’s an anomaly. You can’t draw generalizations from it. Yes, the books are long. They were able to stay that long only because the first one–a real gamble–happened to sell well.

    In addition to culture changes, it’s also true that shorter novels are done for financial/profit reasons. A longer novel takes up more signatures (the 16-page increments in which a book is printed). This means more paper = higher printing costs. It means less books that fit in a case (box)= higher shipping. It means less of the title that can go on the shelves. And if the books are returned = again, higher shipping.

    When you add the higher costs to our fast-paced culture, it’s little wonder that in general fiction has gotten shorter. The Harry Potter craze has shown the opposite can happen, but that’s the exception, not the norm.

    Genre matters. Suspense, with its fast pace, is often shorter than a historical or women’s fiction saga. Fantasy seems to allow longer books, and its fans are okay with that, in fact often expect it. Another reason why the first Harry Potter was allowed to be so long.


  9. Yup. As Brandilyn said, genre matters. I write fantasy, and when I read it, I prefer longer books that allow me to sink into their worlds.

    However, writing matters, too. A well-crafted book that’s a bit longer than a publisher might prefer still has a great chance of being published in that length. There are expectations and rules, yes, but not necessarily unbreakable rules.

    Look at old movies. There were the epics that stretched out two and sometimes three hours, but many films only lasted a little over an hour. Nowadays, most movies are the standard hour-and-a-half or two hours long. Maybe, in the end, it’s the story that trumps all.


  10. Addendum: About Scene vs. Narrative: Sometimes, both are necessary. Narrative can condense time, as in the example cited in the original post, and convey information in a short, economic fashion. Scene is more for the dramatic effect, to make the story come alive.

    Or, to put it this way, sometimes we talk, sometimes we listen, but both activities are necessary to the conversation.


  11. Great input, all. I’m intrigued by your responses.

    As to lean fiction appealing to the MTV generation, with high speed everything, I’m not sure that approach targets readers. And isn’t that what books should do?

    Nicole, you said: I think it must be rooted more in economics than reader preferences. From what Brandilyn said, it would appear this is true.

    I absolutely agree that the first book should be of modest length. And the second, third, until a solid following is established. I would hope publishers would then be willing to risk a few more dollars, but that part of the business is pure speculation from my vantage point.

    Mark, Merrie, I actually think my writing is much more terse than Merrie’s (haven’t read your prose yet, Mark, but since you’re a poet, I suspect you’re a tight writer), but I have no problem with Long Books. One of the few that I’ve read as many as three times is Gone with the Wind, after all! In fact, when I love a book, I want to linger, hate to see the end approaching, will even dally a bit to put off leaving the fictional world. In those books, longer is better as I see it.

    But how many books do I love like that? Not as many as I’d wish.



  12. Yay, Fitz! 😛

    Nice excerpt, Becky. 😉 I’m with Merrie. I can’t write a bazillion words to save my life. Most of my manuscripts average about 60,000-80,000 words. One came in at 50,000 and I had a one editor say I’d have to beef it up to 75,000 if it was going to pass pub board. Still didn’t pass, but…

    Less is more in my mind too, but I also love to soak in my books. My three favorite books are SWAN SONG by McCammon, IT by King, and PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Follet. All come up to over 900 words. So, you never can tell.

    And I love ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE! Which obviously loves narrative summary. 😉


  13. Rachel, I couldn’t help but contrast your style of writing with Robin Hobb’s, knowing that you love her work.

    I think we must have adapted to the contemporary style even though the books we love are quite different. Of course, I haven’t read the others you listed, so I don’t know if it’s true for you. It seems to be for me.



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