Good Books, Good Writing

  • by Gitabushi

Lately it seems like every time PC Bushi mentions a book, I have to respond I didn’t like it very much, or at all.

That made me ask, what do I like?

Here’s a partial list:

I like 50s Heinlein, but not 60s.
I like 60s, 70s, and 80s Larry Niven SF, but not his fantasy (mostly).
I like 80s and 90s Cherryh, but to the best of my knowledge based on a brief research attempt, not her 70s and by the ’10s, start feeling meh
I liked Bujold until recently
I liked Brust’s early works, but the later his work, the less I like it.
I used to like Hambly, but she wasn’t re-readable.
I like Saberhagen, but sometimes he just kept digging in played-out mines

To be honest, I guess, I’ve read a lot that was worth reading, but not worth re-reading or recommending.

As such, there are probably more books and authors I have complaints about than I enjoy.  That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Most things fall along a bell curve, and truly excellent books are one or more standard deviations above the mean, and the mean of all SFF novels/stories ever written includes some poor writing.

The rest of this post includes some musing on elements that make a good story. It is also intended to be a continuation of thoughts from this post, and inspired by the very excellent posts by my good friend and consummate gentleman, PC Bushi, found here and here.

I like conflict. I’d like to say all readers do, but maybe all I can actually insist is that all readers should. It can be internal conflict, or opposed action, but I want there to be some doubt about how things are going to turn out.

Yes, yes, the hero is going to win.  That’s the point of reading a book, I guess. The good guy losing most of the time is called “life”. We consume fiction because it provides the comforting illusion that there is some overall, overarching narrative to the vicissitudes of life.

For me, the interesting thing is how is the hero going to win?

The very first thing to do, then, is make me care about the character.  If I don’t care about the character, how he wins isn’t going to interest me.

There are many different ways that you, as an author, can make me care about a character:

  • make me see the issues he struggles with are the same ones I do
  • make me see him wanting reasonable things/goals, but being thwarted…particularly unfairly thwarted
  • make me see him really committed to success, perhaps well beyond what I would do (that way I can be inspired to persist in difficulties myself)

Next, give him conflict.  They type of story you are writing dictates the type of conflict they have.  Or, alternatively, the type of conflict they encounter dictates what kind of book it is:

If he is going through an unfamiliar world or society, then the conflict is the hero trying to return to the normal world, and his efforts to escape let you show me the world/society you thought up.   Alternatively, the hero might need to explore to figure out aspects of this new world/society to find happiness or even just survive.  Either way, it should show the reader some subtle truth about the world we live in, in contrast.  The struggle is in dealing with new and unexpected aspects in each new encounter.  This is a Milieu story.

If he is dealing with a disrupting occurrence, then the conflict is obviously trying to deal with the disruption.  It can be personally disruptive or disruptive to society, or even existence of humanity.  An asteroid strike, or perhaps an earthquake or zombie apocalypse are good examples of this.  Alternatively, the hero could be the disruptive force, trying to impose his will on the world, like in a caper movie like Ocean’s 11 or Kelly’s Heroes.  Either way, the conflict comes from the obstacles the hero encounters in trying to resolve the issue or impose his will on the universe.  This is an Event story.

You, as the author, might also want to explore a concept, like: what if teleportation were reality?  How would it work? In this sort of story, the conflict is in dealing with unexpected or non-obvious impacts of the concept. This is where Hard SF really shines.  Poor examples of this are when someone sets up the world, then lets the Hero “discover” all the exploits.  This was handled really poorly in the “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” series (first book: Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell).  The hero “exploits” a labor system that apparently was used by idiots for at least a generation.  He succeeds at everything he tries, the things he “figures out” that impress everyone else are sophomoric in insight, and there isn’t even an antagonist.  The best conflict is when the antagonist is exploiting the idea to the protagonist’s detriment, and the protagonist has to figure out how to stop it…preferably without just using another exploit…at the very least, the exploit should not be obvious.  This is an Idea story.  I think many “serial killer” stories are Idea stories: “What if someone developed a way to exploit society to murder/rape/assault people without being caught/stopped?”

The final type of story depends on conflict internal to the character.  The protagonist needs to change, and it has only recently become obvious.  The process of changing, of figuring out what to change into, and the normal human resistance to changing oneself are the conflict that drives the story.  This is a Character story.

Obviously, these four concepts can arc beyond just one book.  The Jhereg series is someone what of a character concept, although individual books seem to be more Event stories.  The whole series is, of course, a milieu, and the milieu being explored is not just geographic (Dragaera) but societal/racial, as each book explores some inherent aspect of a Dragaerean house.

But this is all science fiction.

I also really like the Jack Reacher series.

Jack Reacher’s character really doesn’t change over the stories.  The milieu he’s exploring is modern-day United States, so it isn’t a milieu story.  There is a “What if?” concept of, “what if there were a sort-of modern-day Super Hero who went around the nation solving problems that the law couldn’t solve?”  But it seems to me to be, at its core, an event story.  Something happens, and Reacher tries to figure out what is happening, then once he figures out the mystery, he acts (often very violently) to impose his will and stop the bad guys from doing bad guy stuff.

Good stories often combine the elements.  There are Milieu, Idea, and Character concepts included in the Event Story movie Die Hard.  There are Milieu concepts in Titanic.  I think Cameron wanted it to be a Character story, but in my opinion, it failed at that, but succeeded by being so strong as an Event story.

Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series is really good, too.

matt helm
Not this Matt Helm. The movies are crap

They are all Event stories.  Like Reacher, either the protagonist starts ignorant, or what the protagonist thinks is the original premise often turns out to be false.  The conflict comes in the protagonist collecting clues about reality, then responding to those clues, then acting. And much of the conflict also involves not knowing how the problem will be solved, as initial plans go wrong and the protagonist deals with the unexpected. You know the hero isn’t going to die, of course, but there is often a cost the protagonist pays to succeed: damage, or a supporting character important to the protagonist is killed.

The books are where the good stuff is found. Try and find one, I think you won’t be disappointed.

The Matt Helm series is interesting in that the protagonist’s character doesn’t really change over time, but still is a character story in that Helm seems to have normal human emotions and desires, yet is forced to do some fairly brutal things to accomplish the mission.  The reader (or, at least, the continuing reader) doesn’t lose sympathy for Helm not just because Helm’s character trait of Commitment to Duty is shown as being incredibly strong, and not just because that commitment to duty is shown as necessary to preventing catastrophe, but because the author shows us the emotional price Helm pays for that commitment.

In contrast, in ERB novels Princess of Mars, the Land that Time Forgot, and the People that Time Forgot, there never is any character conflict. They do the right thing because it is the right thing, with hardly a thought.  It ends up leaving the impression that because the hero does it, it therefore is the right thing.

I’m not saying a protagonist must have a desire to be a cad to be sympathetic, but humans are selfish, and shortsighted, and petty, and often ignorant of the implications of their decisions. A good book with good conflict acknowledges those issues.

It doesn’t mean that I favor character over plot.

It does mean that the reasons people do things are important to whether a character is likeable or not, and believable or not, and these reasons often provide motive force to the plot.  Why does a character want to do things?  Absent any internal conflict, authors too often rely on plot devices to keep the action going.  “I saved Tarkus’ life, so Tarkus will save my life” seems more like a plot device.  The author knew he would need Tarkus to save John Carter’s life to resolve some conflict and needed plausible motivation for Tarkus to do so, so had Carter save his.  It seems too obvious, like it happened because the author needed it to. In contrast, in Jhereg, Vlad wants to avoid taking an action that would cause Morollan to break his oath. Placing a friend’s value system above your own life is an admirable loyalty that drives the plot and increases the reader’s commitment to the protagonist and the story (although wanting to find a way to preserve both is still expected, normal, and included).  It is a character element, sure, but it not “characterization over plot,” but rather an effective plot rather than just a plot device.

It means that a story with weak characterization is also going to suffer in plotting.

It means that among the five elements of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, description (some people identify different elements), a novel can be saved by excellence in just one element, but it can also be killed by incompetence in just one element. Most likely, a story that does one or two elements very well will make the other elements more effective.  Good dialogue helps in making character and pacing better.  Better pacing helps plot.  Good description helps everything.  And yes, good character helps make plot development  more intuitive.

There is room for a difference of opinion over what is “plausible”, and consequently, what is an effective plot vs what is a clumsy plot device.

This probably needs editing for coherence, but I’m not going to do it.  For good or ill, this is my stream-of-consciousness, non-exhaustive explanation of why I like some books and don’t like other books.

7 thoughts on “Good Books, Good Writing

  1. I think you’re right about conflict, and there’s plenty of conflict in Howard and ERB. I just think where we’re of different mind is in what types of conflict are interesting to us. I do agree with the kinds you listed. However sometimes a good Man vs Nature or Good Guy vs Bad Guy are enough for many of us.

    “The Man of Action” is fun to read about on many levels. I quoted this on Twitter the other day because it caused me to cheer inwardly — (from At the Earth’s Core):

    “I was not then familiar with the customs or social ethics which prevailed within Pellucidar; but even so I did not need the appealing look which the girl shot to me from her magnificent eyes to influence my subsequent act. What the Sly One’s intention was I paused not to inquire; but instead, before he could lay hold of her with his other hand, I placed a right to the point of his jaw that felled him in his tracks.”

    Not all of us men are so brave and chivalrous that we would so readily (and perhaps rashly) defend a woman thusly. Especially in modern times. And so it’s fun to read! The Scalawag lays hands on a lady with obvious ill intent, and he gets laid out by the Good Guy! Excellent!

    There was a military man who commented here on some past post (I think it may have been Alexandru Constantin) who noted that in his line of work, with his life the way it is, he prefers to read more uplifting stories, about unambiguous heroes. Sometimes we have enough moral ambiguity or inner conflict in our own lives, and we just want something lighter to escape from the stress or drudgery.

    That’s not to say that you’re “wrong” in your tastes. It’s just to say that there is a good reason why some people enjoy the stuff you’re coming down on.

    Oh, and I really want to check out Jack Reacher one of these days!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Here’s how I would analyze the passage you quoted:
      Fighting is not conflict. Don’t tell me about the fight the main character is having with the antagonist.
      But in this passage, the conflict isn’t in the punch, the conflict is that there is an implied price in “I was not then familiar with the customs or social ethics which prevailed within Pellucidar” and an implied conflict between the female and the antagonist in “the appealing look which the girl shot to me from her magnificent eyes”.

      *That* is masterful writing. An action happened, but in that action, the author *showed* that there is conflict between the girl and the Sly One, that the protagonist will fight to protect a girl just because it is correct, and that there is a price for doing that.
      However, we also have a glimpse into his character that he didn’t take the action due to the potential reward (of the girl’s regard), so he is also unlikely to care about the potential price in the future.
      He may be made to care.
      He may be made to go through the wringer as the price for his gallantry.

      …and *that*, my friend is excellent plot development.

      4-5 chapters of development will flow naturally from the repercussions of his unhesitating chivalrous action.

      Now, I have no doubt that ERB has plenty of moments that sound equally well in short snippets, but overall, I think he didn’t handle those elements very effectively. And from the other comments, I’m apparently not the only one.

      The only reason I bring in the era in which they wrote as a mitigating factor is because pendulums swing, and things that were innovative once seem hackneyed later, and then come full circle to fresh and innovative later. I can’t discount that had I stumbled on the Prince of Mars as an adult in 1917, I might find it much more enjoyable and its plot devices more unexpected than I do today, after 4 decades of reading SF&F.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I continue to find your reading comprehension lacking. You repeatedly say you want a plot focussed on a characters internal conflicts, which is characterization. And then here you are trying to argue you don’t prefer character over plot. You even cite the plot to a romance series as your fix to barsoom. Romance is the character genre. You complain about the love story in princess of mars, yet rave about the same setup in peculiador. He likes her because she is hot, you know sultry? The John saves tharsk and tharsk saves John was brought up as a simplified rebuttal of one of your arguments and isn’t just that simple. John avenged the death of tharsk’s wife and tharsk helps John rescue deja thoris from an evil king who had forced her to promise to marry his son or the king would destroy her home city. Martian custom wouldn’t allow a husband killer to marry the former wife/fiancee and deja’s honor wouldn’t allow her to go back on her promise or jeopardize her people. It’s every bit as convoluted as the plot of jherg.


      2. What’s funny is I don’t. I think his prose writing style is masterful and he has decent fun plots with a few twists here and there but overall I would give his stories 3 to 4 stars, maybe 4.5 for the return of Tarzan. What I take exception to is your poor criticisms and your continued reliance on the post campbellian criticisms of the pulp era. Writing didn’t get better with time. An individual author’s writing might improve over time but only taste changes not the ability of the writer’s. Scalzi isn’t a better writer than h. Beam piper because he writes now; much less better than Doyle, Dickens or Shakespeare.


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