Scene vs. Narrative, Part 2

Nearly two years ago, Bethany editor Dave Long wrote his thoughts about narrative on his blog, Faith in Fiction:

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 … 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.

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.


Faith in Fiction, May 17, 2006

As Dave said, this view seems counter-intuitive to the advice given today. Although I have some differing ideas, I agree there is an important place in fiction for telling well.

I finished Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb) last week and have to say, I don’t think the story was hurt by the amount of telling—considerably more than most CBA books, I’d wager. But was it helped?

For me, the key point Dave made was that plot does not equal story.

Your thoughts?

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 10:24 am  Comments (10)  
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  1. Off topic here… are you going to Calvin? Couldn’t tell by your comment on Seedlings.


  2. Also off topic response—no, Laura, my comment was intended as an “I wish!” 😉



  3. This is an important issue, because when I first started writing, I did very little narrative to the point that the story was nearly all action. As I’ve matured in my writing, I’ve found a voice for and a need of narrative to deepen the readers understanding of the characters. And in that way, narrative is good.

    But if you use narrative to replace your action and to gloss over plot because you would rather not take the time to show, then I would say that is not the way to use it.

    If used for the purpose of developing character, I found a side benefit — it helps *me* know the character better too. There are just certain parts of personality that cannot come out during the action. You have to have at least a slightly longer section of narrative in their head to know them and make them known.

    Just my 2 cents.


  4. Becky,
    Congrats on your honorable mention over at Rachelle’s site! I knew that was a good story when you read it to Rachel and me.

    Good job!


  5. (Yes, Becky. You have a certain voice that is appealing.)

    “For me, the key point Dave made was that plot does not equal story.”

    “There are just certain parts of personality that cannot come out during the action. You have to have at least a slightly longer section of narrative in their head to know them and make them known.”

    Very good points. There are so many kinds of writers and readers. It makes no sense to lump all readers and writers into the same mold and demand them all to prefer one or two ways for stories to be told.


  6. Becky,

    I want to know more about the miracle that is Meltun! 🙂 Good show on you honorable mention @ Rachelle’s blog. That is really the first I have been exposed to your voice … nicely done!

    On the subject of scene vs. narrative. I am an avid reader of Dean Koontz and it has been interesting to note a transition in his writings from a narrative base to an action/scene base.

    In a certain sense I have found this disheartening because I for one love exploring the depth of character – plumbing that depth builds a bond between reader and story. I know some fans of his earlier writings have voiced the same concern.

    On one hand we seem to be all about relationship … witness the relational movements in our churches. On the other …

    There seems to be a mantra that the postmodern generation demands clipped scenes, action and the like at the expense of character development. The tyranny of the urgent seems to hold sway these days.

    Koontz has addressed this with his current works but those same works leave me a bit wanting. That causes me to hesitate to purchase them.

    The reduction of narrative reminds me of the postmodern’s love affair with deconstruction.

    Having said all that, I must concur with Robert! I think he echoes my sentiments quite nicely.


  7. Becky,

    Just wanted to echo the congratulations on your honorable mention. Nice work!


  8. Merrie, Nicole, David, Robert, thanks for your kind words about the honorable mention. That was a fun contest and the best thing, for me, was that I came away with a story idea. Novel or short story, I’m not yet sure. But someday, David, you might find out more about Meltun. 😉

    Great thoughts here about narrative. Robert, you’ve said it beautifully. When I first started writing, I purposefully shied away from internal monologue because that was “telling.” It wasn’t until a professional writer gave me a paid critique and said I needed to show my character’s thoughts and emotions that I began to see the place of narrative.

    David, I found your thoughts about the change in fiction and the postmodern generation particularly interesting. One of the “trends” (you can’t call then “tenets” because that’s one thing postmodern philosophy denies) is to value story. Not propositions.

    But it does seem to be story that gives an emotional jolt rather than a lasting connection. I think of the fast paced movies like the Bourne trilogy. Or in CBA fiction, Liparulo’s Germ. Books like these are more rollercoaster rides than reads.

    I can’t help wondering if the Harry Potter generation really wants those kinds of novels. Not that HP was huge on character development, but in the end, who Harry was, shown by what he did, certainly mattered the most.

    Who was Jason Bourne? Did it really matter? Or the Germ characters—I don’t remember their names. Were they more than placeholders allowing action to spill around them?

    Ultimately, I think stories that stay with me are about someone that stays with me, someone I care about because of who they are and what they do. That needs good narrative prose and captivating scenes.



  9. Well, and now I see Mark also has an Honorable Mention entry in Rachelle’s contest. Congratulations. Very well done.



  10. Yay, Becky! Congrats!!! We told you that you could do it!!!! 😛


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