“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  • by gitabushi

Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge.  Sort of.

Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?

So here’s the background.

There is a Pulp Resurgence going on.  As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.

So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens.  And didn’t like it anymore.

The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature.  Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.

Dashiell Hammett

I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.

…and boy, did L’Amour milk this brand!

But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.

So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.

Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago.  On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.

And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike.  The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.

Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.

That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:

I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?

(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)

Here is my response, in full:

Okay, I spent a little time thinking about plot, so your challenge actually did some good.

Maybe “no plot” is the wrong way to put it.
What is plot?
According to wikipedia, Plot is: the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.

So from that point of view, yes, everything REH and ERB wrote have plots.

But I still don’t think they are very good ones.

Let’s take the first story in “The Coming of Conan”. (I have read most of the original REH Conan novels, but 30 years ago, so we’ll just look at this short story).

What is the plot? A man wants to be king, so plots against the king, who is Conan. He arranges for an assassination squad. Conan has a dream where a God gives him a magic weapon. Conan defeats the assassination squad, except the last one is read to kill him before a demon appears, then Conan kills it with the magic weapon.

So, yeah, there’s a plot, but it’s not a very good one.

Why do we care about Conan? Is he a good king? We don’t know.
Where is the conflict?
Does anything bad happen if Conan is replaced as king? Sure, he’d be killed, but we know nothing about the country, or the people. Why should we care?
Does he do anything difficult to stop the assassination? No, a demon appears.
Does he do anything difficult or special to stop the demon? No, a god gave him a magic sword.

There was *one* bit of interesting development: Conan is nearly killed because he was shocked at the minstrel’s betrayal, and human emotion keeps him from striking the minstrel down immediately.

If anything, the most interesting person, the person who chooses and changes the most, is Thoth-Amon. He had power, lost it when a thief took his ring. He had to flee or be killed from the enemies he made when he had power. In disguise, he’s nearly killed by bandits, but his life is spared when he pledges to serve as a slave. Then his ring comes within his reach again…how does he react to the loss of power vs restoration of his power? That could be a fascinating glimpse into human nature. But he’s the bad guy, so we can’t care about him.

Now compare to Brust’s Jhereg (spoilers!):

An assassin is seduced by greed and ego to take a difficult job. He finds out the job isn’t as straightforward as he thought. If he doesn’t do the job, he’ll be killed. Then he finds out there’s a reason to hurry. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be killed. But if he hurries, he might be unprepared, and killed by the target. Then he discovers the target wants to die, but only a certain way. He finds out that if he does his job, his friend will be dishonored. Now, you may not care about the friend and his prized honor, but you can understand and sympathize with the assassin not wanting to force his friend to lose something important to him. Then we find out that the target is trying to destroy 3 of the 17 Houses of the Draegaera. Which the assassin would LOVE to have happen. Now isn’t that some some intriguing, major conflict to be resolved? The assassin has multiple reasons to want to stop the target’s plot, but also has multiple reasons to want the target’s plot to succeed. So he develops a plan, the one thing that could resolve all these conflicts safely. Then the plan goes wrong.

There is escalation of stakes throughout, which makes it a good plot.

Brust lets us get to know the characters, gives us some reason to care about the characters and what they want, makes even the target somewhat sympathetic, and then lets the struggles play out.

Now, to be fair, we’ve compared a short story to a novel. A novel will naturally be more complex, having more length.

So let’s bring in ERB’s The Land That Time Forgot.


What’s the plot? A man is going to war. His boat is sank, he captures the submarine that did it. No way to run a submarine, unless you just happen to have experience piloting one…He just happens to make submarines for a living! He tries to get home, but gets lost. There is some conflict because there is a hidden traitor. He finds an unknown continent. No way to get in, unless you have a submarine. He just happens to have one! He gets inside, and there are dinosaurs inside. They are dangerous, and randomly grab someone. It just happens to not be the hero! Now they have food and water, but no fuel for the sub. Hey, they just happen to find oil! They still haven’t resolved the issue with the Germans, oh, hey, the Germans run off with the sub!

Oh, I forgot, there’s a girl. He loves her because she is beautiful. How do we know she’s beautiful? The author told us. She loves the hero, he loves her. He doesn’t trust her for a while. Oh, wait, he was wrong. She forgives him.

To be sure, there are some minor conflicts: the hidden traitor, the problem about the trust between the girl and the hero, how to deal with hostile prisoners.

But at no point is there much doubt about the outcome of any conflict. The hero is the leader because of course he is. He can command the sub because of course he can. When he needs to kill a dinosaur, of course he can. He can overcome the German commander one on one because of course he can.

Back to wikipedia:
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

If I had to characterize The Land that Time Forgot, it would be that it is just a series of plot devices, rather than a plot. Or to the extent that it has a plot, it isn’t very good.

And it doesn’t get any better in the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. I set the book down when I got busy, and had zero desire to pick it back up again.

In its favor, there is a great What If aspect to the trilogy: What if there were a lost continent that had dinosaurs and primitive humans? Then what if the inhabitants recapitulated evolution as a personal development process?
Okay, the 2nd is way out there, and I don’t really see the reason for it, but at least there is a What If to explore.
These are milieu books: set up a world, then let the character explore the world, letting us see it through his eyes. The interest is in seeing how this world compares to ours, how the changes in the world cause changes in the humans, or in human society.

Except it really doesn’t. ERB gives us a series of snapshots, but the world never really becomes 3D.

Compare to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, where the question is “What if a bunch of young adults were stranded on a strange planet and had to create their own civilization?” Definitely a milieu story, but not *just* a milieu story. There is character growth and exploration of human nature and the nature of civilization.
Or compare to Larry Niven’s milieu stories, Destiny’s Road (what if people lived on a planet that lacked any natural source of a vital mineral?), the Smoke Ring duology (what if a society evolved in a weightless environment?). He tells a story with a plot, character that have goals and issues we care about, while *still* exploring a strange world. One of the interesting things about Niven is he wrote several novels about societies based on an Elite enslaving the Common People via monopoly over a scarce vital resource. He explores that theme over and over, in the two stories above, plus The Gift From Earth (human organs), World Out of Time (immortality), and probably more I can’t think of yet.

Woah. Doesn’t this look like a world you want to see a writer explain, describe, and explore?  Hard SF for the win, baby.

Both you and I cited Cherryh.

To be fair, Cherryh has some books without any real plot. Her Fortress series is just a self-licking ice cream cone. As is the Rusalka series. Both do provide some insight into human nature, the nature of fear and love, and how those are exploited…but after finishing each of those, I felt like I do reading ERB and REH: why did I just read that? What was the *point* of the story? In REH and ERB, it’s because I don’t care much about the outcome because there wasn’t much escalation of stakes, too many plot devices, and the characters don’t earn my care. In those two Cherryh series, it’s because after all those words describing so much action, nothing really changes in the world. I guess you could say that in Rusalka there was finally a restoration of normality, but I just didn’t care that much.

In contrast, Cyteen drags you into the lives of a brilliant-but-evil woman who is cloned, and how her clone reacts to the attempts to recreate the evil woman’s brilliant skills by pushing her personality towards evil, in connection with interactions with the young, sympathetic man the evil old woman deliberately abused…this is conflict, in that the man wants nothing to do with the clone because of his memories of the old women, but the clone is fascinated by the young man and has the power to force his proximity. Lots of personal conflict, tough decisions, changing character, people under pressure, sacrificial decisions, etc. A fascinating exploration how conflict, struggle, and pain are the challenges that stimulate growth, and the ethics of using those tools deliberately to try to bring about that growth in others.

Let’s make this even more complex, and bring in ERB’s John Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read any. I enjoyed them okay when I was 15. I tried re-reading Princess of Mars 5 years ago, and got bored before I finished.

I won’t run through all the things I consider plot inadequacies, but I’ll hit a few points:
– Yes, there’s loyalty, in that Carter saves Tarkas’ life, and Tarkas returns the favor…but to me, that pales in comparison to Vlad Taltos’ considering it better to let himself be killed rather than force his friend to go back on his promise that guests are safe. Of course, Vlad figures out how to resolve that conflict, but Vlad’s loyalty is more poignant to me than the “You save my life, so I save yours” exchange.
– Yes, there’s romance, but just like in the Land that Time Forgot, we are told that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman ever, so John Carter loves her and is blessed to earn her love. Yay. I don’t find it convincing or compelling.

…for all we know, Dejah Thoris could look exactly like this.

There are some things in the Barsoom series favor:
– It is based somewhat on the science available at the time (canals!)
– If you want a hero with superhuman strength, it makes sense that it would be an alien that grew up on another planet with 3x the gravity. This is good What If science fiction.

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.


29 thoughts on ““No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  1. I like this discussion. We do have different tastes, but that’s how it goes. For the record, I am a big fan of Amber. I’ll have to go back and read the second five books; maybe this year if I can fit it in!

    A couple thoughts. Stories can be fun without having deep or intricate plots. Take your Santa short story, for instance. I really enjoyed it. It was fun to read, it elicited a pleasant emotional response and made me curious. The suspense factor kept me going and made me want to read more. But I mean…not a lot of character development or plot points there (yet), right? But still a good, fun story.

    Some stories are worthwhile (I might say “superversive”) because they hold up virtuous behavior or highlight important values that we admire. Many of ERB and Conan’s heroes are attractive to many of us less because they’re complicated and super fleshed out than because they posses qualities that we like and admire: bravery, honor, honesty, chivalry, etc. The difference between John Carter and Mary Sue (let’s say Rey from the new Star Wars) is that JC can’t do everything on his own. Sure, he’s a preeminent fighter and a competent man, but he gets in scrapes and needs help. Quite often throughout the series, it seems to me. Mary Sues can generally do everything and don’t need assistance.

    As to quality of plot, again, I think this comes down to taste. With Dejah Thoris, for example – ERB shows us that John Carter finds her gorgeous. Very realistic starting point. He finds other qualities in her that he admires. And yes, he’s eventually able to catch her eye. But he bungles it. Conflict! Once he figures out the ways of the local culture, he can correct, but…she’s essentially being forced to wed another!. Conflict!

    Whether or not you believe ERB’s descriptions or find their interactions realistic, I mean…the same can be said for any story. It didn’t strike me personally as any less believable than any other romance I’d read in a fairy tale or fantasy story.

    As to crafting some moral conflict, that wasn’t the story ERB wanted to write. For one thing John Carter was a man of honor. Dejah Thoris was far from the only beautiful woman he’d ever encountered. If he had already been married, he’d have been faithful – that’s his character. The whole romantic element would have been removed and made for a less engaging story, with less on the line.

    Would the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have been a better and more interesting story if Jadis had been revealed as Aslan’s sister? It would have elevated the level of conflict, I suppose. But meh.

    Not all stories are trying to be all things, nor should they be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really can’t argue with any of that…

      …and yet, I still will.

      Just kidding. You make some good points. Especially about not making John Carter already married…I mean, if you are stranded on another planet with no idea how to get home, your wife is probably going to consider that abandonment and may move on (see: Castaway). At the very least, there is a great moral question about how bound someone is to vows that they are indefinitely prevented from fulfilling…at what point does the inability to fulfill a vow result in its release?
      …but I agree that this story was written long before divorce had become as ubiquitous and provisionally accepted as it is now, so there is no way ERB could have included such an aspect.

      I agree with the rest, it really comes down to taste.

      I have tried to say there’s nothing *wrong* with the things I don’t like, just that I don’t like them.

      Or, rather, to the extent that the elements of top-notch stories have been identified, there are some elements of old pulp SFF that lack those elements, or handle them badly.

      But that’s still okay, because ERB and REH wrote before those elements were identified and codified. In fact, their writings helped to identify and codify the guidelines, it is just that we start with more knowledge of good plot, good characterization, etc, than they did.

      Which, in some ways, makes their writing success more impressive; but it negatively impacts my enjoyment.

      Which gives me the sadz.


      1. See here is the problem I keep finding over and over in these arguments. You ment characterization the whole time and not plot. If you said I prefer stories that focus on characterization over plot, that would have been an opinion I could accept if not support.

        And second your idea doesnt fix barsoom it turns it into that third rate romance series Outlander by Diane Gabaldon.


  2. Interesting piece. I haven’t read some of those books, but this echoes some of the problems I routinely see in the “adventure” genre (fantastic, scifi, or whatever,) both modern and ancient –although I believe some contemporary writers are even worse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Someone once described a D&D book as “you can almost hear the dice rolling”
      I try to avoid those sorts of books, too.

      The thing is, some stories require visuals to be most effective, and some require written words.

      Action and beauty require visuals. Puzzles, internal conflict, character development seem to work best in the written word.

      The best artists can transcend those limitations, but it isn’t easy…which is why we see those problems in the “adventure” genre.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. One note on The Phoenix on the Sword, I thought it was actually really weak, because it was a rewrite of a much better Kull story with its heart and soul removed. In the Kull story, the driving narrative was about a young couple who wanted to get married, but for reasons that made no sense to outsider king like Kull, they were not allowed to. When conspirators are trying to depose Kull, the young married couple are able to aid the king, and in return, Kull decrees that they should be married despite any stupid laws that say otherwise. Getting rid of the plot about the young lovers, you’re just left with a story about a barbarian who gets handed a magic sword and kills the conspirators.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OH!
      Actually, that makes a huge difference.
      I gave up after that first story because I was fresh off of forcing my way through The Land that Time Forgot and I didn’t want to slog through more stories like The Phoenix…thus leaving me with the impression REH is no better than what I didn’t like from ERB.
      I was going to re-try the book, anyway, but this gives me more hope.

      And if/when I realize I’m wrong, I’ll over-analyze and confess my sins.


      1. The general consensus on Conan is that the best stories are Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, People of the Black Circle, The Hour of the Dragon, Black Colossus, and The Tower of the Elephant (I’m probably forgetting some). Just about all of the stories are certainly entertaining, but those are the ones that get a lot of focus from the scholars (and are very entertaining), mostly because they break away from the formula and have more of Howard’s deeper ideas in them.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I haven’t read any of these works, so I can comment on specifics, but you’re going to get a different plot structure in a short story than in a novella than in a full-length novel than in a multiple volume series (that tells a single story rather than just multiple stories).

    Pulp-style works, it seems, are really ideal for novella length(ish) treatment. If you expect the sort of plot structure out of them you get more often today in multi-volume series, you’re going to come away disappointed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Louis L’Amour westerns were novella length, but usually had better plotting, and occasionally some pretty intricate plots.
      No, I don’t think length is the problem as much as just the State of the Art of writing has improved since ERB and REH were making a living.

      I’d allow the argument that writing for pulp magazines encourages more plot devices and less* intricate plotting, but not pure length.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Still going to run into disagreement, friend. I find REH a lot more technically attractive than any of the modern authors I’ve read in recent years. There’s a certain poetry to his prose. Vance has that effect for me, too, though I might not describe him as poetic. Something else. Still a pleasure to read and a wordsmith.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks to Appendix N and the “pulp revolution” I was seeing on twitter, I only recently started checking out some of these older authors, so I don’t have a very well informed opinion yet.

    But I read A Princess of Mars a month or so ago and, overall, really enjoyed it. (It was slow to start. Lots of pages with no dialog was boring me, but the pace eventually picked up.) One thing I really liked about it was that there were no big moral conflicts or conundrums, John Carter doesn’t have to struggle to figure out the morally right thing, so he’s able to have a pure straight-up adventure.

    If John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child on Earth, for instance, that would not be a very interesting conflict to me in the moral sense because I would already have a strong attitude about what his moral obligation would be, which is that he should be faithful to his wife on Earth. Conflict solved.

    Now if the character of John Carter agrees with me and is not tempted to sway, there’s no conflict (in the moral sense).

    If he agrees with me, but struggles with the willpower to stay true, that inner conflict would bore me, and, if anything, make me like him less.

    If he doesn’t agree with me in the first place, then his character would annoy me, and if he comes to change his mind, his “character development” would feel very forced to me.

    (And, like PCBushi said, “that wasn’t the story ERB wanted to write.” It would certainly ruin the adventure that’s already there.)

    The same sort of thing holds true for me for any story. If the main character’s morals too greatly misalign with mine or he too easily struggles with some moral dilemma for which the answer seems obvious to me, he becomes less sympathetic and more annoying. If I really want to explore morality or some interesting moral question, I’d much rather read nonfiction works by actual philosophers who just dive into it. With fiction, I’d rather hope the author and I have enough common ground that I can take the morals for granted. The morals are *this*, *this* is the sort of character this guy is. And now, given that, here are the action / character / puzzle conflicts. Playing out those conflicts feel far more engaging and adventurous to me than a character who’s still inwardly struggling with moral conflicts in the first place. (Especially if he’s weak-willed or comes to the wrong moral conclusions.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jhereg books were crap. Lamour is passable [once every 6-10 weeks] and I gave up on Barsoom because it became worse than 7 day old oatmeal. Smoke Ring was awesome, as evinced by my buying them in hardcover :-)

    As for everything else you said, way too much for me to take in on a Friday evening after a tough day. But, I skimmed it all, I promise…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.”

    To you.


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