I used to have a concept that I called "running around," which referred to scenes in books or movies that just had characters churning with no real purpose. The characters move from place A to B, or we see them do some activity, or they chat in a non-characterizing way -- something like that. At any rate, things are happening, but the story is not really progressing in any meaningful way.
I said I "used to have" this concept because I feel like it's a little bit too restrictive now. Sure, there are books and movies that have this problem, but they are comparably rare, because the conditions are rather specific. More recently, I've come up with a new way of thinking about the core issue to which I was reacting, and that is: to be really engaging, no scene can do just one thing.
In other words, a scene can't just be about plot movement and still be fascinating. Sure, if you watch a character working through a mystery or interviewing people, or going to lunch where a fateful event is going to happen, that moves the plot. But there has to be something else there, as well: characterization, "trenchant little insights" (as Anne Mini would say), some sort of ethical or emotional struggle, or tension feeding from sources other than just the current scene's activities. Or something else that intrigues the user or draws them along.
I don't think that every book has to use this approach to be publishable, an enjoyable read, a bestseller, or what have you. I'm simply pointing out that, to me, the very best books have a lot going on in pretty much every scene, multiple sources of tension and interest, and it's all woven together in an expert manner with solid writing. For example: THE DOOMSDAY BOOK has events going on in the past with Kivrin, the future with Mr. Dunworthy and the others, and multiple simultaneous mysteries; ENDER'S GAME has Ender's various struggles, many of which are co-mingled within the novel's timeline, and also has the related-but-separate storyline with Peter and Valentine; TWILIGHT has romance, supernatural events and revelations, as well as Bella's various ongoing life events; THE DARK IS RISING has Will's family and daily life alongside his quest for the signs, intermingled with the various things The Dark tries to do to thwart him, and the various things that Merriman and the others are doing to help him. And I presume I don't need to mention that the Harry Potter books are the same way.
All of these books are so significant, at least to me, partly because of how rich and varied they feel. There is always more than one thing going on, and always the tension of wanting to know about something else in the story while I'm reading whatever scene -- yet instead of distracting from the current scene, that desire enriches it. Somehow, books like this evoke the feeling that "anything can happen" better than any others.
I still thoroughly enjoy books like THE GOLDEN COMPASS, A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER, or I AM LEGEND which, to me, don't quite seem to have this level of interweaving, but their semi-linearity always leaves me wishing there had been a little more. Don't get me wrong -- each of the books I just mentioned are brilliant, have numerous surprises, and are among my favorites ever. However, none of these three reach the level of poignancy for me as the other books I mentioned, partly because all those twists and turns happen one at a time. Or, when events are happening in an interwoven manner, the interest-factor of one plot thread is overshadowing the others to the degree that the story feels more linear than it is.
Now, the qualifications (in the sense of limitations, not credentials), because, boy, does this post need them. If I haven't made this abundantly clear, this is all my opinion, and is also not meant to be taken as an insult to any of the books or writers on my second list. I picked from among my very favorite books for all the books mentioned in this post, and divided them into categories of those that can make my chest ache with simultaneous pain and pleasure to think of them (the first group), and those that I love, but which I didn't connect with on that same level (the second group).
If you disagree with me, or your list is reversed, don't let that detract from the core message here: this post is about writing, and I really do believe that having a very-interwoven plot, versus a slightly-more-linear one, is what differentiates the very best books from the "simply" great books. As a writer, moreso than as a reader, that's a very interesting prospect to ponder.
What an excellent thought-provoking post, Chris! I read it twice and am still musing... Thanks for taking the time. I agree with you about this - it's all about plot layers, I guess. Not sub-plots(that's a whole other matter), but those multi-layered scenes, motivations, backstory, etc. that build the complexity of a novel so that it stays in the mind long after you've finished reading.
I think the Urban Fantasy novel I kept stalling on is more linear (which is fine), whereas the newer, post-apocalyptic idea has a bit more complexity. I'm still tinkering with both of them, though...
I'd also recommend The Sparrow (science fiction) by Mary Doria Russell as multi-layered and complex.
Thanks, Karen, I'm glad you found it interesting! I think you're quite right in your assertion that it's about plot layers, rather than sub-plots. It's like how good mysteries are supposed to have a lot of red herrings thrown in, to keep the reader on their toes. I think writers outside the mystery genre have the same task ahead of them in many respects, when it comes to layering their plot.
The degree to which a story follows that pattern, of course, is highly dependent on the story -- I really don't believe in a "best" way to tell stories, or some sort of master formula for artistic or commercial success. So, I'd have to heartily agree that it's fine that your urban fantasy story is more linear, if that's what you as the author feel best serves the story. The author usually knows best!
I'm happy to hear that you're still working on both of them -- hopefully they will each feed off each other, in a positive way.
And, thanks for the suggestion of The Sparrow. I took a look at that over at Amazon, and it is definitely intriguing -- I'll have to add that to my upcoming list. (As an aside, I thought it was interesting that the book opens with Sanchez being released from isolation on my birthday -- Pearl Harbor day, here in the US).
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