Friday, November 21, 2008

Can We Get to the Plot, Please?

The other day I was talking to a coworker who simply does not enjoy reading. He's a fan of science fiction television and movies, but he can't even get through a sci-fi novel. He complained mostly about wading through fifty pages or more before actually getting to the plot, by which point he has put the book down for good.

Like my wife, I am a compulsive reader and have at least two books going at any given time; if one is fiction then the other is non-fiction so I don't confuse two separate plots or sets of characters. I am therefore generally unable to sympathize with my non-reader friends. However, in the case of my coworker, I am able to sympathize with his impatience at getting to the plot.

The two authors who most annoy me in this regard are Michael Crichton (whom I hate to criticize since he passed away recently) and Greg Bear. The two authors have wonderful ideas, which is the only reason I keep returning to their books, but the execution of their stories drives me insane.

Crichton's novels take approximately 100 pages to actually arrive at the plot. During that time he tries to play it mysterious... which doesn't work because we read the back of the book before we started the novel and therefore know what the 100 pages of suspense are leading us to. The "mysteriously" injured worker at the beginning of Jurassic Park, the "mysterious" lizard found in the beginning of the Lost World, the "mysterious" "black cloak" and odd medical symptoms at the beginning of Prey; these are all delays that seem to have been written as padding to ensure that the novel hits at least 500 pages. Crichton's early novel, Andromeda Strain (about 300 pages long) played it mysterious, all right, but the mystery was the point of the novel, not the padding before the plot actually started.

Greg Bear is even worse, since the padding is spread like a cancer throughout the book. Both Eon and his Star Wars novel Rogue Planet suffer from the same problem; massive, unnecessary description. Now I'm sure that Bear sees his hyper-detailed descriptions as 'immersing the reader in the story', but it feels like padding to me. Eon spends at least a quarter to a third of the book physically describing the hollowed-out asteroid that is the setting of the story. In Rogue Planet, bear seems so enamored with the admittedly unique aspect of his plot (living starships) that he spends almost the entirety of the novel in deep, detailed description of the living starships and their construction. By the time you've waded through all 352 pages of it, you realize that the plot could easily have been summarized in the form of a short story (I'm not exaggerating). While I could tell you the shape, color, and texture of the seeds used to grow the starships in the book, the insight you get into the characters (particularly the 12-year old Anakin Skywalker) takes up a couple pages at most. I haven't seen so many words spent to advance a plot or develop a character so little since the last time I read Steinbeck (I despise Grapes of Wrath).

The complete antithesis to the above authors (and the author I suggested to my coworker) is Orson Scott Card of Ender's Game fame. Orson Scott Card is a master of literary economy; I have never felt like he was wasting my time or padding out the story. Every page advances the plot and/or develops the characters without feeling rushed. Whereas Bear will spend three pages describing a starship with no plot function other than to take the protagonist from one planet to another, Card will simply state that the ship was cramped. A perfect example of Card's brevity can be found in Empire. Within less than fifty pages you're introduced to the major characters and their backgrounds, the protagonists unveil a plot to assassinate the president of the United States, fail to stop it, and must find out who did it before they can be blamed for it. All that, and you learn to care about the characters, too. In less than fifty pages of a 368 page book! The remainder of the book, which is packed with character moments, detective work, and action sequences, is told with the same efficiency as those first fifty pages. Reading one of Card's novels after finishing a wordy, overlong novel is an utter relief. And when you go on to another novel, you can't help but wish that the author could tell the story with Orson Scott Card's efficiency.


  1. And let's not even talk about Robert Jordan and his clothes (or so I'm told).

  2. You might consider some of the novels of Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens. They're the team responsible for a lot of the Star Trek books (original series and Deep Space 9, and several episodes in Enterprise season 4). They teamed with William Shatner on the series which brings Kirk back to life after Star Trek: Generations. And their novels stand on their own.

    We especially enjoyed Icefire, Quicksilver, and Freefall. As they write together, all of these novels pair a male and female protagonist, both from different backgrounds (one military, one not), and both working with the common goal of saving the world.

    Maybe they will stand up to your standard of quality, maybe not. I just know their books are a rush to read!

  3. I think my standards of quality are pretty liberal. If the plot description piques my interest, I'll probably read it. And once I start a book, I finish it, even if I hate it. The only exception to that personal rule is that truly awful piece of drivel they made us read in high school; "A Yellow Raft on Blue Water". My high school English classes never had us read "Tom Sawyer" or "1984" or even "Moby Dick" - you know, good books - but so help me, they made us read "A Yellow Raft on Blue Water". Just rereading the plot description on made me despise it all over again. It was the only assigned book that I never finished.

    Looking at that website you linked to, I think I'd be interested in reading some of their science fiction. I don't think I've read a mainstream fiction novel since high school.



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